Sydney in Full Sail

Boat seems to be a popular way to arrive in Sydney.  Two hundred years ago the British government disgorged thousands of convicts onto these shores following arduous eight-month passages from Blighty in flimsy sailing ships. Their tickets were stamped ‘life’. These days the harbour is full of gigantic super liners whose passengers spend less than two days ashore. Presumably the food and sleeping arrangements are better for the trainer-wearing silver surfers than those endured by sheep stealers and cutpurses of yore.  But if you’ve ever been on a cruise, maybe not that much better.

The whole world is beating a path to Sydney’s door these days and, unlike the convicts, on a voluntarily basis, too. Tourism has soared in recent years, and the nature and appearance of the city with it. They’re competitive and proud are the Aussies, whether in sport, their national pride or their culture, and nowhere is that more true than in Sydney.  As long as Sydney beats Melbourne – at anything – that’s fair dinkum.

Both cities claim to be Australia’s number one, but the boost Sydney received from hosting the Olympic Games in 2000 lit a fuse that’s still burning. And, as Sydneysiders will probably point out to you, it’s they who have the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.  Iconic images not just in the Southern Hemisphere, but the Northern one too.

Those cruise visitors have got it all wrong. Two days is nowhere near long enough to sample everything Sydney has to offer the traveller. It’s a city that should be savoured; a location you can totally immerse yourself in.  It’s also a perfect case study of metropolitan development over just two short centuries – from nothing to world class.

Assuming you’re not staying on a boat of any description, the choice of accommodation is endless. Business and tourist hotels – and funky hotels like the QT – abound and will meet most visitor’s needs but there’s a definite impression that Sydney is very much an Airbnb type of place – the rent-your-own home out broker actively uses outdoor advertising to widen the number of properties listed here.

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Location is important, but so too is style.  Superb Victorian suburbs like Paddington and Darlinghurst to your liking? Or upscale, secluded villas in Rose Bay or Surrey Hills?  Or one of the modern luxury apartments springing up around Darling Harbour and Walsh Bay? Wherever you choose, the trick is to make sure you’re connected to the superb transport infrastructure comprising train, bus and ferry. A rechargeable Opal card, covering all three of these modes of transport, is the first thing any visitor should invest in.

Inevitably, as for all those cruise ships, Circular Harbour will be the default starting point for most tourists. First decision – are you going to climb Sydney Harbour Bridge? Many have – at dawn, at sunset, in fancy dress. In fairness, it’s a once in a lifetime experience that’s within the physical capability of the majority of visitors, even those who’ve been at the captain’s buffet table.

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The walks are meticulously managed, with (you’ll be glad to know) a strong emphasis on safety. You’ll be connected to a safety cable all the way to the top and back, so the only thing you may need to conquer is a fear of heights. There’s a ‘short’ version of the walk (2.5 hours versus 3.5 hours) but pre-booking is pretty much essential. Oh, and don’t get slaughtered the night before – every bridge walker is breathalysed before being allowed up.

Of course, if you don’t want to walk over the bridge you can always walk across it on the pedestrian walkway – it’s free, of course, the views are still spectacular, and you get to wave at all the cruise ship passengers on their way in and out of Sydney. Yes, they all wave and they’re waving at you.

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What’s at the other end of the bridge? Well, Luna Park for a start, and this is one spot you mustn’t leave Sydney without abandoning yourself for half a day to one of the most quaint and old -fashioned theme parks in the world. Famous for its clown’s face entrance (very Stephen King) Luna may not match up to the high octane rides of Disney or Universal, but its charming funfair attractions and atmosphere more than make up for it. Who needs mega Roller Coasters anyway?

Back across the harbour, Sydney Opera House looks resplendent in full sail, and is almost certainly waiting for you to board. Like the bridge, there is a big difference between people who actually go inside SOH as opposed to just having their photo taken with an unmistakeable landmark in the background. Maybe it’s just the cruise ship passengers who don’t have time to delve in case they miss the hooter announcing departure.

Travellers should make the effort to explore inside the Opera House, particularly if you can take in a performance in one of its theatres, or join one of its behind-the-scenes tours. It’s not just opera of course – ballet, theatre, and orchestral performance are all heavily featured in the comprehensive programme as well as contemporary music concerts. And once you’ve done that, join the throngs outside enjoying the open-air bars and restaurants in front of one of the most visually stunning backdrops in the world.

