Canberra in the cold is cool

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It’s not an obvious thing to do, leave the winter sunshine of Byron Bay for a holiday in chilly Canberra, but we discovered a winter wonderland, a city full of surprises – and a lot of hot chocolate…

There we are whizzing around Lake Burley Griffin on our Segways at exactly 12 kmh, and I swear the wind chill factor is making it several degrees minus nothing.  I’m rugged up to the nines but I’m still cold – but I’m having such fun I don’t care.

A Segway for those that haven’t tried one yet, is a two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered electric vehicle.  The name Segway is derived from the word ‘segue’, meaning smooth transition.  I couldn’t exactly say that the first five minutes were smooth, as our group which included myself, my daughter and her friend, did our initial practice around the trees near the hire kiosk, but once you get the hang of it, smooth is exactly what it is.  It works on your body weight, and rather than conventional steering, all you have to is lean on the handle and it turns – with a remarkable zero-point turning capacity.  (You can contact them on: www.segglideride.com.au)

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Having mastered the balancing art, we’re off, up beside the lake, along the paths that pass Questacon, around the ornamental gardens below old Parliament House, and pretty soon we’re all wishing it could go twice the speed.  Our half-hour passed in a flash of smooth transitions, and the next burning – or freezing – question was where to go to warm up.

A friend had told me about Lonsdale Street Roasters www.lonsdalestreetroasters.com  – one of the numerous funky cafes that have sprung up in Canberra in the past few years, and so we made our way there and soon had our hands wrapped around a piping hot chocolate.

Canberra in the cold is a wonderful destination, full of a perfect combination of activity, education and indulgence.  As well as our Segway experience there was ice-skating in the middle of the city, trampolining at Flipout, and of course, the highlight for all of us, tobogganing in the snow at Corin Forest.  Last time we were there we spent an entire day at Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre, a sensory-filled hands-on experience if ever there was one – this time our chosen experience was the War Memorial, which was both enlightening and inspirational.  As we moved through the sections in this extraordinarily elegant building, each of them dedicated to Australia’s involvement in different wars, my daughter, her friend and I were all moved beyond measure by the bloody and brave history laid out before us.  For me, to have paid a visit this year, the 100-year anniversary of the start of the First World War, was particularly poignant.

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As for indulgence, that was an easy call.  A long time fan of the Max Brenner (Chocolate by the Bald Man) shops, I’d heard of the San Churro chocolate shops but never been to one – and on a chilly Canberra morning what better way to start the day than with a hefty overdose of chocolate?  The San Churro stores are an Australian success story – the first store opened in Fitzroy, Melbourne in 2006, and they now have 38 stores operating around Australia. We headed to Woden www.sanchurro.com/store-locations/store/40/woden with a group of five kids and two adults, and when the beautiful plates of fruit, churros, meringues and hot melted chocolate arrived it was love at first bite – the kids almost dove into their chocolate pots in their eagerness to start.  I was an immediate fan of the funky mix of paintings, takeaway offerings such as dark-chocolate coated cherries and spicy Aztec hot chocolate and the beautifully delicate meringues.  Named after the monk who, legend has it, made it his life’s mission to take hot chocolate to the Spanish people – San Curro has certainly been embraced by the Australian people, of all ages.

It was no doubt a good idea that an entire day separated our chocolate breakfast and our trampolining experience (for those that wanted to trampoline anyway, which didn’t include me!)  Flip Out www.flipout.net.au/hume.php is no small endeavor – it’s an entire warehouse filled with trampolines, with three distinct areas, one where smaller kids can bounce without fear of being trampled by a horde or rampaging teenagers; two runway trampolines where you can bounce yourself straight into a pit of foam tubes, and the largest of the sets where it’s a free for all on a massive collection of trampolines which also go up the sides of the walls.  It’s a perfect way to exercise kids in bad weather, that’s for sure, and it’s been so successful that booking is essential.

