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Crazy about Canberra
Aleney de Winter and family discover that the Aussie capital is not only a hub for politics, but a realm of hands-on fun for all ages too.

"We’re going to crash!” screams my six-year-old son, Rafferty, as he manoeuvres a Boeing 737 into Canberra Airport. He’s flown us all the way from Tokyo without mishap but our descent is way too fast and he is struggling to level the plane, losing control and missing the runway. As we hurtle along the ground at high speed he pulls on the reverse thrust and we come to a stop, narrowly missing the terminal. Phew!

We’re in the capital for a weekend of hands-on fun and our first stop is the state-ofthe-art Jet Flight simulator Canberra where my mini Maverick is learning to fly and land a 737 in a simulation cockpit. Under the instruction of an actual pilot, Nick, he’s taken through a pre-flight briefing covering standard safety and flying procedures before popping on his Captain’s hat and taking to the skies for a thrilling half hour. And, while the simulator doesn’t actually move, motion videos make the experience feel quite real, with all of us feeling a desperate need to hang on during my son’s stomach-churning landing.

Despite the wonky return to earth, Rafferty’s pretty fly for a little guy, and he and his three-year old sister, Marlo, are soon back in the skies, only this time behind the controls of a Vietnam War-era Iroquois helicopter at The Australian War Memorial.

Into the trenches
The Australian War Memorial’s extensive national military museum provides visitors of every age with an opportunity to understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society. The shrine has a profound effect on soft-hearted Rafferty, whose bottom lip starts quivering as he sees and hears about the sacrifices that people, including members of his own family, have made for our freedom. But it’s not all sombre and his smile is firmly back on his dial after he enters the kid-friendly Discovery Zone, where he dons trench warfare clobber to dodge the sniper fire in a First World War trench and Marlo ups periscope in a Cold War submarine.

Money, money, money
A visit to The Royal Australian Mint has my kids breaking out in song. When I explain to them that this is the place where every single coin in Australia is made, it’s to a giggling soundtrack of ABBA’s ode to wealth. The singing stops long enough for us to join one of the free guided tours that explains the history and process of making coins though sadly, as even money-makers need a weekend break, we don’t get to see the factory floor or Titan the Robot – the Southern Hemisphere’s strongest – in action. Still, there are enough conveyer belts heaped with shiny coins to have the kids begging for an increase in their pocket money. Instead, we let them mint their own $1 coins, temporarily satisfying their craving for cash.

On a quest
We take a stroll through the lakeside sculpture gardens at The National Gallery of Australia where the kids have a close encounter with ‘Cones’, a polished stainless steel artwork that they have long been convinced is the mothership. But, before they open another X-File, we head next door to Questacon – The National Science and Technology Centre which, while lacking in extra-terrestrials, does boast plenty of out-of-this world fun.

Having visited Canberra before, the kids are eager to dive back in to Questacon. With more than 200 interactive exhibits across eight themed galleries it’s hard to squeeze everything into a single visit and they’re keen to pick up where we left off. They run straight into the waiting arms of computer-controlled humanoid robot, RoboQ, who they soon have blowing kisses and performing a stellar rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain’.

The newly revamped Awesome Earth exhibition has Rafferty and I shaking and shuddering in the Earthquake House, and travelling exhibit, Perception Deception, completely twists our melons. Marlo adores Mini-Q, a gallery where children under six can safely play and learn. She climbs the netted maze, wrestles a foam crocodile, plays dress-ups in the role-play area and spends an age in the water play zone. But it’s the high impact Excite@Q that’s the biggest hit with Rafferty and he gets busy with the gallery’s six-metre free-fall slide, Robot Air Hockey and grossing himself out on the Disgustoscope.

On your bike
We start our Sunday early (an unavoidable side effect of travelling with kids) and, after fuelling up on the fantastic breakfast at the four-star Ibis Styles – where we’ve enjoyed a comfortable night in one of their spacious new family rooms – we head to Mr Spokes Bike Hire on the foreshore of Lake Burley Griffin. We hire a four-wheel bike to pedal our way around the picturesque lake, past the Captain Cook Memorial Jet until we reach Commonwealth Park’s ‘The Castle’ playground – a bit of a Canberra insider secret. The kids are soon climbing the stone fort’s towers, scurrying through its tunnels and slaying imaginary dragons.

Only the promise of a little dinosaur action can tear them away. The National Dinosaur Museum houses Australia’s largest permanent display of dinosaur and prehistoric fossil material, but it’s the dozen animatronic dinosaurs, full-size skeletons and giant replicas in the Dinosaur Garden that gets my two BYO beasties’ roar of approval.

Top of the town
The Telstra Tower, visible from most locations around Canberra, has the kids (who are convinced it’s a rocket) intrigued. One of Canberra’s most popular attractions, the working telecommunication tower rises 195 metres above the summit of Black Mountain. At the top we take in stunning 360-degree views over the city and surrounding areas, and though the kids are a little disappointed that the “tower of power”, as they’ve dubbed it, is not going to take off any time soon, they do enjoy spotting all of Canberra’s iconic buildings from the observation deck and outdoor viewing platforms.

Before hitting the road back home, we’ve time for one last stop at the CSIRO Discovery Centre. The science-themed centre has plenty to expand young minds with fantastic interactive exhibits, hands-on experiments and role-play. Rafferty enjoys watching the scientists and technicians at work in their glass-fronted working laboratories while Marlo prefers to don a lab coat and conduct her own small experiments in the Discovery Lab.

But their biggest discovery is that, when it comes to a fun family getaway, it doesn’t get better than hands-on Canberra.

REPORT CARD

Information: VisitCanberra’s mobile- and tablet-friendly new website makes it easy to organise a trip, with a handy menu highlighting ‘family fun’ activities.
www.visitcanberra.com.au

Getting there: It’s an easy three-hour drive from Sydney or seven-hour drive from Melbourne. You can also fly direct into Canberra.

Stay: Ibis Styles Canberra - www.ibis.com/Canberra

Do: Australian War Memorial - www.awm.gov.au
CSIRO Discovery Centre - www.csiro.au
Jet Flight Simulator Canberra - www.jetflightsimulatorcanberra.com.au
National Dinosaur Museum - www.nationaldinosaurmuseum.com.au
National Gallery of Australia - www.nga.gov.au
Questacon - www.questacon.edu.au
Royal Australian Mint - www.ramint.gov.au
Telstra Tower - www.telstratower.com.au

 

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