Still using Circular Quay as your main orientation point, a stroll to the Botanical Gardens should be next on your to-do list.  The gardens enjoy their bicentennial in 2016 and provide a rich and varied, not to say colourful, haven of peace in the city – not surprisingly it’s highly popular with the locals. Follow the park round to Mrs Macquarie’s Point, a finger of land jutting into the harbour that offers spectacular views of the Opera House and bridge.

Who was Mrs Macquarie? She was the wife of Governor Macquarie who ran New South Wales between 1810 and 1821.  The couple’s influence was extensive as they set about turning the crime-ridden shantytown into a modern, civilised urban development with as much emphasis on culture and beauty as on fundamental infrastructure. Macquarie is a name that endures across the city today.

Whether as much attention is being paid to the Macquaries’ guiding principles as the city expands today is a moot point. The new Barangaroo development on the edge of the Central Business District (CBD) has met with opposition from residents in Millers Point over the loss of social housing, for example, but nothing is standing in the way of the city’s determination to create an ambitious commercial, residential and leisure suburb in a prime waterside location.

And that’s exactly what’s already happened at Darling Harbour, one wharf along at Cockle Bay Point. Ten years ago this thriving, thrusting area of the city looked nothing like it does today with its apartments, restaurants and attractions.  Now it’s an unmissable part of any visitor’s schedule, whether visiting the Maritime Museum (with its impressive replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour), The Star complex with its theatre and casino, or the Merlin trio of attractions in Tussauds, Sea World and Wildlife.

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Remember that Opal card? This is where it really starts to come in handy. Darling Harbour is just one point on the ferry compass that can see you accessing Manly beaches, Watsons Bay and the mightily impressive Tarronga Zoo without stepping on dry land. Wonderfully efficient, you can also travel on as many ferries as you want to on a Sunday for less than US$1. Which is why you’ll find yourself bobbing from one point of interest to another in Sydney, especially if you’ve created the time to do so.

As a new world city, Sydney is very keen on its own short history, and many of its museums offer fascinating insight into its birth and growing pains. Particularly recommended is the Sydney Museum with its exhibits on Admiral Arthur Phillip’s colonisation of Australia from 1788, conflict with the aboriginal tribes, and the development of the settlement over the nineteenth century.

Equally striking, if not more so, is the Justice and Police Museum (only open Sat and Sun) which provides a stark resume of the criminal underclasses of the city in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, a recreation of the prisoners’ half-way house built in Governor Macquarie’s time.

For an actual ‘walk through time’, it’s back to Circular Quay and a stroll through The Rocks where the first settlers built homes (literally on the rocks). Notorious in its day as a crime and disease-filled ghetto, The Rocks nowadays is home to restaurants, bars, galleries and shopping.  However, if you remember to book ahead, a visit to Susannah’s Place, a preserved terrace street, reveals a strikingly authentic insight into actual living conditions for a succession of Sydney families over one hundred and fifty years.

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Also, check out what sporting events are on in the city during your visit. Aussies take their sport exceptionally seriously but a trip to Sydney Cricket Ground for a Test or a Big Bash game definitely won’t disappoint. Likewise, Australian rules football will baffle and excite, a day at the races may deplete your wallet but be worth it, and a game of rugby – either code – get you fired up.

Out of town Sydney offers up a marvellous gem in the form of the Blue Mountains – about two hours drive away.  Again, no visitor should pass up such an opportunity to take in the Three Sisters rock formation and a journey to the valley floor via the Katoomba Scenic funicular railway. You should take in the Featherdale Wild Life Park while en route to see indigenous animal life in a sympathetic setting – after all, no journey to Oz is complete without koalas, kangaroos and possums.

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It’s a well-known fact that the Australians like the outdoor life and why wouldn’t they, being blessed with a climate that provides hot summers and mild winters. Top of any sun worshipper’s checklist is the renowned Bondi Beach, the expansive stretch of sand in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Car parking may be a problem, and getting your surfboard onto a bus not ideal, but locals will be amazed if you come all this way and miss it off your itinerary. Don’t forget your sunscreen.

A barbie on the beach is a well-established Australian tradition, especially at Christmas, so join in and have a bucket of prawns and a cold one if you get the chance. And if you’re fortunate enough to be in Sydney for New Year’s Eve, then pick your vantage point early in order to fully appreciate the 12-minute firework display that’s broadcast around the world and has been a source of civic pride for the city for many years now.

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As a holiday destination, Sydney won’t disappoint, that’s for sure, and certainly shouldn’t be rushed. Take it at any speed except cruise control.

A version of this article appeared first in Gafencu magazine, March 2016.