Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I lived in Sydney for four-and-a-half years in my early twenties. I had a thoroughly enjoyable and often wildly indulgent time there. But the majesty of the city only truly struck me when I returned two years after I left, with a new girlfriend in tow.
I’d lined up a few showy activities — dinner in the revolving restaurant at the top of the Sydney Tower, breakfast with the koalas at Wild Life Sydney — but it was something simple on the day we had nothing planned that made things click.
We rocked up to Circular Quay, the soon-to-be redeveloped hub of the harbour. It’s surrounded by some staggeringly ugly buildings, but that doesn’t matter too much when you look out to the water, with the Opera House on one side and the knock-your-socks-off magnificent Harbour Bridge on the other. The darting yellow and green ferries, most named after the ships of the First Fleet that first brought convicts to Australia in 1788, are an integral part of the scene.
We hopped on the one going to Watson’s Bay, at the southern head of Sydney Harbour. Once there, we ate fish and chips and wandered around the national park on the headland, serenaded by kookaburras and lorikeets. The sun blazed, the sky was a rich blue, the light was so gloriously intense in a way that’s impossible to convey to anyone who hasn’t visited Australia before.
It’s a day I look back on as one of unadulterated, blissful happiness. And you get an awful lot of days like that in Sydney. It’s somewhere that prefers to do things in the open air, whether that’s open air moonlight cinemas in the park or high bravado sculpture exhibitions alongside coastal jogging tracks.
Sydney is one of those exceptionally rare cities that you can visit not just for a city break, but for a holiday. Within the city itself, days can be spent pootling about on boats, bodysurfing on the beaches, dipping into absurdly accessible wild bushland and strolling along grandstanding clifftops from Bondi to Coogee. Day trips within a couple hours’ striking distance include the Hunter Valley wine region, dolphin-watching and sand-boarding in Port Stephens or hiking and canyoning in the Blue Mountains.
Sydney also has urban energy, and it’s handily compacted. The city may sprawl over an obscenely large footprint, but the bulk of suburbia in the west, north and south can be happily ignored. Most of the activity is squeezed between the central business district (which is way east of Sydney’s geographical centre) and the crashing waves of the Tasman Sea.
The exception is the area that provides Sydney’s soul, to the south-west of the CBD. The Inner West is all pubs with live bands, bargain bring-your-own-wine restaurants spanning the global gamut from Thai to Greek, craft breweries and would-be artists idling over coffee.
But it’s OK to be shallow here. Soul is all well and good, but Sydney has outrageously good looks. It’d be a shameful dereliction of duty to not spend a bit of time ogling. The walk along the north shore of the harbour from the Spit Bridge to Manly offers a fine opportunity to indulge in this. It starts with cutesy coves and moves on to rocky inlets where temporary waterfalls gush down the rocks a couple of days after it rains.
Through the national park, past Aboriginal rock carvings thought to be hundreds of years old and rainforest-esque gullies, the track finishes in Manly’s easy-going world of ice-cream and sunhat seaside charm. And for most of that three to four hour power stroll, there are staggering views out over the harbour’s nooks, crannies and lovingly-polished yachts.
A little further round is the north head of the harbour, which sums up an awful lot about what makes Sydney so special. It is beautiful — that can be pretty much taken as a given — but the scuttling bandicoots and occasional breaching whale offshore give it the wild factor too.
Tucked down around another of those ubiquitous coves is the old Quarantine Station, where some of the blocks have been turned into a hotel. But the rest, including the terrifying industrial-scale showers that new arrivals in the country would be forced through and the hospital wings, have been left as relics.
Sydney is a city often dismissed as shiny and new, but it has done a pretty good job of preserving a surprisingly long and fascinating past. The stories provide as much to love as the sunshine.
The March issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) is on sale now.