Who's heard of the New Acton Precinct - Australia's new capital of cool? Very few people outside Canberra, I'd suggest. Sounds more like a small Manhattan neighbourhood – a couple of blocks, maybe, between Greenwich Village and SOHO.
But names can be misleading. Canberra's New Acton Precinct is the capital’s new lifestyle hub ("an arts and culture precinct," according to the brochure), a collection of look-at-me boutique hotels, stand-out restaurants, cafes, sculpture gardens, studios and a tiny city farm.
On a Friday or Saturday night, it lights up like a designer Christmas tree and though you could be forgiven for thinking it’s just another place the weekend crowd fuels up on designer cocktails, stay around a little longer, maybe overnight at its latest monument to the arts, Hotel Hotel, and you’ll discover that it also hums throughout the day.
Within 50 metres of Hotel Hotel, there’s an art gallery, pilates studio, beauty salon and spa, hip grocery market, seven-screen cinema, garden terraces for quiet contemplation and a pedestrian bridge that links the precinct to the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, which is just a six-minute walk away.
Follow the lakeshore towards Acton Peninsula and there’s the National Museum of Australia (See Old Masters exhibition, below), literally on your doorstep.
Walk in the opposite direction for 25 minutes, past black swans and numerous species of ducks, over the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, and you’ll arrive at the capital’s arts and entertainment hub – the National Library, the National Portrait Gallery, Questacon, the National Gallery of Australia and the Democracy Museum at Old Parliament House. You can’t beat the Precinct’s location.
Back at New Acton, there are five restaurants, where chefs serve up some the city’s finest food. And a small community of artists stage music gigs, exhibitions and workshops. And all this creativity takes place in an area the size of a large parking lot.
The latest addition to the Precinct is Hotel Hotel (02 6287 6287), which claims "not to be another boutique art hotel … but an intense collaboration of 56 (and counting) artists, designers and makers (sic)".
Fine, they can call it what they want, but in reality it is a boutique art hotel – a very special one.
The hotel’s rear entrance stops you in your tracks. It’s a temple to recycling. A thousand longitudinal woodcuts combine to create a ceiling that’s more timber yard art installation than lobby. Below this extraordinary ceiling is wide staircase created from the floors of old baseball courts.
It’s a symphony of so many different types of timber in so many subtle hues, it leaves most visitors wide-eyed as they climb the staircase to the lobby
If you like wallpaper and chintz, what comes next may leave you feeling queezzy. It’s a homage to concrete: floors, lintels, pillars, ceilings and tables. Whether it’s textured, polished, stained with colour or moulded into softer shapes, you can’t escape it.
Above is a fern garden seen through portholes in the concrete slab ceiling, across the lobby is a huge fire lace (fuelled by gas) and shaped like a low-slung concrete altar.
All this born-again ’70s concrete Brutalism is softened with fabric chairs in jewel hues, soft leather sofas, dazzling ceramic wall murals, an occasional rug, coloured tabletops and fleecy stools.
Hotel Hotel has 99 rooms. There are three types – at entry level is the Original, $285; the next, the Creative, $345; and the Meandering, $445, is easily the largest and like suites have their own living areas. All pay homage to concrete, but here king-size beds, fluffy doonas, thick towels, linen robes, Aesop bathroom products and individual artworks create a sense of restrained luxury
And each room is equipped with an iPad that controls the lights, TV, music, curtains and air-con. The bedside tablet also supplies digital newspapers and magazines, and room service can be ordered via email.
The hotel sits in the pineapple-shaped Nishi building, arguably one of most sustainable buildings in Australia and appropriately next to the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. No sooner had the public servants moved into their new hi-tech offices than the new Coalition Government changed the name to the Department of Industry.
Key innovators and investors behind the New Acton Precinct are the brothers Nectar and Johnathan Efkarpidis, directors of the Molonglo Group, whose collections of art and ephemera can be seen throughout the hotel.
Opposite the rear of entrance to the hotel is a herb garden and orchard terrace that leads to three of Precinct’s restaurants. Bicicletta (02 6175 222) is part of the neighbouring Diament Hotel and serves deliciously wholesome Italian fare. Match chef Paolo Milanesi’s Pappardelle al Bracccato di Agnello (pasta with slow-cooked lamb, balasamic, truffle oil, thyme and grated pecorino, $25) with a rich red wine (Zenato Valpolicella Toscana, $12) on a cold Canberra evening and you’ll feel warm as toast. The pizzas – straight from a traditional wood-fired oven - are brilliant.
Next door is the new boy on the block, A. Baker (02 6287 6150) restaurant, which like Hotel Hotel, revels in industrial chic décor.
Executive chef Bernd Braddemann, who will be overseeing the opening of a new restaurant at Hotel Hotel at the end of June, has devised A. Baker’s menu. A great choice is the Smoke Dutton Park Duck Breast with Jerusalem Artichoke puree, braised red cabbage and chesnut dimpling, $28, coupled with the salad of Radicchio, Belgian Endive, Captain Flat Raspberries and Balck Pumpkin Seeds, $9. And there’s an excellent international, moderately priced wine list.
But probably the most intriguing menus at the Precinct is at the relaunched Parlour Wine Room (02 6162 3656), where chef Brad Warton’s nine-course tapas degustation is a gourmand’s delight. Brad combines the freshest, best quality produce and works his food artistry magic. All of his creations work as well on the palate as the eye. The Sandwich De Bacalao Salado is a generous cube of house salted cod, aioli and avocado sealed in lightly crispy brik pastry. If they came as a plate of canapés, I’d be tempted to polish off the lot. There are nine other “tapas” choices, including Calamare Negro, tenderized calamari in a delicate batter laid out on garlic sauce of red capsicum and squid ink; F.O.D, or garlic, parwn, scallop terrine with saffron beure blanc served with baby salsify; pork belly with hazelnuts; house-aged goat cheese snowballs with tiny leeks; and ox heart tomatoes in a dressing based on 25-year-old sherry vinegar. Each of his creations can be sampled separately and matched with local wine.
Breakfast, brunch or lunch should be taken at one of Canberra’s best cafes, Mocan & Green Grout, and the TwentyOne Grocery Store cafe also serves an excellent breakfast.
Those looking for a weekend in Canberra should head straight to the New Acton Precinct. It’s a perfect base with two of the city’s best boutique hotels to choose from and its restaurants and bars are setting new standards in the nation’s capital. Or you may prefer to catch a film, pamper yourself a the local spa, visit an exhibition or two, take a picnic in a sculpture garden or jog around the lake.
Old Masters An exhibition of 122 Aboriginal bark paintings considered to be among the best in the country at the National Museum of Australia, until July 20, 2014. Free entry during National Reconciliation Week – May 27–June 3.
Elioth Gruner – The texture of Light A rare chance to see the works of one of Australia’s great landscape painters under one roof at the Canberra Museum and Gallery. Among the collection are many works portraying the landscape around Canberra and the Snowy Mountains. Free entry, until June 22.