Bland, white-box apartments are in depressing abundance in Canberra. Of course they are: people who don’t live here come to work, and then they leave. Despite the great things to see – the Australian War Memorial, Parliament, the museums and galleries, the nearby Mt Stromlo observatory – this town surges with arrivals and departures all focused on getting the job done.
Which is what makes the University House accommodation experience such a treat. The opposite of the bland white box, this little gem of a ‘boutique hotel’ nestles within the sprawling Australian National University campus in Acton.
If your definition of boutique includes artisan chocolates on the folded-down million-thread-count sheets … this might not be your kind of boutique. If you’re after comfortable accommodation with character and slightly scruffy charm, that captures an era and is bustling with life … step on in.
University House was the first building at the fledgling Australian National University, opened by a youthful Duke of Edinburgh in 1954. It was a residential college for professors and graduate students and with its heritage architecture and mannered gardens based on the great British education institutions, it retains its ‘Oxbridge in the Bush’ charm.
The design flair is unmistakable, the developments of the last 60 years notwithstanding. Melbourne artist and self-taught master furniture designer Fred Ward won a competition for the right to design the interiors of University House. His clever fingerprints – and love of rich local timber – are still present.
Common spaces are bright and warm, filled with the aesthetic of the 1950s. The guest library has round tables, comfy chairs and shelves full of publications: it’s like a dream resort for the bookish. There are 105 rooms, ranging from single with shared bathroom to two-bedroom apartments with bathroom and full kitchen.
And, sure, my single room was simple, with a sink, fridge, television, writing desk, chair and bed, but it had a peaceful, monastic feel, enhanced by the warm wood furniture and the unmistakable palette of the era.
With meeting and conference rooms of all shapes and sizes, University House’s core business seems to be, as you’d expect, visiting academics and students’ families, although it’s also a great central location for tourists.
Outside, the university – during the semester at least – heaves with life. I strolled around the sprawling grounds at sunset, as students hurtled by on bikes, returning from classes and heading for their halls of residences for dinner. Young men and women jogged by or practised sport on floodlit fields, while in the academic buildings lights went on in labs, offices and lecture theatres.
University House has a restaurant called Boffins (check website for opening hours) and the sparkly Fellows Bar that is surprisingly lavish, large and extremely easy to settle in to, although if you’re seeking a late night, you’ll have to move on at some point. When Canberra turns on some sunshine, there’s plenty of outdoor seating at the café and around the grounds from which to appreciate the native birdlife and the occasional kangaroo.
Breakfast is available: order off the Fellows café menu or enjoy a pretty standard but enjoyable buffet selection. When I arrived for my scrambled eggs, a nearby room was already hosting an earnest discussion about something serious, with faces turned to the whiteboard as delegates nursed their coffee. Academics at tables tweaked their presentations on their laptops and groups nestled together chatting ahead of a big day of conferences. It was cosy, busy, convivial and anything but a white box.
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Visit the University House website for more information and bookings.
Photo credit: Michelle Fincke
- accommodation, Canberra, review
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