I always used to say, Australia is a beautiful country but $1,000 away from everything! Well, given today's prices ... make it $2,000! And going back down under reminded me how truly far away this continent is from the rest of the world.
We came to Sydney for we were invited to a wedding ... and to a farm. This was wedding number 3 out of 5 for 2008. I'm not sure what is in the water this year, but all our friends are getting married. It was a dry spell for several years ... and now the wedding bells just don't stop ringing.
Well, it's not all that bad coming to Sydney for a wedding ... right?
I was last in Sydney in 1997, so 11 years ago. I have to admit that the last time I was here was for Mardi Gras and my days back then revolved around a party here and a party there. So I was curious to see if I was going to remember anything from this city. And surprisingly enough I did.
One thing that strikes you immediately down under is the friendly and outgoing personality of Australians. As my passport got stamped by the immigration officer at the airport, she said with a broad smile 'Welcome to Australia'. Already at the airport they make you feel welcome.
What is there to say about Sydney that hasn't already been said? What was once an outpost for convicts has now become one of the hottest cities in the world. I think it all starts with the climate. It's amazingly sunny and warm here for the most part of the year. Weather is a large contributing factor for happy people. Then there is the culture. For being so far away from most everyone, the cultural scene is surprisingly active and avante garde. There is also the food. Along with Argentina, Australia has got the best meat on this planet. Let it be a barbie (am I spelling this Australian version of BBQ right??) or a refined dining experience, the restaurant selection and atmosphere here is electrifying. And then there's the coffee! One thing I've always said that I miss in Singapore is great coffee. And the coffee I had in Sydney ... anywhere ... was superb. You can tell there is a big Italian stronghold in this city.
All-in-all, the standard of living in Sydney is most probably one of the best in the world. Downside ... like I said at the very beginning, it's $2,000 away from everything. I would feel very isolated. But I do have to come back. I have to see the outback, the great barrier reef, Brisbane and the Gold Coast, Ayers rock and more.
I always remember someone saying to us: Australian lifestyle is like the American lifestyle without the American nonsense! After being to Sydney twice now, I wouldn't entirely disagree.
I had totally forgotten that when you land in Sydney, you need to be sprayed. Yes indeed! As our Air Canada flight from Vancouver came to the gate, we were instructed to not get up since the quarantine team will be coming onboard and spraying the whole plane. Once they were done with the spraying, we had to sit for another 5 minutes, till the Quarantine Team gave the green light that we were not harbouring some dangerous insects that could attack Australia. Only then were we allowed to get up and disembark.
Also, beware that Australia requires a visa. Most citizens will automatically apply for a visa (and pay for it) when they purchase their ticket, however, some countries will require that you go to an Embassy to get a visa. A Slovenian passport, for example, will make you go through this wonderful hassle!
WHAT TO DO:
> Harbour Bridge Climb: definitely the most exhilarating thing to do in Sydney. It's a 3+ hour tour that takes you to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The first hour they're strapping you on and taking you through all the security features. I've never had so many items strapped on to my jump suit: glasses, fleece jacket, handkerchief, key, latch, radio transmitter, etc. From the second you step on to the bridge, and throughout the whole hike up to the summit and down, the views are stunning. The best views in town ... by far. The only downside is that you can't take your camera with you. You actually can't take anything with you. So you have to pay for the photos that will be taken. However, if you want to take photos yourself, go to the Pylon Lookout which is the stone tower by the bridge. With a Harbour Bridge ticket you get free access to the Pylon Lookout, and although not as high as the summit of the Harbour Bridge, you will still have plenty of photo-ops to show-off to all your friends.
> Sydney Opera House: what can one say of this magnificent structure, one of the most recognized buildings in the world. It's stunning! See it at sunset. I just sat there and stared at it!
> Darling Harbour: lots of pubs and bars at night, but during the day you have several attractions for your entertainment: Aquarium, Imax Theatre, National Maritime Museum, and right next to the Exhibition Centre we saw the Oz Circus perform … which is a story in itself. On January 1st we were walking around in the evening and came across a big circus tent. We wandered in, and funny enough there was no one checking for tickets. So we snuck in and saw the Oz Circus. It's a great show for you realize that not every circus act has to have a high budget production a la Cirque de Soleil … this was a pure, funny and entertaining show with a great cast. Refreshing!
