"If you're not in Sydney," they say, "you're camping out." In the "Lucky Country," as the locals call Australia, Sydney is the capital of unembarrassed hedonism, where the serious questions of the day relate to the choice of restaurants, the right wine and the tolerable level of sunburn.

From a distance, Sydney, where I grew up and still return each year to spend the langorous summer months, is a shimmer of blue water under brilliant sunlight. The skyscrapers of downtown Sydney march almost to the water's edge of one of the loveliest harbors in the world; suburbia crowds in on its foreshores and has spread along the sandstone cliffs overlooking the South Pacific.

With some 3.3 million people, many of them postwar immigrants from Europe, Sydney is a cosmopolitan city with some unexpectedly fine restaurants, but strangers will delight in its ease, its informality and its unhurried pace.

Distance in the sprawling metropolis can be calculated as reluctant distance from the surf and the soft, cream-colored sand along 35 miles of beaches. The local favorite is Bondi, about four miles east of downtown Sydney. On Bondi Beach, the fragrance of coconut oil is reminiscent of the endless summers of one's childhood. Today, Sydneysiders still flock to the beach in the thousands, and almost all the women go topless, even if they are old enough to recall the mid-'60s, when beach inspectors sometimes carried tape measures to ensure that bikinis came up to a width of common decency.

In those days, Sydney was only starting to emerge from its torpid provincialism, a legacy of its origins as a British colony. The first white Australians were prisoners, or their jailers. With the jails in England overflowing, Sydney, in the state of New South Wales in southeastern Australia, was settled as a penal colony in 1788. The transportation of convicts was halted in 1853, but the memory lingered on, and Australians still tend to be skeptical about authority, suspicious of social pretension, informal enough to make easygoing Americans appear buttoned-up and so insistent on being anyone's equal that they may wave away a tip.

"No thanks, mate, it's me job," a porter at Mascot, Sydney's air terminal, told a friend of mine who had thoughtlessly offered him a dollar. Something of the sort might recur in the taxi headed from the airport into the city. If the meter shows, say, $5.10, the cabbie, like as not, will say, "Five bucks'll be right, sport . . ." (the declining Australian dollar currently is worth 67 cents U.S.), staring in amazement if he receives $6.

The drive from Mascot is otherwise discouraging. You will not, for instance, see so much as a single koala. Which leads me, almost inevitably, to the questions about Australia I am regularly asked by Americans, whether or not they are planning a trip to the other end of the world.

Q. Do you speak English over there?

A. Sort of . . .

Q. Is it like "The Thorn Birds"?

A. I sincerely hope not.

Q. Where do you see koala bears?

A. In the zoo, and in advertisements for Qantas, our superlative, and, indeed, our only, international airline. By the way, a koala is not a bear, and it is slightly more likely to scratch than to bite. This presents no problem for the average tourist since koalas do not roam wild in the streets. Neither do kangaroos, in case you were thinking of asking, though you sometimes run into them out in the country.

Q. Do you know Mel Gibson?

A. I wish I'd run into him, out in the country.

Q. Do people really say "I'll put a shrimp on the barbie . . ."?

A. Not exactly. We call them prawns, not shrimp, and instead of tasting like defrosted cardboard, they're delectable.

Q. How are they different from us, Down Under?

A. Well, they don't wear plaid sports coats and they never say "Down Under" unless they've been in advertising too long . . .

Nonetheless there are parts of the unspoiled continent that will make Americans feel right at home, if not nostalgic. The main roads that cut through the industrial suburbs, west of downtown Sydney, are ablaze with the bunting of used-car lots, McDonald's drive-ins, Pizza Huts, taco joints . . . yes, the very pleasure domes to be seen along Route 1, all as depressingly familiar as the age spots on the back of your hand.

Struggle out there if you must, though what I would suggest instead, as an introduction to Sydney, is taking the ferry to Manly from Circular Quay downtown, for an easy 35-minute passage north across the harbor, starting with the sight of the Opera House. Its white "sails," glinting in sunlight, almost seem to dip and curve, like the sails of the yachts out on the spectacular harbor. "It is . . . a roomy sheet of lovely blue water," wrote Mark Twain, who was there in the 1890s, "with narrow off-shoots of water running up into the country on both sides, between long fingers of land . . . "

"Up into the country" is not the first phrase to spring to mind now that the red-tiled roofs of Sydney suburbia appear along the foreshores, but history looms up just as suddenly as the ferry steams past "Pinchgut," a thick-walled stone fort on a tiny island, briefly used in colonial days as a local Alcatraz (to visit it, call the Maritime Services Board), but built for defensive reasons in the 1840s after seven U.S. warships sailed unnoticed into Sydney Harbor.

