Double the fun in Oz
PUBLISHED: 16:43 17 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:54 20 February 2013
From the thrills of Sydney to the secrets of Melbourne, Chris Courts uncovers a tale of two Austrailian cities to entice you Down Under.
Double the fun in Oz
From the trills of Sydney to the secrets of Melbourne, Chris Courts uncovers a tale of two Austrailian cities to entice you Down Under.
The grey, steel arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge loomed above me, an awe-inspiring 400ft above the sea. It will be sensational, promised my guide as we prepared to scale what was once the Australian citys tallest structure.
Easy for her to say. Athletic and enthusiastic, Chrissy Le Breton has made about 1,000 climbs of the iconic bridge. As a first-time visitor to Australia, ready for must-do experiences, I suppressed a fear of heights to take her word for it.
Id had plenty of time to contemplate this dizzying ascent from 32 floors up as the sitting-room of my lofty harbour-side hotel, the five-star Shangri-La, overlooked the 75-year-old bridge and the equally iconic Sydney Opera House. After passing the mandatory pre-climb breath test, then being zipped into a blue and grey climbing suit, linked to Chrissy by radio and attached to a reassuring safety cable, we set off on a vertiginous three and a half hour tour of the worlds largest steel-arch bridge.
The Discovery Climb one of two routes available through operator BridgeClimb Sydney takes visitors up 1,090 steep, steel stairs and narrow-mesh catwalks over and through the heart of the giant structure. From a tiny platform at the summit, harbour craft and traffic on the road deck far below look like toys.
Buffeted by a warm breeze high above the glittering, blue water, my trepidation was overcome by an incredible sense of achievement and spectacular views of the harbours 150-mile shoreline and the citys sprawl to inland mountains.
We marvelled at the courage and expertise of men, who almost 80 years ago, without safety equipment, assembled the 39,200-tonne steel curve which was locked in place by 18ft, hand-hammered rivets.
The spectacular harbour, busy with ferries and tour boats, is dominated by the bridge and the dramatic Opera House now a World Heritage Site, but at one stage deemed unbuildable.
The Jorn Utzon-designed masterpiece is covered in more than a million tiles, having opened in 1973 after 16 years and 102 million Australian dollars (50m) in the making.
The Opera House, visited by four million people a year, is by no means elitist. Each year it stages around 2,500 performances and events, from a bargain 12.50 per ticket.
You can even enjoy a performance for the price of a high tea there, with an opera singer giving a live show among the tables. My brief time in Sydney was spent mainly in The Rocks area developed after British First Fleet convict ships anchored in 1788 off a small peninsula beneath where the bridge now stands.
Now overlooked and dwarfed by canyons of gleaming skyscraper hotels and commercial buildings, The Rocks is a glimpse of how Sydney used to be albeit now transformed into cafs, boutiques and restaurants and where traditional hotels still offer a welcome beer and sanctuary from the heat.
Sydney has a vibrant arts and culture scene and my visit included the hottest ticket in town: Australias stage and screen icon Cate Blanchett was starring in a two-part War Of The Roses, an adaptation of eight Shakespeare plays for the 2009 Sydney Festival.
Blanchett, gold-crowned and clad in white trousers and shirt while gold foil rained for an hour on to the vast, bare, black stage, mesmerised as King Richard II in the powerful, bleak and bloody four-hour performance I saw.
As a contrast, I sampled the sun, sand and sea of Sydneys beach culture, surfing at the world-famous Bondi Beach, a short drive from the centre. Coated in high factor sunblock against scorching heat, I strolled along a stunning coastal path after a pavement-table breakfast at Swell Restaurant in genteel beachside Bronte, where stars including Australians Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman are said to sample the laid-back atmosphere. Fortunately, the legendary surf at Bondi was kind, as Big Wave Dave Hannagan, of the Lets Go Surfing School, pledged to have me a total novice standing on a surfboard after an hours lesson. After some expert tuition and some undignified duckings, he did for all of about three seconds.