> Fruit Burst at Promenade Eatery (Darling Harbour): we landed in Sydney at 8 am, and since our room was not going to be ready till noon we went for a walk around Darling Harbour. And at the Promenade Eatery, right next to the National Maritime Museum, we came across Fruit Burst. Fresh fruit juices and yoghurt concoctions. Try the banana passion fruit fresh yoghurt along with an apple mint strawberry fruit juice … great way to energize for the day.
> Queen Victoria Building: this magnificent red sandstone Victorian building houses some great shops and cafes. Located on York Street, take a walk through it even if you don't have any intention of shopping. The structure is simply astounding with beautiful stained glass windows, patterned tile work and intricate iron spiral staircases. And since it was Xmas, there was a huge 3 storey high Xmas tree, decked out with Swarowski bling. Quite the site :-)
> Royal Botanic Gardens: I walked through the gardens at sunset, on my way back from the Opera House, and what struck me the most were the variety of birds I saw perched in the trees and the noises they were making. I've never heard such weird noises :-) This is when you realize how many different species of animals Australia has that are indigenous to their continent. Besides the sounds, smell the flowers. I experienced a sensory overload.
> Balmoral Beach: one of the many inlets that Sydney has along it's famous harbour. A beautiful residential community ... with a wonderful beach and several boutique cafes and restaurants that looked very appealing. We had come here for our wedding reception and dinner, which was at the Bather's Pavilion. A beautiful place to celebrate one's start to married bliss.
> take a ride with Sydney Ferries: there is no better way to see Sydney than from the water. From Darling Harbour, right on the edge of downtown, hop on to the ferry that goes to Abbotsford and beyond. As you leave the downtown area behind, heading towards the many bays of the city, you will see why Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
> Bondi Explorer (hop-on hop-off bus tour): we took a half-day to explore all the beautiful harbor locations and surf beaches around Sydney. The 2 hour tour stops at 19 picturesque spots and gives you a wonderful idea of Sydney's rugged coastline and the Eastern suburbs. We got off at Bondi … a must see on any itinerary of Sydney - with the hot bods and endless sand … and did the 45 minute scenic walk down the coastline to Bronte Beach, passing Tamarama. This gives you a perfect sense of the laid-back Ozzie beach lifestyle, surrounded by golden sand, beautiful albeit cold sea and stunning sandstone formations. By the time the walk is done, you've built a wonderful appetite … so stopping at one of the few outdoor restaurants in Bronte beach seems appropriate. We ate at Nino's Juice Bar and had a great toasted wrap with fresh onions, avocado, salmon and lettuce … and a fresh juice, as the name would imply. If beaches are not for you and you're more interested in seeing Sydney's most famous attractions, then try the Red Sydney Explorer tour. Same price for both … $39 … not exactly cheap for a bus tour, but well worth it!
> Paddington Saturday Market: go down Oxford Street to the area around Moore Park and you will come to the lovely Saturday market surrounding a small local church. It's not as big as I expected, and as per usual they had loads of women's clothing, paintings, incense and jewelry. It was also not as cheap as I expected … but perhaps my perspective is skewed now that I live in Asia, and paying $50 AUD for a T-shirt just doesn't make sense anymore. To add to your shopping experience, walk down Oxford Street towards the city, there are several wonderful boutique stores along the way.
> New Years dinner boat cruise in Sydney Harbour: when you think of iconic New Year parties around the world, Sydney definitely comes to mind. A friend of ours turned 60 and decided to celebrate it on New Year's Eve on Sydney Harbour, culminating of course with the spectacular fireworks from Sydney Harbour Bridge. When she invited us last summer, of course we were not going to say no. Birthday party + Sydney + New Years + cruise + fireworks = unforgettable experience! Plus it was a blue moon! It's one of those events you simply have to tick off your list. The Captain Cook Cruises departed Darling harbor at 1730 and for the next 8.5 hours we cruised up and down the Sydney Harbour, hung out with 180 people, drank way too much champagne, had a great meal, listened to some touching speeches, danced … and when the clock struck midnight, saw an unbelievable fireworks display to ring in the new decade. What makes Sydney's fireworks so extraordinary is that they take a total approach to creating a fantastic show. The fireworks are not only coming from the Harbour Bridge, but also from the rooftops of the downtown high-rises and from barges placed along the waterways and all the large dinner boat cruises are decked out in lights to partake in the festivity. It's a grand show involving everyone! So if you're going to do New Years in Sydney … do it the right way and see it from the best vantage point, the water. Now, did you know there are 2 firework shows on Dec 31? 9pm for the kiddies and then the real ones at midnight.
