By Stef Schwalb
Much of my knowledge about Australia came from a great friend I had made 10 years ago at one of my first jobs out of college. If not for Kate, anything I would have learned about Oz might have come from any of the lyrics I could discern in the Men at Work song “Land Down Under,” or maybe something I’d recollect from the movie “Crocodile Dundee.” But it’s so much more than the national icons we associate with it! Yes, there are cuddy koalas, cute kangaroos, and didgeridoos played in the Outback. And Sydney’s Opera House and the Harbour Bridge are even more breathtaking than you can imagine when you see them up-close. Yet for me, it was the combination of a cosmopolitan culture one side of the land – Sydney – and the awe-inspiring expanse of a still yet-to-be-completely-explored desert on the other, which made my trip there so incredible.
I spent two weeks in Sydney, home to the 2000 Olympics. I remember watching the opening ceremonies back then, thinking that one day I would have to make the trek to the other side of the globe because this place seemed like something special – and I was not disappointed. Some of the spectacular activities I set up for myself for my stay are truly worth trying. Here’s just a handful I highly recommend:
The Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb
I have a fear of heights. I don’t like confined spaces – but I don’t like large ones either. So I have issues. But several people I knew who had been to Sydney told me the sights you will see of the city from this viewpoint are unbelievable, and how much preparation goes into the “hike” makes it perfectly safe to try. So I did, and I am glad to say, everyone was right. The three-and-a-half-hour adventure takes you to the top of the bridge, which is 134 meters above sea level – a lot further up in height than my fourth-floor walkup. You can climb during the day or night. We went early in the morning and to see the entire city just a few hours after sunrise. Stupendous! I conquered my fear of heights and received a not-so-stunning photo of myself in the grey safety jumpsuit they supply you with. (Again, it was early in the morning, remember?) (www.bridgeclimb.com)
Hunter Valley Wine Tours
The Thursday of my first week in Sydney, we signed on for a full-day tasting tour in one of the country’s most renowned wine regions. We visited four wineries – The Rothbury Estate, McGuiggans, Tyrrell’s, and Iron Gate. Wineries in this region run the gamut from large exporters to small, family-owned institutions. We were treated to a nice variety of some excellent wines, which included lessons on the creation process and how to teach your palette what tastes to look for when selecting. There are numerous tour operators for day excursions. In addition, you can plan an overnight or two anywhere within the region. The tour operator we tried, which we found quite reasonable, was Wonder Bus (www.wonderbus.com.au).
The Blue Mountains and the Three Sisters
Gorgeous views of the countryside outside Sydney can be seen in the Blue Mountains, which are located less than two hours away from the city by car. You can also take a train or a bus to get there. They got their name due to the blue mist that rises from the numerous eucalyptus trees, which rests in the mountain air. Valleys of untamed woodland (what Aussies refer to as the “bush”), canyons, waterfalls, and native wildlife can all be found here. There are also unique natural rock formations like the Three Sisters. We had lunch at a place overlooking this landmark, which was an incredible sight to behold while eating a meat pie (favorite Aussie food for me!). There are a variety of places and activities to do in this region, so it’s best to log on to the Blue Mountains website to find what’s right for you. (www.bluemts.com.au)
Manly and Bondi Beach
Beautiful beaches can be found all over Australia – it is a country famous for that! Two of them that are just a ferry ride away from Circular Quay (the main hub of transportation downtown) are Manly and Bondi. Both offer lots of great little shops and restaurants to choose from, and both have sensational white sand and blue, blue waves that are hypnotic for those people like me who are born and bred in NYC and hardly ever get to experience surroundings such as these.
