Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sydney's surrounds

Our excursions outside of Sydney's CBD were courtesy of my two classmates (from elementary and high school) who are residing in the Sydney suburbs. One, I had not seen since our high school graduation (some 37 years ago!) and the other I had not seen since our high school 30th anniversary! We certainly had a lot of catching up to do!


We took a short ferry ride (about 18 minutes) from Circular Quay to Manly, a thriving cosmopolitan coastal village. Leaving the quay by ferry afforded yet another view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Manly was named in 1788 by Captain Arthur Philip; he was impressed by the “confident and manly behaviour” of the local Aborigines and called the town “Manly Cove”. We disembarked at the Manly Wharf where there was a small stretch of sandy beach. A short walk away was the main beach and the Corso. Lots of shops, restaurants and lots of people, all enjoying the very pleasant day (sunny with a cool breeze). We had lunch at a Mexican place and I had my first taste of crocodile meat in a burrito! Quite good actually, tasted somewhat like chicken.

The wide stretch of white sandy beach was very inviting and there were so many people strolling, basking in the sun or enjoying the water. Then an announcement came over the public address system “Shark sighting, please get out of the water!” Sharks! Well not to worry, there are nets that are supposed to keep the sharks out but still it’s best to stay out of the water. Also another thing to remember is to “swim between the red and yellow flags.” We did not go near the water or even walk on the sand; we just enjoyed the view from a distance.

Bondi Beach

We wanted to see Australia’s most famous beach, Bondi. After the crowds of Manly, we sort of knew what to expect and we were right; lots and lots of people. I just took photos from the car as we were driving around trying to find a place to park. Beautiful golden sand and the turquoise water, very hard to resist! But no parking available. So after a few minutes of driving around and taking in the scenery, I had to be content that I had captured some of it in my photos. A few days later when I was trying to organize the hundreds of photos I had taken for that day, I was dismayed to find them missing and that’s when I realized that when I was transferring the photos from my camera’s memory card to my netbook (so that I could delete files from the memory card), I had apparently missed those Bondi shots and all had been deleted from the memory card! Lesson learned – do not delete photos from the memory card until you are absolutely certain that you have copied all the files. My only consolation now is that I can still picture Bondi beach in my mind.

Featherdale Wildlife Park

I’m not much of a zoo person but I enjoyed Featherdale Wildlife Park (west of Sydney). This park is said to have the world’s largest collection of Australian native animals including endangered and rare species (like the ghost bat, bilbies, wombat, red-tailed black cockatoo and native quolls). Here you could hand feed and carefully touch some of the animals that roam freely within the park. The wallabies we encountered quickly snatched at the cone that held the food, so did the emus. I also saw a joey in its mom’s pouch. The Tasmanian devil was nowhere in sight at the time of our visit (mid-morning); it was probably still snoozing inside the hollow log in its fenced area and would not come out until feeding time at 4pm.

Blue Mountains

Also to the west of Sydney is the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains region. This is a bushwalker’s paradise with its beautiful scenery, rainforest and wildlife. One of the must-see stops is Echo Point from where you can view the famous rock formation called the Three Sisters. It was just after New Year that we visited the area and we were among the throngs of people enjoying the holiday season. We had wanted to take the scenic railway, the steepest incline passenger railway in the world, which takes you to the historic mining attraction at the base of a cliff, then up again via the scenic cableway. However, due to the crowds, waiting in queue would have taken up most of our time. So we moved on after taking numerous photos of the view from Echo Point and a quick picnic lunch.

Mount Tomah Botanic Garden

Away from the madding crowds is Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, still located in the Greater Blue Mountains. This 70 acres area is 1000 meters above sea level and many plants not suited to Sydney’s climate can be grown successfully here. One can take short (half an hour) walks from the Visitor Centre to the Residence Garden, the Formal Garden or take the rainforest walk to the viewing platform. It would take longer (an hour) if you wanted to linger and see the Wollemi Pines, the Gondwana Forest or visit the Rock Garden. Half a day gives you enough time to walk the entire Garden and stop for refreshments at the Restaurant. If you prefer, there is a shuttle bus that takes you on a tour of the Garden, the driver also serves a guide, providing useful commentary.

