Oz 'pitality

By Jan Shure, February 20, 2004

A vast country of jaw-dropping beauty, Australia is the perfect antidote to the jaded tourist

Sleek, stylish, endowed with great natural beauty and architecturally innovative, Sydney is perhaps the most beautiful modern city on the face of the earth.

It is also welcoming, efficiently run, a treasure trove of visual, cultural and gastronomic delights and Australia’s commercial hub.

Sydney’s biggest asset is that great artery of blue water that pours in from the Pacific, sweeping around bays and inlets to form its vast city-centre harbour. The imposing, 136-metre-high Sydney Harbour Bridge and the startlingly beautiful Opera House with its famous white “sails” shimmering in the sun are Sydney’s best-known sights; twin icons visible from almost everywhere in the city.

Close to the Bridge, in a glossily gentrified historic area known as The Rocks, are galleries, boutiques, a weekend street market and great cafés and restaurants offering views of the laser-lit bridge and opera house. Also here are Sydney’s coolest and/or swankiest hotels: the Four Seasons, The Observatory, the Park Hyatt and the Sebel Pier One, a former wharf transformed into a harbourside boutique hotel and our base for five days.

The location gave us a real advantage on New Year’s Eve when Sydney throws the biggest fireworks party on earth at the bridge. After a count-down to midnight projected in yard-high letters on a bridge pylon, £500,000-worth of fireworks burst across the sky and off the bridge in a series of eye-popping cascades and vivid, multi-coloured star-bursts.

Proximity to the bridge was also useful for what is billed, without hyperbole, as “Sydney’s ultimate tourist experience.” BridgeClimb, launched in 1998 and recipient of dozens of awards, involves an exhilirating ascent to the top of the 400-foot iron-work structure.

Because of its popularity, it is essential to book ahead (and at peak time, to book months ahead). In an operation run with military precision, you are required to turn up 15 minutes ahead of your time slot for a briefing and pre-climb preparation. This includes being breathalysed (quite reasonable as you will be climbing 1,495 steps, many narrow with steep drops below).

Assuming your blood-alcohol level is acceptable, you go into a changing cubicle to don a zip-up boiler-suit and remove watch, coins, earrings and any other items which could fall off and injure anyone below. You then buckle on a belt with a metal loop and wire that will tether you to the bridge throughout the climb.

The experience takes about three-and-a-half hours from briefing to collecting your souvenir certificate and photo, and if you are reasonably fit and not too petrified of heights, it is the most fun you can have with a boiler-suit on. As you climb, your guide recalls the history of the 72-year-old bridge and the amazing feat of engineering and human ingenuity required to build it (it has a span of 503 metres and was built out from each bank to meet in the middle). At the very top of the bridge, you can lean on the iron balustrade and look down on the Opera House — a mere 67 metres high — and enjoy a 360-degree panorama spread below you.

After the excitement of seeing Sydney Harbour from 400 feet up, it made a nice change to sit back, kick off our shoes and cruise the harbour aboard a gleaming 36-foot yacht. East Sail — which has 40 luxury yachts and cruisers moored in swanky Rushcutters Bay — runs a range of trips, from our two-and-a-half-hour “coffee” cruise to 14-day charters.

We cruised the achingly pricey Double Bay, Rose Bay and Point Piper, passed Nicole Kidman’s house at Darling Point and sailed under the bridge and round the Opera House before nosing into Darling Harbour. Yet another sparklingly redeveloped part of the city, it has the famed Aquarium with its walk-through shark tank, National Maritime Museum and pristine promenades with gleaming shops and restaurants.

On a back-stage tour of the Opera House, you learn it was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon in 1959. He, however, has never seen it; after a row with the NSW authorities he left Sydney and has never returned. Scheduled to take four years and cost £3 million to build, it actually took 14 years and cost £50 million. But what they are most anxious to tell you is that “Opera House” is a misnomer, since only the second, 1,547-seat auditorium is designed for opera. The considerably larger 2,679-seat hall is home to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, while there is a third hall for drama and a studio for cutting-edge stuff and cinema. As well as a stroll through the mausoleum-like halls where scenery is built, the tour also gives a close-up view of those 10 roof vaults which give the building its unique and striking silhouette.

Leaving the Opera House via Opera Quays, yet another beautifully manicured precinct, we picked up a sightseeing bus at Circular Quay, the transport hub of the city. Tours take in the city’s wonderfully restored historic buildings, parks, the exotic Botanic Gardens, Governor’s House, St Mary’s Cathedral and several museums — few of which you will see inside unless you plan to spend at least a week in the city.

We hopped off first at King’s Cross, the stop for the Sydney Jewish Museum on Darlinghurst Road. In an attractive series of displays and tableaux that include a colourful reconstruction of a Sydney street in the 1840s, the museum records the history of Australia’s Jewish community. There’s also a Holocaust centre, its moving exhibits augmented by survivors who act as guides.

Back on the bus, we headed for Market Street where we disembarked for the futuristic, 250-metre Sydney Tower. An express lift whizzes you to the top for a stunning, 360-degree view of the city followed by the entertaining and informative Sky Tour. Back on the ground, you are in the city’s main shopping district, much of it located in arcades, some shinily modern, some lovingly restored Victorian edifices. Best are the Queen Victoria Building with five floors of local and international shops and the smaller, chic-er Strand Arcade, devoted to Aussie designers like Alannah Hill, Bettina Liano and Lisa Ho.

The city is awash with restaurants. I would happily return to La Mela at The Rocks, where a pretty outdoor terrace offers harbour views, while you enjoy a lunch or light supper. Wolfie’s, also at The Rocks — has incomparable views but for a truly fabulous dining, Salt on Darlinghurst Road is icy-cool, foodie heaven. Roux-trained chef Luke Mangan cooks divinely, teasing every atom of flavour from ingredients. And every menu has six vegetarian dishes.

With much of Sydney closed on New Year’s Day, we had just four full days in the city and it wasn’t enough. There are museums, galleries, restaurants, beaches and lots more that we did not have time to visit. You need at least a week before venturing elsewhere in this amazing country. Still, the up-side is that we have a compelling reason to return.

Last updated: 3:05pm, September 10 2008