THE Mississippi paddle boat steamed past the Opera House and under the arch of Sydney Harbour Bridge. As I watched it, I imagined an on-board casino, waitresses dishing up booze and bravado to punters with money to burn, nimble fingers dealing cards and, somewhere, a honky-tonk piano rippling out zany, flyaway tunes.
Incongruous? Sure. But, on photogenic Sydney Harbour anything goes: kayaks, ferries, speed boats, yachts, four-masted schooners, Australian Navy vessels, water-cops, luxury liners, tug boats, water taxis and swimmers, not to mention sharks and jelly fish – somebody has to poop the party. The only things banned from the harbour frolics it seemed were jet-skis; don’t ask me why.
Out on the water, you could have breakfast, lunch or a five-course gourmet dinner while gliding serenely past tree-covered headlands, golden beaches and bijou islands (there are six of them open to visitors). Hen and stag parties, making whoopee, flying their banners and balloons, scribbled wakes across the waves. And of course, there were fireworks – not just to herald New Year, to mark festivals, signal national celebrations, but just for the hell of it.
My wife and I watched these dramas (including the rescue of a bride from a sinking launch), all from the panoramic windows of our Harbour-side apartment (costing us less per night than the average downtown hotel room).
A regular ferry serviced the wharf just below our block at McMahons Point. In ten minutes we could stop off at Darling Harbour to visit the Maritime Museum, Sydney Aquarium, Sydney Wildlife World, Chinatown, packed with its fabric shops and restaurants, and Paddy’s Markets (a hub of activity for browsers from Thursdays to Sundays). Conversely, in seven minutes, heading east, the ferry dropped us at Milsons Point (for Luna Park Funfair, Sydney’s legendary 1930s theme park), or Circular Quay, flanked by the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, the transport hub for the city.
Each morning at breakfast I watched as tourists scaled the famous “Coathanger Bridge”. I signed up to join them. Some years ago, I’d been up there, with wind-tumbled hair, my senses enthralled. This time I opted for the shorter BridgeClimb Sampler, aimed at climbers in a rush who haven’t three hours (or so many dollars) to spend but who still want the literal high of the harbour city stretched beneath, with a riffling breeze and the souvenir photograph to prove they did it.
In 90 minutes, start to finish, I climbed the bridge’s lower arch (even steeper than the top arch), listening to tales of the bridge’s construction. Brad, our leader, took the snapshots, showing the Opera House below, and then it was lunchtime.
Meeting my wife at Circular Quay, we took the ferry to Watsons Bay for fish and chips at Doyles (the most famous takeaway chippy on the harbour). From the bay I walked to the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Hard to believe, but in 1770 Captain James Cook sailed The Endeavour past this spot and scarcely gave it a second glance. Eighteen years later the British First Fleet of 11 vessels, carrying sailors, soldiers and convicts turned left at the spot where Cook sailed north and founded a convict settlement at The Rocks, now the best known tourist hot spot on the harbour.
History buffs shouldn’t miss The Rocks Discovery Museum (admission free) just off George Street, and the equally excellent, spacious Museum of Sydney, on the site of the original Government House. In The Rocks Museum you inhabit the colony’s past. As I toured the two floors of exhibits (including chapter and verse on the Aboriginal heritage of the city), I could hear the pressing soundtrack of docklands clamour, the whole 19th century brouhaha of gang fights, and drinkers, of brothels and trade.
Today the city is full of wow moments. We took the lift to the top of Sydney Tower to gawk at 360 degrees of distance (spy the Blue Mountains to the west, or the Hawkesbury River looking northwards to the coast, plus the fabulous bird’s-eye drop to the grid of city streets with their tiny toy cars and dinky buses, moving in silence far below).
I found myself unexpectedly wowed by heritage shopping at the fabulous Queen Victoria Building in George Street (take the free bus from Circular Quay). My wife loved the Strand Arcade, off Pitt Street. Both these buildings outdo the temptations arrayed within.
With a few days left we decided to treat ourselves to a lunch cruise with all the trimmings. Sea Sydney luxury cruises pampered us for four hours as we glided past all the harbour sights to a sandy bay where we, and all eight of our fellow passengers, could kayak, swim, fish, or just sprawl and gossip, while Fergus the skipper ensured that the wine flowed and the steaks (of beef or salmon) were grilled to perfection. The afternoon melted. We made new friends.
Before leaving home I’d made a wish-list – to swim at Manly, see Bondi Beach, take a trip to Taronga Zoo to see most of Australia’s indigenous wildlife in one great gulp. My wife was determined to visit the Opera House. We did, seeing a play (the tickets, at under £40 each, left us enough to enjoy a meal before the show beside the harbour).
The trouble with lists are the boxes unticked. I’d wanted to camp on a harbour island, my wife to sail up the Hawkesbury River. “Never mind,” she said, as we sat on our final night at Milsons Point, at Ripples Restaurant, our favourite dining spot in the city, staring across at the high-rise city, now bejewelled in the dark. She had a glint in her eye. “We’ll have to come again,” she said. I could see she was making plans. I did the only sensible thing –nodded assent and raised my glass.
- Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies daily from Glasgow to Sydney via Dubai from £896 return (Sept/Oct 2015).
- Harbourside serviced apartments (www.harboursideapartments.com.au) have studio and one and two bedroom apartments from £130 per night. Excellent harbour views with swimming pool and free parking.
- Ripples (www.ripplesmilsonspoint.com.au) for unbeatable views and food and BYO.
Luxury lunch cruise with Sea Sydney Cruises (www.seasydneycruises.com.au) from £145 adult, £95 child. BridgeClimb (www.bridgeclimb.com) with five climbs to choose from. From £75 for the BridgeClimb Sampler.
- General information at www.australia.com