Canberra

Canberra gets a lot of bad press. Some of it is deserved, but less that you might think.

Being the capital of Australia, it suffers the same curse which afflicts Washington DC and Brasilia; namely that it is an invented settlement which has been located for reasons of politcs rather than practicality. In the case of Canberra, a political tussle between Sydney and Melbourne at the time of Federation resulted in the capital being placed somewhere between the two.

The site couldn’t be considered to be particularly prime. In a country where all the major settlements are on the coast, Canberra is several hundred kilometres inland. Prior to to being the site of the national capital it was an enormous sheep station, of which remnants are still visible. Far from the moderating influence of the coastal breezes, Canberra is monstrously hot in summer and bitingly cold in winter. Supply of water is an ongoing issue. Even apart from these impairments, Canberra’s relatively small size (around 400,000 people) and location within New South Wales means that it often ends up being an appendage of Sydney, both politically and logistically. The population is pretty much a 50/50 split between working class rural New South Welshpeople and people from other states who have moved to Canberra to work for the Federal Government.

2jLVchmDRZm8RB4IaTDDUA_thumb_31df
View across the “Parliamentary Precinct”

Canberra’s crime, in the eyes of the rest of Australia, is twofold. Firstly, as the home of Australia’s government, it is the obvious target of the Australian population, who like nothing better than to whine and snipe about the politicians which they selected to represent them. Pollie-baiting is a national sport, pursued with enthusiasm by the vast majority of the population, most of whom could do a better job. When asked why they don’t volunteer, a common ground for refusal is having to live in Canberra. Circularity ensues.

The second great failing of Canberra, universally agreed upon, is that it is boring.

SO BORING.

CANBERRA IS SO BORING, I COULD NEVER LIVE THERE.

I think this is interesting. What exactly do people feel they lack?

The place is monstrously over-endowed with cultural institutions of the National variety. The population are in general highly educated and interested in such things as art, beauty, and the meaning of life beyond their tragic office potplant. As a result there are no shortage of cultural events happening, seemingly all the time. So it can’t be that, although it must be said that Canberra isn’t exactly edgy, despite the large student population.

Is it the architecture? Perhaps. The Canberra suburbs mostly look like they were constructed in around 1965 and are under a misguided heritage overlay. It’s an ocean of cream brick and tidy front nature strips out there, with the exception of the houses where nanna has clearly gone to seed along with her garden. The government buildings are either grim 1980s brutalist horrors or 1930s faux-Westminster, but they’re not without their charm. As they’re scattered around the city there is no ghetto of particularly terrible architecture.

Y8z9RPTWQ1Sfl93UG11EDw_thumb_31bb
The National Library, laterally. 60s civic architecture at its finest.

The city is surrounded on all sides by mountains and a gigantic national park, so there’s clearly no excuse for boredom on the part of the adventurously-inclined. I recall a school camp I went on in said park – I walked for two weeks and had no conception that I was half an hour’s drive from the capital.

I think that when people say that Canberra is boring, they mean that there’s nowere fun to get a drink. I’m not entirely convinced that this is a vital component of a good urban existence, but I may be in the minority here. Nightclubs and late-night drinking venues are thin on the ground. The hidden ones in basements are particularly lacking. And it must be said that Canberra’s cafe culture, although developing, is not quite there yet.

When it comes down to it, I wonder whether it isn’t one of those shorthand terms for a city that perhaps once was true, and is now stuck. Think Paris and romance, New York and excitement, Sydney and traffic.

fECIDExpQfebx4TYMnHM%g_thumb_31bf
The relatively un-maligned National Carillon

If so, it’s become pretty ingrained into the cultural mindset, even for the locals. I went on a boat ride around Lake Burley-Griffin, the artificial lake in the centre of town around which are clustered the major institutions. Surprisingly, the captain drove us round for an hour describing the sights in terms of the utmost cynicism and disdain. For him, the High Court resembles a stack of shipping containers and the National Museum is a hodgepodge of lame symbolism with a crane stuck on the top. Only the National Carillon escaped global condemnation, although there were some acid commets on the choice of music and the closure of the function room within the tower.

I do feel that Canberra is under-appreciated as a destination. Most of the frustrations of major cities are absent and as my friend Tommy says, it’s basically massively over-funded country town. For those who are considering a tree change, you could do worse than move to Our Nation’s Capital.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_319a
Saturday night at 7 PM, Braddon

 

8 things not to do in Melbourne – a guide for visitors

Melbourne is a tricky place for a tourist, as there are few flashy tourist attractions and a visitor usually has to spend weeks or months to really get under the place’s skin.

If you happen to be visiting Melbourne and Google what to do, you’ll be met with a dizzying array of highly repetitive suggestions. The spirit of plagiarism is alive and well on the internet, which helps to explain why so many of these listicles seem identical.

What’s worse, they’re often wrong. Oh, all of the things that are listed do exist, but they’re actually not the best that Melbourne has to offer. They’re tacky, pointless, boring, over-exposed or simply not what living in this city is all about.

