We wake to the Australian version of the Today Show, a looser, goofier version of the American morning news program. The weatherman mumbles through his round-up of Australian temperatures, murmuring something about Sydney expecting 22 degrees C and fine. Fine? Does that mean clear, partly cloudy, dry maybe?
There may not be a good answer to this. But it is a fine day in Sydney, about 70 degrees F as promised. I stumble to the lobby for my favorite vacation ritual – snagging a cup of coffee from a downtown cafe as the rest of the city prepares for a work day. I ask for two coffees to go.
“White coffee, for takeaway?”
I try to look alert.
“Uh, yeah, with cream. Yeah, as long as it’s got… cream. I’m taking it back to the hotel.”
- In Australia, “white coffee” is coffee with cream.
- Australians don’t say “to go.” It’s “for takeaway.”
No worries. I’ll get the hang of this as soon as the coffee kicks in. I toss a little coin into the tip jar.
- Australians are not accustomed to the tips we give in the States. This will become apparent in the level of restaurant service we’ll see later.
- The little coins are the $2 coins, you numbskull. That was a two dollar tip on maybe three dollars of coffee.
Eric and Cindy are in the lobby, their overnight flight from San Francisco a success – both got some sleep (business class upgrades are a Good Thing) and are ready to hit the town. We make it about three doors down when a large canvas in an small Aboriginal art gallery catches Melanie’s eye, and we stop to check out the other dot paintings on the walls. Original & Authentic Aboriginal Art is the name of the shop, and Caroline is the cheerful proprietor. It seems awfully early in the trip to be committing to a big-ticket item like a painting, but there are a few pieces that grab our attention, and we put a hold on ’em.
The Rocks borders Circular Quay (pronounced “key”), a buzzing hub of trains, ferries and automobiles. It’s at the end of a small harbor that separates our hotel from the Sydney Opera House, and before too long there we are, at the foot of one of the most recognizable buildings in the world, and the one farthest away from home. Opened in 1973, the Opera House is a big structure, but not quite as imposing as I imagined it would be – put in context of the city skyscrapers and even the modest office blocks on the pier it assumes its place in the bustle of the Sydney workday. The ladies are showing some of the effects of a ten thousand mile journey, so we keep the party rolling and circle the Opera House, heading away from the Harbour Bridge and up a short hill to the Botanic Gardens.
The Royal Botanic Gardens were established in 1816 and take up 75 acres in downtown Sydney, showcasing unusual plants and trees from Australia and around the world. Cindy immediately removes her shoes and tramps past the “do not walk on grass” signs. White cockatoos flutter between trees and freaky long-billed sea birds roam in packs across the lawns. It’s a gorgeous oasis set amid the high-rises, and it holds Government House, the late-19th century home of the state’s governors.
I’d take more pictures, but I’m running out of memory on my flash card, and I left the Zip Drive back at the hotel. I pace my shots, and miss out on a lot of images I’d later wish I could post, like the freaky long-billed birds and a lot of wonderful flowers. I promise myself I’ll come back. (I never make it).
Threatening clouds are rolling in, so we adjourn to the (next to the Parkroyal) for lunch and a pint. It’s pre-season for Australian Rules Football (“footy”), a sport similar to rugby employing plenty of blows to the head. The game shown on the pub TV is absolutely incomprehensible.
Melanie and I scramble up the narrow streets to the Harbour Bridge approach ramp, with the intention of climbing the giant pylon lookout to take some pictures. The guidebook says admission for the lookout is $1, a bargain.
- Pylon Lookout admission is now $3. You gotta really want it.
Forget that. Afternoon rush-hour traffic is whizzing past, but fine views are to be had along the pedestrian walkway, and we take a leisurely half hour or so to cross the span, snapping shots of the Opera House under cloud, skyscrapers, ferries, Opera House under sun, the opposite shore, and the Opera House. Excitement builds as we approach North Sydney, only to evaporate as we get a good look; densely packed offices for Sharp and Canon and Hyundai, not much to offer thirsty travellers. We double back and cross the span quickly this time, pausing briefly for a few pictures of the Opera House.
- Admission to the Sydney Observatory is free.
I’ve always been fond of astronomy from scientific and aesthetic grounds; until now I hadn’t thought of the implications for navigation and trade. This observatory was instrumental in the European expansion into the Southern Hemisphere – as soon as sailors lost sight of the North Star all bets were off and plenty of ships wrecked due to navigational errors. The observatory housed a series of precise telescopes and clocks for recording the traversal of stars directly overhead. Traversal times were recorded in detailed log books for distribution to ships’ navigators – know the time a particular star crosses over Sydney and you can figure out where you are when it passes over your own head. This museum is a charming side trip for geeks.
Jeff Drimak recommended for dinner, so we dress up nice and walk through the Argyle Cut (a hand-chiseled tunnel in the sandstone cliffs that give The Rocks its name). We don’t have reservations, and are asked to return in a half hour – no problem, as the is just up the block, and we enjoy a few pints of good brewed-on-premises ale at a rough wooden table across from the bar. We return to the restaurant and are seated at a table that was open when we arrived a half hour earlier. Hey, there could be any reason for that, but viewed in the context of Australian service, there probably wasn’t. No barramundi (a Jeff recommendation); there’s a mixup somewhere and the waitress uncorks the wrong wine. The food’s pretty good but there’s no hurry on the part of the staff to bring us the check (ever, it turns out). Hm. Jeff forgot to mention that.