Cooma is a regional country town that is quite familiar to many long-time Canberra residents, but perhaps not to the many new residents we have welcomed in recent years. I visited Cooma recently on a sunny late autumn day and thought this was a good chance to check out what is going on in Cooma and share some recommendations. There was a chill in the air and it wasn’t hard to believe that those looking skywards may have their prayers answered and there will be snow, indeed more snow (Perisher claims falls of 20 cm last weekend) in time for the traditional June Long Weekend opening of the snow season. Yes, it’s almost ‘snow o’clock’ and this time next week Sharp Street, the main street of Cooma, will be crowded with cars topped with skis and full of eager downhill and cross-country skiers keen to have good coffee, something to eat and a last-minute shop for essentials before heading up Kosciuszko Road for the ski fields.
Cooma is informally dubbed the capital of the Snowy Mountains. The largest town in the Snowy Mountains, it has a lot to offer residents, tourists visiting the region and the many who are passing through. Located an hour and twenty minutes south of Civic, it is one of those towns that has become a major tourist cross-road. It is impossible to avoid if you are heading to the mountains, and for the ever-increasing number of beach-lovers who love the Sapphire Coast, it is one of the great places to stop off before heading down Brown Mountain to the coastal plains and beaches. Cooma is also a popular base for the many tourists who are keen to explore and participate in activities in the increasingly popular alpine region in all seasons, including mountain biking, walking, and trout fishing.
Cooma is a thriving town, home to about 10,000 residents. About 200 cars commute to Canberra daily, and even more once or twice a week for family, cultural and medical reasons. Established in 1849, Cooma grew quickly with the discovery of gold, the arrival of graziers and small holding farmers and then from 1949, the thousands of people from all over who were part of the building of the huge Snowy Mountains Scheme. Today the Snowy Mountain Scheme is recognised as one of the seven engineering wonders of the world. The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority is proud to provide renewable energy and related products and services. These include water for irrigation and food production while contributing to the care and maintenance of its areas in the Kosciuszko National Park, working in an important partnership with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Cooma is also recognised as the birthplace of multiculturalism in Australia. Over 60,000 people from over 30 countries, together with 40,000 Australian participated in the construction of the Scheme between 1949 and 1974. The origins of many of Cooma’s immigrants is celebrated with the “Avenue of Flags” in Centennial Park.
Cooma is characterised by more than a kilometre of the good old-fashioned ‘strip’ shops that straddle the main street. It might come as a surprise to some that enclosed multi-level shopping malls with parking only arrived in Canberra from about 1963. Strip shops invite shoppers to walk back and forth and even though some complain about exposure to the weather, I still enjoy a stroll past shops and being able to enjoy the trees and hear the birds. There is a real mix of local businesses, along with the usual franchises, but it is an interesting selection and includes an interesting mix of restaurants and cafes.
Locals speak highly of the quality of life in Cooma, citing a good hospital, plenty of GPs, affordable housing with homes available in the $300,000 range, and proximity to Canberra as being real positives. NBN has arrived and like other country towns in the region, it is becoming a place retirees, especially from Canberra, are looking at closely.
Rose’s Lebanese Restaurant, just across from Centennial Park is an excellent stop for lunch, offering light meals, such as $12.00 such as dips, through to full mixed plates and banquets. On the recommendation of a long-time local, I visited for lunch: service was fast and efficient and the food was good. I had the Mixed Plate with hummus and lamb kofta. Served with a large basket of Lebanese flat bread, it was a tasty and filling lunch for $18.00. The local smoked trout was also highly recommended, along with the home-baked baklava and a Lebanese coffee, but that will have to be next time!
The Lott Food Store is an excellent café located in an old wool store on Sharp Street. Open for breakfast seven days a week, a table near the fire is hot property for locals and skiers passing through in winter. They serve a variety of fresh seasonal foods, have ONA coffee fresh from Canberra, local sourdough, fresh muffins daily, and are proud everything is cooked from scratch, using local eggs, meat and berries. The Lott Food Store is also proud of its employment programme that supports young chefs.
Another favourite, especially with skiers, is Miss Heide’s Austrian Teahouse. Famous for goulash, apple strudel and pancakes, the quaint wooden restaurant is located just below the Mt Gladstone Lookout. The teahouse is tricked up with red and white gingham, a fireplace and is very cosy. I called in with friends between Christmas and New Year on a particularly bleak and foggy day, and even though they were not officially open after the holiday break, we were warmly welcomed and served a terrific lunch.
