Sydney, compared to say Melbourne, has a reputation for enjoying the finer things in life. It’s flash, it’s fast and it thoroughly loves taking your cash. The saying goes that while you might choose Melbourne for your wife, it would be Sydney that would make a good mistress. And with the NSW capital being undeniably pretty and keen for a good time, with no questions asked, it’s easy to joke at the metaphor. However, spend even the smallest amount of time in the Harbour City and the comparison struggles to ring true. Its staggeringly beautiful, and endless, waterfront, as well as surrounding national parks, multiple museums with no entrance fees and highly competitive pubs away from the tourist glare, mean it’s a city that need not break your bank. And yet, where’s the fun in that? Sometimes, whether for a special occasion or simply to satisfy the desire to genuinely see a place at its best, it’s worth splashing out on an experience which, and let’s be honest, will probably result in you going without food (but not goon, obviously) for a week on a backpacker budget. But who’s counting, eh? How often are you in Sydney?
TALL SHIP MAST CLIMB
The experience: Ever wondered what it must have felt like sailing into Sydney Cove aboard one of the ships of the First Fleet? Well, you can now find out for yourselves. Sort of. I’m aboard the Southern Swan, a living piece of history that began its life transporting timber around the North Atlantic in the 1920s. Now calling Sydney its home, the Danish-built tall ship, originally named Mathilde, offers scenic cruises around the harbour, with plenty of booze and barbies a-flowing, at least when its not taking part in First Fleet re-enactments that is. However, I’ve set to sea to experience Sydney’s newest way to catch a glimpse of the city’s stunning skyline – by climbing up the 15m mast to the crow’s nest. Harnessed up, I take a deep breath and swing around the outside of the boat’s rigging to grab a foothold. I start the ascent, while below me a ship-full of onlookers look up enviously, pondering their folly of having already gotten stuck into the free bar. Up and up I go. Fifteen metres had sounded like nothing before, but as the rigging gets narrower and the climb trickier, I suddenly feel a hell of a long way up, and I notice my knuckles whitening as my grip tightens. But soon I’m at the top and take my perch in the crow’s nest, with all of Sydney before me as the mighty sail ship ploughs its way through the water underneath. The sight of Sydney Harbour from a height will never be disappointing, but this unique vantage point makes it all the more special. Now to just get down… [AW]
Cost: The mast climb costs $79 ($59 when booked online) on top of the cost of the various tall ship cruises, which start at $32.Info: sydneytallships.com.au
THE BRIDGE CLIMB
The experience: People have always loved climbing towers and crossing bridges, so whoever thought up combining the two was clearly a genius. And so the Sydney Harbour Bridge, or ‘the coathanger’ as it’s affectionately known, had been calling out my name since I first arrived Down Under. After getting kitted up in fetching jumpsuits, headlamps and earpieces, we hooked on and started up as the last remnants of twilight glowed across Circular Quay. I was to do The Discovery Climb which, unlike the original climb, takes you up through the inner components of the bridge, which were put together in 1932. Despite early doubts about doing the ‘disco’ instead of the traditional ‘straight to the top’ approach, I was soon converted. Climbing up the steps (1,090 in total), while people, cars and trains rushed past, at first alongside and then far below, we made our way up the inside of the giant arch, in awe of the sheer scale of the bridge. We ducked and dived through the bridge’s infinite nooks and crannies, every now and then stopping to lap up Sydney in all its glory, perfectly framed by the bridge’s awesome beams. All the while our guide happily fed us tasty nuggets of info and grisly tales of how the bridge’s builders coped in terrible conditions without safety equipment. We finally emerged at the summit, 134 metres above Sydney Harbour, by which time it was completely dark and the city lights had come to life. It was breathtaking. Clambering to the top of Sydney’s biggest landmark may be one of the more costly experiences Oz has to offer, but it’s likely to be one of your most unforgettable ones. [AW]
Cost: Climbs start at $188, with the price dependent on day and time.
SYDNEY’S TOWER SKYWALK
The experience: Looking like a fat Smurf in a prison chain-gang, I’m led out of the door and onto the platform at Sydney Tower. We are wearing protective blue suits because even though it’s a beautiful summer’s evening in Sydney, the wind at 268 metres high is a little on the chilly side. As we pull our safety straps along the rail we make our way to the ledge, with an amazing view of Hyde Park, Kings Cross and… oh my God, the ledge is made of glass and I can see the traffic whizzing below my feet. “Don’t look down”, I tell the person behind me, but of course they look down in horror and shuffle their body as close to hugging the tower as they can. I yank their chain – literally – and see fear wash over their face. I don’t think chain yanking goes down so well up here. After a brief history of the tower, we wind our way around to the harbour side and watch the sun go down over the bridge. This is pretty spectacular stuff, and as we take turns posing for photos I witness something pretty special happening before my eyes. A young Chinese guy is proposing to his girlfriend. The girlfriend, naturally in this setting, says yes. I can’t help wondering how he got the ring in his Smurf suit and yet I have to attach my sunglasses to my head like Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls. I’m sure the young newly-engaged couple just want to bask in their happiness but not before they wait for the rest of us to get our photos taken with the harbour backdrop. Wait, one more photo, I want to jump in the air this time. [AH]
Cost: It’s $65 on the door or $58.50 online.
