Campus capers and capital charm in a retro gem
HIDING MODESTLY AMONG BLUE AND WHITE AGAPANTHUS IS THE STATUE OF A NAKED LADY
WE are breakfasting at Boffins restaurant at University House in Canberra and we are surrounded by them. Boffins, that is. Spot the boffin becomes a favourite game during our stay: the tall, languid-looking gent dressed in immaculate tweed is surely a visiting Oxford professor; the woman with mad hair and a careless disregard for fashion must be a historian, or perhaps a philosopher.
Our fellow guests are a learnedlooking lot and we feel remarkably undistinguished, mere tourists who have stumbled on one of the national capital’s best-kept secrets.
University House is the Australian National University’s hotel on campus. Brainpower is put to the test even before we arrive; as we turn off Northbourne Avenue, the main drag into Canberra from the north, we follow signs for the ANU and promptly get lost in a maze of tree-lined avenues.
We pass the school of music, the school of arts, the law building. Finally we spot a sign for University House and draw up outside a plain, low-slung building. Across the car park looms a statue of Winston Churchill, his stern appearance seeming to dare the scholars within to get up to any shenanigans. Once inside the cool and airy entrance hall we are instantly charmed by the character and lack of pretension of this 1950s heritage-listed building, winner of a Sulman award for architecture.
Exploring must wait for we are seduced by the vista ahead, the Fellows Garden, a leafy quadrangle around which the guest accommodation and public rooms are situated.
It’s late afternoon but still warm and it is delightful to walk under big, old trees casting great pools of shade. Baby koi swim among the waterlilies in a long curved pond that extends along the southern edge of the quadrangle. At one end of this cool oasis, hiding modestly among blue and white agapanthus, is the statue of a naked lady; an elegant, porticoed walkway runs beside the pond.
Our suite is on the second floor of the north wing and we struggle up the steep external staircase to reach it. Once inside, we are surprised at its spaciousness; there’s a bedroom with comfortable queen bed, a small but sparkling new bathroom with good towels and toiletries, and a lounge area that’s large enough to double as a (smallish) lecture theatre.
A big balcony gives us views across the campus: the Menzies Library is directly ahead, to the west is Black Mountain Tower, lit up at night like a space ship.
We are impressed: this isn’t high-end luxury but it is much more comfortable than the hall of residence-style accommodation we had expected. The solid timber hand-crafted furniture is beautifully designed and, as with everything in this period gem, entirely in keeping with the age and ambience of University House.
It’s not pretty but it is deeply pleasing and with a desk to write at, wireless internet access, television, mini-bar and the balcony on which to pass long hours reading, we agree this is the perfect base from which to explore Canberra.
We plan an early evening stroll to Lake Burley Griffin, just five minutes away, followed by dinner in nearby Civic, but first we explore the facilities at University House: Boffins bar and restaurant, with the atmosphere of a private club, and the Cellar cafe and bar, which is a favourite haunt of ANU academics. We wander the corridors, peering into rooms that seem barely changed since the ’ 50s, their restrained and scholarly ambience intact: the Great Hall, the common room, which opens on to the long terrace, and the library.
We pass the naked lady (about my height and with similarly sturdy legs) and, thoroughly smitten, head for town. Ah, it’s the student life for us.
University House, The Australian National University, cnr Balmain Crescent and Liversidge Street, Acton, Canberra. Phone (02) 6125 5211; www.anu.edu.au/unihouse. Tariff: From $80 for a single room with shared bathroom to $175 for a twobedroom apartment. Getting there: A 10-minute drive from Canberra airport; a 10-minute walk from Civic and the coach station. Checking in: Politicians past and present (Gough and Margaret Whitlam and Bob Brown are regular guests), visiting academics, singles, couples and families. Bedtime reading: PorterhouseBlue by Tom Sharpe, set in Cambridge. Wheelchair access: There is one purpose-built suite. Stepping out: An easy stroll to the Canberra shops, restaurants, theatres and casino and to Lake Burley Griffin for waterside walking and cycling. The National Museum of Australia is nearby. Brickbats: There are no lifts. Even for the young and fit, it’s a struggle to lug bags up steep, narrow stairways. No room service. Bouquets: Comfortable, good-value accommodation in scholarly surrounds. All the pleasure of life on campus without the hard work.
Canberra character: Heritage-listed University House won the 1953 Sulman award for architecture
Sit or study: A quiet corner of an apartment lounge room