Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Quirky retreats in the heart of the Canberra countryside

Canberra feature
View from the top of the hill at Little George

Sitting on the timber deck outside a charming cottage, a glass of wine in hand, the silence rings loud in my ears. The odd rustle of leaves in the balmy summer breeze or the occasional far-off cry of a kookaburra are the only intrusions to the calm. In the stillness, giant gum trees cast long shadows in the late afternoon sun across wide expanses of brown, drought-affected grass. Every so often, a hare about the size of a small dog hops warily past.

It’s a welcome change, to sit somewhere in silence with nowhere to be, and nothing specific to do. Indeed, Australia is world-renowned for these wide-open spaces and remarkable landscapes, though many can take days to reach from a major city. Out here on the deck, even though it feels like we’re miles from anywhere, we’re actually just a 30-minute drive from Canberra, at Tallagandra Hill Winery.

A kangaroo amid the vines at Mount Majura Vineyard (The Naked Cubby)

Traditionally, Australia’s capital was overlooked by visitors in preference for Melbourne and Sydney, but Canberra is fast growing in favour, not least because you can sample the best of both worlds – the buzz of the city and an idyllic country escape.

Once only known as home to public servants, politicians and roundabouts, Canberra now boasts a lively dining scene, award-winning breweries and wineries, a jam-packed calendar and coffee that would make even the regulars at the laneway cafés of Melbourne sit up and take notice.

But, in less than an hour, you can leave the urban sprawl behind, swapping the rows of suburbia for gum trees, wildlife and sprawling hills.

And in recent years, the landscapes surrounding Canberra have become even more accessible thanks to a growing number of quirky accommodation options offering off-the-grid escapes when you need to get away from it all, and quickly.

“Frank” cubby at the Naked Cubby

Naked Cubby

Just 20 minutes from the city, at Mount Majura Vineyard, lies this luxury glamping experience. Turn off the highway and you’re greeted by a gently rising slope with acres of vines and two canvas bell tents tucked away among the rows of grapes.

When it opened in early 2018, the Naked Cubby was the first of its kind in the region and marked a leap of faith for the owners – young couple Erin Wilson and Daniel DiScipio – who launched the business on the side of their public service day jobs. “After travelling to other wine regions, we saw a bit of a niche market for the Canberra wine region because there weren’t really any opportunities to stay on a vineyard,” explains the soft-spoken Wilson, who worked at Mount Majura Vineyard while at university. “And, what better way to enjoy a cellar door than to drink wine and not have to leave?”

The tents, big enough to walk around in, are decked out with timber floorboards and a king bed topped with luxury linen. The décor is a carefully curated mix of furniture and chic touches from local artisans.

Canberra feature
The interior of one of Naked Cubby’s two canvas tents

Tents are solar-powered and boast their own air conditioner and mini-fridge, but what you won’t find is a TV. The “naked” in the name refers less to stripping off – though there are only the kangaroos to see you – and more to stripping things back to the basics.

Come dusk, the best seat in the house is on the timber deck with a zesty glass of Mount Majura’s The Silurian sparkling wine, watching the sun dip low in the sky over the vines and behind the surrounding hills. For dinner, a gourmet picnic hamper can be arranged, bursting with local produce: think burrata and tomato salad, lamb koftas and espresso brownies for dessert.

Canberra feature
Erin Wilson, co-owner of the Naked Cubby

Sleeping out here is eerily silent overnight, and dark enough to reveal a breathtaking blanket of stars. Waking up to the gentle bush soundtrack is a delightful way to start the next morning, and I’m not sure if it’s the fresh country air, or the mattress, but I have one of the best sleeps of my life.

“That’s the most common feedback we get from guests,” Wilson laughs, “asking where they can buy the bed.”

Three cabins at Tallagandra Hill Winery

Tallagandra Hill Winery

One of the newest places in the region to escape from it all is situated close to the small town of Gundaroo, just 40km north of Canberra. Driving into Tallagandra Hill Winery, I’m first greeted by Mac, the friendly golden retriever, followed by the owners David Faulks and Mary McAvoy.

Bubbly McAvoy’s distinct Irish accent stands out in this part of the world, although she’s called Australia home for 20 years now. It was in 2016 when the couple swapped an inner-city terrace in Sydney for a 15-hectare winery. They have since fallen in love with the lifestyle, and last year they decided to share that love by adding three cottages within the grounds of the winery.

“We built the cottages as a retreat,” McAvoy says. “Somewhere really beautiful for people to be able to go, to be quiet, sit down and chill.”

Grapes at Tallagandra Hill Winery

The timber cottages sit next to one another up a gentle slope, right alongside the vines. Inside, the design aesthetic channels Scandinavian minimalism, with white walls, furnished with splashes of greys, pinks and light wooden tones.

The cottages are adults-only and each comes with its own front deck. The latter is the perfect spot for indulging in a cheese and charcuterie platter matched with a bottle of the vineyard’s fresh and vibrant Sassy Redhead Cabernet Franc, while drinking in that precious silence. A walk up the path alongside the Viognier grapes also makes for a spectacular sunset view with only the kangaroos and hares as company.

