Read more about Australia
One month in Sydney. One month in a place which has the world's best natural scenery, weirdest wildlife, most brilliant scuba diving and snorkeling, best beaches, oldest rainforest, oldest human civilization, best wines, most laid-back people, best South Seas pearls, best weather, best harbour spanned by the best bridge in the world. Australia is a society without hierarchies - an attitude generally held to stem from its convict beginnings. Its ancient, worn landscape contrasts with the vitality and youthful energy of its inhabitants.
We traveled in First Class on American Airlines from Dallas to Los Angeles where we transferred to Qantas Airways for the 14 1/2-hour flight to Sydney. Qantas is a very nice airline -- their Business Class is exceptional. We sat in a 12-way power seat with our own video screen which played six different movies, talk shows, sitcoms, 12 different audio selections, and -- by far the most interesting -- video displays of our precise location and flight path, showing ground speed, altitude, outside air temperature, time since departure, distance from departure, local time at origin, local time at destination, estimated arrival time, time to destination and distance to destination.
The meal service was also excellent, with gourmet selections to choose from for entrée, main dish and dessert, as well as a fine selection of Australian wines. Qantas' 747-438 "longreach" planes, the largest 747's made (950,000 pounds when fully loaded and fueled), have recently been redone and Business Class service upgraded. The little pack of toiletry items is even gender-sensitive. A quick glimpse into the First Class cabin revealed seats that recline 180 degrees to form a flat bed. Other First Class amenities include pajamas that fit over your clothes for a more restful sleep.
Barry and Melanie spent 30 minutes in the cockpit with the pilots as the plane was flying over the Hawaiian Islands and had a birds-eye view of Maui and its surrounding islands. On our flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, we were in the company of CNN's Jim Moray and Laurin Sydney, hosts of CNN's Showbiz Today, the CNN equivalent of ABC's Entertainment Tonight. We heard on CNN International later in the week that they were in Sydney filming a special on Australia and the millennium. Moray traveled in First Class -- Sydney and the rest of the entourage traveled in Business Class.
Sydney is consistently voted the world's best city destination, the world's friendliest city and the best value city in the world by noted travel publications. No other city has beaches in such abundance or sits around the greenest, most beautiful urban harbour in the world.
Sydney is laid-back and friendly, cosmopolitan and cultured, multicultural yet very Aussie-like, beautiful and unspoiled, European and American at the same time, and livable like no other place we've visited. Australia's rugged, natural beauty is nowhere more evident than in the rainforests, beaches, outback, forests, mountains, prairies and cities that are all within a days drive of Sydney in the state of New South Wales. There is a genuine friendliness and willingness to help on the part of its people, and even though the city is home to almost four million of Australia's 18 million residents, there is an easy-going attitude and a sense that most people are truly happy with their lives. Fundamentally prosperous, there appears to be very little competitiveness, conspicuous consumption, or everyday pressures that we deal with daily in America. The city is clean and virtually crime-free, and there is very little homelessness or apparent poverty. Women wear very little make-up. Everyone looks fit, healthy and tanned.
Asians make up a large part of the population. There are also a large number of Italians, Greeks, Irish, Poles, and Germans. Sydney is a real melting pot - even more so than the United States. There appear to be very few North Americans, Hispanics or blacks. There is a large and vibrant gay community.
We spent our first four nights at the Sydney Hilton, located right in the middle of the shopping area of the central business district (CBD) and at the Town Hall Railway Station. The hotel is ugly from the outside but has been remodeled and is very adequate on the inside. We occupied two rooms on separate floors and enjoyed our city center location and the outdoor pool and spa on the 18th floor.
Our home for the next three weeks was Chatsworth Plaza, a brand new 28-story high-rise apartment building with 53 of its units used as hotel suites. Chatsworth Plaza has all the advantages of apartment living with all the amenities of a full-service hotel. We occupied a 1,100 sq. ft., two-bedroom, two-bath unit on the 13th floor. We enjoyed a wraparound balcony, accessible from all rooms, with a panoramic view of the Sydney skyline to the south and North Head and the Tasman Sea to the east. Other amenities included daily maid service, covered outdoor pool and spa, sauna, gym, parking garage, two TV's, VCR, stereo, full kitchen and laundry facilities. The unit we occupied sells for $415,000 AUD ($260,000 USD).
