Just under three hours from Sydney, the roads to the Australian Capital Territory are mostly long and straight, so a traveller in pursuit of pleasure might want to look beyond the Hume (and have a transportive soundtrack prepared in advance). The NSW Southern Highlands has a wealth of picturesque forests and historic viewpoints, and the highway itself is dotted with serene roadside picnic spots flanked by gumtrees alive with the calls of kookaburras and eastern whipbirds, and, if you’re lucky, the rustle of echidnas and blue-tongued lizards in search of insects.
Closer to the capital, the Canberra District wine region provides an early dose of sensory exploration. With more than 140 vineyards and 30 cellar doors, this cool-climate destination is perhaps most famous for its shiraz and riesling but has also been shown to create diverse and unique styles using sangiovese, chardonnay, pinot noir, viognier, merlot and tempranillo grapes, and even some European specialities such as grüner veltliner.
Lerida Estate Winery, at the foot of the Cullerin Range at Lake George, alongside the highway, is one such place. A young vineyard dating to 1997, this winery has a scenic restaurant and has won multiple awards for its meticulous winemaking, especially its shiraz and pinot noir, grown alongside merlot and cabernet franc. For those who prefer white, Lerida Estate also grows chardonnay, pinot gris and viognier, and produces a dazzling Provence-style rosé. Tastings here are personal and educational, and the staff are happy to explain the curious geography of Lake George, the impact the bushfires had on local growers and why Lerida’s philosophy is one designed for Australian conviviality (read: to be shared). In anticipation of the arrival of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Lerida Estate has even planted rows of sunflowers surrounding the restaurant.
The hottest place to stay in Canberra is arguably Braddon, at least when it comes to buzzing breakfast spots, local coffee roasters, cocktail bars, restaurants and retail therapy. Five-star Avenue Hotel removes the guesswork from figuring out where to stay – it lacks very little. The rooms are bright and spacious, ranging from single to serviced-apartment-scale (complete with kitchenette and full-sized fridge), to the even more luxe spa suites. The hotel is just across the road from the CBD and has a vast, relaxing courtyard for reflection, sliding in some work between outings or enjoying a quiet drink from the hotel’s adjoining gastro-pub, Marble & Grain – a popular late-night haunt that also serves locally sourced farm-to-table bites.
Dinner calls for a culinary hit worthy of a grand tour of old. At The Italian Place, cries of “buonasera!” “ciao!” and “grazie!” go up every few minutes throughout the night, a customary and energetic garnish to the traditional menu that spans all the regions of Italy. Plan a picnic on the lakeside parklands that surround the National Gallery of Australia: the restaurant’s adjoining providore offers takeaway smallgoods and the staff will happily pack you a hamper to match the magnificence of the masterpieces that brought us here.
Because the grand tourists were hedonists as much as they were art lovers, a final surge of the heart is called for before the peaceful drive home. What else could complement the grandiosity of a J.M.W. Turner or a Titian but a hot-air balloon ride at dawn? Mist and amber skies play against the capital’s angular architecture and surrounding plains. Like the rare masters that visit us just once in a lifetime – if we’re lucky – some views just need to be witnessed first-hand. As the motto of legendary late magazine editor and modern grand tourist Diana Vreeland goes, “The eye has to travel.”