Therefore, here is a list of Melbourne attractions to avoid and some more useful alternatives. No doubt there will be people who disagree with my list (it’s the internet, after all!) but I hope I can add a few options to the usual checklists with which visitors arrive. My suggestions all have a local, non tourist-orientated bias. That means that if you’re the kind of visitor who goes to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and then go shopping, this probably isn’t for you. But if you take an apartment in Montmartre, stay for a month and walk everywhere, you are certain to find something to love below.

 

  • Avoid: Degraves Street and Hosier Lane
  • Seek out: Literally any other street or back alley in the CBD.

Degraves street is a small pedestrianised alley in the south end of the Central Business District. It’s full of cafes and is constantly bustling. Hosier Lane is about ten minutes walk away and is a permanent open air graffiti gallery which is constantly changing. So far, so good.

However as anyone who has spent time in the City will tell you, these attractions are not unique to these streets. But they tend to crop up on “best-of” lists, meaning that there are more tourists than locals and it’s hard work not being caught in someone else’s selfie.

Melbourne is chock-full of little back alleys that have delightful hipster eateries and odd street art. Truly, they’re everywhere. You just have to hunt.

Try this: whatever road you’re on, walk in a straight line, then take the two next left turns you come across. Look up. BAM – street art. Look to the side. BAM – a boutique coffee shop. Drink a coffee, take a photo and repeat. Don’t be afraid to explore.

 

  • Avoid: Flinders St Station
  • Seek Out: Royal Exhibition Buildings

Flinders Street Station is the main transport hub for the city, and is dominated by a giant yellow-and-burgundy building which seems to be constantly under repairs. It’s not bad for a photo, but like all train stations it’s dirty and is mainly used by people who are trying to get somewhere. Most of the interesting parts of the building are inaccessible, so unless you’re taking a train, make your visit brief.

Instead, catch a tram up to the Carlton Gardens where the Royal Exhibition Building is situated. This is a gigantic domed structure which was constructed in the 1880s when Melbourne was just making its name. Dramatic from the outside, if you time it right you might also be able to join one of the free tours run by the nearby Melbourne Museum. The inside is just as ornate and is a fascinating insight into the world 140 years ago. The whole site is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is something of an overlooked gem in my opinion.

 

  • Avoid: Fitzroy
  • Seek out: Northcote and Thornbury

Fitzroy became famous thirty years ago as a haven for artists and other creative types, and a thriving cafe and arts scene grew up around Brunswick Street. However nowadays the area is profoundly gentrified and is increasingly becoming a party destination. It still has its charms, but if you’re looking for the weird and alternative, jump on the tram towards Northcote and Thornbury.

To be fair, Northcote and Thornbury are also pretty gentrified. But they don’t have the human-zoo feeling that Fitzroy has. The further north up High St you go, the more ratty and fringe the shops get. You’ll find weird little cafes and drinking holes, restaurants of all shapes and sizes, and an arty/ethnic/hipster feel all around. Stick your nose over someone’s fence and check out their organic vegetable garden. Listen in to people arguing alternative politics in a cafe. Then go and have a beer and see a band at the Northcote Social Club.

 

  • Avoid – St Kilda
  • Seek out – Elwood

St Kilda. Ugh.

Well known as a bohemian beachside suburb, St Kilda was my home for several years. I rubbed  shoulders with junkies and Jersey Shore types alike. However on my recent visits I’ve noticed an increased culture of violence and alcoholism, combined with the fact that St Kilda appears to contain every single British and Irish backpacker who has ever got on a plane.

Seriously. The place is heaving. Innit.

If getting smashed and having a fight on the beach aren’t your idea of fun, move one suburb down the coast and enjoy the tranquility of Elwood. The beaches are just as good, but they’re not full of preening backpackers and there’s a friendly commmunity vibe. Wander inland and you’ll be surrounded by cute 1930s Art Deco apartments in tree-lined streets and comfortable local cafes and drinking establishments.

 

  • Avoid – The Queen Victoria Market
  • Seek out – South Melbourne or Prahran Markets

The Queen Vic Market seems to be on many tourists’ agendas, and I honestly have no idea why. It’s smack in the middle of the CBD, so there aren’t really local customers. There’s plenty of food available, but it’s crowded and unfriendly (the Turkish borek stall is an exception). Outside of the food hall, it’s just row upon row of bored vendors selling cheap and nasty tourist trinkets to the Chinese package tourists. Don’t waste your time.

Instead, try visiting the South Melbourne or Prahran markets. Both of these are close to the city and easily accessible, and both are frequented mainly by locals. It’s at these kind of places that you’re likely to get into a conversation about cheese with a stallholder, or find some weird amulet that you can’t live without. Eating (South Melbourne Dim Sims) and coffee options (Market Lane Coffee in Prahran) are everywhere. Afterwards you can explore the local neighbourhoods on foot to get a taste of inner-Melbourne suburban life.

 

  • Avoid – The Yarra Valley
  • Seek out – Mornington Peninsula

The Yarra Valley is about an hour’s drive from central Melbourne, and is known chiefly for its wineries (of which there are many). The wine is fine, I suppose. It’s not tremendously picturesque, but it’s not awful either. If you arrange a tour or convince someone else to do the driving, you could spend an excellent day travelling from cellar door to cellar door, becoming gradually less discerning as you go.

