A Capital Idea!

Words by Dorian Mode and photography by Lydia Thorpe

Seniors will love Canberra - there is so much to see and do here

The last time I penned a travel yarn on Canberra was roughly fifteen years ago for the Sydney Morning Herald. Since then, I’d forgotten what an appealing city it is to visit. It’s also changed dramatically and it’s now a truly cosmopolitan city but it still has that “country” feel about it.

Our digs for this capital sojourn is the historic Hotel Kurrajong. Created in the Garden Pavilion architectural style, this unique hotel features deep verandas, radiating courtyards and majestic covered pavilions. For me, the distinctive architecture resembles an enormous Californian bungalow. Indeed, it’s the most unusual layout for a hotel I’ve seen in the many years of writing travel. But its unique layout means it’s very senior friendly as it’s mostly on the one level. We also note the 1920’s-inspired decor upon arrival, inspiring a nostalgic mood.

Street art is everywhere - like these fabulous sculptures of Chifley and Curtin

Opened in 1926, Hotel Kurrajong was designed by John Smith Murdoch, who dually designed Old Parliament House. Initially housing the staff setting up the new Parliament, it continued as a residence for Members of Parliament and public servants for donkey’s years.
“I try to think of the Labor movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people.” Ben Chifley
To walk through the corridors of the Kurrajong is to walk through Australian political history. Indeed, Prime Minister Ben Chifley, best remembered for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme and the Australian National University, lived at the hotel throughout his term as Prime Minister from 1945-1949. Being a labor man, Chifley enjoyed the Kurrajong’s down-to-earth confines rather than the Prime Minister’s Lodge. He mostly enjoyed the 700m walk each morning to Parliament House. As did we.
These days, Chifley would be disappointed by the sheer luxury of the hotel, lol. Meticulously refurbished to its original grandeur, with 21st century creature comforts, the hotel is super swanky, with stunning interiors and chic furnishings. Small things make a difference. For instance, the pillows are astonishing. No doubt packed with angel’s hair. So much so that Mrs Pictures tries buying one online as soon as we return home. She notes other touches that I always miss, like upmarket coffee pods for the machines in your room and Mor brand soaps in the bathroom (she usually brings her own soap to hotels, while I’m happy to wash myself with toothpaste).

We loved the garden pavilion architecture style of the Hotel Kurrajong

That evening we dine in the hotel’s aptly named, Chifley’s Bar & Grill. In this elegant dining room, we enjoy two hearty steaks, matched with local cool-climate wines. Seniors who enjoy a bargain might like to know that you get a free glass of vino with your steak at the Kurrajong, if you are a NRMA Member? Just don’t drive back to your room.
The following morning, we breakfast on the Kurrajong’s terrace overlooking the hotel’s garden. It’s a delicious brekkie with a choice of à la carte or buffet. Fetching our coffee from the buffet, we return to find two yellow-eyed currawongs edging sideways towards our croissants. Indeed, we enjoy their carolling over coffee. Singing for their supper.
Post croissants, we stroll to Old Parliament House (10min walk) and happen across two fabulous sculptures of Chifley and Curtin along the way. This seems apropos. We imagine them chatting on their way to the house of government. Clever street art.

Old Parliament House is a wonderful place for seniors - and only $1 entry

Seniors, did you know visiting Old Parliament House is only $1? Indeed, Old Parliament House is worth the visit to Canberra alone. Here we meet Elisabeth. A retired public servant in the defence dept, Elisabeth volunteers as a guide one half-day a week and loves it. She is most effusive about the old house of government and we learn so much more than simply strolling around on our Pat Malone. Elisabeth steers us to the prime minister’s office. The PM’s bathroom is remarkably unpretentious. Like something from a 1970s caravan park (can’t imagine Trump in there). It’s so humble I’m rather moved by it. We find Hawke’s (the last PM at Old Parliament House) bathroom drawer, left open to the public, complete with Grecian 2000 for the Silver Bodgie’s touch-ups. It’s just as he left it. No Trump-style tandoori tan, though.

Our wonderful guide Elisabeth was a font of information

That evening we stroll down to the Kingston Foreshore dining precinct. This new hip urban development is just a lazy walk from the Kurrajong. Over a spicy Thai Masman Lamb Shank at Chong Co, we dine al fresco and enjoy the backdrop of curved rustic bridges, lapping water and gliding waterbirds.
The following day we visit the Australian War Memorial. Both my paternal and maternal grandfathers fought in WW2. I find the memorial a powerful experience. We enjoy the old school dioramas and superlatively curated displays. Its curators should be applauded. Dear seniors, you can easily spend a week here. Do lookout for the room housing the bombing raid over Germany. This was moving both metaphorically and literally, as we shimmied on a vibrating floor – as if flying in a real bomber. This tremulous floor soon extracts squeals of delight from uniformed school children from Cameray Public School, visiting the nation’s capital for the day. Later we see G-for-George: an authentic Lancaster Bomber. My uncle Harry piloted over fifty missions in a Lancaster, apparently, so I find the great black warbird rather awe-inspiring up-close.
Flanking G-George, there is an excellent interactive display cum film chronicling the midget sub attacks on Sydney Harbour. The school children watch wide-eyed.

Don't miss the last post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial

But the highlight of the day must be the last post ceremony at sunset. Extraordinarily, they do this daily. The ceremony is complete with bagpipes, bugles and marching drums. The spit-polished defence personal who perform the ceremony are to be commended, as although it’s midweek, nothing is staged perfunctorily. Again, like so many experiences in Canberra, it is first-class. Which you’d expect from our nation’s capital. Interestingly, each ceremony chronicles a former soldier’s experience during the war. Ours was for Pte Alan Powel, who died on the Thai-Burma Railway, after taking the weight of a heavy barrel when unloading supplies for the Japanese. (Interestingly, there were lots of Japanese tourists at the memorial, too.) Powel’s misty-eyed descendants crowded around a giant portrait of him on an easel, festooned with red poppies (such an evocative flower).
The following morning, after another excellent brekkie with bobbing currawongs at Hotel Kurrajong eyeing our crumbs, we point the car homewards, vowing to not leave it so long between visits to our nation’s heartland.

FOOTNOTE: Hotel Kurrajong in Canberra is an iconic Heritage-listed hotel that first opened in 1926 and is most famous for being home to Prime Ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley during the dark years of the Second World War. The property is in the heart of Canberra’s parliamentary district, just 700 metres from Parliament House, and you’re also close to local attractions such as Questacon, the National Gallery, restaurants and Floriade in spring.
Rooms start from $143.65 per night. See:
www.hotelkurrajong.com.au

POINTS OF INTEREST:

Old Parliament House
Opening hours 9am-5pm Daily Walking distance from Hotel Kurrajong
www.moadoph.gov.au

Australian War Memorial
Opening hours 10am-5pm Daily
Psst! Don’t miss the last post ceremony every day at 5pm (There is free 4-hour parking)
www.awm.gov.au

National Gallery of Australia
Opening hours 10am-5pm Daily
www.nga.gov.au

Australian National Botanic Gardens
Opening hours 8:30am to 5pm Daily. There is a nice Restaurant and cafe here.
www.anbg.gov.au

National Portrait Gallery
Opening hours 9am-5pm Daily Walking distance from Hotel Kurrajong
www.portrait.gov.au

National Arboretum Canberra
The National Arboretum Canberra features 94 forests of rare, endangered and symbolic trees from around Australia and the world. Over 44,000 trees from over 100 countries are growing across the huge 250-hectare (618 acre) site, making it one of the world’s largest living collections of rare, endangered and significant trees.
www.nationalarboretum.act.gov.au