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  • Candace Ahlfinger

Sydney, Quintessential Australia…


View of Sydney from Dawes Point Park

It seemed only fitting that our first stop in Sydney was at the magnificent Darling Harbor filled with children, families, singles, couples—everyone playing, strolling, and just having fun. The Harbor houses so many restaurant and shopping options that we returned several times just to enjoy the walk by the water and the bustle of people.

Darling Harbour

Our base for our Sydney stay was the Tank Stream Hotel. The unusual name is a reminder of the importance of the tank stream (tanks built to capture freshwater from springs) to the history of the city. In fact, one of the first needs that Captain Arthur Phillips addressed in 1788 was to find sustainable freshwater for settlers. Our hotel sat on the site of one of these natural and manmade water courses.

Sydney Opera House

Day 1 Our tour of Sydney began the next day with a stop in Dawes Point Park, a promontory that boasts a beautiful view of both the Harbor Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. We also drove by St. Mary’s Cathedral, the largest cathedral in Sydney, the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and many Victorian Terrace Houses before arriving at the famous Sydney Opera House for a one-hour tour. I was amazed at the end of the hour to find that we were already finished with this intriguing tour that addressed architecture, acoustics, design, and more. We were even able to experience two pianists rehearsing for the evening’s performance.

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House lies on Bennelong Point which was sacred to the native people. The building, designed by Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, was completed by a team led by Peter Hall. Queen Elizabeth II opened the facility in 1973. The Opera House was the youngest cultural site to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Underneath the 14 exterior shells--or sails--lie performance halls with different themes and colors. (If all the shells were connected, they would form a perfect sphere.) Everything within the awe-inspiring building, except the glass and exterior tiles, is from Australia. (The self-cleaning tiles are from Sweden.)


We had a quick lunch at one of the available food vendors in the Opera House before visiting the Nation Opal Museum in which, conveniently, visitors can buy opal in all price brackets. Commercial opal mining began in the late 1880s and Australia has been the leader of opal production since that time, producing approximately 95% of the world’s opals.

The Rocks Market

My husband and I used the afternoon to visit The Rocks Market, which is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. (I’ll talk more about The Rocks in just a little.) We had fun wandering through the vendors seeing Australian products and foods. Our mission was to find an unusual creation, a gold-plated Eucalyptus leaf, for our daughter. Thankfully, we were successful so we could stop and have a drink at one of the local pubs before exploring the area further. This was followed by a delightful pizza at Caminetto Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria. (It was so good that we made a reservation for Valentine’s Day which was quickly approaching.) After dinner we wandered down to the water to watch the lightshow at the Sydney Opera House. We had a great time enjoying the beautiful weather, but we didn’t see the light show; we discovered the next day that you had to be on the Opera House stairs to watch the show.

Watching Otters at Play at the Taronga Zoo

Day 2 The next day we used our credit card as required to book a ticket on the ferry from the wharf to the Taronga Zoo with our main goal to see a platypus. (Just in case you are interested…According to Dictionary.com, the plural of platypus is either platypuses or platypi.) We stood at the platypus enclosure for quite a while with no sign of the shy egg-laying mammal.

Even though we were disappointed that we didn’t glimpse a platypus, we enjoyed the great views of the Opera House and Harbor Bridge from the ferry. In addition, we saw red kangaroos, wombats, camels, penguins, and a gorgeous view of Sydney. Our next stop was the Art Gallery of New South Wales where we admired the Australian art and had a wonderful lunch at one of their restaurants.

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Our evening ended with a tour of The Rocks that we had arranged with Free Tours of the Rocks. (The tour isn’t actually free, because guides depend on visitors to tip according to the worth they receive. We thought the tour was great!) Scott, our guide, shared the interesting history of the area which began with the arrival of the first convicts in 1788. The Rocks, called Tallawoladah by the Cadigal people, were less than prime lands since they were, well, rocky, so convicts were sent to this area. John Cadman, who built the oldest surviving house in Sydney, was a well-behaved convict so he became the superintendent of government boats and was given waterfront property to live. Cadman was able to vote since he was a landowner. Upon his death, his wife, Elizabeth, became the first woman to vote in Australia.

Oldest House in Sydney

Our walk took us up the Suez Canal. No, obviously not the one in Egypt, but a narrow lane in The Rocks area that got its name from the sewage infused water that rushed down it during hard rains. In the late 1800s, the canal was also the hiding place of the notorious Rocks Push, a gang that left many who dared use the passage without their wallets. We visited many other historic places and Scott kept us entertained with stories of pubs, people, and places before we ended the tour.

One of Many Narrow Passages in The Rocks

Day 3 The day was a great one to visit some of the beaches for which Sydney is famous. We boarded the fast ferry bound for Manly Beach then took the short walk to Manly Beach and then further to Shell Beach along the Manly Scenic Walkway. The giant waves meant that Manly Beach was closed—except for the surfers who were taking advantage of the giant waves crashing on the large rocks that lined the beach. Shell Beach provided a safe place for those who wanted to swim, but another attraction was the shells, millions of them!

Manly Beach

Our next stop was Bondi Beach, where drones were first tested to identify and warn of sharks. Drones could eliminate the need for nets that catch not only sharks but also dolphins and other fish. And on the topic of safety, our driver for the day kindly told us the top ways to die in Australia: Shark attack from their very aggressive sharks, Melanomas (Skin Cancer), and suicide. He did try to make us feel better by assuring us that sharks aren’t on the beach Monday or Tuesday since they are still full from snacking on visitors during the weekends. Of course, he balanced that good news by showing us where many people jump to commit suicide. Overall, the talk could have been a downer, but it gave us something to remember and laugh about. (I don’t think the Australian Chamber of Commerce would hire him as their public relations person!)

