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If you mention you're heading to Canberra (pronounced Can-bra, with very open vowels), most Australians will raise an eyebrow and say, "Why bother?" Even many Canberrans will admit that it's a great place to live but they wouldn't want to visit.

 So what is it about Canberra (pop. 310,000) that draws so much lackluster comment? Simply put, Australians aren't used to having things so nice and ordered. You could compare Canberra to Washington, D.C., or any other town that was a planned community from the start. Some see its virtues as bland: The roads are wide and good, the buildings modern, and the suburbs are pleasant and leafy. Canberra is also the seat of government and home of thousands of civil servants -- enough to make almost any freethinking, individualist Aussie shudder.

 But to me, Canberra's differences are the things that make it special. The streets aren't clogged with traffic, and there are plenty of opportunities for safe biking -- try that in almost any other city center and you'll be dusting the sides of cars and pushed onto the sidewalks. Canberra has plenty of open spaces, parklands, and monuments, and a lot to see and do -- from museum- and gallery-hopping to ballooning with a champagne glass in hand or boating on Lake Burley Griffin. You can pack a lot into a few days.

 Canberra was born after the Commonwealth of Australia was created in 1901. Melbourne and Sydney, even then jockeying for preeminence, bid to become the capital. In the end, Australian leaders decided to follow the example of their U.S. counterparts by creating a federal district; in 1908 they chose an undeveloped area between the two cities.

 Originally the land that became Canberra was predominantly grass plains. Over the years, millions of trees have been planted in and around the city, earning it the nickname "the bush capital." Massive bushfires in January 2003 destroyed much of the surrounding forest and more than 500 homes in the suburbs. A few years later, you would barely know it happened.