Chatsworth Plaza is located in Chatswood, an affluent suburb on Sydney's North Shore, and a five-minute walk from Barry's office. Chatsworth Plaza is adjacent to the Chatswood train station, next door to the Mandarin Centre with its eight screen movie theatre, across the street from Westfield Shoppingtown and Chatswood Chase (both major shopping malls), down the street from two different grocery stores and a food market similar to the Food Halls at Harrods in London, and adjacent to a pedestrian-only promenade (Victoria Avenue) that afforded us everything we could possible need -- a post office, 7-11, a video rental store, cleaners, florists, chemists, doctors, banks, and of course a McDonalds -- all within easy walking distance.
We even found a progressive (Reform) synagogue on the Internet that was located just 15 minutes by foot from Chatsworth Plaza. Temple Emanu-El is a small synagogue, just 39 years old, with a very friendly congregation. We attended twice and met the rabbi, a young woman from North America. Friday night services are very casual, and we were not out of place in our travel clothing.
Sydney is a walking city with a good public transport system. The city centre is best explored on foot, which we did, as the distances are short. Both the Hilton and Chatsworth Plaza are located within a two-minute walk from train stations, so taking the train was convenient. We made the 15-minute train ride from Chatswood to Town Hall in the CBD many times during our stay. Taking the train, though, to places outside the downtown area proved to be long and tedious with changes to a bus or another train required. This got old very quickly, so halfway into our second week we rented a car -- a Nissan Pulsar, equivalent in size to an Altima. We were a little apprehensive about driving on the left side of the road (the opposite of the U.S.), but Barry, Flora and Martin all did so successfully. The hardest part seemed to be staying within the lane, as the driver sits on the opposite side of the car from where we are accustomed. Turning corners and using the turn signal -- on the right side of the steering wheel -- were also obstacles to overcome. The situation was not helped by the fact that Sydney has four million people -- all driving at the same time, or so it seemed -- and a very complex system of roads. Martin adjusted to the driving easier than Flora and Barry, and had driven all over Sydney when we thought to inquire as to the legal driving age in Australia. It is 18. Oh, well.
We didn't recognize many of the makes and models of the cars in Australia. There were a few Mercedes' and BMWs, some Fords, quite a few Toyota Camrys, some Nissans, Hondas and Hyundais, and almost no minivans or small trucks. There were a lot of Holdens, automobiles built in Australia by the local subsidiary of Ford Motor Company. There were very few sports cars or sports coupes, although Martin was excited to see a Ford Mustang parked on a city street one evening -- it reminded him of home!
There are many dining options in Sydney, in part due to the diverse ethnic background of its citizens. Both the Hilton and Chatsworth Plaza are in the heart of major shopping areas, so we were also near a myriad of "international food courts". The food courts were an attraction in themselves. The choices were almost limitless, with each food court offering different selections (no chain restaurants, except McDonald's, which was never in the food court, but always out on the street). A typical food court would have Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Malaysian and French selections, with ice cream shops, patisseries, donut shops, fish 'n chips shops, pizzerias and baked potato and crepe bars rounding out the selections. Some meals from food courts are made-to-order from a kitchen in the back and are comparable in quality and taste to a restaurant meal. And several times each week, we availed ourselves of the Australian counterpart to our "Take-Out Taxi"- where a complete, hot dinner was delivered directly to our doorstep.
Crow's Nest is an area with a large amount of restaurants and is only a five minutes drive from Chatsworth Plaza. We ate at the New Orleans Cafe several times and enjoyed the American-style food. And a very special evening was in store for us the night we dined at the revolving restaurant atop Centrepoint Tower, the tallest building in the Southen Hemisphere. The views of downtown Sydney, Darling Harbour, and Sydney Harbour were spectacular, as was the food.
