Yes We Canberra!

I’ll let you into a secret: I really liked Canberra. I mean, I REALLY, really liked it.

This is not a fashionable thing to say. When I told my Aussie students I was going to their fair country for work they regarded me with barely-disguised pity when I told them I would be based in their capital. They tried to comfort me with tales of its proximity to Melbourne and Sydney – their reassurances seemed to centre around the ease with which one could, and should, leave Canberra.

Canberra consistently ranks highly in the various “liveability” and “quality of life” surveys that appear periodically – the ones that remind me how polluted, expensive and generally unfriendly London is, despite the persistence of c9million of us to live there. Canberra is undeniably an odd place, purportedly created to stop Sydney and Melbourne bickering over which city deserved capital city status, a sort of teacherish response by Australia’s parliament: “if you can’t play nice then NEITHER of you can be the capital.”

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Lake Burley Griffin, in the centre of Canberra

What resulted was a planned city whose main flaw is that it’s just too spread out and ultimately designed for the car – we accidentally walked 11 kilometers in one day because everything turned out to be a heck of a lot further than it looked on the map. But the benefit of a planned city is that it’s generally lovely. It’s spacious, everything seems to work, it’s well-serviced with shops, bars and some of the best restaurants we visited in Australia. It’s centred around a huge, man-made lake (named after the bloke who designed it, who disappointingly turned out to be an American and not an Australian) and, being the capital, is home to some of the country’s best museums – the Australian War Memorial is sobering, interesting and beautiful, and the Museum of Australian Democracy is well worth a visit.

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The Australian War Memorial

I blogged extensively about Canberra during my visit to ANU, a hugely impressive institution taking up an entire district, and where I have been trying and failing (Australia’s immigration system does not deem me useful enough to live there) to find a job ever since. Amongst other things we came across a microbrewery whose exposed pipes and apparent compulsory beard-wearing policy made it so achingly hip as to make Shoreditch look like Luton, the new parliament building that looked a bit like the house in Teletubbies, and a gem of a place to stay – University House in Acton, which is like a little piece of 1950s academia in the middle of a thoroughly modern city.

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ANU – possibly one of the greenest inner-city campuses you’ll ever visit

If you’re from the Canberra Tourist Board and fancy giving me a job, you know where I am.

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O Canada!

In June, I was getting itchy feet. I hadn’t been anyway since…well, only since March, but it was still winter then, pretty much, and now it was Spring, so it felt ages ago. So I went to Canada. For the weekend.

The weekend?! I hear you cry. But why not? One marvellous thing about having been to Australia is that 7 hours to Toronto feels like a short-haul flight. And Air Canada had a sale on.

I’d spent a short time studying in Canada, and I’d loved it, but it had been winter and snowdrifts bigger than me, throat infections and a lack of funds meant I never made it out of Quebec. Toronto, it turns out, is the perfect place for a long weekend. Here’s how you do it.

  1. Fly out on the Saturday morning. The time difference is in your favour if you’re flying from Europe, and you’ll arrive mid-afternoon.
  2. Pick a central hotel. We stayed in the Royal York, directly opposite the main station, which is less than half an hour by express train from Pearson airport. This meant that, door to door, we made it from home to hotel in under 12 hours.
  3. Make the most of your first evening. It’s very tempting to just crash in your hotel, but try to resist! If you can, combine some sightseeing with dinner (you’ll have to eat regardless!) We booked a table at the CN Tower, combining Toronto’s most famous tourist attraction with what turned out to be a very nice meal, including locally-sourced wines from the Niagara region. From a dizzying 457 metres above the ground we were able to watch the sun set over the city.

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    Here in time for dinner and sunset
  4. Get a decent night’s sleep – you have to be up in time to get the bus to Niagara! If you’re over-keen like me make use of the hotel’s lovely pool and well-equipped gym (not compulsory). You can take the megabus direct to Niagara every hour from Toronto – book in advance as it does get full, especially for the return journey!
  5. Niagara – do allow a few hours for your visit as there is quite a lot to do. The falls themselves – and there are two, really (the Horseshoe Falls and the Bridal Falls, which the US calls the American Falls, because, well, every little helps) – are spectacular, and surprising. From the bus-stop walk (if it’s a nice day) or catch the shuttle into town. When you walk around there corner, there they are, at the end of the road, somewhat unobtrusive and without ceremony – one of the great natural wonders of the world. Commercial opportunism now means you can go behind them (interesting) and under them (wet) or read about the various idiots who went over them (some even survived, others proved great examples of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.) The Hornblower Cruise, where you are given a pointless red poncho for show rather than protection and which is less than comfortable in the summer heat, is one of the best things I have ever done. You can dry off with a walk into town – now, a warning: Niagara Falls is a town that manages to somehow make Blackpool look classy and upmarket. Bedecked in garishly painted plastic, Frankenstein, Dracula Godzilla and a variety of other monsters that have nothing to do with Ontario bear down on you from all around. We found a good pizza place and made a hasty retreat. On your way back, the White Water Walk is recommended.
  6. Back in Toronto, find somewhere nice for dinner – the Distillery District is a good place if you want to tick off another of the recommended tourist attractions.
  7. Day 3 – head to the Toronto Islands – this gorgeous oasis is just ten minutes away by boat and you get to take THAT photo of the skyline during the trip. If you have kids there is a sweet, old fashioned amusement park there, and the island is flat and lovely for cycling, jogging or just ambling around. Take your swimsuit – the beaches are lovely and the lake is not half as cold as everyone makes out.
  8. Remember that the airport is a mere 30 minutes away. Check in online beforehand, and if you’re back on shore in time and have time to take a taxi up to the Royal Ontario Museum it’s well worth a look. Head back to the airport – hopefully you’ll just have hand-baggage, so aside from getting through security (admittedly not the most joyous and calming experience we’ve ever had). Once through, calm your nerves with a seat anywhere, and once settled you can use the free iPad to order wine and food from the (somewhat underwhelming, but the ipads are a nice touch so we forgave them) outlets around you.
  9. Get on the plane and sleep. Unless like us you’re next to a crying baby, in which case, I’m sorry, we didn’t really account for that in this guide!

We’re doing Ljubljana next. Watch this space.

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