Monday, June 19, 2006

Sydney Winter Weekend

Australians are fond of looking down their noses on people who choose to settle in Victoria. They smugly announce to us newcomers that Melbourne is the only place in Australia where you actually need an overcoat.

We have just spent a winter weekend in Sydney, and I am here to tell you that this assertion is wrong. Incorrect. Mistaken. False. Living anywhere where a winter weekend in Sydney is even possible is fabulous: we flew in on Friday night in time to catch a great late seafood supper in Chinatown, and spent the next 48 hours enjoying Sydney’s finest (of which more later). But hell, it was cold. Maximum 14C, easily down to 6-7C with wind chill. We brought overcoats, hats, gloves, scarves, and wore them all.

The Vibe Hotel was possibly a booking I made about 15 years too late. A lovely hotel, with funky lilac and black walls, kooky white and spangly lanterns and mirrors above the bed, we were approximately a decade older than the mean resident age. But the location was excellent, somewhere in between Chinatown and the main shopping area.

Sydney is very different to Melbourne. It is more sprawling, more littered, more hectic at night, more bustling by day. It feels like a city. We like it. On a Friday night, Golden Century Seafood Restaurant was a vast Chinese restaurant full of weekend tourists (us), Japanese tourists, local chefs just clocked off, after-work gangs celebrating whatever. The menu was lengthy; the fish tanks almost overflowed with lobster, crayfish, ocean trout, giant crabs, snapper, anything that swam. Waiters caught the fish in nets, weighted them on electronic scales and presented them to the table before whisking them off to the kitchens to be cooked. It is said that the best chefs in Sydney will be found here after hours, taking advantage of the late opening hours and the amazing food.

Saturday morning was spent lying in after a post-supper bottle of champagne. Brunch was a full Irish breakfast in a well-known Irish hotel, the Mercantile, in the Rocks area near the harbour. The rain was beginning to settle in for a “whole wet day” as my mum would say, but we were prepared and didn’t care. The market stalls outside sold chilli chocolate bars and Ned Kelly replica armour (WHO? Who would buy one?) and the restaurants overlooking the Harbour Bridge slowly filled with tourists and local wedding functions.

Even in the persistent drizzle the harbour is spectacular, the bridge and the Opera House eclipsing the grey skies above. We jumped on a local ferry to Manly, a seaside town on the ocean side of the harbour, and walked through the touristy shopping area to Manly Beach, a Pacific Ocean jewel less than half an hour from Sydney city centre. We strolled along, watching a surfing competition and counting the joggers, surfers, walkers and other sundry Sydney-siders intent on keeping their bodies fit throughout the winter months.

We made the trip back as night fell – after all, it is almost mid-winter here in the southern hemisphere. We travelled west past the Sydney Harbour bays – Watson’s Bay, Chowder Bay, Rose Bay, Double Bay. The city skyscrapers were silhouetted against the darkening sky as we passed Bradley’s Head to the north. As we curved towards Fort Denison the view was breathtaking: The Sydney Opera House was lit up against the city skyline, with the unmistakable arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge picked out by street lights and traffic.

I stood outside in the wind and biting rain, taking in the view as the ferry brought us closer to one of the most beautiful city harbours in the world. The Opera House changed shape, its sails shining white in the almost-full moon as we swung round into Circular Quay. The bridge loomed above us, the bright lights of Luna Park sparkling in its shadow on the Kirribilli side. The cold took my breath away and the rain soaked my sensible boat and hat, but my weekend was complete: Sydney Harbour is unforgettable in any weather.

Walking close to the Opera House after our ferry ride, we watched some Beautiful People congregating at Guillaume at Bennelong, one of the best restaurants in Australia - suitably positioned in the Opera House complex. One day, I promised Orlando, we will come for dinner there.

A cocktail or two at the Opera Bar made a suitable end to our Harbour Cruise.

Sunday was even colder, as we met some London friends for brunch at the Bathers’ Pavilion in Balmoral, on the northern coast of Sydney Harbour.

Later, our hosts drove us to the North Head to witness a spectacular view of the city and the harbour entrance, as the winter winds whipped up an ocean swell which battered the cliffs on the Pacific side of the heads. It was a view we would never have managed to see ourselves, and despite the biting cold it was a fitting end to our winter weekend.