Big in Sydney - yum cha, doner kebabs, sushi, laksa, Turkish pides, pasta, donuts, cappuccino, ice cream, yoghurt and last but not least, the Australian creation-Vegemite.
ENTERTAINMENT / NEWS / SPORTS
We were not fortunate enough to have satellite TV at Chatsworth Plaza, so we were limited to the four Australian commercial networks plus ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission, which is non-commercial) and SBS (multi-cultural). The commercial networks consist mainly of American prime time shows and daytime dramas interspersed with a few Australian shows. There is no censorship on Australian TV. We enjoyed several of the Australian game shows -- Catch Phrase, Sale of the Century, and Australian Wheel of Fortune. The news is on at different times on the different stations, and broadcasts sometimes start later than the stated time. The news is reported for 30 minutes three times a day, and that's it, in contrast to hours upon hours of news reporting here at home and news crews being rushed to the scene of every little thing that happens.
Australia receives first run movies about two months after release in the U.S. There are approximately five movies showing nationwide at any one time. Movie tickets are expensive, but movie-going seems to be a popular activity and Australians appear to be obsessed with Hollywood.
We attended one free Saturday night "Winter Concert" at Darling Harbour. The "Beat Nix" were accompanied by members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Beatles' first concert in Sydney. This was an enjoyable activity for our last evening in Sydney.
Sydney has one large casino - Star City - located at Darling Harbour. The casino has 1/2 decorated as though it were the Outback and the other half decorated as though it were the Great Barrier Reef. Unlike Las Vegas, the Star City Casino is very quiet. The 100%-electronic slot machines make no noise -- winnings are paid electronically! The casino has a very poor circulation system -- the cigarette smoke was unbearable. Unlike most casinos, there is a huge floor- to-ceiling window in the casino that looks out over Darling Harbour and on out to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
In addition to the visible and advertised Star City, gaming is available in every pub and "private club." The R.S.L. establishments are everywhere, and they are basically gambling halls. Although "private", anyone can join at any time. Australians gamble away a bigger percentage of their incomes than any other country in the world.
We visited Australia's Wonderland - advertised as the largest theme park in Australia with the tallest wooden roller coaster and the fastest steel coaster in the Southern Hemisphere. To make a long story short, this was the biggest disappointment of the trip by far. The only redeeming factor was the "Beastie" - a small wooden coaster in the kiddie area of the park, which we rode over and over, making interesting faces for the camera. It is no wonder that Aussies regularly make the 15,000 mile round trip to visit Disneyland.
Martin and Melanie also visited Darling Harbour's Sega World twice on their own - once while Flora visited the Art Gallery of NSW and once while she visited Star City. An all-inclusive ticket allows unlimited play on the games and rides all day. The consensus was that it was a good day of fun.
Sports is king in Australia. Australians learn to swim before they learn to walk and most spend all or part of every weekend in the summer at the beach. Australians also have a higher percentage of skin cancer than any other country.
Common participatory sports include surfing (Australia's national sport), diving, bushwalking, tennis, golf, windsurfing, sailing, scuba diving, snorkeling, cycling, yachting, parasailing, jogging, whitewater rafting, skiing, rock climbing, horseback riding, fishing, caving, canyoning, canoeing, sea kayaking, camel trekking, bungee jumping, bird-watching and abseiling (to name just a few).
Spectator sports fill every TV station in Australia all weekend and include Rugby League (aka "the footie"), Rugby Union, Aussie Rules football, cricket, basketball, yacht racing, net ball, and volleyball.
We spent a good amount of time in the adjacent areas known as Circular Quay (pronounced "key") and "The Rocks". This section is Sydney's oldest and most historic and the birthplace of Australia. In January, 1788, at Circular Quay, the British First Fleet landed with its human freight of convicts, soldiers and officials and the British colony of New South Wales was born.
