Back in the day , when I used to follow Sheffield Shield cricket, I used to root for Victoria and Queensland , not New South Wales the perennial front-runners and frequent champions. Thus , I was prejudiced against Sydney ( the capital of NSW) and ready to believe it was second best to Melbourne ( the capital of Victoria).
The ride from Sydney airport to our hotel did nothing to change my mind . We passed through some seedy areas and Sydney seemed much busier and more crowded than Melbourne. However. three days in Sydney saw me make a complete about-face as I found it different but equally attractive.
Our hotel was on Harbour Street at the edge of Chinatown and , after we had unpacked and freshened up we walked to nearby Darling Harbor. Our route took us past the Chinese Friendship Garden and an open area where fountains and water cascades provided a tranquil counterpoint to the surrounding cityscape. Emerging near the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre , we strolled around Darling Harbor marvelling at the architecture. The Star City casino held no attractions for us and neither did the Harbourside Complex . We walked all around the bay before settling on the Coast restaurant for dinner. It was a mistake as the Coast managed to be hoity-toity, expensive and dilatory.Afterwards we strolled to a nearby gelateria where I had the mango – passion fruit gelato.(Passion fruit is more popular in Australia in than any other place I’ve been to.) Sitting on benches by the quayside , we happily devoured our gelatos while all around us strolled young couples and office workers released from their drudgery. In the background were the skyscrapers of the City Centre , their neon signs proclaiming heavyweights such as Ernest & Young and Sony.
Next morning , we were scheduled to take the Sydney Harbor Luncheon Cruise so we retraced our steps to Darling Harbor , then walked past Pyrmont Bridge all the way to Circular Quay. Our boat ( Captain Cook’s Harbor Cruises) was to leave from Quay 5 at 12 noon so we waited around, observing the crowds. On the stroke of 12 we boarded the boat and proceeded to the dining room on the top deck where we were served a sumptuous meal which I washed down with an excellent English -style summer beer.Then we quickly went out on deck to drink in the sights , chief among them the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House.
The Harbor Bridge ( affectionately nicknamed ” The Old Coathanger) is neither as technologically advanced nor as historically important as the Brooklyn Bridge and it was constructed almost 50 years after the latter. I was at a loss to understand why it has become such an icon to Sydneysiders. The view from the deck cleared up my questions. Unlike the Brooklyn Bridge whose ends disappear among the buildings on either bank , the Harbor Bridge can be seen in its entirety. Viewed from the bay , its central span pleasingly frames the skyscrapers of the CBD. There is a “cleanness” about the view that is most attractive. Our boat looped around the bay giving us an opportunity to admire not only the bridge but also Circular Quay , the Governor’s Mansion at Kirribili , a very private wharfside development where Nicole Kidman has a spread and , of course , the Sydney Opera House which we were to visit in the afternoon. The Opera House was amazing , looking different from different angles and beautiful from all of them.
What took us by surprise was the sheer size of the structure . From the water , the Opera House had looked large but , as we walked towards it from Circular Quay , it looked larger and larger. Close-up , it was humongous.It has a fascinating history ( you can read up on it elsewhere) but it is also a marvel of engineering/architecture besides being beautiful inside and out. Our guide was a bubbly young woman named Melanie whose enthusiasm for her work was palpable as she guided us on the walking tour.. We saw three of the many concert halls ; their design, decor and attention to decor were mind-blowing . After the tour we were able to understand why the Opera House is considered one of the modern Wonders of the World.
We walked back to Circular Quay and took the Ferry back to Darling Harbor and our hotel. All around us were hordes of officegoers and I wondered how they could afford to take the ferry to work each day ( one-way fare is AUS $ 7). When traveling abroad , one of my favorite diversions is to imagine what it might be like to live there and what life -style an average salary might afford . I’m never able to get a clear picture because we have certain expenses that the natives don’t and vice – versa.
That night we dined at the Red Chili Sichuan Restaurant , a block away from our hotel . The food was very authentic and very good , though the Hotpot was marred by too liberal a use of Sichuan pepper. ( See my earlier post , A Foodie travels Down Under).
Next morning we were to take an all -day bus trip to the Blue Mountains and the bus picked us up at 7: 00 AM at our hotel. The bus meandered through the city , picking up other tourists from their hotels and we got an intimate glimpse of Sydney on a workday morning. Unlike Melbourne which is much more laid back , Sydney is all business and bustle. If Melbourne is Washington D.C, then Sydney is New York City.
As we exited the city , we passed the Sydney Olympic Park and our coach driver , Steve, noticing a racing scull skimming over the water, joked ‘ Look , there goes the Irish rowing team . They came here for the Olympics in 2000 and they have been lost ever since.”
Our first stop was at the Featherdale Wildlife Park in Doonside. Here we were able to see many animals native to Australia … koalas , kangaroos , wallabies , cassowaries , emus ,dingoes , a Tasmanian Devil , a goanna and an estuarine crocodile along with dozens of different birds. This was the most comprehensive wildlife collection that we were to see on our trip. There were more koalas here than in the Koala Conservation Centre we’d been to on our way to Philip Island and tourists were even able to pet them while posing for photographs. One of them gave us a start when he jumped from a tree onto the fence. The kangaroos and wallabies roamed around the park freely, mooching food from visitors . Food pellets in cups could be purchased for $ 1 each and the kangaroos seemed to like the waffle cups more than the pellets, using their front paws to hold the cup in place and then tearing it apart with their teeth.
Crocodile feeding time was at 10:15 and we watched in horrified fascination as a park ranger , Joe , aroused the 20 foot beast from its torpor by dangling a rabbit carcass just out of reach . After a couple of feints , the crocodile , Nuka , launched itself 3/4ths its body length out of the water and devoured the carcass with one mighty snap of its jaws. No wonder these crocodiles are so feared .Joe said that when they let a female crocodile into Nuka’s pen, Nuka killed and ate her. This happened not once, but twice ,and so Nuka lives a solitary life.
Our next stop was the picturesque village of Leura , 65 miles from Sydney . We strolled its streets admiring the beautifully laid out gardens and the charming little houses before repairing to a café for meat pies , pastries and tea. Refreshed, we pushed on to our final stop Katoomba in the heart of the Blue Mountains.At Scenic World we got combo tickets for the Scenic Railway and the Skyway. The Scenic Railway really a funicular ( or inclined plane ) drops passengers 415 meters ( 1360 feet ) to the Jamison Valley . With an incline of 52 degrees it’s the steepest such ride in the world. At the valley floor we walked through the dense rainforest and peered at the long abandoned coal mines and diggings before taking the Skyway to the visitor’s center. The guide books make much of the Three Sisters , three rock spires very close together . According to legend , there were three beautiful Aborigine sisters who fell in love with three brothers from an enemy tribe . The enmity between the tribes led to war and , in order to protect the sisters a witch doctor turned them into stone . Unfortunately, he was killed in the ensuing fighting and was unable to turn them back into humans .It was our bad luck that it was a cold and rainy day and the fog was so thick that we caught nary a glimpse of the Three Sisters even though we passed very close to them in our glass sided gondola.
On our way back to Sydney , we stopped by the Olympic Park complex while the driver told us some of its history.It really is magnificent and I wish we’d had time to tour it properly. Back at the hotel , we relaxed a little then went shopping for necessaries at the Mall across the Street. That night we ate one of the Chinese restaurants on Dixon Street but the food was just so-so.
That was the end of our stay in Australia . On the morrow we were to leave for New Zealand .