In a story on Sydney in Sunday's Travel section, the culture of Dreamtime-the ancient aboriginal mythology that connects past, present and future-was incorrectly identified. (Published 09/28/99)
If you're planning to "do" Sydney during the 2000 Summer Olympics, don't.
Instead, visit Australia's largest city long before the Games begin, or after they end. It's simply too dazzling a metropolis to negotiate when all the best restaurants--and there are dozens because this is ground zero for cutting-edge cuisine--and other hot spots will be jammed with 1.5 million Olympic spectators.
Why fly halfway around the world to end up elbowing your way through pubs, clubs and even the commuter ferries that ply the magnificent harbor?
Better to go in the frigid months, as my husband and I did, to escape Washington's winter and savor Sydney's summer. Michael and I weren't sure what to expect. Indeed, most Americans don't know much about the country--never mind the city--beyond koala bears, kangaroos, "Crocodile" Dundee, Patrick Rafter and the occasional bargain wine.
Too bad, because Sydney is full of surprises: quaint neighborhoods, nearly two dozen beaches reachable by public transport, good shopping, friendly people and above all, great food.
Our first hint of Sydney's sizzle came from a Qantas Airlines seatmate at the end of a 14-hour flight from Los Angeles. Having just played backup for Australian actor Russell Crowe ("L.A. Confidential") at the Viper Room, guitarist Nick Penn said he was shocked that L.A. clubs closed so early while his hometown hangouts stayed open till dawn or even the brunch hour.
Shortly before deplaning, he gave us a proper welcome by hoisting an Aboriginal didgeridoo to his lips and blowing long, low blasts through a four-foot log that had been hollowed out by ants. He reprised the performance in the baggage claim area before disappearing, laughing, into the night.
For the next five days, we ate and drank to excess and reveled in the city that began so inauspiciously in 1788 as a wretched British penal colony overlooking Botany Bay. Today it is prosperous, respectable and a Sybarite's dream. We decided in our limited time to forgo most major museums and cultural sights in favor of food and an eclectic mix of attractions dictated by weather and whim. We spent our only rainy day at the Museum of Contemporary Art checking out two terrific exhibitions--an Andy Warhol retrospective and a show of up-and-coming Australian and New Zealand artists.
The museum is in the Rocks, a neighborhood that has been through several incarnations: seafaring and commercial center; a slum rife with hookers and thugs; and, since the 1970s when preservationists thwarted a move to raze the whole area, a tourist magnet. (Think Baltimore's Inner Harbor.) Cafes, pubs, Aboriginal art galleries and cutesy boutiques featuring such local designers as Ken Done (brightly colored housewares, adult and kids' clothing) and Helen Kaminsky (terrific women's straw hats) line cobblestoned streets.
After culture came cuisine, lunch at Wockpool in nearby Potts Point. It's one of several wonderful but pricey restaurants co-owned by Neil Perry, a moving force behind the innovative fusion cooking known as Modern Australian. That's Mod Oz for short and it will disabuse you of any notion that mutton is the national dish. We're talking classically trained chefs who look to Asia and Europe for inspiration, using fine domestic beef, lamb, seafood, fruits, vegetables, cheeses and wine. After a solicited lesson from the waiter in Chardonnay 101--"wooded" is aged in oaken casks and, to our taste, lovely "unwooded" or "unoaked" in metal tanks--we lost ourselves to Pacific oysters, steamed mussels, Shanghai noodles and blue swimmer crab.
We waddled back to the hotel meaning only to nap, but slept till dawn. Do not underestimate transpacific jet lag.
Friday dawned sunny, a perfect day for the Fish Market in Pyrmont. Part retail, part wholesale, part cooking school, this is a great spot for kids and grown-ups because Australia produces some spectacular, occasionally prehistoric-looking seafood with such ridiculous names as yabbies and Balmain bugs.
I was entranced by the Japanese chef who sniffed, sliced into and finally bought an 80-pound yellowtail tuna for almost $700. It was expensive, a monger explained, because fierce storms had kept fishing boats in port for weeks.
Had we not already booked lunch, we'd have eaten at one of several stands in the market that serve raw oysters, sushi, calamari and other briny treats. Vendors without alcohol licenses encourage you to bring your own wine or beer, and provide small tables for civilized dining.
