As a teenager travelling around Australia, I had once tried to find someone to help me change a flat tyre on a squat and creaky car outside Canberra’s War Memorial. The streets then had been so dark and devoid of people that Canberra’s claim to be a capital city seemed a precocious bluff. But spending the weekend at the polished Diamant Hotel, a whole 25 years later, Mr Smith and I discover that Canberra is no longer Australia’s gawky child.
A large pair of sculpted wings in the lobby welcomes us with a contemporary flourish to the Diamant, a Modernist extension to a group of heritage buildings – in Canberra, that means marginally more than 25 years old – on the north shore of Lake Burley Griffin. A fireplace in reception, with chunky stools cut from giant logs, immediately creates a cosy atmosphere. Commissioned artworks lie in ambush throughout the building, lending an element of surprise and a quirky personality to the hotel. Upstairs, our large, modern Premier Room, painted an alluring dark chocolate colour, provides sanctuary from the heat as we flop on the bed. Deciding whether to hit the tourist trail or the bar, we wash away the travel grime with extracts of eucalyptus and lemongrass in the walk-in slate-lined shower.
Any thoughts of venturing out into the early evening are abandoned when we spot an exuberant crowd celebrating a wedding on a terrace outside the Parlour Wine Room, one of several independent restaurants in the Diamant’s complex, including Australian-focussed Flint Dining Room & Bar (we’ve since heard the hotel has launched its own in-house Italian eatery Bicicletta too). We elect to stay where the buzz is and scan the international wine list at this Spanish-style tapas bar; Mr Smith is in choice heaven. Sipping an icy rosé wine and tugging at fried zucchini flowers stuffed with goat cheese we find our reward for patiently chugging by train across New South Wales in the summer heat.
Our affable waiter explains that ‘Canberra has it all: good food, bars and great people. We’re the butt of a lot of jokes in Australia, but it’s a pretty good place to live.’ He tips us off to where the best nightlife can be found. Nightclubs? The city has indeed grown up. But after an Italian-inspired dinner of pasta and risotto in nearby bistro Du Jour, we turn down clubbing for comfort in our room. Soft, linen sheets lure us into our king-size bed, where we flip on our widescreen plasma TV and plot our assault on Canberra.
In the morning, fired up on muesli, fresh juice and croissants, we hit a woodland trail around Lake Burley Griffin, sending scarlet King parrots skimming across the water. The rest of the city seems to be out cycling or jogging, passing us effortlessly. At the tip of a point jutting into the lake, the National Museum of Australia tells the eye-opening story of European migration, settlement and aspiration in brilliantly judged exhibits, without shying away from the impact on the country’s original indigenous inhabitants.
Moving on to the National Gallery, a short taxi ride away, we are seduced by the soft oil hues of Australia’s colonial painters describing a strange new world. Sidney Nolan’s famous ‘Ned Kelly’ series illustrates the harsh Australian landscape as an outlaw-flocked frontier. Canberra, born out of similar bushland, today looks confidently out towards the whole world.
Marching uphill we arrive at a Parliament more pleased to see us and accessible than probably any other. The legislators had departed for Christmas leaving us free to explore their home, which borrows the colours of native eucalyptus leaves and flowers. The vast building fits snugly into the hill like a giant hobbit house with a grassy lawn for a roof from where you can see the city cut out of the surrounding pasture.
To cap off the day, we head up to the futuristic Black Mountain Tower, formerly the Telstra communications spire. Nibbling a cream tea in its circular observation gallery, Mr Smith and I compare the views with compact and crowded England. How vast Australia seems from the top, the landscape rolling upwards into the Snowy Mountains without interruption.
With sightseeing occupying the whole day, a massage in the Soma Day Spa, another independent enterprise sharing the Diamant’s courtyard, is an unavailable temptation, but Mr Smith is easily revived back at the Parlour Wine Room with spicy scallops and a fresh wine to taste.
Most of our Australian friends have happily spent a lifetime avoiding Canberra, give or take the odd obligatory school trip, seeking edgier thrills elsewhere. Arriving at what appeared to be a country railway station we won’t deny having doubts. But this garden city in the bush provided the perfect staging post on our ‘slow travel’ train journey between Sydney and Melbourne and with a diamond of a hotel such as the Diamant on the scene, youthful Canberra no longer deserves to be shunned.