As children, exploring in the bush along the cliffs above the coves and inlets of the harbor foreshores, we used to stumble across the rusting remains of artillery, left over from World War II, when Japanese submarines made it into the harbor. Even then, all thought of war seemed surreal, as it will to anyone stepping off the ferry at Manly, where the old tin sign on the pier still proclaims "Seven Miles from Sydney and a Thousand Miles from Care."

Manly has the slight improbability of a child's drawing. The harbor pier is at one end of The Corso, its main street, and the ocean beach is at the other, a five minutes' stroll away. The towering Norfolk pines on the promenade above the beach are dying because of the detergent in the sea spray, and a couple of the old guesthouses have been torn down to make way for a grand hotel, but Manly still resembles almost anyone's idea of a quaint seaside resort. It is charming because it harks back to the time, not so long ago, that Sydney was a sleepy backwater.

The easiest way to start any tour of downtown Sydney is to take the fire-engine-red double-decker bus called the Sydney Explorer, which runs every 15 minutes on a nonstop route past 20 of the city's significant sights. The $5 ticket includes a handbook with maps and photographs.

Downtown Sydney, the hub of a metropolitan area sprawling over 1,573 square miles, was not quite torn down and replaced in the construction boom of the '60s. Does it go without saying that the obvious ports of call for a sightseer are the relics saved from this orgy of self-improvement? In recent years, some of the finest structures have been restored, and one place to take in the restoration is the Strand Arcade, which runs between George and Pitt streets in the center of the city.

The Strand is a triple-storied Victorian shopping arcade with a domed glass roof and balconies in filigreed ironwork. Its Harris Coffee Shop is a deserved favorite, and there are any number of chic boutiques upstairs -- Sydney, perhaps unexpectedly, being the place to find original, moderately priced women's sportswear.

A few blocks east of the arcade, Macquarie Street has several colonial-era buildings that have been restored. A stroll past the Mint and the Hyde Park Barracks, both designed by convict architect Francis Greenway, leads around the corner, toward the Domain, one of many parks in the city. Soap-box orators gather under the Moreton Bay fig trees in the Domain on Sunday afternoons. The Art Gallery of New South Wales, across the street from the Domain and overlooking the harbor, is a bit short on old masters but has a fine, permanent collection of Australian paintings and some primitive art.

A short cut through the Domain, back toward the north end of Macquarie Street, leads past the Mitchell Library (peek in), toward the entrance of the Royal Botanic Gardens, which are not to be missed. No more idyllic place exists in all Sydney. Unfortunately, the restaurant in the gardens does not live up to the glorious locale. Picnicking is preferable. The well-prepared will be supplied with Sydney rock oysters or prawns (from the fish markets on the perimeter of downtown Sydney) and a bottle of Houghton's White Burgundy.

Failing that, EJ's, one of Sydney's best restaurants, is nearby on Macquarie Street. Politicians, lobbyists and all the local literati gather there for lunch on Fridays. With luck, the Sydney attitude to social pleasure being what it is, lunch will go on until nightfall, when it will be time to wander down the street, past Circular Quay, to the Opera House, where Joan Sutherland makes appearances in the summer.

Several suburbs close to the city are worth exploring on foot.

The charming Victorian rowhouses throughout Paddington, little more than a mile east of downtown Sydney, are renowned for the "iron-lace" of their balconies. There are countless art galleries in the neighborhood, and the weekend flea market, in a churchyard on Oxford Street, is the place to find bargains in clothing (new or secondhand), unlikely souvenirs and antiques.

Nearby, Double Bay is Sydney's smartest shopping district, and the most elegant local women materialize there on Saturday mornings, dressed to the nines.

Kings Cross, between the city and Double Bay, is the tatty red-light district, and the main strip can be positively sleazy -- though not at all unsafe -- by night, but it is a convenient place to stay.

Going farther afield -- and anyone with more than a day or two in Sydney should go farther afield -- will involve renting a car for at least a day and driving on the other side of the road.

Unambiguous hedonists might strike out for the Berowra Waters Inn (arguably the finest restaurant in Australia), on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, about 30 miles north of Sydney and well out of sight of civilization. Or drive west to the Blue Mountains (yes, Virginia, they are blue), pausing to eat at Glenella, in Blackheath, which is open for lunch on weekends.

But with time for only one side trip, what I would do, instead, is stock up for a picnic at Cyril's Delicatessen on Campbell Street on the western edge of the city, splurge on a bottle of Petaluma (a superb Australian white wine) or St. Henri claret and go south of Sydney on the Prince's Highway. Past the Royal National Park, toward Bulli, the views south -- along the mile-high coastal cliffs -- will incite almost any stranger to explore the rest of the unknown continent.