When I was 19 years old, I travelled across Canada and fell in love with the city of Vancouver. It has, for over 10 years, remained my favourite city in the whole world. Until now. On my first visit to Sydney in 2012, I was travelling solo but this time, not only was I going with my partner and excited to show him my favourite places, but one of my best friends now lives there, meaning an insiders guide to the city. By the end of the week’s holiday, not only had I convinced my partner of the city’s charms, but I had sealed the love for the place which has firmly made it my new favourite city in the whole world.
We arrived on my birthday which was almost coincidental. The real reason we had booked the trip to Sydney was to see the live show of Mrs Brown’s Boys at the weekend. We decided to go a couple of days ahead, meaning no lie-in for me on my birthday. Instead, we had a ridiculously early rise to get to the airport, but the pay-off was that we arrived in Sydney still early in the morning, giving us the use of the whole day. After we hauled our bags up the many many steps from Circular Quay up into the Rocks, we reversed our route and jumped on a ferry out to Taronga Zoo. Last time I had visited, I had been blown away by the bird show and had sold it as a good enough reason to go to the zoo. Arriving in the early afternoon we wound our way through the exhibits under the blazing sunshine. Like Australia Zoo at the end of last year, I was as much (if not more so) enthused about the wild creatures flitting about, as I was about the animals in the enclosures. We were near the kookaburra enclosure when 2 wild kookaburras flew down onto the pathway, which was the closest I had ever been able to see a wild one. I felt sorry for the captive ones, as it seemed as if the wild ones were taunting the others. There was definitely a good bit of vocalisation in what was probably some territorial stand off. I continue to feel very uneasy about captive mammals performing tricks for show, but I guiltily enjoyed the seal show. All the seals they have there were injured individuals that were rehabilitated, and they do seem to enjoy themselves, but I couldn’t help but watch and have thoughts of Blackfish in the back of my mind. From there, we headed straight to the outdoor amphitheatre where the bird show is held, but when we got there, they had a sign up informing us that the afternoon show was cancelled. I was rather disappointed, as it was the main reason for coming back here, but with views over the harbour and the city skyline beyond, it was still a good trip for the afternoon. That evening, we had a wander around the Rocks, and along Circular Quay towards the Oprah House. The most amazing red sunset took place over the harbour, and we watched it until the darkness took over, before we headed back for an early night.
As an avid fan of Home & Away, it seemed only appropriate to make the long bus journey up to Palm Beach north of the city. It was a lovely, though long, drive over the harbour bridge, through the northern suburbs and up the east coast past beach after bay after beach after bay. Most people got off at the wharf on the west coast of the peninsula, but we stayed on till it crossed to the east side, getting off at the park which backs the long stretch of golden sand. There was no mistaking this place for the back drop of the fictitious Summer Bay, but it was quiet with barely a soul around and the building that plays the part of the Surf Club was shut up and empty. The beach was stunning, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. We walked from the surf club to the southern edge of the beach where there were a couple of shops and restaurants but still very few people, then headed back to the surf club again. Unsure of how to get up to the lighthouse, we decided to head back to the wharf on the western shore where there was a bit more life, although still very quiet. Unlike the surf on the eastern side, this western side was very protected and the water was lovely and clear. We waded about for a while before heading over the brow of the hill to the pier where it turned out we had missed the one and only sailing of the day. With nothing else happening, and with neither of us having swimwear with us, we decided to head back towards the city. We detoured at Manly to head to the beach, another gorgeous stretch of beach which was conversely crowded with people: sunbathing, in the water, and generally milling about the place. After lunch overlooking the beach, we did a bit of shopping in the surf shops before heading back to Circular Quay. It had been a lovely but hot day, so it was almost a relief when the clouds rolled in for the evening.
We had arranged to meet some friends in Darling Harbour, so we opted to walk from Circular Quay round the harbour, under the Harbour Bridge and round the other side. Since last time I was here, part of the walk had been removed whilst building work was going ahead. A brand new casino is in the process of being built, amongst other things, so there was plenty of activity going on. We had to skirt the building site to get back to the waterfront at Darling Harbour and we followed the harbour round, cutting up at Tumbalong Park. I had previously found Darling Harbour quite garish and brash, and hadn’t been a particular fan of the place last time. This time, it was a little different. Whilst still a bit loud and intense, it is changing quite a bit. The monorail tracks are still in the process of being removed and there is some construction work taking place to redevelop it a bit. But it was Tumbalong Park that really helped me change my mind a little. It has an amazing children’s play ground with all sorts of structures for them to play around, and climb over, as well as paddling pools and water features for them to interact with. Being a Saturday, it was absolutely mobbed, and it seemed a great place to keep the kids cool and entertained at the same time. There was plenty of eating options nearby for the parents to get a snack or drink to indulge in whilst supervising their children at play. In the green space behind there was a Thai festival taking place, with stalls serving a wide range of Thai foods, as well as tents to indulge in a Thai massage, tourism spots for Thailand, and Thai entertainers.
