When my wife went to Sydney for the first time last year, she sent me a giddy text that basically posed the question, “why don’t we live in Sydney?”
I chuckled at that excitable message and sent one back that said it was too expensive to live in Sydney and besides, we didn’t have jobs there. I felt bad, but hoped I had tempered her enthusiasm somewhat.
One year later, Karen, the girls, and I were sitting at the front of a ferry boat that was taking us from the Taronga Zoo, where we had spent the previous night, across Sydney Harbor. We had only been in Australia for four days — and in Sydney less than one — and I was completely taken by the country and its largest city. Coming across the ridiculously picturesque harbor, I could see all of downtown Sydney, with its towering skyscrapers, majestic Harbor Bridge and the iconic Sydney Opera House. The harbor was busy with boat traffic — both commercial and private — and in the distance, I could see a vibrant, full, and bustling city awakening to another sunny, glorious Sydney day. I have to say, at that moment, I fell in love.
I looked over at my wife, who I also love, and said:
“Tell me again why we don’t live in Sydney?”
She looked at me, amused, and said:
“Because it’s too expensive and neither of us has a job in Sydney.”
“No seriously,” I replied. “Why don’t we live in Sydney?”
Karen smiled and that was the end of the conversation. Not in my head. I am seriously ready to move to Sydney. It is a stunning city and, in my opinion, the future of what Western cities can, should, and will be. It is a modern city that has embraced its past as it aggressively wades into the 21st century. It is a perfect mix of the best of Europe and Asia, with its modern infrastructure, gleaming high rises, and old world sensibilities. It is full of charming pubs, fantastic restaurants serving cutting-edge cuisine, and a multicultural population that can occasionally lead you to wonder just which continent you are on. And, best of all, it is in my favorite region of the world, Asia Pacific.
Did I mention the little things that make me love Sydney so much, like the temperate climate, the clean air and water, and the fact that everyone speaks English? (Well, they speak Australia’s version of English.) Like much of the country, the city has enjoyed significant economic growth in the last decade, which is both a blessing and a curse. The soaring housing costs are one outcome of this growth, as is increased traffic congestion. Also, Australia is experiencing immigration issues associated with refugees from around the world trying to take part in its economic boom by making the dangerous boat journey there. It is a significant source of political conflict in the country, and I’m not sure anybody has a good solution for it. As long as they let me in, I’m good.
I could have stayed in Sydney for the whole 16 days we had for vacation, but there is a lot to see and do in Australia (and New Zealand, but that’s another post). Not knowing when we would ever get back there again, I planned an action-packed vacation for the family, starting with Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef in the north. I thought I had scored a coup by getting a direct flight from Shanghai to Cairns (in Queensland), which would have made the plane ride only eight hours instead of eleven, and avoid a stopover. My dreams were dashed, however, when our awesome Shanghai travel agent Julie (firstname.lastname@example.org) called me six weeks before our trip to tell me that China Eastern Airlines had cancelled all direct flights to Cairns during the holiday season, with no explanation why. Julie spent the next week fighting with the airline to get us to Cairns via Sydney, even though most flights were booked by then. Not only did Julie get us there, but she made them upgrade us to Business Class. (Do not cross Julie.)
We actually ended up about an hour north of Cairns in a quaint beach town called Port Douglas and checked into a beautiful, two-bedroom apartment at the Mandalay Beachfront Apartments (mandalay.com.au). It was comfortable with a big kitchen, which we stocked up from the grocery store a few blocks away on Macrossan street, the town’s very charming main street. Port Douglas bills itself as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, but there also are lots of other things to do in the area. On our first full day there, we made the two-hour drive north through what I would call “God’s Country,” across the crocodile-filled Daintree River, to the Cape Tribulation Rainforest. There we took a fun but harrowing Jungle Surfing Canopy Tour, which had us ziplining from tree to tree far above the rainforest floor (junglesurfing.com.au). I have never had an issue with heights, but flying along a thin rope, a couple hundred feet above the ground, and “landing” on a wooden perch built high on a tall, not particularly thick tree caused me a little concern. Watching my girls both come down the last leg of the zipline squealing with pleasure and upside down gave me even more.
The next day, we took a wonderful journey out to the Great Barrier Reef. We used Wavelength Marine Charters to get there because, unlike many other tour boats which take a hundred or so people snorkeling to the reef, they limit each group to 30 people (wavelength.com.au). They also had two marine biologists on board who gave presentations about the reef that we all found interesting and informative. It was awe-inspiring to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system. It was difficult in places because it is on the edge of the Continental Shelf and borders the Pacific Ocean. All of us saw incredible marine life underwater, including a giant clam that was about the size of Cassidy which ominously opened and closed its shell as she and I passed over it.