On the way up from Echo Point, we had noticed the sky getting darker and when we were ready to take the guided shuttle tour, the thunderstorm began, complete with rains (actually hail). The shuttle was making trips to different parts of the Garden rescuing stranded visitors. Knowing how quickly weather could change in those parts, the personnel advised us to wait a while. The view was spectacular so we did not mind the wait while having coffee; there were also art exhibits in the Visitor Centre as well as a gift shop, so we were kept entertained. After an hour or so, the rain stopped, the sun came out and we were off to take the shuttle tour. We were driving through the Garden at a nice pace and were happily clicking away. When we were almost back at the Visitor Center, the sky started pouring again. Wow, nice timing!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Around Sydney's CBD - Part 3

A short ferry boat ride took us to Darling Harbour. Just staying around the harbour area, we enjoyed coffee, tea and cakes. From the restaurant, we could see the Australian National Maritime Museum. A short walk across a bridge from Darling Harbour is Chinatown.

Paddy’s Markets at Haymarket was conveniently located just a couple of blocks from the hotel we were staying at. You can find almost everything at Paddy’s, souvenirs (authentic Australian or China-made), clothes, jewelry, wigs, sunnies (sunglasses), home decors, fresh produce; you can even have your meals there or take-out. I even saw a fortune-teller stall. It was quite a shopping experience and more; there was even some live entertainment outside at times. It’s a short walk from the Town Hall and Central City Rail stations, Darling Harbour and Chinatown. If you take the monorail or the light rail, you can get off right outside Paddy’s doors.

Turn the corner from Haymarket and you are in Chinatown. The architecture is distinctly oriental, with archways and street lanterns. The main street is lined with eateries, all constantly filled with diners who flock to the area because of the variety of authentic Asian cuisine at reasonable prices. We joined the long queue at the corner shop where they were serving up traditional Taiwanese desserts.

Also a short walk from our hotel was the Sydney Tower. The Sydney Tower rises a quarter of a kilometre above the city streets and the observation deck offers the best vantage point for a 360-degree view of the city and beyond. The entrance ticket also includes OzTrek, a ten minute virtual reality ride (with real-motion seating) that takes you across Sydney, to Australia’s beaches and to the Australian bush.

After the Sydney Tower, we crossed the street to Hyde Park and, further beyond, St. Mary’s Cathedral. We had seen both when we were up on the observation deck. Hyde Park was named after the Hyde Park in London; it is the city central’s open green space tho it was originally a racecourse and sporting ground. St. Mary’s Cathedral is one of Sydney's most treasured historic buildings and one of the finest examples of English-style gothic churches in the world.

The Queen Victoria Building (QVB) located along George St is a beautiful 19th century building that is actually a shopping mall. Even if you were not going to buy anything, the architectural design is enough to warrant a visit. The dominant feature is the center dome; at the time of our visit, there was a magnificent Christmas tree decorated with brilliant Swarovski crystals rising towards the dome. There are also beautiful stained glass windows and an original 19th century staircase that sits alongside the dome.

Around Sydney’s CBD – Part 2

Although still within walking distance, it was easier and faster to take the 555 bus to Circular Quay and The Rocks. Circular Quay is at the foot of the central business district and the older, historic end of the city.

Circular Quay is a bustling water transport hub; it is where you can catch ferries to different parts of the harbour (like Manly Beach, Watsons Bay, Mosman, Taronga Park Zoo, Darling Harbour).

The Harbour Bridge can be viewed from different points around Circular Quay; I never got tired of seeing the Bridge, each time was a fresh view. There are outdoor cafes and boutiques in the area and oftentimes street entertainment (buskers, street theatre). On the southern side of the Circular Quay is a walkway that takes you to the Sydney Opera House and Royal Botanic Gardens. On the northern side is a walkway that takes you to The Rocks, Sydney’s old historical district where old brick warehouses now house restaurants and pubs, boutique shops as well as art galleries and museums. The Rocks offers a closer view of the Harbour Bridge.