The popular harbour cruises depart from Circular Quay, and this is where we embarked on our 2-1/2 hour Captain Cook "Coffee Cruise" of the harbour, taking us past all the coves, inlets, headlands and bays of Sydney Harbour. We past Lady Jane beach, Sydney's only all-nude beach, then turned north past Watson's Bay and North and South Heads, which is the entrance to the harbour from the Tasman Sea. We then sailed all the way to the Spit Bridge and back past Sydney Harbour National Park and the gorgeous residential areas of Mosman and Sydney's affluent northern suburbs. A cruise offers the best views of Mrs. Macquarie's chair and the Sydney Opera House, and the walk from one to the other along Farm Cove is said to be the most beautiful urban walk in the world. The Opera House is Danish architect Jorn Utzon's white-sailed construction caught midbillow over the waters of Sydney Cove. His arched roof design is said to have come to him while peeling an orange.
Darling Harbour is the site of the largest urban redevelopment project ever carried out in Australia, and was purpose-built in the 1980's as a tourist destination. Darling Harbour features the Sydney Aquarium, Sega World, the National Maritime Museum, the Powerhouse Museum, an IMAX Theatre, the Chinese Gardens, Cockle Bay Wharf, the Sydney Convention Centre, a waterfront promenade, Harbourside shopping centre, and Star City. It also features the best selection of restaurants in the city. We visited Darling Harbour several times each week.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge, also known as the "Coathanger", was completed in 1932 and connects the CBD on the south side with North Sydney and the northern suburbs. Incorporating six million steel rivets in its design, it is the world's largest steel arch bridge, the world's widest Longspan Bridge and a renowned international symbol of Australia. Combined with the Opera House and the harbour, it provides one of the most beautiful views in the world. The best view of Sydney, though, is not of the bridge but from the bridge.
For ten years, negotiations were undertaken to get the necessary permits required to offer those interested a chance to climb the bridge. The permit was finally approved, and for 20 years beginning October 1, 1998, bridge climbs will be allowed. International tourists account for 30% of BridgeClimb business. BridgeClimb is also popular with Australian celebrities and sports stars, as well as international film stars and celebrities. Mrs. Chris Muller climbed the bridge the same day that we did in honor of her 100th birthday. Even though she turned back halfway to the summit, her climb received widespread international media coverage.
Bookings are made for a specific day and time and paid at the time of booking. Ten people embark on a climb every 10 minutes from 8am until three hours prior to sunset. Night climbs are also available. For $99AUD per person, we set off on a three-hour adventure of exhiliration and personal satisfaction to "feel the steel. Upon arrival, we watched a video describing the bridge and the climb. Our group -- the four of us plus six others -- then went into a small room where we signed a waiver of some kind and each of us took a breathalyzer test. We were given one last chance to empty our bladders before moving to the dressing room where we were outfitted with grey (bridge color) one-piece jumpsuits with a zipper in the back and no pockets. These were put on over our street clothes after we removed all wallets, jewelry, cameras, purses, etc., and placed them in a locker provided us. After dressing, we were searched with a metal detecting wand, then taken to the accessories area where we were each outfitted with a belt, walkie-talkie, earphone, parka that was buckled to our belts, and optional handkerchief and gloves that were tied around our wrists. Finally, we went through a simulator to learn how to maneuver the cable that was to be connected to our belt and to the bridge. Our guide introduced himself and learned all our names and hometowns on the spot.
The climb took us over 1500 metres of steel across catwalks and steep ladders to the pylon where we set out up the arch on our way to the summit. We were harnassed to a static line at all times in a single file line, stopping along the way to enjoy a view that stretched all the way to the heads, the Olympic site at Homebush Bay and the Blue Mountains beyond. A once in a lifetime experience, BridgeClimb puts the climbs to the top of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, St. Paul's and St. Peter's Cathedrals to shame.
Homebush Bay is the site of the Games of the XXVII Olympiad, which will be hosted in Sydney from September 15 to October 1, 2000. The Sydney Olympic Park at Homebush Bay is about 30 minutes west of downtown Sydney, or two hours on the train as we found out. We saw Stadium Australia, where the opening and closing ceremonies will take place and toured the Sydney International Aquatic Centre, the best Olympic swimming complex in the world, and the Sydney International Athletic Centre. Martin and Melanie did laps in the Olympic pool -- it is open to the public -- and enjoyed swimming in the adjacent indoor water park. We visited Homebush Bay twice.