We left beautiful Port Douglas after three days of tropical bliss and headed for Sydney. As I said, this trip was go-go. After we landed, we went to our hotel to drop off luggage, packed a duffle bag for our next adventure, and jumped on a ferry headed to Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. We were going to participate in the zoo’s “Roar and Snore,” an event where about 20 families stay overnight in the zoo in giant tents, listening to lions roar and elephants bellow throughout the night (taronga.org.au/taronga-zoo). Each tent has a view from its front “porch” of downtown Sydney that many hoteliers would kill for. The evening at the zoo began with a wine-heavy meet-and-greet, and included a variety of snakes and lizards that the kids could touch. Then we were off to a buffet dinner. My good friend from Shanghai Liz and her family were there and we got to spend some time with them. Then it was off for a nighttime tour of the zoo.
As we found at the Singapore night zoo last Fall, many of the animals were nocturnal and quite active. It was a thrilling tour for the girls to see animals indigenous to the Asia Pacific region up close, particularly for Stephanie, who has had a lifelong obsession with elephants. They didn’t disappoint, putting on a hilarious, impromptu show for us with Mama elephant pushing her “baby” over backwards into the watering hole. Our tent was comfortable and we slept well until a flock of exotic birds started howling as the sun came up. We passed on the morning Roar and Snore events because we had a 9:30 a.m. reservation to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We took the aforementioned ferry ride across the harbor, looking up to the top of the bridge as we went by and wondering why the hell we signed up to climb the imposing structure.
For someone who generally does not like heights, my wife is a gamer when it comes to going up high on vacations (almost everything we did on our trip to Hong Kong last month was about going vertical). Climbing the bridge was her idea, inspired by my cousin Kristen’s Aussie adventures the previous year. And climb we did (bridgeclimb.com). To me, climbing the bridge was not as scary as our rainforest zipline adventure and it was absolutely breathtaking once we got to the top. The magnificence of Sydney was laid out before us and that question of living there popped into my head again. “Hell,” I thought, “how hard could it be to commute to Shanghai from Sydney?” Of course that is never going to happen, but a boy can dream.
The rest of our stay in the city was so great that our plan to tour the wine country of the Hunter Valley, an hour or so north of Sydney, gave way to a day spent wandering Sydney, including Darling Harbor and the Sydney Aquarium. After visiting a cool bookstore called Berkelouw Paddington Bookshop (berkelouw.com.au/stores/paddington) to stock the girls up on reading material, we found a great brewpub called The Local Taphouse in Darlinghurst. It was adjacent to the Sydney College of Fine Arts campus and served great food and even better beer (thelocal.com.au). We enjoyed both while outdoors on their 3rd floor deck in the 80 degree weather. Did I mention Sydney’s temperate climate?
That was one of many great meals we had in Sydney, including our Christmas Eve dinner at The Woods in The Four Seasons Hotel. This was the first time we celebrated the Christmas holiday away from home, and we did the best we could to replicate what we do in Michigan. The good news is that our “Elf on the Shelf” Lilly and Santa Claus both visited us in Australia. On Christmas Day we all got presents. Later, we had a blast at our Christmas Day brunch at Wolfies restaurant in the Rocks section of Sydney, located right on Sydney Harbor (docksidegroup.com.au/restaurants/wolfies). Karen and I began the festivities with champagne. The contemporary Australian cuisine and wine that followed were superb. Things got more festive as we were serenaded with holiday songs by a quartet of talented Australian singers, who sang directly to the girls and had them completely captivated by the performance.
While in Sydney, we stayed at the Quay West Suites in a two-bedroom, Harbourside room (accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-8764-quay-west-suites-sydney). We had the same amazing view as guests of the neighboring Fours Seasons and Shangri-La hotels but for about half the price. I refer to it as “luxury light” because Quay West doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that the other two hotels have, but it was clean, the staff was efficient and helpful, and the room service was good. That said, the true pleasure of the hotel came in the view from our balcony, where I spent lots of time staring longingly at Sydney Harbor in all its glory.
Australia, Australians, and particularly Sydney, blew me away. The people couldn’t be more friendly and fun to be around. We only saw a small portion of the country (to my Melbourne friends, I promise we will get there next time), but what we saw was spectacular and will most likely draw us back “down under” in the future. Then there was Sydney, a jewel of a city that is far more beautiful than the glamour shots you see in travel magazines. It is an electric city that still gives me chills when I talk about it.
Okay, fine! I will admit it, I’m having an affair with Sydney in my mind. Yes, I still love you Shanghai, but Sydney is spectacular and everything I want in a big, Asia Pacific city. All the things that are right with Shanghai, Sydney has. All the things that are wrong with Shanghai, Sydney has fixed or avoided altogether. I feel a little conflicted about this, but, if given my choice, I would live in Sydney over any other city in the world. Yes, I’m ashamed to say it, but feel better for admitting my cerebral transgression. Now I just need to get a job there so my wife and family can join me in my Sydney affair.