It’s as if we’ve stumbled on a long-lost set for Jack and the Beanstalk. In every direction, the ground is littered with dozens of monster-sized pine cones. We half expect a giant to emerge from behind a tree at any minute.
Not only are the colossal cones the biggest we’ve ever seen, but they are also the heaviest as Sarah, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, soon discovers while attempting to lift one. Eventually, with both hands gripping it tightly, she triumphantly holds the football-sized cone aloft like some champion Olympic weightlifter holds their pose after lifting a world record. “I did it Daddy!” she squeals in delight.
And so she should – just ahead, a small sign points out that this secret forest (Bendora Arboretum, down a one-and-a-half- kilometre walking track off the Mount Franklin Road in the Brindabella Mountains) is home to the world’s biggest pine cones. Amazing! Although it is about an hour’s drive from the city, a drive through the Brindabellas (or the ‘Brindies’ as locals affectionately refer to the ring of peaks that wrap Canberra’s south) is a real eye-opener that shows Canberra is about much more than just politics and roundabouts.
It doesn’t take long for our next surprise in the ACT high country - just up the road a bit Sarah screeches with glee at the sight of the remnants of an overnight snowfall. Sure, there’s not the amount of white stuff (nor facilities – so take your own lunch) that you’d find at the alpine resorts some two to three hours further south, but we virtually have the rest area to ourselves and what kid (and big kid too – shh!) can’t resist the opportunity to make a snowman. The only disappointment for Sarah is that we don’t have a carrot for that all important snowman’s nose. Instead, she selflessly forgoes her morning tea (a cheese stick) so her snowman’s face can be complete.
Chilling out in the city
Back in the city for the afternoon we make a beeline for the city’s famous carousel – with its 52 beautifully-coloured wooden horses. It’s a favourite for Sarah on any visit to Canberra. Although this winter, there’ll be another reason to come to the city centre. During July an ice rink will be set up right in the middle of Garema Place, the city’s main pedestrian mall. There’ll be dance, ice hockey demonstrations and ice carving, and watch out for a kids’ Santa Spectacular skate show as part of the Christmas in July celebrations — it might even snow! New York City’s Central Park, eat your heart out!
For a long time, Canberrans have tried to hide the fact its cold in winter. However in recent years there have been signs that the capital is starting to actually embrace the chill and this community ice rink is the latest example of this newfound appreciation for winter (another is the Fireside Festival which runs all of August).
Christmas come early
After a big day touring Canberra’s high country, Sarah is looking for an early night. There is a wide choice of family-friendly accommodation in Canberra and on previous trips we’ve stayed at Median Executive James Court in the city, but on this trip, we’ve chosen something a little different. We are bunking down in a self-contained cottage on a real working Christmas tree farm, Christmas Tree Cottage in Bywong. It’s a 20-minute drive to the city’s main attractions and set on the banks of a man-made scenic lake and each room is wonderfully decked out in festive decorations.
In the morning, when the mist finally clears over the lake to reveal a forest of Christmas trees for as far as the eye (or in Sarah’s case, sleepy eyes) can see. It’s like a fairytale. Although there’s rarely snow at this altitude, there’s often frost and the tiny icicles that adorn the end of each pine needle glisten in the morning sun. It’s like a million Christmas lights all shimmering at once, and well worth getting up at sunrise for.
Although early mornings are cold (that’s the time to pull out all the winter woollies) by mid morning the frost has gone and winter days here are usually clear and sunny. A perfect way to start the day (and warm up more) is to cycle around the city’s centrepiece Lake Burley Griffin (well part of it, the full track around the lake is 40 kilometres). You can hire bikes from Row ‘n’ Ride Bike Hire, who deliver to your hotel, or Mr Spokes Bike Hire at Acton along the lake foreshore.
We pedal south past the Captain Cook Water Jet (which spurts water 100 metres into the air) and stop in at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) where Sarah is soon engrossed in the Not Just Ned exhibition. This temporary exhibition (until 31 July) offers a glimpse of the history of the Irish in Australia and gives you the opportunity to get up close and personal with armour from the Kelly gang and a pistol from the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition.
The museum is also home to two other great spaces for kids. The first is Circa – a revolving theatre (don’t worry, it doesn’t spin that fast that it’ll make you dizzy!) and the second is K-space where you can design your own futuristic city and then don some 3D glasses and watch your space age buildings, cars and houses come to life in a short animation. Sarah’s is certainly the strangest looking car –it resembles a giant pine cone.
If you visit the NMA, make sure you venture outdoors to its large open space called the Garden of Australia Dreams where the kids can run wild over a giant map of northern Australia and even play hide and seek in a tunnel that extends beneath a model Uluru. And the best part about the NMA? Like many attractions in Canberra, it’s free.
Back on the bikes, a short ride up past the base of Black Mountain (home to Telstra Tower and a great spot for a bird’s eye view of our capital) is the CSIRO Discovery Centre. With giant bees and other insects suspended from a large atrium ceiling, this science-themed activity centre has something to enthral kids of every age. Sarah slips into a lab coat and in no time at all has mastered the art of looking through magnifying glasses and microscopes.
You can also win a lolly by generating enough energy to power a mechanical arm. Oh, and if you are in need of a little sustenance to generate this power (or more to the point finish your ride around the lake), they have a great little cafe with yummy hot chocolates.
But for Sarah, our discovery has been more than just this knock-out science centre, it’s a realisation that Canberra is a fun place to go for a stand-alone winter break or stopover on the way to the NSW ski resorts. Just make sure you pack a carrot.
Eight great activities for kids in the Nation’s capital
1. Become a science whiz at Questacon, where kids can free-fall from six metres, ride a virtual rollercoaster, experience an earthquake, watch lightning strike and more.
2. Discover the champion within at the Australian Institute of Sport where you can test your skills in the Sportex interactive sports experience, take a tour with an elite athlete and try rock climbing, virtual rowing, football penalty shoot-outs and more.
3. Let bears lick honey from your fingers at the National Zoo and Aquarium, Australia's only combined zoo and aquarium where you can also hand-feed tigers and meet the cheetahs.
4. Get spaced out at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, one of only three active NASA tracking stations in the world where kids can watch a space movie, see a piece of 3.8 billion-year-old Moon rock, check out what the well-dressed astronaut wears, and get the latest space news.
5. Meet a dinosaur at the National Dinosaur Museum which has 10 full-size replica skeletons of dinosaurs plus huge bones, skulls and reconstructions of Australian dinosaurs (including Muttaburrasaurus).
6. Get arty at the National Gallery of Australia, with its children’s gallery and range of fun interactive activities. The gallery also holds sessions of story-telling, drawing and films for families.
7. Dodge sniper fire in a First World War trench at the Australian War Memorial, which commemorates the sacrifice of Australians who have died in war – kids will enjoy the cleverly designed Discovery Zone where they can peer through a submarine periscope or take the controls of a helicopter.
8. Watch one of the world’s strongest robots make coins at the Royal Australian Mint where kids can mint their own $1 coin on the public coining presses.
To help plan your perfect holiday, call Harvey World Travel 132 757 or visit www.harveyworld.com.au