Sydney Wet and Wild

Kyle and Colly steppin' out to see Sydney's production of the musical Wicked.

Kyle and Colly steppin' out to see Sydney's production of the musical Wicked.

When we got to Sydney, our friend Cheryl said she had heard that “Australia is the LA and New Zealand is the SF,” and she wanted to know if it’s true. My answer, based on seeing only Sydney so far, is yes — to a point. Sydney, with its string of famous beaches, has a surf culture that mirrors Santa Monica and a sense of style that channels Hollywood. Whereas Kiwi fashion looks earthy and understated, lots of people here dress as though they’re going clubbing — circa 1985. Morgan, who arrived here before me, emailed me on his first day in Sydney: “Make sure to bring high heels, tube tops and tight clothes since it seems to be what lots of other women are wearing. Sort of reminds me of the Aussie girlfriend in Spinal Tap.

But the LA-SF analogy falls apart when I realize that many of Sydney’s loveliest parts evoke San Francisco. In Sydney’s central business and shopping district, grandly refurbished and ornately detailed Victorian and Edwardian buildings stand next to sleek modern high-rises. Along the bustling waterfront, shops, exhibits, restaurants and, of course, boats are everywhere, as though San Francisco’s stretched-out Embarcadero had been compressed into a few distinct harbor areas.

Sydney also feels like San Francisco because of its large Asian population. But the demographic diversity doesn’t stretch much beyond Chinese, Japanese, Southeast Asian and Indian. We can buy egg rolls, sushi and curry on every block, but burrito places are few and far between. I can count on one hand the number of black people I’ve seen so far, and the only Latin American I’ve noticed is the wizened old street musician with the rainbow serape who seems to play the pan flute in every major city we visit. And the only Aboriginal I’ve seen yet is on a postcard.

As for the weather, it doesn’t match either city. You could call it “hog” — humid fog. It’s been overcast and rainy most of the time, but sticky hot, and then the sun broke out and it was scorching!

In spite of less-than-perfect weather and a high price tag on everything, we have grown very fond of this city. It’s urban yet easy to get around, flashy yet laid back. Of all the big cities we’ve visited, this is one of the most kid friendly. We’re staying in a high-rise apartment building in the central business district, next to Darling Harbour, where there’s a sprawling playground and easy ferry access. Catching ferries the way you catch cabs or subways in other cities is one of Sydney’s charms.

Here are highlights and recommendations for anyone visiting Sydney:

Two of the many creatures at the Taronga Zoo with a great view of the Sydney skyline.

Two of the many creatures at the Taronga Zoo with a great view of the Sydney skyline.

Wildlife (and I don’t mean the kind of wildlife with open containers in our elevator every night):

  • Go to the Royal Botanic Gardens next to the Opera House, look up at the trees and be prepared to gasp at the site of thousands of fruit bats the size of small dogs hanging upside down and flying around. They’re also known as “flying foxes,” and they took up residence in the gardens when much of their forest habitat was lost to farming. At dusk the city sky is full of them flying by, along with native white cockatoos. I have never seen anything like it — so many really big bats spreading their wings and flexing the bones in them like fingers — and they’re strangely beautiful and downright cute. (Having read the children’s picture book Stellaluna innumerable times undoubtedly colors my view.)
    They're not coconuts, they're "flying foxes"!

    They're not coconuts, they're "flying foxes"!

    Some of the fruit bats spreading their wings above the Royal Botanic Gardens.

    Some of the fruit bats spreading their wings above the Royal Botanic Gardens.

  • The sprawling Taronga Zoo is on par with the San Diego Zoo — one of the best we’ve ever seen — and its 2,660 animals look extremely well cared for. Kyle can’t stop talking about the Komodo dragon.

    Kyle's favorite creature at the zoo, the komodo dragon, was about the same size he is.

    Kyle's favorite creature at the zoo, the Komodo, was about the same size as he is.

Beaches:

  • Bondi: We walked to Sydney’s most famous beach from the neighborhood of Coogee, about three miles south of Bondi. The coast walk was hard on the kids because of the heat and hills, but Morgan and I loved seeing the waves crashing against the cliffs.
    The surf on along the walk from Coogee to Bondi.

    The surf on along the walk from Coogee to Bondi.

    Bondi beach lived up to its reputation as a grown-up playground crowded with beautiful bodies sunbathing, surfing and partying. The kids reveled in the rough surf, and we watched them like their lives depended on it (which they actually did, given the notoriously dangerous currents here, not to mention the underwater things that can sting and bite — though this generally is a “safe” swimming beach).

    Colly with Bondi's waves behind her.

    Colly with Bondi's waves behind her.