A newish place to try is the Beatnik café located on the roundabout on the corner of Sharp (Monaro Highway) and Bombala Street: it offers vegetarian and vegan food at reasonable prices.
For day trippers from Canberra, there is plenty to appreciate. Many Canberra schoolchildren have been on a day’s outing to the Snowy Hydro Discovery Centre and will recall what an interesting place it is. Located on the right-hand side of the Monaro Highway as you enter town from Canberra, it houses a comprehensive exhibition hall including an extensive photographic collection, models, hands-on exhibits and interactive displays.
An attraction that is hard to miss is Cooma Time Walk in Centennial Park, slap bang in the middle of town on Sharp Street. The Time Walk is an amazing series of 40 mosaics completed as a collaborative community project, focussing on the things that the people of Cooma value. It was a 1988 Bicentennial project, and it is obvious locals are proud of their history and there is a strong sense of community. The concept, design, and making of this mosaic installation involved business, community groups, and individuals. and the flagpoles in the park fly the flags from the countries of many of the migrant settlers over the years. This park is a great central place to stop if you are a ‘BYO thermos’ traveller, as there is seating, shade in summer and loos.
Cooma has a huge selection of motels and hotels for all budgets. Indeed it is seen as a budget option for skiers and also hosts overnight school groups from far and wide who are keen to experience some snow just a short drive up into the mountains. They seem to be busy not just for the ski season, but also for the rest of the year when all manner of tourists roll into town: walkers, mountain bikers, trout fishermen and nature lovers. Cooma Tourist Information Centre is open seven days a week and is able to offer a wide range of advice for all budgets.
The Snowy Mountains Council has compiled an excellent round-up of recommended places to visit in Cooma. There are three Heritage Areas recognised by the National Trust: the Court House precinct, built in the 1860s; Lambie Street lined with historic homes; and Church Hill, with examples of nineteenth and twentieth century religious and educational buildings.
Historic Lambie Street is home to the Raglan Gallery, formerly the Lord Raglan Inn. An extension in recent years means the Gallery is now a major regional cultural centre, with plenty of space to show quality regional artwork and support an active arts community with a retail outlet.
I can’t write about Cooma without mentioning Birdsnest. This entrepreneurial family-owned online fashion company has a user-friendly website and regular on-line sales. Birdsnest is one of those enterprises that thrills online shoppers and has become a standout success for the town, providing employment for nearly 140 people.
For those of us lucky to get to Cooma on a fairly regular basis, Birdsnest has a well-stocked and stylish concept store with a choice of over 250 labels, including seven of their own. I love their focus on their customers and customer service: Birdsnest has over 180,000 customers with 80% repeat business.
I had a quick guided tour of the packing area and discovered a hive of activity. Overhead there was a large screen that shows the number of items that need to be packed, the number actually packed, and how many are left to be packed for afternoon despatch. Even though it was late morning, things were moving along pretty fast. Having been on the receiving end of a Birdsnest delivery, I know each item is wrapped meticulously and there is always a personalised handwritten card thanking me for my custom! I was completely jealous of the brightly decorated, ergonomically designed workspace, a far cry from some of the dusty, poorly lit old offices I worked in back in the 1970s.
BUT WAIT, THERE IS MORE…
Mt Gladstone Lookout on the Monaro Highway heading south out of Cooma has recently been extended and now visitors can look out over the town to the north as well as the southern aspect from the viewing platform. The panoramic views of lovely Monaro country will take your breath away.
More good coffee: Kettle and Seed on Vale Street
Best pies and pastries: Kuma Pie shop on Sharp Street just past the Vale Street intersection
Art and culture: the Raglan Gallery has an annual Diary of Events, including the annual John Briscoe Award
Harmony Day in March attracts people from all over the region to perform and enjoy a great range of food.
Distance: 115 km (1 hour 20 minutes from Civic) via the Monaro Highway
More information: Snowy Mountains Tourism
What does Cooma mean to you? Have you had a memorable family holiday around Cooma or do you remember a particularly interesting visit to Cooma as a school child and visiting the Discovery Centre, learning all about the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme? What are your favourite memories of Cooma or things that you really love about stopping in Cooma? Please share with other readers in the comments below.
All photos supplied by Maryann Mussared. Centennial Park Time Avenue of Flags and Time Walk, View south from the Mt Gladstone Lookout, Main street of Cooma, Cooma Time Walk mosaic, Lambie Street historic homes, Raglan Gallery and Cultural Centre, Birdsnest exterior, Birdsnest concept store interior and Birdsnest packing facility.