AUSTRALIA: A Week in Sydney
Why, yes, I think I will join my husband for a week in Sydney! God bless my brother-in-law for holding down our two-kid fort so I can wander once more.
DAY 1—Flight to Sydney
One of the countless reasons I am so passionate about travel is that you always come back a tad wiser. For instance, had I not wandered to Sydney, I might have gone my entire life thinking that “ETA” had no other meaning than “Estimated Time of Arrival.” Oh, how wrong I was.
We arrived at San Diego International Airport in the late afternoon, ready to cross the International Date Line and go Down Under for a week. Having gained much wisdom on previous trips, I don’t fully trust airlines so I approached the Delta check-in counter more than a little concerned about our inability to check in online 24 hours ago or at the self check-in kiosk right behind us.
I became officially worried when our agent summoned her co-worker and said eight frightening words…
“Hey, what’s this? I’ve never seen it before.”
I’m not one to freak out, so I took a deep breath and kept my mouth shut. It took two more agents to solve the mystery.
I accept that we, the travelers, are ultimately responsible for knowing what is required to enter a foreign country. But, in this computerized day and age, it would certainly help a lot of people to have a little message pop up when you book your ticket if a special Visa is required to actually fly to your destination.
If you’re wandering to Australia, let this be your pop up—YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO CHECK IN WITHOUT A VISA.
I looked at my husband with mounting panic. It only partially subsided when one of the agents said they were pretty sure the Visas were granted immediately online.
We bolted to the nearest empty seat and whipped out my laptop. Ten minutes later, I was of the opinion that the internet and Google are just behind fire and the wheel when ranking man’s greatest inventions.
Okay, so “immediate” was not quite accurate.
Although we received notice within 10 minutes that our Visas had been granted, no such indication reached Delta’s system as promised. Thankfully, our agent allowed us to board our flight to Los Angeles with a sincere promise that by the time we arrived, this issue would be resolved and we would make it to Sydney. I had no choice, but to trust her.
My first bit of wisdom gained on this trip: If you’re traveling to Australia, the most applicable meaning of “ETA” is “Electronic Travel Authority.” It costs $40 and should be purchased BEFORE you arrive at the check in counter.
TIP: Make sure you get your ETA (Electronic Travel Authority) documentation BEFORE you head to the airport.
Our direct flight from Los Angeles to Sydney left at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday night and was scheduled to arrive at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday morning. One day gone…poof…only to be regained when we re-crossed the International Date Line on our way home. As soon as we buckled our seat belts, I popped an Excedrin PM and willed that the window seat next to me would remain passenger-less. It worked.
When the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign lit up, I flipped up both of our armrests, stretched out, and passed out. When I came out to, my husband told me that I had managed to sleep more than 10 of the 14-1/2 hour flight. Like a pro.
DAY 2—The Rocks & Bondi Beach
As I waited in line at the Australian Customs Desk, I noticed the agent asking the same questions over and over and over, opening and stamping passports in a semi-conscious state. I could not let this be. When I made eye contact, I smiled big and offered him an authentically cheery “Hello.” He actually flinched and then gave me two gifts— a genuine smile and my very first “G’day Mate!”
We walked into the lobby of our hotel at 10:30 a.m. Hotel Amora is in the middle of downtown Sydney where most of my husband’s business meetings would be held. Let’s just say, when we’re paying the bill, no one holds our door open or rushes to grab our bags.
Almost as soon as the two doormen opened the doors to let us in, they had to re-open them to let us out—we were hungry and itching to take advantage of my husband’s only day off.
First stop—The Rocks. This quaint area of downtown Sydney is the perfect blend of old and new. Australia’s indigenous people lived here for thousands of years until the first British convicts arrived in 1788, and developed it into a vibrant port community. Now, it’s an active hub filled with both locals and tourists. On the weekends, there is a street market with artisan’s selling aboriginal art, textiles, jewelry, unique clothing, and much more.
TIP: If at all possible, do NOT miss Sydney’s weekly market in The Rocks!
When we could no longer ignore our growling stomachs, we wandered into the unassuming Swagman’s Post Courtyard Cafe with low expectations. Rarely are restaurants smack in the heart of the tourist district very good. The cozy courtyard, Pumpkin & Beet Salad, Thai Beef Salad, and “spot of tea” proved us wrong.
Second stop—Bondi Beach. We paid a wad to our taxi driver to get us here, but the education we got was worth every Australian penny. (We now know that many of the hard-working citizens of Australia are as frustrated as those in the U.S. about dishonest politicians and welfare fraud.)
Bondi Beach is a world famous beach. According to the Bondi Beach website, “Bondi” (or “Boondi”) is an aboriginal word that translates roughly to “noise of water breaking over rocks.” In the mid-1800‘s, Francis O’Brien originally made the beach and surrounding environs available to the public as pleasure resort, but wavered on this stance until the government made it officially public in mid-1882.