After a brief wander round, we cut over to Chinatown, another place I hadn’t been to last time, and we gawped at the tanks crammed full of giant crabs and lobsters on display in the windows of the restaurants. It was just a case of crossing the street to go inside Paddy’s Market, one of the largest indoor markets I have ever seen. It was huge, and the range of things on offer was immense, from clothes and toys, to jewellery and souvenirs, and fruit and veg out the back too. We spent a wee while wandering around and still didn’t cover even half of the floor space. Outside at the corner was a wee takeaway shop selling some strange concoction of green tea. The English descriptions were quite vague, with most of the writing being in Mandarin, but I joined the queue and ordered a passion fruit green tea. The tea itself was really nice, but it came with a load of weird jellied sweets at the bottom that would get sucked up the straw and give a weird taste or sensation in my mouth. Looking around, the drinks seemed really popular amongst the predominantly Asian crowd, but I was slightly put off by those jellied sweets. Cutting back through Chinatown, we returned to the Thai festival and partook in a Thai-style neck & shoulder massage whilst waiting on our friends. It was sore in a good way, and the food from the stalls that we all sat down to afterwards was delicious. It was a good way to pass a few hours.
After our friends left, we caught the ferry back to Circular Quay for a brief respite before catching another ferry up the Paramatta River to the Sydney Olympic Park. The further up river we went, the more residential the buildings became, and the Olympic Park itself was a surprisingly large area incorporating some wetlands and several walks. Towards the back of the park, there are multiple events buildings and some restaurants. The bus from the wharf took us on a rather convoluted route before we eventually jumped out near the main stadium. Mrs Brown’s Boys was playing at the Allphones Arena and I was very impressed with the whole set up of the park in general but also the building itself. The food and merchandise areas allowed a lot of people to get served at once, meaning quite an efficient service most of the time. They also allowed food into the main auditorium meaning we could sit down whilst we ate. The show itself was great. I was a little disappointed in the first half as, having watched all the series’ several times, it was just an elongated version of a couple of the episodes from the television show. Whilst padded out with plenty of humour and plenty of ad-libbing, it was hard not to feel like I knew a lot of the punch lines before they came. The second half was much better though, and when the cast came out at the end and ‘Agnes Brown’ read out some messages, it was hysterical. Just like in the television series, the actor who plays ‘Rory Brown’ can’t help himself sometimes, often bursting out laughing in anticipation of an upcoming line, and the banter between the cast with impromptu lines was hysterical.
The following day was an event that had been quite short-notice, having only found out about it within the week. We caught the train to Blacktown Station on the Blue Mountains line, and from there caught the free shuttle bus to the Sydney Motorsport Park for the Top Gear Festival. My memories of Top Gear on British television go back years, and with a rather long waiting list to be in the audience of said show, I jumped at the chance of going to the festival when I found out that both Jeremy Clarkson and James May were to be there. There was a lot going on at the festival, from stunts and racing displays on the track, to stunts to take part in, as well as stalls selling everything you could ever need for a car, and opportunities to meet drivers, as well as multiple racing car simulators. After a morning spent wandering round the stalls and looking at a lot of cars, we settled into the grandstand seats for an afternoon of stunts and action. The range of stunts was amazing, from motorbikes in mid-air to trucks driving on 2 wheels, and even the Top Gear presenters got in on things. The absolute highlights of the afternoon included Jeremy Clarkson challenging an Olympic Hurdler to a race; car football, whereby James May & Jeremy Clarkson took on the Australian Top Gear presenters at the wheel of Reliant Robins; and a car attached to a bungee cord with someone sitting at the wheel. It was a fantastic day, more than worth the entrance fee, and considering that it had been short notice, it was a major highlight of the trip.
