Benighted souls this side of the Tasman might support the hoary old myth that Canberra is Australia’s most boring city. But every time I go there my spirits soar at the sight of its great moody lake, its swathes of trees, its sun-filled parks, uncluttered avenues and monumental architecture.
The city’s citizens celebrate their good fortune with outdoor concerts and shows and once a year, in spring, they put on the most glorious celebration of all... Floriade, set among the leafy trees of Commonwealth Park on the shores of the city’s central Lake Burley Griffin, is the largest floral festival in the southern hemisphere. More than a million flowers create their own show, accompanied by a month of entertainment, including visiting and local performers, workshops, kids’ activities and exhibitions.
Bulbs for the show are planted in April so by September a brilliant display covers 10,000 square metres of garden beds, including hyacinths, jonquils, irises, daffodils and seventy varieties of tulips in full bloom.
The explosions of colour so bombard the senses it’s hard at first to grasp the themes: a Spanish galleon sails over an enormous sea of golden tulips; a rocky Zen garden is awash with pure white blooms and an enormous silver fern is picked out in black, purple and blue tulips. “In 2007 the designs will be based on Australian icons,” says head gardener Andrew Forster.
Of course many other things bloom in Canberra. I flew over Floriade in a small helicopter on my way to have lunch at Lambert Vineyards. I also had breakfast with the birds at the fabulous Australian National Botanic Gardens, lunch at the spectacularly modern National Museum, high tea at the splendid art deco Hyatt Hotel and ate dinner in the revolving Alto Restaurant on Black Mountain. I could easily have stayed a week but other parts of Australia were on the list.
A two-hour drive north leads to the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. In such a vast sunburnt continent, this area comes out of the blue – a damp, lush, ordered corner of Australia that’s worthy of a visit for its contrast value alone.
Dairy herds and polo ponies graze on the rich rolling grasslands and oak trees and poplars define country gardens sweeping around enormous mansions built in the 1800s as cooling summer residences for the well-heeled of Sydney.
Apart from a scattering of gum trees, the odd snake and flocks of roosting galahs, the highlands have always contrived to be as English as the English. The antique shops are full of expensive goods from Europe, the antiquarian bookshop trail smacks of Hay-on-Wye and cricket is a favourite sport.
Throughout the highlands are old English-style pubs, little Gothic churches built of stone and cosy accommodation with names such as Highfield Cottage and The Harp. I stayed at the revamped former homestead of a pioneering grazier family, now known as Peppers Manor House, surrounded by elegant country gardens.
In spring some gardens in the highlands are open to the public and I discovered Red Cow Farm at Sutton Forest – arguably the most sensational garden around. Over fourteen years Ali Mentesh and Wayne Morrissey have used form, detail, texture and colour to create a vast and varied extravaganza from bare pasture. I spent four hours there captivated by secret courtyards filled with statuary, ponds, shrubberies and gardens of startling beauty.
There’s more intrigue to be met within another garden well away from the highlands. Two hour’s drive north of Sydney in the Hunter Valley, a sprawling estate of the same name was opened to the public in 2003. Eight kilometres of walking paths wind through twelve themed areas of the Hunter Valley Gardens.
The centrepiece is a magnificent circular rose garden where 35,000 roses burst from their buds to form a profusion of colour and perfume. On every calm morning hot-air balloons breathe their way across the garden and valley, providing their passengers with a spectacular bird’s-eye view.
There are around 120 wineries or cellar doors in the Hunter Valley area. I went to Mistletoe Winery to taste its signature vintage called The Rose and called in to Pigg’s Peake to taste Wiggly Tail Marsanne because I liked the names.
Hunter Valley boasts around seventy restaurants and some of the most applauded chefs in Australia. Chief among them is Robert Molines, a man devoted to high culinary art who is ruler of Robert’s Restaurant in Polkolbin. Another is the chef extraordinaire Darren Ho of Terroir Restaurant at the ultramodern Hungerford Hill Winery, also in Polkolbin, who gave me a meal to remember.
There is much to savour in this area – not least the feeling of serenity and, of course, time to smell the roses.
Jill Malcolm travelled courtesy of Tourism Australia, Australian Capital Tourism and Qantas Airways.
For web exclusive images see the Photo Gallery attached to this story
Story: JILL MALCOLM
Photographs: SALLY TAGG