For those who know California and French beaches, I’d describe Bondi as a blend of Santa Cruz, Ocean Beach, La Jolla and the French Riviera. This is THE place to people watch—especially surfers and Australian lifeguards.
A walk along the coastal path to Mackenzies Bay is a MUST. Just remember, Australia is a former British colony so walk on the British side of the path!
Aching feet and jet lag kept us in the hotel for dinner. By the end of our average meal, I begged our server for the check to avoid the embarrassment of falling asleep in the booth. Back at the room, we proactively popped more Excedrin PM and passed out.
DAY 3—Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb
Every morning for the next five days, we took the lift up to the 31st floor to be pampered by Wina, a friendly young Indonesian woman who ran the place during the work week. Vanilla yogurt, fresh fruit (including puréed passion fruit), poached or scrambled eggs, and quality tea and coffee was served along with friendly conversation and stunning views. It was a fabulous way to begin each day.
I’ve decided on a daily routine for the week. After breakfast with Wina, I will kiss my husband goodbye and head back to the room to upload the previous day’s pictures to Facebook and check-in with the kids. Then, it’s out to explore Sydney on foot until I reunite with my husband in the late afternoon.
Today I went back to The Rocks, then wandered over to Circular Quay (the central harbour and transportation hub) until it was time for my Bridge Climb adventure. At 1:30 p.m., I would begin my ascent of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Discovery Climb, to be specific—supposedly the most adventurous climb and the favorite of the guides.
Designed by Dr. JJC Bradfield, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was constructed between 1923 and 1932. The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the widest long span bridge in the world (at 151.3 feet) and, until 1967, it was Sydney’s tallest structure. I would be climbing to the very top (1,650 feet).
When I entered the Bridge Climb waiting area and encountered an elderly couple and several tourists who looked far from adventurous, I suspected that I may have been the victim of some PR hype. Several minutes later, a girl materialized and called for everyone on the 1:30 Discovery Climb to join her in the adjacent room.
I was the only one who stood up—she was as surprised as I was. My good travel karma struck again. I would be getting a private Bridge Climb!
After signing away my rights and getting dressed in a baggy coverall, I met up with my guide, Mick. He was marveling—and as thrilled as I was. This was only the second time in three years he had a solitary climber and he assured me that we would be getting to know each other—and Sydney—very well in the next three hours.
In fact, we ended up having so much extra time, that we sat on top of the bridge for a half hour and soaked up the views. Even if you are one of 14, this is an awesome way to get an overview of the city! And, it was a BIG city—according to Mick, the second largest in the world in physical size (50th in population).
When I met up with my husband later in the afternoon, we walked through Circular Quay and marveled at the Sydney Opera House from every possible angle.
Designed by Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, between 1957 and 1973, this architectural wonder went “slightly” over budget. According to Mick, about $113 million over. Tempers ran so high that the architect quit midway through construction and never saw his work of art completed before he died in 2008. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, and is Sydney’s shining star.
We ended up at the highly recommended Sailor’s Thai restaurant. Pretty sure this was the best Thai meal I’ve had to date. Three words—Spicy Rice Balls!
As we walked back home through The Rocks, a HUGE screeching bat swooped up and down above my head. What the heck???
DAY 4—Sydney Fish Market & Chinese Friendship Garden
Today my husband had an extra long lunch break so, of course, I wanted to have an adventure. I took Mick’s recommendation and hailed a taxi to Sydney’s Fish Market for a lunch to remember.
A bustling building jammed with vendors selling raw and cooked seafood, there were no fancy table clothes or waiter service here (except for Doyle’s)—just paper plates, plastic table ware, indoor or outdoor seating, and the freshest of seafood.
I don’t think we picked the best place to buy our lunch, but I still enjoyed my half lobster, salad and “chips” (for $18.50) and my husband loved his swordfish filet ($9.00). Next time, I’ll follow the crowd to vendor with the longest line.
After lunch, my husband and I went in separate directions…him to more business meetings and me to the Chinese Friendship Garden and China Town. I wandered around the garden (a good deal for only $6.00), then around the corner to China Town.
I think if I would have done some research, I wouldn’t have been both under- and overwhelmed by this place. The single pedestrian-only street was crammed with restaurants hawking their “yum cha” (AKA “dim sum”) and modern shops selling more than my eyes could focus on—probably because I was blinded by all the neon, which killed any historical aura. I lasted 15 minutes before hailing a taxi back to Amora.
At the end of the work day, we joined the mobs of people getting off work in and around Marshall Square. I was transported back to Ladurée in Paris courtesy of Lindt’s where we ate authentic macarons (or “delices” as they were known here) and sipped on perfect café mochas.
Both Mick and my husband’s business associate recommended a restaurant on Sydney Harbour called Wildfire. Although we thoroughly enjoyed chargrilled Balmain Bugs (similar to lobster), Crab Risotto, and Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms, we both agreed that it was a tiny bit overrated and a lot overpriced.