> visit a farm: we were lucky enough to have friends invite us to their farm in Silverdale, on the outskirts of Sydney. It's about 80km from the city centre and feels like a galaxy away. The peacefulness of the area and the idyllic countryside made it a great spot to unwind and rest. We had to actually laugh, for pretty much all we did there was have fantastic food and wonderful wine. It seemed more like a fat farm :-) Our friends have a big estate with cows and horses that they tend too, but besides that, we also saw a lot of 'wild' guests: kangaroos, goannas, foxes and lots of colourful birds. If you don't get to stay at a farm, drive towards Camden and into the countryside and enjoy the peace and quiet that the Australian countryside has to offer.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK:
> Sydney Fish Market: perfect place to have lunch. Come here around 1130, otherwise it's going to be very hard to get a table outdoors. Once you've found a table, head into the market and grab some salmon and tuna sashimi, oysters, prawns and scallops. It's a feast for your eyes and your taste buds.
> Drinks at the Opera Bar: a perfect place to end a week of work! Friday night and this bar was hopping at sunset. A beer in your hand, the spectacular Opera House on one side and the Sydney Harbour Bridge on the other ... what else could you ask for?
> David Jones Foodhall (Market Street): David Jones is a famous Australian high-end department store. And although we did buy some underwear there, the most impressive part was their food court ... or food hall, as the Ozzies call it.
> Blu Horizon Bar (Shangri-La Hotel): everyone visiting Sydney is trying to get that best shot of the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Well, from the 36th floor of the Shangri-La Hotel, the view is mighty fine.
> Cottage Point Inn Restaurant: January 1st rolled around and it was time to enter the new decade in a grand way. Life is about creating and sharing experiences, and this was one of those unforgettable ones. From Darling Harbour we took a water taxi to Double Bay where all 10 of us boarded a Sydney Seaplanes flight to take us to Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park north of Sydney. The 20 minute flight takes you up the north coast, passing The Gap (entryway into Sydney Harbour), Manly, Newport, Palm Beach and into the beautiful national park … when suddenly the plane starts to descend and lands in a beautiful cove in Cottage Point. We dock right next to the restaurant … the Cottage Point Inn Restaurant. Overlooking the small cove, we had one of the most amazing meals ever (modern Australian cuisine)! 10 friends, new and old, champagne, food from out of this world … ringing in the new year, sharing our wishes and dreams for the coming year. It was an unforgettable experience. On the way back the pilot was feeling adventurous and gave us a memorable view of the Sydney skyline, Opera House and Harbour Bridge from right above. Icing on top of the cake. And if you're still not convinced … all I will say is … dessert: Caramelized Banana Souffle with Vanilla Anglaise, Yoghurt and Cardamon Ice Cream!
> Grace Hotel: located in the CBD, this is an art-deco historic building that was converted into a wonderful hotel in the late 90's. It makes for a great base. The rooms don't have fantastic city views but are very comfortable. And the beds are fantastic. Make sure your room faces outward and not on to the inner 'courtyard'.
> Shangri-La Hotel: not what you would typically expect from a Shangri-La brand, nevertheless, the views from the rooms are wonderful (if you face the harbour)
> Intercontinental Hotel: like the Shangri-La, the hotel is located in a prime spot, however, could do with a good makeover. The rooms facing the Sydney harbour have great views of the Opera House.
> Blue Hotel: located in Woolloomooloo Bay ... don't ask me to spell that again!! ... everyone raves about this hotel. Although it's not centrally located, it is in a beautiful spot, at the deep end of a wonderful inlet.
> Hilton Hotel: the Hilton brand has improved so much over the last several years. This Hilton is very centrally located in the downtown area, right below the Sydney Tower. From the outside, this 42 story building is quite nondescript, but the interior has been refurbished and freshened up … and I've got to say, it's looking quite stylish now. The rooms are not large, but the space utilization is very efficient.