  • Manly: One of the area’s prettiest suburbs, Manly, is 30 minutes north by ferry from central Sydney, and the beach is spectacular, with water as clear and blue as Hawaii. The currents here are crazy, creating multiple sets of waves in multiple directions. We saw something we’d never seen before: waves that run sideways like a zipper opening, parallel to the shore, and often there’s another sideways wave going the opposite direction on the same line, and they meet and crash midway. It’s the wave pattern you’d see if two people held two ends of a rope and jerked the ends at the same time. The kids thought this surf was even better than Bondi. We felt some relief that lifeguards were patrolling the waters, and they were strict about keeping swimmers between two flags marking a relatively small area. They had a warning sign for “blue bottle” jellyfish, aka a Portuguese Man of War, and both kids got stung at the end of the day. “It felt like a thousand bee stings at first,” said Colly. “It felt like a stinging whip had curled around my leg,” said Kyle. The medicine — ointment and ice cream — worked wonders.

    Surf's up on Manly Beach.

    Surf's up on Manly Beach. From this East Coast, it was hard to imagine the blizzard hitting America's East Coast.

Shopping:

  • The QVB: We hate to shop but it proved to be a worthwhile activity on a rainy day when we discovered the Queen Victoria Building. The building itself — not the shops — is what got me excited. It’s a gorgeous pavilion covering a city block at the corner of George and Market streets.
    The Queen Victoria Building. (Photo from wikimedia; we would have taken our own, but it was pouring rain!)

    The Queen Victoria Building. (Photo from wikimedia; we would have taken our own, but it was pouring rain!)

    It was built in 1898 in a grand Romanesque Revival style with lots of arches, columns and a giant dome. Inside, two massive mechanical clocks hang from ceiling, in the middle of the open area between the shops, displaying ornate dioramas and figurines that depict moments in Australian history. The kids thought it was “really cool.” The shops are all high-end designer boutiques, so we didn’t buy anything, until we got to the third floor and discovered Hobby Co., one of the best toy shops ever, and Kyle picked out some Legos.

  • Kent Street: Sydney’s shopping district is so packed with malls that I assumed it would be easy to find travel- and outdoors-oriented stores with the type of clothing and gear we needed. Not so. After walking in circles (or squares, I guess, is more accurate), block after block, we finally found all the stores that sell outdoor gear and travel clothing clustered together around the 400 block of Kent Street — stores like Trek & Travel and Kathmandu (a brand that’s sort of the Down Under equivalent of REI). I don’t know why they’re all hidden in this corner. There — I’ve done my duty to spread the word to other travelers!

Eating:

  • We didn’t eat out much because of the prices and forgettable fare near the waterfront (where the food offerings are a little too much like Fisherman’s Warf). But we had one worthwhile meal with a panoramic view of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge at Cafe Sydney, which is in the rooftop room of the landmark Customs House building in Circular Quay. The Customs House is a neat place to visit because the first floor has a full city model under glass built into the floor, so you actually walk on top of it and peer down at the miniature city. It also features displays about the not-so-proud history of immigration to Australia, where they fess up to the country’s not-so-distant history of racism and exclusion. The restaurant’s food and service were good but not great (I can’t even recall what I ordered), but the view and ambiance made it worth it.
  • We found the best Latin American food we’ve tasted since leaving California and Argentina at Cantina Bar & Grill, tucked into a storefront on Oxford Street, which is Sydney’s Castro and has lots of bars and dance clubs with names like The Toolshed. The tapas, grilled meats, Spanish tortilla and churros were among the best I’ve ever tasted and reasonably priced.

Running:

  • The most obvious and scenic place to run is on the quilt of green that covers Hyde Park, The Domain and the Royal Botanic Gardens, skirting the Opera House. But I actually prefer Centennial Park. There’s a two-mile equestrian track where riders exercise their horses and practice dressage routines in the grassy middle area, which of course I loved watching while running the perimeter of the track.

    The Harbour Bridge and Opera House as seen from the Royal Botanic Gardens.

    The Harbour Bridge and Opera House as seen from the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Museum for Kids Who Are Sick of Museums:

  • The Powerhouse Museum of Science and Design, Sydney’s largest museum, is housed in an old powerhouse and is full of interactive displays on engineering, design, technology and pop culture. It seemed fitting, given the fashion we’d seen on the street, that they had a special exhibit called “The 80s Are Back” that spotlights all the styles and trends of my teenage years. I liked the fact that the kids left the museum eager to sketch and develop engineering plans for new products they had cooked up in their minds.

Now we’re heading to a rustic lodge in the Blue Mountains, so we’ll say goodbye to city life at week’s end. It doesn’t really feel like urban living, though, because people walk around with beach towels over their shoulders and sand clinging to their calves, and amazing animals and plants thrive in various corners of the city. It’s been great to soak up these sights along with the rain.

Morgan tried to find shelter in this fern during a downpour.

Morgan tried to find shelter in this fern during a downpour.

We saw spiders like this all over the Botanic Gardens and on a trail near Manly.

We saw spiders like this all over the Botanic Gardens and on a trail near Manly.

The bats and bugs in Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden left us open-mouthed.

The bats and bugs in Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden left us open-mouthed.

Phew -- the rain stopped and nothing bit me!

Phew -- the rain stopped and nothing bit me!

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