Melbourne, just an hours flight away, was to me a city of secrets. Hidden Melbourne was revealed by publisher Michelle Matthews, whose novel guidebook takes the lid off the cosmopolitan citys buzzy nightlife. Bar Secrets Of Melbourne a deck of 52 cards with photo, map and description of each pinpoints watering holes which almost seem to be deliberately hard to find, but are certainly worth seeking out.
The tiny, one-roomed Von Haus two small, barred windows and a nondescript door with a tiny sign above was down a lane running off the citys grid system of streets, a few yards from my central Rydges Hotel, which I initially walked straight past. The edgy, packed open-air Section Eight, found down a graffiti-daubed lane behind mesh fencing, was nothing more than two old shipping containers converted into a bar. And at quirky Madame Brussels, with its popular rooftop terrace, crowded by after-work customers, outrageous owner Miss Pearl sometimes entertains by swinging from a chandelier.
Wandering off main streets into narrow thoroughfares and arcades, you realise why people come from as far as Sydney to explore Melbournes tiny fashion, jewellery and design boutiques and buy local labels from specialist shops.
Melbournes vibrant street culture was typified in the tiny city-centre Degraves Street and nearby Centre Way. Both are almost impassable because of the crush of open-air tables, with crowds enjoying everything from fresh sushi to huge Australian breakfasts.
The central streets constantly throw up surprises, such as a tiny coffee shop where half a dozen customers are served in a former shop window, or another specialising solely in cup-cakes, while multicultural cuisine abounds.
I caught the free circular tram service to the sprawling, covered Queen Victoria Market, where you can buy everything from a bush hat to a boomerang plus an amazing variety of foods.
I also saw the city from a new angle as a pillion passenger on a Harley Davidson motorcycle during an exciting specialist street tour, which roared me past the gaol where bushranger Ned Kelly was hanged.
Freak winds grounded my hopes of seeing Melbourne from a hot-air balloon or the then newly-opened Southern Star Observation Wheel, a version of the London Eye which is now indefinitely closed pending major repairs.
But I got a birds eye view of the city and surroundings from the gleaming 88-storey residential Eureka Skydeck, the highest public vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere. Thrill-seekers queued to get into The Edge, a glass cube which projects out from the side of the skyscrapers top floor.
Best for dining, nightlife and shopping: Melbourne everything from tiny specialists to big stores. Sydney for stunning skyline views.
When to go: December beats the UK weather blues, with Christmas in the sun on Bondi beach near Sydney.
Dont miss: Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge with expert guide on the must do list for Australians as well as visitors.
Need to know: The locations of the dozens of quirky bars in buzzing Melbourne. A special pack of cards reveals all about each one.
Dont forget: Cover yourself with high factor sunblock for a ride on Sydney Harbour ferries, which operate from the historic Rocks area.
Chris Court flew to Australia on the new Qantas A380 Airbus, which carries 450 passengers in four cabins. Some 28 weekly Qantas services ex-UK to Australia include two daily into Sydney.
Qantas return fares lead in at 1,043
ex-Heathrow, 1,085 ex-Manchester, and 1,093 ex-Glasgow, fares valid for travel August 15-November 30.
Qantas Holidays offers seven-night, two-centre stays in Sydney and Melbourne from 1,583.40, including economy return flights to Sydney and return
ex-Melbourne, internal flight Sydney to Melbourne, transfers, four nights room-only at Travelodge, Sydney and three nights room-only at Travelodge, Melbourne.
Qantas Holidays reservations: 020 8222 9124 and www.qantasholidays.co.uk
To help plan a holiday to Australia, or for information on Qantas fares, visit: www.qantas.com or www.australia.com www.sydney.com and www.visitmelbourne.com
Other useful websites include: www.sydneyoperahouse.com www.bridgeclimb.com www.deckofsecrets.com letsgosurfing.com.au