Sydney is a shopper's paradise. There are pedestrian-only streets downtown with arcades and shopping centers one after another. Everything is connected either underground or by overhead walkways. The two big department stores are Grace Brothers -- similar to Dillard's -- and David Jones -- similar to Nordstrom. Grace Brothers seemed more popular. The Queen Victoria Building, an ornate, Romanesque building in the CBD, is an attraction in itself. It is said to be the most beautiful shopping mall in the world, and after seeing it, one would tend to agree. Formerly a produce market, the building stood vacant for several years before being renovated to its 19th century grandeur in the late 1980's and then re-opened as a shopping center. Inside it's all arches, filtered light, Romanesque columns, ornate plasterwork, stained-glass windows, and lace ironwork.
Our suburban home, Chatswood, is also a shopping mecca, so we were never far away from temptation. Twice we visited Paddy's Market, one of several weekend street markets. Paddy's is enclosed on the ground floor of the Market City Shopping Centre in Haymarket - near Chinatown. Everything one can imagine is sold at Paddy's, including live animals, food, flowers, books, clothes, jewelry, souvenirs, luggage, toys, candy, on-the-spot Chinese massages and household goods.
We visited three museums in Sydney. The Powerhouse Museum is the largest museum in Australia and also the most popular. It is a cross between a science museum and a decorative arts museum. It contains an exhibit of automobile travel through the years that Martin enjoyed. It also has a make-your-own fireworks exhibit. Flora's did not ignite, Melanie's ignited but did not leave the ground and Martin's ignited and left the ground. I guess that Martin learned something in that chemistry class after all!
The Australian National Maritime Museum highlights Australia's dependence on the sea. We especially liked the naval destroyer, the Vampire, and the "Onslow", the Oberon Class submarine, which we were able to climb through and explore with commentary provided by an audio guide.
Flora visited the Art Gallery of NSW on her own. Set in a lovely part of the Royal Botanic Gardens, the gallery houses some of the finest works of art in Australia, including The Golden Fleece - Shearing at Newstead by Tom Roberts -- the painting that marks the coming of age of Australian impressionist art -- and the Pukumani Grave Posts, which are carved by the Tiwi people of Melville Island and represent qualities of the deceased whose grave they surround.
Australia is home to some of the most interesting and unusual forms of wildlife in the world, in part because of its long isolation from other land masses. We were introduced to grey nurse sharks, stingrays, fur seals, harbor seals, sea urchins, fairy penguins, kangaroos, wallabies, common possums, black cockatoos, koalas, devil lizards, parakeets, bats, rainbow lorikeets, red kangaroos, saltwater crocodiles, parrots, thorny lizards, cassowaries, emus, wombats, dingoes, echidnas, platypuses, black swans, Tasmanian devils and kookaburras.
The highlight of the Sydney Aquarium located at Darling Harbour is a walk "on the ocean floor" passing through two floating oceanaria with 480 ft. of acrylic underwater tunnels. The seal sanctuary was also very interesting.
We spent an entire day at Sydney's Taronga Zoo. We took a ferry from Circular Quay across the harbour to Mosman, where a bus carries passengers to the top of the hill and the zoo entrance. The zoo is visited in a downhill spiral with the exit and ferry landing at the bottom of the hill. Great planning! The Taronga Zoo was the nicest, cleanest zoo we have ever seen. The San Diego Zoo could take a lesson or two from Taronga. We especially enjoyed the walk-through aviary and the giraffe area, with the views across the harbour to downtown Sydney.
Featherdale Wildlife Park is a small park in a residential section of western Sydney. It has received the NSW Excellence in Tourism Award, but because of its location, caters mainly to locals rather than tourists. It showcases Australian wildlife, and we spent one of our nicest afternoons in Sydney here. The kangaroos roam free, as do the emus and wallabies. We saw a little joey in its mother's pouch almost ready to come out. We could see the long hind legs and the long tail hanging out of the pouch, then the two short front legs, and finally a little head poked its way out to have a look at us. Then, as quickly as it happened, it all went back in! We also had our picture taken with a sleeping koala that was perched in a eucalyptus tree (koalas sleep 20 hours per day). However, we were able to stand by him and pet him (very soft fur). For an optional $1AUD donation ($.67 USD), you can take as many pictures as you want with the koala. We enjoyed this park immensely.
