HIS is a city we love even though it seems to change every time. This time we were stunned by the improvements in transportation brought about by the 2000 Olympic Games. A ride from the airport to downtown that used to include stop and go traffic through suburbs now takes 12 minutes on a state of the art freeway. Shopping now includes some of the most elegant malls anywhere. And Australia opening itself to the world has made the place ever more sophisticated and cosmopolitan.
Sydney is a city of water and parks. One of the places where you can combine the two is the Royal Botanic Gardens, a haven in the middle of this bustling metropolis, cutting a huge swath through the city alongside the water. It's home to the most exotic varieties of plants and trees available anywhere.
The best way to get there is to walk, from Circular Quay, with its ferry boat stations lined up ready to take passengers to the shore-front suburbs, then around the Quay to Australia's most famous land mark, the Sydney Opera House, and beyond—still following the water, to the gardens which also house the dignified Government House and the Conservatory of Music. The beautiful stroll will take you about an hour but you'll want to linger in the gardens.
You can't say you've seen Sydney until you take a harbor cruise. This is the harborside city and the very best way to see it is to get on the water.
There are all sorts of deals which combine ferry tickets with entrance to top harborside attractions like the Taronga Zoo, the best place, at least in an urban environment, to see Australia's unique wild life—kangaroos, wallabees, koalas and echidnas, a particularly decorative kind of porcupine, or the Sydney Aquarium at nearby Darling Harbor.
Australia means beaches. The city has made it easy for you to sun yourself on all its most famous stretches of sand with the Bondi Explorer Bus, named for the city's famous surfers paradise. One fare enables you to jump on and off for an entire day and really see the city.
Our favorite shopping is a uniquely Australian mall, the Queen Victoria Building in downtown Sydney. It's a magnificent Victorian edifice on three floors complete with original wrought iron work, stained glass windows and gorgeous wrought iron elevators. It's packed with upscale shops, cafes and bookstores. The perfect place to find Aussie woolens, opals, bush hats and coats as well as designer clothes for adults and children.
Darling Harbor, accessible by ferry or monorail from downtown, combines a shopping mall with the Australian Maritime Museum with its collection of historic ships—there's even a submarine—the Aboriginal Art and Cultural Center, the Sydney Aquarium, one of the largest in the world, the Australian Northern Territory and Outback Center, and dozens of restaurants, cafes and bars to refuel between attractions.
Sydney has some of the most sophisticated restaurants with the most beautiful views anywhere in the world. It's all about the water. The variety of ultrafresh seafood boggles the mind.
The Rocks area where the first settlers caught a glimpse of the new continent, the Opera House and vicinity and Woolloomooloo Wharf just on the other side of the Botanic Gardens are just some of the areas with elegant upscale restaurants with terrific wine lists packed with the kinds of Australian boutique wines that we rarely find outside the home country.
The Blue Mountains
From Sydney we rented a car and headed off to the Blue Mountains, so called because of the light mist of oil emitted by the eucalyptus trees which, combined with the greenery, shines with a strange blue light in the mist. The native gum trees choke the steep gorges—the mountains are actually steeped carved canyons plunging downwards rather than up. Think Grand Canyon rather than the Rockies.
Our Friday evening drive out of Sydney through jammed suburbs like Paramatta, was a bit of a nightmare. As the road gradually climbed we realized we were following the route of three famous Aussie explorers, Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, who in 1831 found their way through the mountains and discovered desperately needed grazing lands on the other side to help feed the growing colony in Sydney. Of course Aboriginal hunters had been crossing these mountains unheralded since time immemorial.
One of the delights of any country drive in Australia is the wild life. Though there were Kangaroo crossing signs everywhere we didn't see a single one, but passing a bush we thought bore white flowers, the flowers suddenly took flight—they were gorgeous white cockatoos.
Later ensconced in our cottage we were visited every morning by flocks of rosellas—fluorescent red and green parrots who dined lavishly on the seed we put out for them and entertained us with their chatter, that is when they could be heard above the squawks of the Kookaburra, the nosiest bird hereabouts.
Parliament in Canberra
The cottage was in the very picturesque town of Leura, one of three main centers in the Blue Mountains for exploring, bush walking, rock climbing and rappelling which are the main attraction hereabouts.
We were just off the main street, named The Mall, which had enough truly charming shops, boutiques, delis, bakeries, tea and coffee houses to have kept us happily exploring for months. It was early April, fall in Australia, and the Blue Mountains were much colder and damper than we had expected, sending us off in search of sweaters and scarves.
We didn't have to travel miles to experience the beauty that makes the area famous. A couple of turns from the end of the Mall brought us to Sublime Point, a viewing spot overlooking the cliffs and canyons of the Jamison Valley looking down on a dense canopy of eucalyptus as far as the eye could see with heavily carved gorges on either side. Australia really is a topsy turvy country because here we were looking down at trees instead of up.
