Our trip to Sydney is uneventful, well sort of … Gail first leaves her phone in the bathroom at the airport, then she thinks in the bus to the hotel. While she is calling the bus company, I find that it on the floor fallen out of her purse. Then after happy hour drinks she leaves it on the bar and has to be chased down by the server. We are not off to a good start.
We are staying at the Sir Stamford at the Circular Quay, a wonderful late 1800 hotel that has a lot of charm and an even better location. We can see the botanical garden and the top of the sails of the Opera House from our balcony. And it is a 5-minute stroll down to the pubs and restaurants on the Opera Quay.
The Sir Stamford last name is actually Raffles of Singapore fame. He founded Singapore in 1819. It has met his standard for greatness and his hotels the same. Sadly, there is a development permit to tear down part of the hotel and put up … modern residences…. Got to fight that!
We decide that we will just walk to everything and skip the Hop On Hop Off bus. We only have 2 full days and there is plenty of the top things to do close by. After drinks we go down to the Quay and pick a casual place for dinner. The breeze is lovely as it is a very warm evening and we enjoy the food. After dinner a stroll over for pictures of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge as the sun sets and then a nightcap.
The next morning, we our out about 9 for breakfast down on the Quay and are joined by 2 very colourful Parakeets that want the sugar off the table. They get a bit aggressive, so the server takes all the sugar off the tables. Then we are off to the Botanical Garden and the Choo Choo Express. It is a 20-minute small train with guide through the key parts of the Garden which gives us a great overview.
The gardens are connected to the State Governor’s House. Developed starting in 1816 by the wife of Governor Macquarie, likely to keep the people out of her own garden. At the end is a bench carved into the limestone named after her. The Garden became the largest in Australia, some 75 acres with over 45,000 different trees and plants. This includes a large herb garden used by the restaurant, the old Palm Grove, dating back to 1816, a small garden farm, which was left from first European farm, and a special indigenous plant area.
We pass the Wishing Tree and decide to go back after to make a wish. You close your eyes, make a wish and the go 3 times around in both directions, then close your eyes and make your wish again. Sure hope it works.
Out in the harbour is Fort Dennison, once the small island where the worst of the prisoners were ‘housed’ in horrific conditions. They were left chained to the fort open to all the elements. They were feed only once a week and then only small portions of bread and water.
From here we head to our noon tour of the Opera House along Bennelong Point. Bennelong Point was the gathering place of the original aboriginals and remains, with the Opera House, a gathering place.
Completed in 1973 and opened by Queen Elizabeth II the history of the build is very interesting. Championed by the Director of the Opera and Governor a world-wide competition was held back in 1956 to pick a design. In the end a Danish architect, Utzon, was declared the winner and the process to finalize the design was started.
His vision of the sails, or seashells for some, was to honour the location. However, he had not consulted any engineers and while they loved the designs no one knew how they could build it or how it would stay up. The shape of the shells changed many times and finally some 3 years later Utzon had an epiphany and recommended building like a sphere with sails cut out so that both sides were connected as part of the sphere.
It took some 10,000 people to build and amazingly there were no deaths despite the fact that they crawled across the sails without harnesses. By 1966 (well into the build) the engineers and Utzon were at odds, combine that with a change in government and questionable support, Utzon left the project never to return and never to see his vision live. More of the story to come.
When it was finally completed the original 3 year, $4M plan became a 14 year, $102M project. Those wealthy people in Kirribilli, across the harbour, once great complainers that the Opera House would decrease their property values, today are great supporters. It is the symbol of Sydney.
There are 10 sails, 4 for the main theatre, 4 for the smaller and 2 for the restaurant. This was the first time that glass was used as walls not just windows. With the changes in temperature they had to put struts that would allow for the expansion and contraction.
Utzon worked with tile producers for 3 years to get the perfect combination of off white and creams even though it looks just white. If it has been pure white it would be blinding on a sunny day. The ceramic material, both shiny and matte finish, means that a good rain and they are cleaned by themselves.
The main theatre and its wood natural acoustics can hold 2,700 people. However, when Handel’s Messiah is on the back of the stage and boxes are filled with the 900 large choir. With the height some 22M from stage to top of roof the travel and delay of sound would have been a problem for the orchestra and singers, so they have acoustic rings that are lowered above the stage so some of the sound bounces back to them quicker then the audience.
The smaller theatre, home of the Opera, holds 1500. The alcoves of the stage are too small to hold the scenery. As the Opera is held without microphones to take advantage of the acoustics, it is impossible for one cast to sing 8 performance a week as it is too hard on their voices. So, a minimum of 2 but sometime 3 Operas run at a time. The scenery is stored 2 floors down and brought up and down by elevators every day.
So, the end of the Utzon story. The design was meant to last more than 200 years, but it was also recognized that it would need to have upgrades and changes to keep it for many more. Utzon was invited back in 1999 to share his upgrade plans with the current engineers. He agreed but as he was now in his 80’s he felt the travel was too much for him.