From the Opera House you can follow the walkway leading to the Royal Botanic Gardens. This is a lovely place with beautiful trees that offer shade, expansive green lawns that invite you to lay down a blanket, and strategically located benches. It’s a place to slow down and relax while you view the water or the gardens. While in the Botanic Gardens, I walked to the place referred to as Mrs Macquarie’s Point, a peninsula that offers a combined view of the Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney’s skyline, providing the perfect backdrop for picture taking. According to folklore, Mrs Elizabeth Macquarie (the wife of Major-General Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821) used to visit the area and sit on the rock, watching for ships from Great Britain sailing into the harbour. An exposed sandstone rock formation on the point, where Mrs Macquarie used to sit, is known as Mrs Macquaries Chair (also called Lady Macquarie’s Chair); it is said to have been hand-carved in the shape of a bench rock by convicts in 1810.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Around Sydney's Central Business District - Part 1

My husband and I were booked at a hotel on George St. in downtown Sydney so we took the Airport Link train that would take us to Town Hall, the stop nearest to the hotel. I wish we had a similar train system back home; it would make commuting less stressful and so much faster. It would ease traffic congestion especially on city streets. Getting off at Town Hall, we took to the street with our luggage in tow. The hotel turned out to be five blocks from the Town Hall station, but no problem, our luggage had wheels and it was a pleasant day (sunny but cool) for a walk.

We explored both directions of George St on foot; one direction took us to the Circular Quay (Sydney Harbour Bridge, The Rocks and the Opera House), the other way took us into Chinatown and Haymarket. We could also go around the Central Business District on the free shuttle CBD bus (Route 555). Either way was fun tho of course riding the bus was less tiring.

We were in Sydney for six days, each day we found ourselves at the Circular Quay. We never got tired of seeing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House; each time we viewed it from a different perspective.

More about specific places later.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Year's Eve at Sydney harbour

I've watched the Sydney harbour fireworks on New Year's Eve on television and each time I am amazed at how spectacular the event is. Someday, I told myself, I would be there to witness it firsthand. That day finally came for me this past New Year's Eve 2011; I timed my visit so that I would be in Sydney on that day. The weather cooperated; though it had been cold and rainy for several days, when I landed in Sydney in the early hours of December 29th, it seemed like it was going to be a nice day. Though it was quite cool early in the day, the temperature became pleasantly warmer as the day progressed. The next days were perfect, sunny but with a cool breeze.

People were giving tips on how best to see the event. Apparently you had to be at your chosen spot several hours ahead of time; some have been known to camp-out at the site the night before. My husband and I were at the Circular Quay around 3 pm and what a sight! Hundreds? thousands? of people were already there, blankets spread out, umbrellas open for shade, picnic baskets loaded with food and drinks to last them until midnight. Mind you, it was very sunny and hot that day but people were out under the sun for hours and hours.

We edged our way towards the Opera House, staying close to the shops that were still open but which would close earlier than usual (except for the restaurants that offered New Year's Eve dinner for a very steep price and the ice cream shop that did brisk business until midnight). No one could actually go all the way to the Opera House; the area was closed off. We chose a spot in front of a jewelry shop; there was a big post that provided shade for some time but as the sun's angle changed, we also got some sun. But all in all, it was a nice spot. We spread out the shawl that I had brought, sat down, and waited . . .

What do you do while waiting? People watching was quite entertaining; you can also catch up on some reading. Eat, drink, even take a short nap. You have to get up to stretch your legs every so often. Then you would have to go to the toilet too. My husband and I took turns going because one had to remain behind to reserve our space. There were groups of portalets strategically located all around but there was always a queue. There were also live bands playing and occasionally an airplane would write something in the air. At one point it wrote "R U OK?" and the people cheered. Somehow we kept ourselves entertained. The hours creeped on . . .

There were actually two scheduled fireworks displays, one at 9 pm and the bigger one at midnight. As 9 pm approached people still kept coming and there was palpable excitement in the air. Then the fireworks began; everyone got on their feet, necks were craned, arms were raised above the heads of the crowd trying to capture photos. Then it was over for the time being; some people, many with young children, started leaving. But the crowd hardly eased, more people were pouring in. There were police officers for crowd control; they tried to discourage the people from getting closer "Too many people, no more room" but more and more kept coming . . .

It was around 1130 pm and the place was just bursting at the seams. We've been waiting almost 9 hours; only a few minutes more . . . Excitement was building up again . . . Countdown . . . 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! The sky exploded with light!!! You did not know where to look!!! It was truly spectacular!

After the fireworks display, the crowd seemed to move as one body towards the exits. Everyone had to go on foot because no vehicles had been allowed to come close to the area. Bus stops were some distance away. It was really awesome, people moving en masse through the streets; it was like a big, big, happy rally. New Year's revelers greeting each other, blowing horns, making noise . . . There were policemen on horses patrolling the streets, there were fire trucks and ambulances. It looked like one big street party!

New Year's Eve at Sydney Harbour! Truly a once in a lifetime experience for me. Yup once is enough :)