Across the street from this magnificent view is another treasure: Luerella—the most authentic art deco mansion in Australia with its interior entirely panelled in Queensland Maple.
The house is owned by the Evatt family who still live in part of it. The rest has been turned into a toy and train museum because Dr. H.V Evatt, the former Attorney General of Australia, was an inveterate collector.
There are dolls from all over the world, tin soldiers, toy trains—an entire WWII diorama depicting with startling accuracy the German and allied positions in the Battle of the Bulge, near another model laying out the regimental pomp of an Indian Durbah. Upstairs is a Barbie doll collection from 1959 to the present near an Alice in Wonderland clock runs appropriately backwards.
In the 12 acres of gardens there's a complete locomotive on the grounds with a train station, platform and railway advertising of the era. We chuckled at a tin sign proclaiming, "Smoking is good for you."
From the museum we took in the most famous view of the whole Jamison Valley from Echo Point. There the multitudes come to view The Three Sisters—three jagged rock pillars side by side, one of the most famous rock formations in a country with scores of them.
At night when the Sisters are floodlit, the view is almost supernatural. But this was Sunday afternoon and the place was packed. There are plenty of places to have lunch overlooking the view. Aboriginal performers in loin cloths sell jewelry and blow didgeridoos for the benefit of the tourists.
The other great tourist base is Katoomba, an Aboriginal word meaning "shiny falling waters," not surprising since nearby are the Katoomba Falls and Cascades, the Bonnie Doon Falls, and Minnie Ha Ha Falls. A scenic cable car, The Skyway, traverses the valley and is the best way to see this spectacular and totally unique area.
The town itself can only be described as funky, a place beloved of refugees from the sixties—lots of batik clothing , antique galleries and crystal gazers. But it contains a couple of unique architectural masterpieces: The Paragon Café and chocalatier, a perfectly preserved art deco masterpiece. The bar looks as if Ginger Rogers who once visited , and Fred Astaire who did not, should be sipping martinis in the corner. There is no whispering baritone but taped golden oldies add to the authentic atmosphere.
Steps from the Paragon is The Carrington Hotel, a huge Victorian pile in the grand style, built in 1880 with one of those sweeping wrap around verandas made for large feathered hats and afternoon tea. It has been recently sympathetically restored and is well worth a visit.
Time for Canberra
CANBERRA must be one of the world's most underrated cities. Once a vast sheep pasture, it was built as the capital when the two rival cities, Melbourne and Sydney, refused to give up their respective claims to the honor.
Elegantly designed, full of flowerbeds and parks, easy to navigate and with wonderful countryside close by, it's an easy place to live, and offers multiple attractions for tourists. The climate, however, tends to hot and sticky in summer and cold and wet in winter, so spring and fall are the seasons to put Canberra on your itinerary.
War Memorial in Canberra
Don't miss the National Portrait Gallery at Old Parliament House, King George Terrace (www.portrait.gov.au 02-6270 8222), which has a wonderful collection of the icons of Australia. It's a great way to get a quick pocket history of the country.
Also not to be missed the National Museum on the grounds of the National University of Australia, which houses the finest collection of Aboriginal art in the country.
The very impressive Australian War Memorial houses a great collection of Australian war art. The works include paintings recording their gallant history, from the Burma Railroad days through to the Vietnam War. This is a people who love their country and are justly proud of their military contribution and sacrifices in other people's wars. (Anzac Parade, www.awm.gov.au, phone: 02-6243 4211).
Although we were staying in the house we swapped for our home in Ventura, we had to revisit our favorite hotel in Canberra. The Hyatt is another one of those places where you step through the doors into another era, this time the upper class world of gracious twenties and thirties living.
On the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, the manmade waterway at the center of Canberra life, you're within easy distance of all the museums, the aquarium and other landmarks. Have a cocktail in the Speakers Corner Bar and you're likely to run into diplomats from around the world. Afternoon tea on the terrace will make you feel like a colonial bigwig in some outpost of empire.(Hyatt: Commonwealth Avenue, Yarralumla.)
We were staying between the leafy suburbs of Griffith and Manuka, virtually in the shadow of the modern wedding cake Parliament Building. This is the Beverly Hills of Canberra, with lots of charming upscale boutiques and restaurants in a village like atmosphere. On warm evenings, with diners eating alfresco in the many restaurants, we could have been in any major European city dining on food from Thailand, Greece, Italy, Spain.
We dined at The Tryst, serving clean fresh Thai accented meats and salads, on Bougainville St, Manuka Phone: 612-6239 4422, as well as at Belluci's, a lively Italian bistro, on the corner of Franklin and Furneaux Stree, also in Manuka.
We also stopped for dinner at The Boat House By the Lake, which was built on the site of an old boatshed but now has the best view in Canberra for dining. The ambience is elegant, especially since the view includes a flock of black swans sailing by on the lake.
And the food, surprisingly for a popular tourist spot, measures up. Chef Darren Tetley serves rare low fat Kangaroo, as well as some of the best lamb in town.