However, I’d suggest you head south, to the Mornington Peninsula. It’s roughly the same distance, but it has better wineries (in my view – especially the Pinot Noir), more other activities, and you can easily sleep off your drunken stupour on one of a number of nearby beaches. The small towns in the area are quite charming and all are a convenient place to stop off for a feed.

Just don’t go during the school holidays! The entire peninsula is a holiday getaway for harried families over summer.

 

The Great Ocean Road is fantastic if you want views of the Southern Ocean smashing against rocks and fertile hillsides. But you’ll also be spending a lot of time looking out of one side of your car (not much fun for the driver), and the frequent twists and turns are not kind to those who suffer from motion sickness.

Instead, consider going the other direction and staying on Phillip Island for a couple of days. The south coast is rugged and scenic (and surfable), but the North coast is sheltered and safe, and totally suitable for families. There are numerous accommodation options, and if seaside views get boring you could always go and see the penguins come ashore at night or the koala sanctuary inland. No motion sickness is anticipated.

 

  • Avoid – Melbourne Zoo and Werribee Open Range Zoo
  • Seek out – Healesville Sanctuary

If wildlife is your thing, Melbourne Zoo in Parkville and the Open Range Zoo in Werribee are both great. But let’s get real for a moment – you’re in Australia. Why are you going to see African animals?

Instead, drive out to scenic Healesville, 80-90 minutes from Melbourne, and visit the Healesville Sanctuary. Apart from being a profoundly relaxing and soothing place, you’ll be able to see nearly every single type of native animal from Southern Australia, as well as some from the tropics as well. When you’ve had enough, go to the Four Pillars Distillery in the town and partake of some liquid libations.

 

Visitors, I hope you’ve found a couple of sights here that pique your interest. Melbourne isn’t a very tourist-orientated town, so it’s easy and rewarding to step away from the “must see” sights.

Melburnians, tell me: What have I missed or gravely misrepresented?

The Gold Coast

I came to the Gold Coast like everyone does – because I had some business to attend to and it seemed like a pleasant escape from the gloom of the southern states. “Australia’s Gold Coast” is the claim, a somewhat redundant effort to differentiate between Queensland and Ghana. Actually it’s Queensland’s Gold Coast, judging from the self-promoting hoarding slapped up everywhere. If you can’t advertise to the tourists, advertise to the locals I suppose.

Not that there are too many locals. The GC was always where pallid Victorians escaped to in the 80s and 90s. The goal was economic development and melanin under the rule of a square-jawed fascist. My childhood memories of the place are full of leather-brown men in budgie smugglers and implausibly blonde women who spent their time paying for people’s parking. Everyone is a recent migrant, whether drawn by the climate or repelled by the crush and grind of the big cities.

The 80s were a long time ago though. The relicts from that period are still there, but they’re painted over. A veneer of self-serving “pampering” is overlaid on the beer ads and gold chains. Chinese characters replace Japanese on the street signs. The newer developments are self-contained holiday apartments rather than beige-and-salmon hotel rooms.

Surfer’s Paradise is the epicentre of the “old” Gold Coast. A long, highly surfable beach, high-rise hotel towers, drinking venues with doors and balconies open to the street. The towers create a microclimate where the sweat and beer fumes fester. Young people march around in packs in the evening. The boys wear “casual” beach attire, the girls dressed as if they’re going to a particularly tacky wedding. They are intense and driven, like drunken and confused wolves searching for something to mate with. Partying looks like hard work.

“Hollywood on the Gold Coast!” was the rallying cry for families twenty years ago, and doesn’t seem to have changed. There are four major theme parks in the area, including the aquatically-focused Sea World within the city itself. Well-trained dolphins will entertain visitors at 11:30 and 3:15 daily, along with their psychotically grinning handlers. Well-meaning platitudes about caring for marine life are mouthed from a loudspeaker by a local worthy, but everyone is waiting for the dolphins to do tricks.

 At a different theme park, the catastrophic failure of a ride resulted in several deaths. Business has been, unsurprisingly, slow. The main car park, visible from the highway, is mostly empty.  I have no insight into the other parks, but I wonder about their long-term viability. Maintenance has been neglected, even allowing for the climate. The usual price-gouging is blatant. Nonetheless, the kids love it, right up until their energy gives out after lunch.

Five minutes’ drive out of town and you’re in a different world, a subtropical suburbia. Palm trees and buffalo grass. Electricians’ utes parked on the street. Queenslander houses with boarded-in lower levels. Community centres only accessible by car. Backyard pools and barbeques. Everything is low-rise, casual and narcotic. To the West, some low green hills. To the East, the high-rise towers.

The nest of towers are surrounded by low rise houses on all sides except the beach. There is nothing between two and thirty storeys tall. It feels like a science fiction film where the elite live in the sky and the commoners inhabit the fringes. Maybe the big flood is coming which will sweep away the humidity and decayed concrete. All that will be left is the towers, with their air-conditioned residents and artfully designed succulent beds on their roof gardens.