Sydney is the last stop on my Australian adventure. I’ll spend a few days here before boarding a cruise ship for a two week tour of New Zealand, and then I will fly away from this marvelous place. It seems centuries since I came into the country at Darwin and yet the time has flown by. I feel uncomfortably close to the the end of my time here. I’m not ready to leave Australia. Okay. Enough whining. I have lots to do in Sydney!
This city isn’t much larger than Melbourne in terms of population – about 4.6 million – but the fact that it’s clustered around a gorgeous harbor, and out along peninsulas, jetties and bays makes it feel much more dense and very bustling. I was pretty pleased with myself to have navigated the train system from Sydney Airport to the vicinity of my B&B but it was downhill from there. I got hopelessly lost, logging what felt like ten miles with my suitcase and carry-all before finally hailing a cab. I’m pretty good about asking directions but it seemed each person I asked sent me in a different direction, including one gem of advice to ‘head for the Coke sign’. Right. More on that later.
Months ago, as I put the initial plans together I decided that if I was going to Sydney then I wanted to experience the Opera House and not just see it. So I purchased a ticket for my first night in town to hear Vladimir Ashkenazy conduct the Sydney Symphony Orchestra playing ‘Russian Masters‘ – Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky – in the big concert hall. Arriving at the Opera House gave me my first view of the Sydney Harbor Bridge – a feature that would gain prominence within a few days as the scene of one of my greatest adventures.
The Sydney Opera House was designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon and was completed amid considerable controversy in 1973. The acrimony between Utzon and the Australian government of the day over the design of the Opera House ultimately resulted in Utzon resigning from the project, famously referring to the whole episode as ‘Malice in Blunderland’. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the government reconciled with Utzon so he could be consulted on upgrades to the structure.
Just over a million of these Swedish-made tiles are installed over pre-cast concrete forms to give the Opera House it’s ‘white sails’ look.
I sat in on the pre-concert chat and was happy to have some background on the music we would hear. I love going to the symphony anywhere but I’m no aficionado so I try to arrive early enough to take these in. This space was familiar to me from a reception I attended here in the late 1980’s at a conference hosted by SAFECO Insurance for about a thousand of their top brokers in North America. It was wonderful to be back here in an unofficial capacity.
The concert was preceded with stern warnings about not taking photos in the concert hall, so this was taken surrepticiously as the orchestra was taking it’s place for the second half. The Grand Organ in the Opera House is the largest mechanical-track pipe organ in the world so I was thrilled to see an organist take his place in the tiny cubicle for the second half of the concert. He sits in his little box, high above the orchestra and follows the conductor on video monitors. I watched expectantly through the entire Tchaikovsky piece for any movement from the organist but he sat so perfectly still that, had I not actually seen him take his seat up there I would have wondered if he was a real person at all. And then, in the final few bars of the Manfred Symphony I felt, more than heard the first rumbling tones and then I cried as great waves of sound rolled out over the audience and every musician in the orchestra strained to give it their all in a massive crescendo. I cannot imagine a finer moment. By the time I gathered myself together I was the last remaining soul in this remarkable space. What a night.
And then I was off, still reveling in the glory of the evening, to Simpson’s of Potts Point, my elegant B&B in a delightful area chock full of unique shops, trendy sidewalk cafes and exclusive restaurants. B&B’s are a great way to travel solo as there are lots of opportunities to connect with people and share experiences. Breakfast at Simpson’s is always an event, with hosts Ree and Keith bustling between guests to ensure that everyone has directions and advice. I felt completely spoiled here. It was Ree who first planted the thought that my upcoming cruise to New Zealand might be on “the largest cruise ship to ever come into Australia”. News of it’s impending arrival had apparently been in the newspapers but she could not recall the name of the ship. In any event I assured her that it was unlikely that I would be on that ship. I had been assured by my booking agent that it would be an intimate ship and a marvelous experience.
Victorian style row-houses along Challis Avenue in Pott’s Point. I have tons ‘o respect for the folks of this neighborhood, who collectively fought the establishment to prevent the move to higher density housing that would have seen much of this vintage architecture disappear.
Back to ‘the Coke sign’. I knew my accommodation was in the vicinity of King’s Cross and as it turns out the most prominent feature of King’s Cross is…the Coke sign. This is the largest billboard in the Southern Hemisphere and anchors an area roughly synonymous with Time’s Square. King’s Cross borders Pott’s Point but with a very different…clientele. While Pott’s is a gentrified working class neighborhood, King’s Cross is notorious for the other kind of working girl. I wandered through looking for a good pub one evening and it was…educational.
This is the Finger Wharf at Woolloomooloo Bay. ‘Woolloomooloo’ is Aboriginal for baby kangaroo. The largest timber-piered structure of it’s kind in the world, Finger Wharf was to have been demolished for re-development until locals blocked it. Now fully restored it’s home to several fine restaurants and, more notably to Russell Crowe.
I’m fortunate to count some Aussie’s as friends and was very pleased by an offer from my friend, Dani to show me around Sydney. A stop at a fabulous Aussie coffee shop was a must, particularly as Dani was curious to see how their best cup stacks up to Starbucks – my usual. They have their own style of coffee culture here – it’s a social event (I actually thought I should wear a hat and gloves) and people will drive across town to get just the right cuppa. Happily for me the right cup was had in a neighborhood called Cremore, and not only was it the best latte I have ever tasted but we got to return to downtown Sydney on the Neutral Bay ferry. It was a gorgeous day to be on the water.