Bondi Beach

The next stop of the day was at Watson’s Bay Boutique Hotel for drinks and beautiful harbor views. Across the street was the gorgeous view of ocean waves crashing into the rocks at Robertson’s Park Overlook.

Robertson's Park Overlook

Back in the downtown, we had dinner at Nick’s Seafood overlooking Darling Harbor and then walked back to our hotel for a short break before heading to the Sydney Opera House to see the light show. On this attempt, we were successful in seeing and hearing the show which features a film about the aboriginal peoples. (The show can only be seen from the huge front steps up to the Opera House.)

Sydney Opera House

Serendipity happens in unexpected ways. Sadly, the people in New Zealand’s North Island suffered with floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, so we were forced to stay in Sydney extra days. What a wonderful place to be “stuck.” Serendipitously, we were able to see Sydney’s beaches, the Blue Mountains, and Sydney Sealife and Wildlife. In addition, because we were on a tour, the company, Collette, took care of all the flight and hotel changes and our wonderful tour director, Rob Lippitt, came up with an exciting lineup of activities and places to visit.

Scenic World in the Blue Mountains after the Fog Cleared

Day 4 The first extra day we travelled to the Blue Mountains, a World Heritage Site that we had not been scheduled to see. We made our way to Echo Point in Katoomba for the best view of the Three Sisters, a famous rock formation. Like most of the views during our visit to the Blue Mountains, the Three Sisters were out of sight. No, really, we couldn’t see them because of the dense fog that enveloped us most of the day. We did see postcards and books, but no Three Sisters. We continued to Scenic World, an eco-theme park in the Blue Mountains. (They are named Blue Mountains because the Eucalyptus trees put off oils that, when combined with water vapor, make the mountains appear blue.) We managed to squeeze in all the rides and some of the trails the park offers. First up was the Scenic Skyway which is the highest cable car in Australia. It features a glass floor, but it wasn’t open when we were there because of the fog which prevented us from seeing the entire 885 feet down. From the upper station we hiked along Prince Henry Cliff Walk to Katoomba Cascades and Katoomba Falls Lookout. The fog gave the landscape an ethereal feel that made the hike more fun.

Scenic Railway--Get in the First Seat if Possible

The Scenic Railway which, at a 52 degree incline is one of the steepest in the world, was our next ride. We chose to lean our seats back to “enhance” the feeling as we hurled down the old miner’s train. (If possible, get the front seats for the best scary view.) We actually rode the Scenic Railway twice since it wasn’t crowded during our visit. The Scenic Cableway also gave us great views—of the fog—although patches of green did peep through during the day. The hikes and rides were a fun way to get out of Sydney and experience nature—and what’s a little rain here and there?!?

One of the Many Interesting Displays at SeaLife Sydney

Day 5 Sealife Sydney is an aquarium focusing on marine life native to Australia and was our choice for part of our fifth day in Sydney. Multiple walks through water-encased tunnels gave us great views of sharks, rays, and a rare dugong named Pig, which is most closely related to elephants and is similar to a manatee. As part of the Sealife experience, we hopped on a “boat” through the Penguin Expedition which allowed us to see Gento and King Penguins eating and taking turns sliding down the snow-covered ramp before they seemingly posed for us by the windows.

Cassowary--The World's Deadliest Bird

After a quick lunch we took in Sydney Wildlife which was a fun look into the Australia Big 5–Kangaroo, crocodile, platypus, Tasmanian Devil, and Koala. (If we wanted to see Australian animals quickly, I would do Sydney Wildlife instead of the Taronga Zoo). —The animals were all adorable. (Maybe interesting is a better word for the freshwater crocodiles and the cassowaries which are the deadliest bird in the world.) Since our failed attempt to spot a platypus at Taronga Zoo, we had not seen a platypus before. He, or she, was surprisingly small and fast. The koalas were in eye-high Eucalyptus trees so visitors could easily take pictures. In another area one of the kangaroos was celebrating his first birthday with a party featuring his favorite food—carrots. Tasmanian Devils were busily roaming their cages and, again, we saw wombats.

Paddy's Market

We still had free time, so we walked to Paddy’s Market through the bustling Chinatown. (We could have taken the trams that run on George Street, but I love walking.) Paddy’s Market is filled to the brim, even on a weekday, with vendors selling everything imaginable—from souvenirs to clothing to suitcases to…You get the idea. We wandered over to the produce portion that had beautiful fruits and veggies. (We were leaving for New Zealand the next day so we knew we couldn’t buy any to take with us.) We also looked in, briefly, at the fish market, one of the largest fish markets in the world.

Queen Victoria Building

Again, we chose to walk back to our hotel, The Tank Stream, via George Street while enjoying the diverse architecture. Both Melbourne and Sydney have interesting buildings that aren’t just typical skyscrapers and the older buildings, from the 1800s, have been maintained in many areas. We stopped by the Queen Victoria Building that was constructed in 1898 and has now been transformed into an upscale shopping mall. The beautiful and colorful art deco building still contains the original clock.


Our evening held a harbor dinner cruise by Clearview Cruises. The magnificent views from all three floors kept us entertained as we sailed past the Sydney Opera House and under the Harbour Bridge. The food was equally good, beginning with an appetizer of beautifully presented raw seafoods followed by very moist and perfectly seasoned chicken and veggies. The cruise was over too quickly, but not quickly enough for dinner to settle so we walked back to our hotel, met members of our group across the street, and enjoyed visiting and drinks on a large, bustling patio.


And then, finally, we were on our way to New Zealand for a shortened visit there.

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For our Melbourne info, follow this link.

For info about Tasmania, click here.

For info about Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef, click here.

SeaLife Sydney

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