Infinity pool at Jamala Wildlife Lodge

Jamala Wildlife Lodge

While you’re likely to be woken by the distinctive squawks of the region’s abundant cockatoo population at most boutique getaways near Canberra, here it may be the roar of a lion that acts as your alarm clock.

Just 10 minutes from the city, this elegant eco-retreat looks to transport you to the wilds of Africa. First opened in 2014, the lodge has 18 rooms, treehouses and bungalows dotted around the grounds of the National Zoo & Aquarium. Each has its own unique wildlife encounter, so you could find meerkats playing outside your door or feed a giraffe from your balcony.

Owners Richard and Maureen Tindale bought what was then Canberra Aquarium back in 1998. Inspired by their extensive travels and love for big cats, they expanded the site into the popular zoo it is today.

“The vision has and always will be to bring guests as close to wild animals as possible, so as to have them leave with a greater appreciation of the magnificence of the animal kingdom,” says Richard.

Meercat enclosure at Jamala Wildlife Lodge

Design-wise, the property takes its cues from African safari lodges, with warm tones, fine carvings, artworks and plenty of intricate artefacts covering every surface, all hand-picked by Maureen on their trips throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The centrepiece in every room is the king-sized bed complete with a draped canopy.

Stays here begin with a sumptuous high tea, while a troop of colobus monkeys watches on. Later, it’s time for champagne and canapés on the terrace, followed by a five-course African-inspired dinner, while hyenas and lions lounge nearby.

The most coveted rooms are the jungle bungalows, each with an oversized black stone tub where you can have a long, luxurious soak inches from a sun bear, lion or cheetah – albeit behind very thick glass.

The tiny house Little George at Lake George Winery

Lake George Winery

If you drive out of town north on the Federal Highway and cross the border into New South Wales, the rows of grape vines signal that you’re entering deeper Canberra wine territory. Turn off at Lake George to get to Lake George Winery and you’ll see Little George sitting on the side of a ridge – a tiny house on wheels that permanently moved into the vineyard in 2019.

Owners Sarah and Anthony McDougall’s shared love of all things wine led to them purchasing a small vineyard in 2013 in the nearby town of Bungendore. Then, in 2018, they took over Lake George Winery, moving into the vineyard with their five children and reinvigorating the property. One of the first things they did was engage local company Serene Tiny Homes to build a sustainable tiny house, lovingly called Little George.

Old tractor at Little George

“We’ve always invited members of the public to come and help us pick grapes at harvest time,” Sarah explains. “We opened Little George with the vision of allowing others to come enjoy the same experiences.”

As the name suggests, it’s a small but ingenious space, with a couch that converts into a double bed, a shelf that converts into a dining table and a small kitchen. It’s also gentle on the surrounding environment; the house is self-sufficient with a compost toilet and, soon, solar power. Guests are provided with books, games and a telescope to marvel at the jaw-dropping night displays.

Visitors are free to roam all 113 hectares of the property. Rising early the next morning, I pull on my sneakers. The gradual rise is enough to get my heart pumping, but it’s all worth it for a view of the vivid sunrise from the top, bursting with reds and oranges and casting a stunning glow across the dry basin of Lake George. Cutting through the stillness, a plane gently rises from the horizon above the surrounding hills, filled with early morning travellers from Canberra Airport. A line of cars soundlessly snakes its way along the highway far off in the distance, heading towards the capital.

It’s a reminder that here, even if you don’t have time for a remote getaway, you can still feel the benefits of an off-the-grid escape – without leaving the city too far behind at all.

Other off-grid options

1. Cuppacumbalong

Queen Elizabeth II stayed here in 1954, underlining the rich history on offer at this estate that’s sat next to Namadgi National Park. Expect period features and open fireplaces at their 1880s Pisa Cottage and 1920s Homestead.

2. Kimo Estate

These alpine-style eco-huts are perched along a ridgeline within the grounds of a 2,800-hectare working sheep and cattle farm. Around 10 minutes from Gundagai, you can sit by the fire pit or soak in the hot tub while enjoying the dramatic views.

3. The Sir George

If you’re not ready to go totally off-grid, then the three rooms at these renovated 1845 stone stables might be the perfect base. Located in the village of Jugiong, around one and a half hours from Canberra, there’s also a restaurant, bakery and bar on site.

A dish at Grazing at Gundaroo

Three rural restaurants worth making a trek for

Aside from stunning landscapes, a drive outside Canberra’s city limits also offers a host of eateries where fresh, local produce reigns supreme and the wine lists are an ode to the Canberra wine region. Just thirty minutes from Canberra, Grazing at Gundaroo serves up hearty dishes such as ash-rolled kangaroo loin with beetroot and wattle seed milk in a historic homestead. In a weatherboard cottage in Yass, Clementine is a charming spot for a long lunch or intimate dinner of grilled dory fillet with salted cod brandade by the fire. For duck confit with orange sauce or escargot, try Le Très Bon in Bungendore, where French chef Christophe Gregoire delights with a menu of traditional dishes from his homeland.

To learn more about Singapore Airlines flights to Canberra, visit singaporeair.com.

SEE ALSO: The new Canberra drinking experience

This article was originally published in the April 2020 issue of SilverKris magazine

The post Quirky retreats in the heart of the Canberra countryside appeared first on SilverKris.

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