But we were off to Sailor's Thai in the Rocks, which did not disappoint: tapioca dumplings with chicken, crab and pickled garlic; crispy ground fish with deep fried shallots on betel leaves (you eat those, too) and stir-fried prawns with shallots and soy, all washed down with more of that lovely Chardonnay. (If it sounds like we were in training for a 12-step program, fear not; this was simply one of those holidays in which moderation would have been its own punishment).
We strolled to nearby Circular Quay, the hub of Sydney's ferry, bus and rail system. The plaza was filled with artists, dancers, jugglers and mimes performing for money. Our favorite was Sicilian-born carver Sam Mancuso, who creates tall ships from wood using only a piece of glass. He spent 2,500 hours crafting the Amerigo Vespucci. We gladly gave a few bills to his private arts endowment before putting out to sea on a ferry for an hour-long harbor tour. It's an easy intro to the incredible waterway that is the soul of the city, and it made us yearn for aggressive Potomac development, including water taxis and many more riverfront restaurants.
The ferry guide (or was it a recording?) began with the basics: Starboard is right. Port is left. Over there is the Opera House, that iconic edifice said to evoke palm fronds. The Voice did not tell us that the building has been likened to everything from a nun's hat to copulating turtles, but did recap pitched battles over its design, massive cost overruns and finally its 1973 opening.
Rounding Rushcutter's Bay (with waterfront mansions stacked up as if on a Malibu rice paddy) and Point Piper (whose residents include Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise and his Aussie wife, Nicole Kidman), I had my first serious attacks of real estate envy. The Voice also drew our attention to the Sydney Harbor Bridge, atop which we could discern a chain of teeny humans. For about $66 on weekdays and $80 on weekends, you can scale the 400-foot high span, but only after convincing officials you're sober, sane and not planning suicide.
We opted instead for a modified pub crawl. We began with the Grand National Hotel (bars, by law until recently, had to provide some sort of lodging, however simple) in Paddington. Its patrons were a nice mix of blue-collar construction types and dress-for-success briefcase schleppers. Those not chatting, watching rugby on three TVs or shooting pool were perched on stools playing the "pokies," electronic poker machines.
After a drink, we wandered down tree-lined Underwood Street to inspect the Victorian "terrace houses." Nearly a century ago, each two-story cottage was crammed with several working-class families, who stayed until they could afford to flee to more distant suburbs. The neighborhood, which feels like Georgetown or Old Town, went into decline until gentrification hit in the '70s. Many houses have since been beautifully restored, down to the signature "iron lace" grillwork. One three-bedroom with "potential for parking" carried a $527,000 price tag.
Two signs outside the London Tavern (founded in 1876) declared it to be "Paddo's oldest pub" and warned that "drinking on footpath is prohibited." We kept walking, stopping occasionally to browse in boutiques, bookstores, galleries and shops. Our fave? Thirst for Life, which sells designer water. The Paddington Inn (yet another pub) with its neo-trendo decor was in high hormonal meat-market mode (it was, after all, a Friday night). So loud was the din that dozens of patrons had fled outside to use their cell phones.
Regrettably, shops belonging to two of Australia's hottest fashion designers, Collette Dinnegan and Lisa Ho, were closed. Each featured lovely, filmy, clingy frocks much in demand in Europe and Australia by women who weigh very little.
Growing tired of this scene, we took a 10-minute bus ride to slightly funkier Darlinghurst. Too early for the 10 p.m. drag show at the Albury Hotel, we grabbed a bite at the randomly chosen Green Park Diner, forgiving its mediocre salads and a downright awful rhubarb pear crumble because the platinum-and-ebony haired waitress was so festive. When we applauded the "Please switch off mobile phone" sign on the espresso machine, she curled her lip and concurred, "It's so antisocial."
Next stop, La Fabulosa, a second-story Latin club that, alas, was half-empty; despite the throbbing rhythms of a hot, live band, no one danced. Back at the Albury, some 20 people, gay and straight, were lined up for the no-cover-charge show. Rather than queue up for 30 minutes, we eyeballed the action through the window. A lip-syncer in a yellow leather mini-dress warbled "Man Wanted" from a stage at mid-bar.
Nearby, a street vendor cooking up a mess of $2 onion-smothered sausages said he'd stay open until 5 or 6 a.m. That's about the time that scores of members of Sydney's enormous gay community would exit the clubs and go to City Gym. The 24-hour health club sells passes to visitors, but be warned: This is a shrine to the buff of bod. Do not risk humiliation if you jiggle.