Where The Wild Things Are
I love zoos. Always had. Aquariums as well. Animals fascinate me, and what Sydney has to offer in this regard is exquisite. The Taronga Zoo, located right on Sydney Harbour, is simply gorgeous. The layout and diversity of species are pretty astonishing. They have all of the native animals known to their country – koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, Tasmanian devils, wombat, and crocodiles. You can even get a photo taken with a koala, as well as freely roam the kangaroo cage – which is quite experience to be had. The Sydney Aquarium also lets you check out – thankfully, behind very secure glass! – some of Australia’s most dangerous sea life (of which there is plenty). A visit to one or both of these spots is definitely worthwhile. (zoo.nsw.gov.au), (sydneyaquarium.com.au)
For some nighttime fun, explore Darling Harbour, which is accessible via a ferry, train, or monorail that provides great views of the city. We had dinner at James Squire and did a tasting of numerous local beers, which was very enjoyable for a girl who drinks Guinness but is always on the lookout to expand her drinking palette. There are a large assortment of restaurants and shops to choose from here as well.
For those who like to experience a bit of the older country, take a trip to the Rocks, which is right next to Circular Quay. Walking through the streets there is very reminiscent to me of parts of Europe or Quebec. The architecture is dated (in a good way!) and warm. Some of the streets are cobbled stone and all of these Old World attributes are uniquely combined with plenty of upscale restaurants and stores like Louis Vuitton.
Paddington and the main street that runs through it – Oxford – is the equivalent to me of our beloved Soho. The streets are lined with numerous boutiques and cafes that are fashion and food forward. It was here that I got my new Australian ‘do at a salon called Suki (www.suki.com.au). This reasonably priced place had a décor that was stylishly simple, and its staff was so accommodating. They introduced me to a product line out of the UK called ghd (www.ghdhair.com). The products worked well with my stick straight hair and gave me some body I was desperately in need of – although I know the new ‘do plays a big part in this too.
Shop Till Ya Drop
In addition to Paddington, there are a number of super shopping places to check out in downtown Sydney. David Jones could be considered our Saks or Nordstrom (www.davidjones.com.au). They offer a variety of upscale clothing and cosmetic lines. Myer might be most closely related to our Bloomies. Quality as well, but slightly more mass market (www.myer.com.au).
And the Queen Victoria Building contains too many shops to mention, but is housed in lavish architecture and affluent surroundings that are not to be missed (www.qvb.com.au). Lastly, if you are a Sephora freak like me – take heart! The Australian counterpart can be found in Mecca Cosmetica (www.meccacosmetica.com.au). They offer all of your favorites – like Nars, Kiehl’s, Stila, and Prescriptives – as well as their own line of items.
So my last entry on the Sydney experience has to include something based on beauty – of course – and I did make a couple of cool discoveries. First of all, I took a quick site tour of the spa at the Observatory Hotel. This is one of the top-rated places to stay in the city, and with good reason. It is simply gorgeous and the spa the offers variety of facial and body treatments that are designed to rejuvenate and relax any weary world traveler. Dermalogica is among the product lines they use, in addition to an amazing line developed from ancient Aboriginal spirituality and healing traditions called Li’Tya, Spa Care from the Australian Dreamtime. (www.observatoryhotel.com.au).
Though Jurlique is likely the most well-known Australian skin care line, I encountered another one in my travels called Natio, which I found worked well with my over-sensitive skin. They offer skincare and makeup products as well as items for your hair (www.natio.com.au). Their three-step facial system quickly got rid of all the jetlag havoc that was wreaked upon my skin after my 13 hours of flight. And once my face was ready to move forward, I stumbled upon Napoleon Perdis (www.napoleancosmetics.com). He’s a well-known Australian makeup artist whose line of cosmetics has made an amazing splash overseas – his long black mascara is excellent. Coincidentally, after I made some makeup purchases from this line, I read in the newspaper that he is headed stateside to check out some spaces in Soho and Tribeca for store he plans to open here in early 2005.
Ok, so that wraps up the first part in our series of Stef’s Aussie adventure. Tune in next month, when we head to Ayer’s Rock and experience the Outback and all its wonder.