Instead his son came and still today oversees the ongoing improvements. Utzon finally got the recognition he deserved for the project when in 2003 Utzon was awarded the highest award in the world for architecture. As well in 2007 it was named a UNESCO site, only the 2nd to receive that honour while the architect was still alive.
Dropping off our newly acquired pictures at the hotel we take some time with Concierge, Robert, who is fantastic and gives us some great tips and a route plan for tomorrow morning. This afternoon we are headed to the Rocks area, or Old Sydney or Talla Wo La Dah.
We stop for a light lunch and wine at the Russell hotel along George Street. George street is the oldest in Sydney and is home to a great selection of old storefronts, hotels and bars all dating back into the early to mid 1800’s. We stop, as you do, at the Mercantile Hotel from 1915, with the oldest Irish bar.
We then wander as far as we can go to find the houses built by the prisoners. Here prisoners who were shipped from the UK spent their 7 years hard labour term picking out the limestone rocks around the bay, which turned into homes. The place, with all it’s iron railings, has the feel of New Orleans.
At the end of our trek is the Lord Nelson, reported to be the oldest tavern … but alas that is not quite true. It is in fact the oldest hotel and oldest continuously serving tavern from 1841. The Fortune of War, down on old George Street has the longest serving licence from 1839. Will have to head back there tomorrow.
It is very hot and humid, and we are sticky by the time we get back to the hotel. Gail rests her aching leg and I set out to find some wine and an ATM. We have a cold glass in our room and then head back to the Quay for happy hour. That is definitely the way to go with the price of things here. We enjoy a glass of local Sauvignon Blanc in front of the Customs House. Here, since 1845, has been the place where all goods and people entered Sydney.
There are Ibis everywhere not just in the gardens but in the streets. They are a waterfowl who is meant to eat mussels and clams. But not in Sydney … no here they eat out of the garbage cans … thus why Sydners refer to them as ‘Bin Chickens’.
We have made a reservation at Alfredo’s Italian at Bulletin Place, as recommended by the hotel bar manager. It is housed in what is the oldest commercial building still in use in Australia. It was built by Mary Reiby, the first emancipated female convict back in 1816. It was rumoured she was the mistress of the governor of the day. Bulletin place is based on the many years where the building was the home of printers. It’s ceiling still looks like it would in the 1800’s.
It is fabulous, Gail gets her Vongole and I my Gnocchi, this time in a light gorgonzola sauce. Both are delicious and we spend a fair bit of time talking to the server who is originally from Roma. She gives us a great suggestion away from the more touristy beaches of Manly and Bondi. So, if we have time, we will explore Watson Bay which should get us some fabulous Sydney shots.
The next morning, we are up and out on Macquarie Street one of the oldest in town and the one where all the early 1800 government buildings are found. There is some wonderful architecture to be seen just feet from our hotel. This is a street of historical prominence running from the Botanical Gardens and Government House up to Hyde Park.
Along the way we pass the Sydney Hospital the oldest working one in Australian starting back in 1816 when it was the Governor’s Rum Hospital. Past the Mint, the oldest surviving public building, still the same from 1816 and the Hyde Park Barracks, from 1819, a world heritage convict site.
At the corner of the park is St Mary’s Catholic church, a massive and impressive structure with beautiful stained glass. Here, in the area of the cathedral, the first public mass for the colony was held in 1803. Directly across is the Birubi Circle in the centre of the top half of the park and in the middle of the circle the Archibald Fountain, reminds us of Roman fountains.
The interesting story of the park involves the 1926 remodel competition. Norman Weekes who one the competition, modelled his plan on European tradition and used Aboriginal names to refer to areas. Less then a week later most of the plan was abandoned.
The city of Sydney has plenty of green space and our concierge tells us that the original plan was to have vegetable gardens. For some reason the soil did not work well, and the vegetables would not grow. The decision was made to keep it green space and it is as nice mix of the high rises, old architecture and green space.
Within the park over 500 Fig trees where planted and they are huge. Sadly, with the soil only a metre deep in spots and due to disease, they are dying off. Since 2002 they have had to remove over 65 of the them despite all their conservation efforts.
Our last stop in the park is the 1934 Anzac Memorial to the men who fought in WW I. As the plague tells us it is “to express with dignity and simplicity neither the glory nor the glamour of war but those nobler attributes of human nature which were in 1915-18 so vividly brought forth”.
It is a three-story structure with a hollowed-out centre that holds a sculpture of soldier fallen on his sword. Beneath our exhibits and a great room celebrating the battles and those who participated in them since 1856 to current day.
There is as huge circle that has sand from every battleground the Aussies participated in and on the walls are the 1071 New South Wales towns of those that served. One town Dennawan has ash versus sand. It was a town where the Aboriginals refused to allow sand and so the locals burnt down a tree and supplied the ash to represent their soldiers. This all stems for the years where the Aboriginals were not allowed to serve their country.