Coming out of Neutral Bay. Bondi Beach is on the other side of the peninsula over the horizon.
I loved almost running into this little wooden sailing craft with it’s crew in matching shirts.
Now this is a boat of another kind. The little building next to the massive cruise ship is the Sydney Opera House. And the ship, as it turns out is Royal Caribbean’s ‘Voyager of the Seas’, the largest ever to come into an Australian port and, more importantly this is the intimate, little boat that I am booked on to cruise to New Zealand at the end of the week. More on that later.
Circular Quay is the main ferry terminal where all the local ferries go in and out. Ferries are an important part of the daily commute here.
George Street runs through downtown, parallel to the waterfront. Great shopping here and a goodly number of exceptional pubs. I tried out as many as I could.
There are tons and tons of references to Britain here with lots of place names duplicated. This is Hyde Park and a bit of the Sydney skyline.
There are a number of harbors in Sydney proper, this is Darling Harbor which is a nice tourist area of hotels, restaurants and a harbor walk.
Sydney Harbor Bridge from The Rocks, a heritage area that sits at the base of the bridge along the waterfront. This was one of the early settlements in Australia. You might be able to make out a group of bridge climbers just coming up to the rise of the bridge on the left side of the photo. This writing technique is called foreshadowing.
The Overseas Passenger Terminal, where the cruise ships dock is at the foot of The Rocks so I spent quite a bit of time wandering the shops and checking out the pubs. I know, it’s a recurring theme. Close to a million cruise ship passengers pass through this area annually.
This outdoor market seems to be a daily event.
I was quite happy to conform to cultural norms in Australia, which meant that by four o’clock or so in the afternoon I generally migrated to the nearest watering hole for a ‘pot’. Fortunately one was never very far away. I loved this spot on George Street and felt a real kinship to the place. I had my four o’clock here a few days in a row. There’s just something about it that made me feel at home. 🙂
The tree outside an art school near The Rocks caught my attention for it’s cascades of lucious greenery. On closer inspection it’s more clever than I thought – it’s both supported and watered by the PVC system and the whole thing is cleverly decorated with pot scrubbers.
I saw troops of uniformed school children everywhere. I guess it’s just a lot easier to organize a field trip when it isn’t pouring rain or blizzarding. The most important element of all school uniforms here is a hat, often with a flap down the back of the neck.
More heritage buildings in The Rocks.
My last morning in Sydney was spent at gorgeous Bondi Beach. This is the quintessential Australian surfer beach complete with lifesaving teams. My Aussie friend and I had a sumptuous brunch at Trio along the esplanade that borders the beach, and then we walked from one end of the beach to the other. I could not wait to kick my sandals off and feel the fine, hot sand between my toes.
Members of the Bondi Surf Club – the oldest surf lifesaving club in the world. Kids as young as five years old join the Bondi Surf Club as ‘Nippers’.
In the hour or so that it took us to stroll along the beach it got very busy. Lifesaving in this crowd is surely a challenge.
I would have liked nothing better than to run and dive into this lovely, warm water but I had dressed for brunch so I had to be content with this wee splash.
It’s my last night in Australia. I’ve had the time of my life here and while I’m looking forward to seeing New Zealand I really, really don’t want to leave here. Sydney has been brilliant. So what will I do to make this night memorable? How about climbing over the Sydney Harbor Bridge?
Actually, this was my Aussie friend, Dani’s idea. When she heard I was coming to Australia it was the first thought she had. I seemed like someone she could do something crazy with, and so we climbed the bridge.
The Bridge Climb is an amazing production. We met at the appointed time, in a large space under the south end of the bridge and then went through outfitting and an orientation that took at least an hour before we ever set foot on the bridge proper. We were given jump suits that were designed so that everything we would take up with us would be fastened on. Great care is taken to ensure that nothing can fall off a climber into traffic on the bridge deck below us and that meant no cameras or anything else loose. Our glasses, hats, radio receivers, jackets, headlamps and even a reusable handkerchief were hooked onto plastic loops on our suits. Not even a hair clip was allowed. Once completely geared up we had an orientation on a mock-up of a bridge segment so everyone would know how to ascend and descend the steepest parts of the climb. Every precaution is taken to make sure no one freaks out mid-climb.
‘Climb’ is a bit of a misnomer. The ascent is a pretty gradual walk up, except for one place where you literally climb up ladder-like stairs in between lanes of fast moving traffic on the bridge deck. And in one spot on the descent we were actually climbing down alongside a clattering train that runs over the bridge. So it’s definitely not for the faint-of-heart but it was not as strenuous as I expected. Here is our cheerful group at the top of the arc.
My Aussie host, Dani just approaching the top with the Opera House, Circular Quay and Voyager of the Seas behind her.
When you book the Bridge Climb there are different rates, depending on the time of day. We paid a little bit more to be able to do the climb at a time when we would ascend in daylight, see this stunning sunset and then descend in the dark, using headlamps. It was awesome and well worth the extra few dollars. And awesome.
It’s been several weeks since I did the Bridge Climb and I am still dazzled by the fact that I actually stood atop the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and by the fact that a minute fraction of a percentage of the world’s population will ever do that. The cost of admission was a little under three hundred dollars but the experience was easily worth a million dollars.
I took this shot of the bridge from the Voyager of the Seas as we departed for New Zealand. The screening hanging from the middle of the bridge is infrastructure for the spectacular display of fireworks that will go off as Sydney welcomes in the New Year. No matter where I am I’ll be watching. It will never seem the same again.