The Australian Wildlife Park is part of Australia's Wonderland, the previously mentioned theme park. It is located on one of Sydney's main highways, and is the wildlife park where all the "tour buses" stop. Unfortunately, it is not nearly as nice or complete as Featherdale. It costs $8AUD to have your picture taken with a koala! On the plus side, though, the main koala exhibit at the Australian Wildlife Park is exceptional. We saw little babies riding on their mother's backs, and the setting was a lovely, natural one.
Sydney's beaches are gorgeous with white sand and turquoise-blue water. Australia has the world's best surfing beaches. We visited three: Manly Beach, Palm Beach, and Stanwell Park between Sydney and Wollongong near Stanwell Tops.
Manly Beach is one of the most famous beaches in Australia. Even getting there is fun. A ferry takes you from Circular Quay to the pier at Manly in 30 minutes and is a very scenic ride. A ten-minute walk down the Corso, a quaint pedestrian-only street lined with cafes and shops, takes you right to the beach. Manly is a family friendly, popular beach and a great day out. We visited on June 21, the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere, and this was the only beach where it was warm enough to go into the water, albeit only up to our knees.
Farther along the north coast is a string of ocean beaches on a long strip of land between Pittwater and the Tasman Sea that ends at Palm Beach. About an hours drive north of Sydney, Flora and Martin dubbed this "the end of the world" and enjoyed driving back along the coast admiring the houses perched on the hillside overlooking the water.
Stanwell Tops is a small community along the beach on the drive from Sydney to Wollongong. Just south of Royal National Park, this is the most beautiful stretch of coastline between Melbourne and Cape York. Lawrence Hargrave, the predecessor of the Wright Brothers, experimented with flight at Stanwell Tops. Today, it is a hang glider's paradise with unmatched views of the beach below and the surrounding hills.
Sydney is almost completely surrounded by national parks and intact bushland where you can picnic, hike, bushwalk, windsurf, sail, surf or bird-watch. We visited Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park -- just 15 minutes north of our condo -- whose valleys were formed during the last ice age. We enjoyed bushwalking through the rainforest where we viewed Aboriginal rock engravings thought to be 2000 years old.
The Blue Mountains, so named because of the ever-present blue haze that is caused by light striking the droplets of eucalyptus oil that evaporate from the leaves of the dense surrounding forest, is an easy day trip from Sydney. The Blue Mountains are one of Australia's best-known adventure playgrounds. Rock climbing, caving, abseiling, bushwalking, horseback riding and canoeing are year-around activities. We limited our activities to bushwalking and eating (ice cream).
The most visited attraction in the Blue Mountains is the rock formation known as the Three Sisters. Aboriginal legend has it that the rock is in fact three sisters imprisoned by a witch doctor to protect them from evil. We viewed the Three Sisters from the Sublime Point Lookout in Leura.
Next, we took the Cliff Drive to Echo Point in Katoomba, where we took a bushwalk down into the Jamison Valley along the Grand Staircase for awesome views of valleys, waterfalls, cliffs and forests. We also rode the Katoomba Scenic Railway, the world's steepest incline railway, which lowers passengers 1,370 feet down into the Jamison Valley at a maximum incline of 52 degrees. Another bushwalk through forests of ancient fern trees awaited us at the bottom. Our third bushwalk of the day was the National Pass Walk, located in Wentworth Falls, where at the terminus of the walk, we were able to hear the 935-foot-high waterfall, but were unable to see it, as it was completely covered in mist.
Flora, Martin and Melanie returned to Dallas on Sunday, July 11, and Barry stayed on to work until August 26. Aside from a long weekend in Singapore, he spent his days working, shopping and photographing one of the world's most beautiful cities.
Copyright © 2000 Flora Herbert. All Rights Reserved.