After a long day, we took ourselves round to Chinatown where we went in search of a restaurant to have dinner. Just walking down the main street we were almost grabbed at every restaurant by one of the staff trying to tempt us in with their menu and general refusal to take no for an answer. We didn’t make it far before giving in to one determined woman, and taking a seat outside in the warm evening air. We weren’t disappointed though: the food was divine and we ate our fill heartily, watching the large crustaceans being presented to various customers at the restaurants around us. Down the street a busker was playing a lyre and on the boat back to Circular Quay, a lightning storm rolled in to the south of the city, momentarily lighting up the city skyline in a beautiful purple glow. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic day.
The next day brought clear blue skies, and a return trip to Manly in the morning which gave fantastic views over the city, the harbour and the Tasman Sea beyond. Back in the city, we jumped on a bus to Bondi, a place I had seen through the rain on my last trip. On this day, it was hot, sunny and the beach and surrounding streets full of eateries and shops were packed. Lunch was enjoyed on a grassy hill behind the beach, people watching those around us whilst trying to fend off the swarm of seagulls that threatened to ruin our enjoyment. Eventually we took to the promenade and wandered along the beachfront before hooking up with the coastal walk south to Coogee. It was a popular walk, and I could see why. On such a beautiful day, there were cracking views north and south along the dramatic coastline, but round every bay was another inlet with another beach offering a multitude of choice for sunbathing, swimming and surfing. Each little bay was beautiful in its own way, and after an hour of snaking round the rugged coastline, we came across Coogee. Coogee was just as gorgeous as Bondi was and nearly as busy, and after all the walking in the heat, the iced coffee from the cafe across the road was well earned and well received. Catching a bus back into the city centre, we retrieved our bags and caught the train to Redfern where my friends live. From the balcony of their flat they have an awesome view back towards the city centre, and I am more than a little jealous that they get to live in this incredible city. It was great to get a local’s perspective of the place, and with them having previously lived in neighbouring Newtown, we headed there for dinner where there was lots of choice for food and drinks.
Our last full day was a long one. Getting up early, we caught the Blue Mountains train to Wentworth Falls, the location of my favourite of the 3 walks I did in the region. I had talked this trip up to my partner for months and was determined to show him why I loved it there. After nearly 2 hrs, we stumbled off the train with a few other groups of walkers and jostled with them on the way to the park and on the Charles Darwin walk through the forest. We had been told about a flash storm that had hit the region not long before we arrived in the country but the water level in the river was less than when I had been there in September 2012. It was still a beautiful walk along the riverside, past several waterfalls until we came out at Wentworth Falls and that oh-so-familiar view of the expanse of the Blue Mountains. Like last time, there was a crowd of people at the top of the falls, and the various view points on the way down the steep staircases to the side of the falls, down the canyon wall. Upon reaching the ledge of the National Pass, the crowds thinned out, with many people going no further and heading back up the stairs.
The path passes under the top section of the falls, and above the bottom section, and from here onwards, we had the path mainly to our selves. Hugging the natural cliff ledge, we walked under dripping overhangs and across stepping stones with loud cockatiels flitting amongst the branches of the thick vegetation. At the far end, we stopped for lunch before heading up the many steps past a couple of waterfalls back up to the top of the canyon, and up to the cafe for a rest stop. The Overcliff track back to the starting point of the hike was closed due to storm damage, so we had to take a detour which shortened the return leg dramatically. We managed to cut back to the cliff edge for the Undercliff track which gave us a higher view of Wentworth Falls and a last sighting of the expanse of the Blue Mountains before heading back up Darwin’s walk to catch the train back to the city.
Our flight home the next day was in the evening which gave us some time to have a leisurely breakfast with our friend in Newtown before catching the ferry out to Watson’s Bay to meet up with another friend for lunch. We went to the famous Watson’s Bay hotel by the waterfront which was surprisingly busy on a week day. Still stuffed from a late breakfast, we forced down some fish & chips, then went for a walk over to the ocean where the waves of the Tasman Sea pound against the cliff edges. It is a beautiful and dramatic coastline but the renovations to pull back the barrier, the security cameras that had been installed, and the various signs for the suicide hotlines (all of which were new since my previous visit) drew attention to the darker side of these cliffs. None-the-less, we vowed to walk from the heads all the way down to Coogee if we were to come back again. Sydney’s charms had worked their magic on my partner and he is as in love with the place as I am. It was with sadness that we caught the ferry back to Circular Quay. We could see smoke arising from behind the city, and we discovered later that part of the new casino under construction at Darling Harbour had caught fire. We collected our bags and headed to the airport, but before our plane had even taken off from the tarmac, we were well under way with making plans to return.