No bats on tonight’s walk home, but thanks to an insightful conversation with our server, I have a feeling I will see quite a few tomorrow.
DAY 5—Sydney Botanic Garden
Today my destination was The Royal Botanic Garden. I was here to find some bats. Our server at Wildfire, a fellow American from Texas, lit up when he told us about his first trip into the gardens to see the fruit bats. If not for him, I would have skipped the garden and missed one of the best attractions Sydney has to offer.
The Botanic Garden was established in 1816. I have to say…“Garden” does not adequately describe this place.
As I was snapping some pictures of old headstones scattered about a small lawn just outside the garden gates, an Australian woman offered to take my photo. When she sensed that I didn’t know much about where I was, she led me to a flock of wild cockatoos eating their midday meal under a massive tree. Wow!
She then took me to Sydney’s Music Conservatorium to see if I could catch the free concert of the day, but I was antsy to photograph cockatoos and bats so no concert for me.
After snapping a couple hundred shots of cockatoos, I went to find the bats.
I walked…and walked…and walked…until blisters erupted on my weary feet. I was considering surrender when I spotted a man on a nearby bench. When I asked him if he could point me in the direction of the bats, he looked flabbergasted and said “Bats? I’ve never seen any bats in the park.”
I didn’t buy it. I kept walking. And, then I heard it—loud screeches coming from high up in the trees. My search was over.
There were thousands of them. Everywhere.
After a long photography session, my feet demanded a respite. I took off my shoes and headed for the nearest shade with my book…right next to a pond full of eels. Behind me were two white ibises. This place was astounding.
On my way out of the park, my eyes were glued to the treetops. I found another bat tree, and another—I stopped counting at 20. I laughed wondering if the old guy on the bench was messing with me or seriously clueless.
It turns out I was actually gaping at Grey Flying Foxes. Unfortunately, their numbers were killing the trees. Council was taking humane measures to discourage them from roosting here to keep nature in balance. I wonder how that’s going for them.
TIP: Do NOT give up until you find the bats in the Royal Botanic Garden (if they haven’t been banished yet)!
My walk back to the hotel was a lesson in pain, but there’s nothing like a few Band-Aids and a different pair of shoes to revitalize this wandering housewife.
Tonight we would be dining with business associates at a restaurant called Otto. It was barramundi for me…served in the company of Aussies along the waterfront with views of downtown. We had the taxi drop us off in The Rocks to soak up a little St. Paddy Day spirit on our walk home—the glowing Opera House did not disappoint.
TIP: Sydney is a very walkable city. Don’t blow it by choosing beauty over comfort when you’re packing your shoes.
DAY 6—Manly Beach
With my husband heading to Melbourne for the day, I decided to venture out of the city to Manly Beach. I hopped on the ferry at Circular Quay with my bathing suit, a beach towel, a bottle of sunscreen, my book and camera in hand. I was hoping the name of the beach was accurate.
I took Mick’s advice and headed for the back of the ferry so I could see—and photograph—the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and downtown Sydney from a perfect vantage point. About 20 minutes later, I walked onto Manly Wharf and followed the crowds to the beach.
I was bombarded with neon signs over rows of tourist shops selling cheap souvenirs. All the food seemed to be deep fried. I descended the giant concrete steps to an huge white sand beach and a turquoise ocean. The people watching opportunities were boundless.
Rather than eat on the main drag, I asked a local surfer where to go. He sent me to Manly Cafe on a side street where I ended up eating the best lunch of the trip—piping hot fish & chips and Fanta soda.
TIP: Our favorite meals were the cheapest ones. Ask the locals where their favorite cheap eats are.
DAY 7—Sydney Market & Darling Harbour
On the last day of our week in Sydney, we came full circle to the weekly market and were thrilled to find a Japanese vendor frying up some okonomiyaki (the Japanese version of pizza). I took my plate down to Circular Quay for the best seat in the house.
After lunch, I explored every nook and cranny in and around the Bridge and The Rocks. My reward was one of the most unusual stores I’ve ever visited.
Inside a courtyard and down a small staircase, I wandered into a puppet maker’s shop packed with hundreds of marionettes, sitting on shelves and hanging from the ceiling. Another traveler took the words right out of my mouth—”I would NOT want to be here after dark!”
The ferry ride over there was a visual treat with the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Downtown, and Luna Park (a mini-Coney Island) all glowing in a variety of vibrant colors. There was even a live projection on the Opera House roof.
About 30 minutes later, we pulled up to Darling Harbour and went in search of our restaurant. I ordered kangaroo with tomato relish, balsamic reduction, and smashed potatoes from a hunk of an Aussie server. No need for the American cows to get hopeful…I don’t think kangaroo will be catching on in the U.S. anytime soon.
My week in Sydney was packed with glorious mini-connections and memorable experiences. I hope to return to Australia and wander beyond the borders of Sydney to the Blue Mountains to Melbourne to confirm or deny that it’s even better than Sydney.