We’d saved our snow experience up until the last day when the weather was supposed to be at its best, and we were glad we did because it was a perfect day – cold, crisp and sunny.  The previous days cold snap meant there was snow in Corin Forestwww.corin.com.au which has a designated snow area, toboganning and when it’s not wet a 1.2km Alpine sled ride.  It’s not super-cheap at $15 entry fee into the snow area and $5 for a toboggan but it’s much easier than a five-hour round trip to Thredbo or Perisher, and much less extreme if you just want to tick the ‘We Saw Snow’ box on your outing sheet.  Only 40 minutes from the city, it’s a beautiful drive up through the hills and into the forest, where everything was glistening with white, and more than enough (just on the very of melting snow patches) to make the obligatory snowman once we’d spent several hours sliding on the toboggans – followed by the by now (you guessed it) obligatory hot chocolate at the café, which came complete with roaring fire and a beautiful wide verandah.  Once we’d left the actual park, we found a track not far away which took us into the woods where the kids made snowballs, had snow fights and were determined to complete Frosty, even though he was not the largest snowman I’ve ever seen.

Our snow day was our last day in Canberra and we were sad to go, but we had a date with some friends in their house at Robertson in the Southern Highlands on the way back, where we had a Christmas in July experience at the Fountaindale Grand Manor House, full of Christmas kitsch, nativity scenes and Devonshire teas, with plastic Christmas trees scattered through the spacious grounds and the occasional screeching sound of a peacock.  (It was at my friend’s house that I discovered the joy of our Holden Malibu’s camera when I was reversing up their normally hard-to-negotiate driveway, and discovered how easy it was.)

At Robertson it was a balmy three degrees as we started our journey back home, shedding layers as we went, but as we headed back towards Byron Bay and a more temperate winter climate, I have to admit to a twinge of sadness that we were leaving behind the crisp cool winter weather, our daily hot chocolates and, of course, the snow.

The car for our Canberra trip was provided by (www.redspot.com.au).

 

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Cool, becalmed and collected

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So there we are, sitting in the middle of the ocean, and not a breath of wind in sight.

We’ve come up to the beautiful Whitsundays for a week’s sailing, and even I, as a non-sailor, know that wind is kind of essential to make the boat move.  Not only that but due to the other half having never experienced the Whitsundays without wind, he hasn’t bought quite enough petrol with him, so we’re not sure if we’ve got enough to get back to Whitsunday Island where we’re camping for four nights.  It’s all a little bit hairy, if you get my drift, which is certainly what we were doing – drifting.  Not only that, but something’s gone wrong with the motor and it’s not working.

Surely there must be wind somewhere, we beseech the sky, which taunts us with some tiny little gusts from every direction at once.

Finally, the motor decides to splutter into life, and having had to give up on our attempt to get to a snorkelling spot, we opt for lunch in one of the many beautiful coves that dot the edges of these tropical paradise islands.  We drop anchor in May Bay among the million-dollar motor-boats and try to look as if at least, because we’ve got sails, we’re superior.  Which would be all well and good if the sails were actually working of course.  We dive into the deep, clear blue water, and consume a delicious picnic lunch on deck.  It’s enough to restore our optimism entirely, and even better, the wind picks up, so I’m told we’re going to sail out of there triumphantly.

Unfortunately the only large gust of wind of the day arrives at the very moment we discover the anchor is stuck deep down below – probably snagged on some coral – and we’re heading at high speed for one of those above expensive motor boats, and I have NO idea what I’m doing. Disaster is averted by a millimetre, the anchor finally obliges, and we sail for all of 500 metres before the wind disappears.

Apparently, this is what sailing is all about – hours of boredom, minutes of adrenalin and moments of panic and pandemonium.  We motor slowly back to our temporary home on Dugong beach, with our sails between our legs, and wonder exactly how we’ll manage to do the snorkelling trip we’ve planned to Blue Pearl Bay the next day, and get our selves back all the way to Shute Harbour in Airlie Beach the day after if we have no wind and not enough fuel.

But in a way, all of these adventures are part of what we wanted – a down-to-earth (or sea) real-life as far away from the madding crowds style holiday as possible.  Dugong Beach on Whitsunday Island has only eight camping spots, metres from the edge of the beach, fringed with shade, and walks to Sawmill Beach, or if you’re feeling fit, to the top of Whitsunday Peak.  It’s picturesque and peaceful.  Shortly after we arrived we were the only two people on the island, with only the resident Curlews and goannas for company.  We took our chairs down to the sand and watched the lazy resident turtle bob across the bay, and felt we were very privileged indeed.

Now, though, we’re lucky in a different way – experiencing the kind of friendly helping hand that I’ve found is often extended on holidays, and I hope I’ve offered in the past myself.  We meet a couple, Liz and Paul McCarthur, who both work on Hamilton Island, and are taking a few days out camping on Dugong.  They offer to take us snorkelling in their motor-powered runabout, and we accept their offer gratefully.