We were ready for some live jazz, so we taxied across the harbor to the Rattlesnake Grill (a k a "Santa Fe on Neutral Bay"). Expat American owner Victor Pisapia--who moved Down Under after years at Rehoboth's Blue Moon and Back Porch restaurants--had booked a wonderful scat singer and her two-piece combo. We declined his offer of a "Mangorita" (tequila and mango juice) and opted for--what else?--more Chardonnay.
On another glorious sunny day, we hit the relentlessly hip bills in Darlinghurst, a canteen for exceedingly chic men and women and their gorgeous progeny.
This corner eatery is all windows and light and minimalism. The front table seats 16, perfect for the lone diner or couple who would rather read slick magazines (Hola, W, Australian Gourmet Traveller) than talk. Michael dove into a mound of perfectly soft scrambled eggs and (undercooked, British style) bacon. I went for birchermuesli with exquisitely ripe peaches.
After breakfast, we split up, Michael to the beach and I to the Balmain flea market. The pickings were way slim, but the much larger, livelier Paddington flea didn't open until 10, too late for a packed schedule. I began at the privately owned National Aboriginal Cultural Center in Darling Harbour, which advertised four daily shows of indigenous music, dancing and storytelling. Alas, members of the three visiting tribes had returned to their homelands for ceremonies, so all performances were canceled.
The center looks like a small museum complete with murals painted on (fake) rocks, displays of weaponry and a 180-seat theater. Its art gallery sells everything from T-shirts to paintings costing thousands of dollars. (Actually, having come under new ownership, the center no longer offers performances.) Although fascinated by the "dreamline" stories that Aboriginal artists relate on canvas and boards using painted lines and dots, I wasn't sufficiently moved to buy any.
Switching Pacific cultures altogether, I entered the nearby Chinese Garden, whose video touts its "serenity and tranquility from the bustling world outside." Ha! A cacophony of jackhammers (gotta get those hotels and condos built in time for the Olympics) filled the air. Still, the weeping willows, rustling bamboo, waterfalls and lotus ponds were lovely.
Thus mellowed, I boarded the monorail that circles Darling Harbour and the city center, making four full circuits to enjoy the second-story view of architecture (a nice juxtaposition of Victorian and postmodern) and to gather my wits for the assault on the enormous Paddy's Market at the edge of Chinatown.
There were acres of jewelry, clothing, luggage and gewgaws, and it is the perfect place to shop for souvenirs ranging from key chains to kangaroo hides, complete with long tails. Now I love fur. But even at $16.50, I could not buy one despite the fact that 'roos are considered pests by Aussies, who kill and process them for dog food. It felt too much like buying a Bambi pelt.
Paddy's, open Friday through Sunday, also houses several upper levels of shops and a food court, which is where I found a great little $5 black evening bag and $3 plate of green curry before returning to the hotel.
Michael was just back from Lady Jane, one of Sydney's nude beaches. And though he is in terrific shape and not overly modest, he did not strip. Smart move for a guy with no desire to fry his backside in a country with almost no ozone layer. Warning: Pack a big hat and very strong sunblock.
On Sunday, two friends took us for lunch to Bondi Beach, the city's most famous and fat-forgiving. Campbell Parade, the main drag at Bondi (pronounced BOND-eye) was jammed with families and hordes of teenagers in all shapes. We popped into the Gelato Bar Restaurant, whose back room was filled with Eastern Europeans speaking unintelligible tongues and savoring goulash, schnitzel, boiled beef and stuffed cabbage. This was not our idea of beach eats, so we moved on to Bondi Surf Seafood, which turned out to be "The Home of the Fried Mars Bar."
A pimply counter kid explained: You dip the sweet little brick into coconut batter, cook it first at low heat in a vat of oil, then deep fry it on high until it's crispy outside and gooey within. I eagerly paid a buck for one and offered it to our friends' young kids, who hated it. I loved it, and so do some 99 other people a day, sweet freaks all, who don't seem to care (or even notice) that Bondi Surf Seafood uses the same grease for the fish and the fries as for the Mars bars.
We hiked off lunch on a long, ocean-hugging path that connects half a dozen beaches, including the heavily gay Tamarama (locals call it Glamour-ama). It took nearly an hour to reach our destination, Waverly Cemetery, where 250,000 souls rest in peace on prime oceanfront real estate. Some of the headstones and mausoleums date to the 18th century.
