Cam­pus ca­pers and cap­i­tal charm in a retro gem


The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

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;­house. 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

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