Canberra: Blooming Beautiful

MORE THAN ONE MILLION FLOWERS ARE IN BLOOM AT CANBERRA’S ICONIC FLORIADE FESTIVAL EACH SEPTEMBER. 

Bernard O’Riordan

I was not overly keen on spending the weekend in Canberra again. After all, it was my third visit to Australia’s national capital in as many years and I figured I had experienced just about everything this inland city had to offer.

Old Parliament House, the Australian War Memorial, Lake Burley Griffin, Telstra Tower, the Royal Australian Mint – they’re all iconic tributes to Australia’s history, but I’d seen them countless times before.

However, on my last visit, I discovered there was much more to Australia’s national capital than politicians, public servants or the so-called Green Machine – otherwise known as the Canberra Raiders NRL team.

You see, when I visited Canberra this time last year it coincided with the start of Floriade, the biggest celebration of spring in the southern hemisphere. As flower shows go, it’s probably Australia’s answer to Amsterdam’s famous Keukenhof, just on a smaller scale.

I simply was not prepared for the stunning visual display that greeted me as great swaths of bulbs and annuals burst into bloom throughout Canberra’s Commonwealth Park.

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For sheer abundance and eye-popping colour, the extravagant display of ­tulips and other bulbs in sculpted flowerbeds made the 286km road trip from Sydney to Canberra well worth the effort.

Floriade is now one of Canberra’s biggest events, attracting close to 500,000 visitors each year and contributing more than $50 million in direct spending to the Australian Capital Territory.

And this year, as it celebrates its 30th anniversary from September 16 to October 15, the event promises to be bigger and better than ever.

A team of 20 gardeners will have spent around seven weeks planting 1.5 million bulbs across a four-hectare site around Commonwealth Park by the time the spring spectacular begins.

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Organisers are this year recreating some of the most popular displays seen at Floriade over the past 30 years. Carnival of Cultures from 1995; the Lotus, last seen in full bloom in 2005; Flower Power from 1999; and Fruit Salad from 1998 will all make an encore appearance this year.

A series of elevated planter boxes called Tetris, with the theme of “Games in the Garden”, will also dazzle onlookers.

But while the flowers are undoubtedly the drawcard, Floriade is much more than a flower show. These days there’s music, food, wine, horticultural workshops, market traders, artistic displays, live entertainment and endless activities for kids.

On Friday October 15, the night before the gardens officially open, a special Floriade Twilight Concert is planned to get visitors in the mood. It will include an open-air performance by the Ziggy Band, a David Bowie Tribute band, supported by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.

Over two weekends during the festival, (September 22-24 and September 29-October 1), from 8pm-11pm, Commonwealth Park will transform into a haunting dreamscape of light, colour and sound known as NightFest.

As the sun sets and the flowers close, around 100,000 light bulbs, including 1,500 lanterns, will turn the garden beds into a brilliant sea of lights. This is a ticketed evening event that sees the park’s flower beds illuminated along with music, comedy and performance acts.

There’s really no better time to visit Canberra than during spring as the weather starts to warm up and the flowers start to bloom. Despite the city’s unfair reputation for being soulless and dull, the national capital is actually a fascinating holiday destination in its own right.

Walking around the shores of the man-made Lake Burley Griffin is one of the city’s simple pleasures, though distances can be deceiving and you may find yourself walking for much longer than you’d expect. Hire a bike and pick up a map of cycle ways from the Visitors Centre and take time exploring the lake and landmark buildings that dot the city.

Doing a circuit of the two bridges that span the middle of Lake Burley Griffin is a great way to fill an afternoon.

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For a bird’s eye view of Canberra, it’s worth the drive up Black Mountain to the Telstra Tower (pictured). From here you’ll get a unique perspective of the city below.

At Old Parliament House, the home of Australia’s Federal Parliament for 61 years until 1988, you can relive the country’s political past through a series of visual and audio displays.

From the frenetic sounds and colour of the busy media gallery to the Prime Minister’s office – nothing is off limits. You can even sit on the lounge chairs where former Prime Minister Bob Hawke often entertained international diplomats .

Although it doesn’t officially open until November 14, a fascinating new attraction at Old Parliament House is the John Howard Library. Personal papers, mementos and documents of Australia’s second-longest serving Prime Minister, John Howard (1996-2007), will be on display to the public for the first time, providing a rare glimpse at the inner workings of his government.

Rest assured, if politics is not your thing, Canberra has plenty more to offer.

Be sure to check out the Royal Australian Mint, where not only is the manufacturing process on view, but you can also have some fun minting your own coins in a fully-operational press.

Movie buffs should also take time to explore the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, near the ground of the Australian National University at Acton. Here much of Australia’s film, radio and television history, including recordings of many early programs and TV ads, is stored.

It also has one of the first feature films made anywhere in the world, dealing with the life of Ned Kelly.

For something a little different, Canberra is also home to Australia’s only cultural centre dedicated to contemporary glass art.

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At Canberra Glassworks, in the popular inner southern suburb of Kingston, you can meet artists, see glassmaking as it happens, view exhibitions, take tours and even have a hands-on experience working with glass.

If you just want to kick back with a cup of coffee or head out for an evening meal, Kingston and Manuka take their role seriously, offering everything from Thai takeaway to a thriving bar life.

Kingston is also home to one of the country’s finest restaurants, Pomegranate, which was recently named Canberra’s best in the Australian Hotel Awards. The Duxton, a recently refurbished pub at O’Connor, was also named best local watering hole. With around 50 beers on tap, it certainly caters to every taste.

All in all, a weekend in Canberra is a capital idea no matter the season. But visiting during Floriade truly does paint the city in a new light.

For more information about Floriade visit http://www.floriadeaustralia.com and to find out more about Australia’s national capital, checkout the Canberra Tourism website www.visitcanberra.com.au

Give us a follow on Twitter @travel_instinct 

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