Ah, Christmas at the beach. Trust us: when you get used to it you really don’t miss the snow at all.
Founded on one of the great natural harbors in the world, Sydney got its start as part of the British Empire in 1770 when James Cook dropped anchor not far from today’s downtown area. He reported that the locals weren’t happy to have him around; wise people, apparently. Over the next several years England was looking for a place to store convicts and decided Australia was just the ticket. Thus on January 26, 1788 – today’s Australia Day or what indigenous people call Invasion Day) a ship full of convicts, guards, and livestock pulled into port. Interestingly, the early settlement – numbering over 4,000 convicts in just a couple years – had no prison. The punishment was called “transportation,” and Australia itself was the prison.
Fast forward a couple hundred years and the old penal colony is a humming metropolis of 4.4 million people, one of the world’s showcase cities. Iconic places like the UNESCO-listed Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge, world-class beaches in neighboring Bondi and Manley. Great restaurants, wonderful hiking trails, a subtropical climate, and a multicultural melting pot: fully a third of Sidneysiders, as they’re called, speak a language other than English at home.
So yeah, there’s a lot to love about Sydney.
Altogether we spent a little over three weeks in Queensland before flying down to Sydney, the capital of New South Wales. One of the things that we’ve learned during this time is that ground transportation is all but out of the question for us; with all due respect to our friends Piers and Charlotte, driving nearly the entire perimeter of Australia, for us the distances are just too massive. So we’re flying damned near everywhere.
And how do we spend our Christmas break in Sydney? We were here 12 years ago so some of the basic tourist things – touring the Opera House, climbing the Harbor Bridge – were already checked off. Which is a good thing, since it left us time to search out restaurants that are still open. This is not just Christmas and soon New Years: down here it’s also the start of summer season, so lots and lots of places are starting to close down for a week or two or even more, a lot like Paris in August. When Mark went to TripAdvisor to see what restaurants would be open on Christmas Day, Indian restaurants were heavily over represented. That worked out for us.
Our major activities were two long hikes. First up was a ferryboat out to Manly, a beach town just north of Sydney, to hike the Manly Scenic Walkway back into Sydney. (Yeah, after all that time in Queenstown, New Zealand, and Queensland here in Australia we figured it as time to get Manly. Heh.) The first six miles or so were along the coast and through the Sydney Harbor National Park. After a great lunch at an Italian restaurant it was another six miles back to central business district where we were staying.
Two days later, Christmas Day, we decided to up our game a bit. The four-mile Coogee to Bondi walk is described as Sydney’s most popular walk, connecting two great beach communities just south of Sydney with a spectacular coastal walk. But first we decided to walk out to Coogee. And then, after lunch in Bondi, we walked all the way back to Sydney, altogether probably 16 or 17 miles. What a great way to spend Christmas!
There was one strikeout, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. We’re not sure what the problem was – nothing that was even remotely familiar to us? just a weak collection? the wrong day? – but nothing there to grab us.
The final highlight was that twice – dinner our first night and lunch on Christmas Day – we found ourselves seated at dinner with locals who were just great fun. Dinner that first night was at the bar of a steak house and there was a great young couple, and then lunch on Christmas in Bondi with a local couple who just invited us to join them at their table in the very crowded German restaurant. But for the kindness of strangers…