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If yachts need wind, motorboats most certainly don’t and skimming across the flat ocean the next morning is a treat in itself before we even arrive at the aptly-named Blue Pearl Bay.  On the way, we pass Hook Island and Hayman Island, and when we arrive at the Bay one of the lovely things about it is that there is every kind of boat there – from massive old clippers redone as charter boats, private yachts and motorboats and smaller charter boats.  There’s even a custom-designed drop-people-straight-on-the-beach from Hayman Island boat, a long thin flat-bottomed affair with three genteel steps forrard (that’s a nautical term just so you know I was paying attention) so people can simply walk down onto the coral beach, and straight into the water.

And what water it is.  This is not my first snorkelling experience on the reef, but it certainly was the best so far.  As soon as we slid into the water, we were surrounded by fishes of all shapes, sizes and colours – angel fish, butterfly fish, the exquisitely coloured parrot fish, to name but a few, and the highlight of this particular bay, the incredibly friendly, curious and massive Murray Wrasse, with his or her smaller friend, who followed snorkelers about in an almost dog-like fashion.  Murray Wrasse can live to the ripe old age of 30, and can grow up to two metres long, but are unfortunately still on the endangered list because of their reputation as a fine fish to eat.

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One of the most extraordinary things about snorkelling is not only the invisible presence of this brightly coloured underwater world below the surface of the sea, but the blissful silence.  I drifted through the water, schools of fish twisting and turning around me, and felt completely at peace.

Back at Dugong we watch the sun turn the sea a golden orange; in the morning we wake to the turquoise still waters of our little beach.  I manage to cook some strangely imaginative meals over our one gas burner, we marvel at our nocturnal visitor – the cheeky bush rat, the shy potoroo and the tiny marsupial mouse are all visitors to our campsite, while no night would be complete without the mournful wailing of the Curlews.  Every morning I wake up to the sight of the beautiful hoop pines that cover this and all the 74 islands that make the Whitsunday group, and thank god they have not been completely deforested.  As the days go by, we become increasingly grateful that we have a tiny luxury in the form of the shower tent for our solar powered shower bought just before we left.

I’d had the foresight to make a bargain – five days sailing and island living in return for two nights luxury.  Clever me.  By the time we sail (with a little helpful motor power of course since there is still hardly any wind) into Shute Harbour I’m more than ready for a little luxury.

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I’ve chosen Peppers in Airlie Beach as our destination, and the resort is perfect.  A large one-bedroom apartment with a huge deck overlooking the new Port Harbour complex, and with a huge spa bath, is exactly what is needed for restoration. The restaurant serves delicious tropical meals, and it is right next to the wet-edge pool – easy to go from eating to swimming and back to sleeping.  It’s also a perfect antidote to the 75 (I counted) sandfly bites I unfortunately collected.  Warning:  take the strongest mosquito repellent that exists and wear it permanently. Ahhh, tropical island holidays!

Airlie Beach is a perfect holiday town. The European-style restaurants and cafes along the tree-lined boulevard next to the park are beach are full, the child-safe lagoon offers relief for families and children on holidays, and there’s plenty of shopping in the main street.

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What the Whitsundays offer is the best of all worlds – a holiday everybody can enjoy on any budget. For me the mix of adventure and luxury was perfect.

Photographs:  Candida Baker (apart from Murray Wrasse)

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

To get to Airlie Beach fly Virgin or Jetstar to Proserpine. There are regular shuttle buses to Airlie, which is about 40 minutes away, or hire a car from Proserpine.

SAILING THERE

At Airlie, Shute Harbour has plenty of charter boats on offer. For most of the boats no boat licence is required, and some companies, such as Bare Boat Charters, offer shorter charters of three, four or five nights, see airliebeach.com/bareboatcharters/welcome.html. You can hire anything from a small yacht to a sailing or powered catamaran, a motor-boat, a luxury crewed power cruiser, or a crewed sailing ship. According to charteryachtsaustralia.com.au/, the cheapest charter is around $440 a night for a yacht that will carry a maximum of four up to around $1800 a night for a sailing catamaran which takes up to 10 people; the sky’s the limit on the luxury crewed boats. Charter companies offer boat tuition and help is just a radio call away.

CAMPING THERE

Many of the Whitsunday Islands offer camping. See nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/.

MORE INFORMATION tourismwhitsundays.com.au