The most moving part was 11 am. Everyday at the top of the hollow overlooking the soldier statue they hold a ceremony to honour the dead. The Last Post is played and one minute of silence is observed. It is both emotional and humbling that this is done everyday and Gail and I, of course, are honoured to join in the tribute.
From here we head toward Darling Harbour on the edge of Chinatown. It is another hot but muggy day and we both comment that we are moving slower. So, it is time for a stop. A cold one at the Three Wise Monkey pub in a beautiful old building that was once the Southern Branch of the Bank of Australia.
After we find ourselves at Tumbalong Park, the 7000-year frontier which means ‘place of seafood’. Here surrounded by high rises and the Convention Centre is a large park space really set up for the children. Yet along one side is a series of cafes and restaurants. There is a lot of construction with a new 5-star hotel and Omnimax coming.
As we round the corner we come to the large Darling Harbour and Cockle Bay Wharf. Again hotels, high rise apartments, restaurants and amusement parks. This is a very modern harbour and they are taking advantage of every space.
We buy the dual ticket to go to both the Aquarium and Wild Life Park. The Aquarium is incredibly well done as you meander in front of different tanks with some incredible sea life, much of which we have never seen before. One of the most unique is the small Eastern Water Dragon which looks like a combination of a seahorse and a small dragon gecko. Weird, prehistoric looking but cool.
There are also some really ugly guys like the Red Rock Cod and the Stonefish. In one tank are Southern Crayfish, bigger by far then any Lobster I have seen. From here you go into a tank that surrounds you on three sides so the sea life is beside you on both sides but also swimming right over top. Apparently, this tank holds 1.4M litres of water. There are the fish you really want to see when snorkeling, bright and colourful and plentiful.
I would say love to be in there, but the huge rays and the Dugong suggest not a great idea. The Dugong is a unique small weird looking creature that is a descendant of the elephant and can have tusks. They eat 30-40 kilos of food daily, compare that to that is what Great White eats in a month. And that food for them is Lettuce, only lettuce. Pig, as it is called, guess why, was rescued at 1 week old and is now 20 years old.
The last two exhibit are a shark tank and then a cool, actually cold, habitat for Penguins, both King and Gentoo. The Gentoo are molting right now and making a mess for sure.
From here we move on to the Wild Life Park. This is cool and, in the end, we see all of the Australian Big 5; the Kangaroo, Koala, Wombat, Platypus and Croc. The Wombat, being nocturnal is very difficult to see even if it is right in front of us. The Platypus difficult to photograph as they swim so fast and are amongst logs and weeds that camouflage them well.
Our first animal that is new to us is the Tasmanian Devil that dart around with their red ears. They are smaller then I thought they would be but when one snarls at the other you can get the devil side. They can smell food 2 km away and eat primarily kangaroo meat. It is the largest of the marsupial carnivores.
Next, what we have been waiting for, the Koalas. They have half a dozen sleeping in the trees, so a good shot is hard but more amazing is how they, soundly asleep, hanging in the trees. Each of them in some different convoluted position. Interest and yucky, there first meal is their mothers’ poo, which has the specific bacteria they need to be able to digest gum leaves.
Along our route we see Yellow footed Wallaby and Red Legged Pademelon, all small versions of the Kangaroo. The Kookaburra and the Cassowary, the second largest bird in the world by weight, weighing in at 70 kilos. At first, I thought we were seeing a Peacock but when it raised it’s head there is a crown, a bright blue face and red neck. Quite stunning in a weird way. Also, quite dangerous with the almost hidden middle claw about 12 cm long for striking out.
As we wander through the Kangaroo home a group of small and very colourful birds perch on a house. They are Gouldian Finch and while tiny, each face is a different incredibly vibrant colour. All kinds of other animals unique to Australia or the southern hemisphere are here, many sleeping, the Quokka, Bilby, almost extinct, the vicious spotted tail Quoll and Ghost bats, named for their almost white colour that scares us as they flit about.
Finally, we see Rocky, the Croc. He is huge and in fact the full-grown male is 10,000 times bigger than the baby. He is very territorial and eats only Barramundi but not much. He is fed ½ a fish 3 times a week but can go up to a year without eating with his small stomach.
Time for a late lunch on the waterfront and then, as the boat will not come for 20 minutes, we decide in this heat to grab a cab. Turns out it was cheaper and leaves us time to have a dip in the pool. We are so sticky it feels fantastic.
We head to our bar for the end of happy hour and end up having dinner in house. We enjoy chatting to the young local couple who are actually from Dublin. Gall had a great Won Ton soup and I try Barramundi. It has been the fish on all the MasterChef Australia and My Kitchen Rules Australia ... always wanted to try ... and its great.
Well back for nightcap and some blog work. Tomorrow our cruise begins!