SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – It’s not easy to get to know Sydney. We’d bought a city map, but it showed only the areas south of the Harbour Bridge, around Circular Quay and Darling Harbor.
For visitors, the problem with Sydney is that it’s built around a gigantic, amoeba-shaped harbor full of points, peninsulas, bays, islands and coves that stretch west to the Parramatta River estuary and east to the Pacific Ocean. Many of the most famous beaches, including Bondi to the southeast and Manly to the northeast, are way off the map.
We had to start somewhere, so we headed for — where else? — Circular Quay and the Sydney Opera House.
We still hadn’t met our host, Julie, but when we forgot something and returned within five minutes, we saw her in the brick courtyard between her house and our cottage. But she had to rush off, so we didn’t find out why she has a 1950s Minnesota lake cabin behind her house.
The 470 bus dropped us at Martin Place, and we walked half a mile north to the waterfront. Unlike Melbourne, Sydney has a downtown full of purposeful people in business attire, and we felt a little out of place until we got to the tourist area.
We knew we had reached it because we saw 1) a massive cruise ship called the Celebrity Solstice and, dwarfed on its little point across the cove, 2) the Sydney Opera House.
Next to the gleaming white, 4,400-person cruise ship, Sydney’s most famous landmark looked shriveled and yellow.
We planned to catch the 1:30 p.m. walking tour through The Rocks, where the first ship of convicts and marines from England landed in 1788. But by the time we had wandered up to the Harbour Bridge and back, and split a steak sandwich in a park, the tour was full, and we had to book one for the next day.
Just as well, because the sun had come out, making it a perfect time to go to Manly. We caught the next ferry with two minutes to spare.
We didn’t know much about Manly, except it’s a beach town, it’s the farthest you can go on the city ferry and there’s a scenic walkway that follows the shoreline.
As the ferry plowed into the harbor, we stood up front with a map and ticked off the landmarks as we saw them: Admiralty House, residence of Australia’s governor-general and Queen Elizabeth, when she visits. Tiny Fort Denison, an island where misbehaving convicts were executed and their bodies hung up in chains. Taronga Zoo, Shark Island, Macquarie Lighthouse and North Head, marking the entrance to the harbor.
As soon as we saw Manly, we envied the people who get to live there. The ferry terminal alone overflowed with the good things in life — espresso, gelato, fresh salads, pastries – and the bounty continued on the Corso, a pedestrian street that led to a spectacular ocean beach lined by Norfolk Island pines.
We sat on a shaded bench for a while, watching swimmers bobbing in strong waves, until a voice over a loudspeaker summoned them away from rip currents and toward the south end of the beach. Amazingly, most of them obeyed.
The scenic walkway led us to a saltwater pool cut into the rock and the quieter Shelly Beach, then into bush through a rocky promontory to Sydney Harbour National Park, whose parts are scattered around the harbor. Steel-mesh boardwalk led us to the North Head headland, used first to quarantine immigrants and then for WWII defenses.
On the way to Collins Beach, we started noticing lots of golden orb weaving spiders. Just for fun, Beth threw a bit of twig into its web, and the big spider was on it instantaneously. Whoa! After checking out the twig, it chucked it out of the web — darn tourists, always littering! — and returned to its spot.
We also saw several leaf-curling spiders, which hide themselves in a leaf, but we couldn’t get them to react.
We’d only done the first part of the walk, but we were feeling sweaty and hungry. So when the walkway led us back to town, we went into 4 Pines Brewery, overlooking the East Esplanade, and had mushroom-and-Swiss burgers with sweet potato fries and aioli sauce. Beth also had a pint of the American-style pale ale, and Torsten demolished a large sticky-date pudding in a puddle of caramel.
Dark clouds were moving in, but we walked part of the route west of town, passing four muscled young men playing footvolley, or volleyball using any part of the body except hands, and swimmers in a saltwater lap pool. A stocky older woman snorkeled along one stretch of rock.
The parts of Manly we saw had a down-to-earth, even middle-class feel that we found remarkable, considering the million-dollar views from the low-rise apartment buildings along the shore. If there was American-style ostentation, we didn’t see it.
By the time our return ferry reached Sydney, it was already dark, though that gave Torsten a chance to photograph the lighted landmarks. Then the 470 carried us back to our little cottage for the night.