Though we'd ingested perhaps a quart of cooking oil at lunch, Michael and I rallied for dinner at Paramount, another Mod Oz restaurant boasting an almost zenlike interior and pricey menu. We reveled in the bivalve combo--a Tasmanian Pacific oyster fritter with fennel and black-bean dressing and Narooma Rock oyster with Bloody Mary sauce--as well as the five-spice duck and shiitake mushroom pie. (It was lovely but impossible to finish, so I requested a duckie bag and had our hotel kitchen rewarm it at breakfast.)
Dinner finished, we hit sleazy King's Road, where the Girl Power Boutique's windows were filled with sequined spandex ensembles only a stripper or streetwalker could love. We passed clubs called Pink Pussycat Showgirls and Playgirls International and probably should have gone inside for research. But, hey, a fleshpot is a fleshpot the world over.
Global Gossip, on the other hand, an e-mail center filled with backpackers, was much more interesting, jammed with kids surfing the Net for 15 cents a minute. Were I very young and single, it's where I'd go trolling. But as I am neither, it was time for sleep.
The next morning, we had coffee and scones in MG Garage, which won our prize for best mixed-use, high-end eatery. It is a combination auto showroom, restaurant (order a Lamborghini with your lunch) and gourmet shop featuring the first cheese room we'd ever seen. A glass-enclosed chamber with carefully controlled temperature and humidity cosseted dozens of varieties of hard and soft cheeses from Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. Talk about aromatherapy.
We will return to Sydney--after the Olympics, of course--because we found a city that left us fat and happy, a city with spectacular people, scenery and food. While they don't drive on our side of the road, they speak an approximation of our language. And do they ever know how to have fun.
Before leaving, though, we ferried to the Taronga Zoo so we could say we'd hit at least one major tourist attraction. For $10, you're supposed to get round-trip boat fare, zoo admission and a cable car ride to and from the dock to the entrance. But the funicular was closed for repairs (gotta refurbish this, too, for the Olympics). We were charmed by the adorable wildlife: kangaroos, the smaller wallabys, platypuses and, of course, koalas--available for photo ops for $1 during certain hours. Dingos, a kind of wild dog, snarled in outdoor cages.
"You can't really domesticate them," a zookeeper said. "They eat canine kibble, minced kangaroo, lamb with bones and whole rabbits."
You see, there's no escaping foodie talk in Sydney.
GETTING THERE: Flight time is 14 1/2 hours nonstop from Los Angeles. Australia's national airline, QANTAS, has at least one daily nonstop flight from L.A.
Economy fares from L.A., booked 21 days in advance, range from $998 in the low season (Aussie autumn and winter) from mid-April to mid-June and July 17-Aug. 21, up to $1,698 during the peak summer season. That's Dec. 9-Mar. 5, and includes Christmas and Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the latter being two weeks of music, dancing, parades and costumery billed as the world's largest homosexual revel. And, of course, peak fares will be charged next Sept. 1-30 for the Olympics.
WHERE TO STAY: If you want to splurge on sumptuous digs and dazzling harbor views, our Sydney pals recommend the Park Hyatt (1-800-233-1234), ANA Hotel Sydney (1-800-262-4683) and the Inter-Continental (1-800-327-0200).
We were quite happy at the restored Grace Hotel (77 York St., 011-61-2-9272-6888, or 1-800-457-4000 in the United States), once the Art Deco Grace Bros. department store in the central business district. It's a nice walk to the Rocks, Opera House, Chinatown and other tourist attractions. A small but chic rooftop health club with lap pool, sauna and whirlpool is free, but use of the gym equipment costs about $6.70 U.S. a day. Room rates through Dec. 30 range from about $200 to $300 U.S. per night, plus tax, depending on the exchange. Prices drop as low as $130 on weekends.
TIPS: In addition to standard travel books, buy the Sydney Morning Herald's latest "Good Food Guide" for detailed restaurant advice. It's sold at many Aussie bookshops. And to learn the latest insider social foodie gossip, read the Herald's dishy column, "Short Black," which is what the locals call an espresso.
INFORMATION: Australian Tourist Commission, 310-229-4870 or 1-800-369-6863 (for brochure), or www.aussie.net.au.
GAMES UPDATE: For those of you who want to ignore our advice and explore Sydney during the Summer Games (Sept. 15-Oct. 1, 2000), tickets recently went on sale. For information on tickets and packages, contact Cartan Tours (the exclusive U.S. ticket agent for the Olympics), 1-800-841-1994, www.cartan .com. For general info on the event, see www.sydney.olympics.org.