The experience: Most travellers who head to Manly are after two things – chilling out on a great beach and savouring a spectacular ferry trip (otherwise known as the $6.60 harbour cruise). But there is something else in the northern suburb, something lurking in the deep, which happens to be one of the coolest things you can do in Sydney. While most aquariums merely let you admire sharks from the other side of a thick window, the nice people over at Manly Oceanworld love nothing more than throwing you in with them. And so wetsuited up and in the blue stuff, I find myself quickly ducking to avoid a massive oncoming loggerhead turtle, before turning to see a huge ray offering a welcome hug, while spotting a toothy shark about four metres long giving me the once over out of the corner of my eye. Wow. I’ve dived with sharks in the ocean before but this was something else. The grey nurse sharks and their friends all came within inches of my face, looking me right in the eye. And not just for one fleeting moment before disappearing back into the deep, but almost constantly for the 40-minute dive. It was incredible. And strangely enough, it was the giant turtles, resolutely refusing to move out of the way, rather than the sharks, that proved most unnerving. [AW]
Cost: Introductory dives cost $250, while certified divers get in for $185. You can splash out $350 to join a shark feed dive.
SEA PLANE FLIGHTS
The experience: Sometimes, an occasion demands you go just that little bit further. A scenic flight in a plane? Pah! I want a plane that can surf as well. It’s hard to beat a seaplane in the cool stakes. And so, trying to dismiss that scene from one of the Jaws sequels in which pilot Michael Caine gets turned into a tooth sandwich, I head to Rose Bay to take to the skies. We’re soon chugging across the waves and up into the skies, soaring out of the harbour and up along the northern beaches all the way to Home and Away’s very own Palm Beach. It’s then an about turn and southwards-bound again for a few fly-bys of the bridge and opera house, ending in that final fantastic sink-or-swim moment, heading straight towards the deep blue, plodding and skidding along the tranquil waters of the bay once more. Totally skill. [AW]
Cost: The 15-minute highlights flights costs $185 per person, or the 30-minutes secrets flight will set you back $245 per person.
SNORE AND ROAR AT THE ZOO
The experience: I love zoos. They’re always one of the first things I visit in a place and in another life I’d quite happily have been a zookeeper, playing with the monkeys all day (and shovelling up dung). And Sydney’s Taronga, it has to be said, is one of the world’s great zoos. Sure it’s got an excellent selection of creatures in ethically-sized enclosures, but it stands out for two more reasons. First, it has an excellent position, on top of a hill overlooking the city, a short ferry ride from Circular Quay. The panoramic backdrop of Sydney Harbour, making for some classic giraffe by the opera house photos, surely makes it the zoo with the best views in the world. Another highlight is the Sky Safari, a quick cable car ride to and from the ferry that takes you right over the zoo. The only problem is deciding whether to soak up the harbour sights or check out what the elephants are up to below you. But Taronga also has something else on offer – the Snore and Roar. This involves you arriving at the zoo, after it has closed, for your own behind-the-scenes tour away from the crowds. You then camp out, dozing off to the sounds of trumpeting elephants, before an early rise for more animal encounters before the hordes flood in. [AW]
Cost: It will surely be the most expensive night’s camping of your life with a weekend rate of $275 per person.
The experience: Ever since Jack Bauer hijacked a helicopter in 24 I’ve always wanted to ride in a chopper. And while I entered safely from the ground and sat shotgun next to our qualified pilot, I still feel a little “rogue”. We soon have lift-off and begin the journey into Sydney Harbour. It’s the most surreal feeling, slowly lifting into the air, hovering as the chopper blades send ripples of wind through the grass. We’re given the weather conditions from the air traffic control room and after a few “roger that’s” (who gave me a headpiece, seriously?) we’re 500ft in the air overlooking Sydney’s western suburbs. Pacing ourselves at a cool 180km/hr, we soon see the harbour, which seemed so far away from the ground, in the distance. It’s a grey day with the sun peering through the clouds but from this angle at 1000ft, even the overcast days seem breathtaking. Soon we’re hitting speeds of 200km/hr, stretching the legs of this powerful chopper. Flying over some dedicated rowers on Parramatta River and ducking the early morning 747s coming in from Hong Kong, we make our way into Sydney Harbour. We loop around towards Manly, checking Bondi from the distance and over the Opera House so we can take some photos. I’m feeling less like Jack Bauer now and more like a traffic report girl as I comment on the rush-hour cars backed up over the bridge. Then, all of a sudden we turn at what feels like a 90° angle to get a different perspective on the bridge and I come head-to-head with the harbour. I clutch onto the life jacket we were so casually handed at the airport. Then it’s back to home base, with a quick demo of the pedals, gears and how “there are no roads to follow up here, it’s all about sight”. As we hover into our park, lowering down like the rocket-man and dreading the drive back into the city on the M5, I wonder how I go about getting that pilot license…[AH]
Cost: A 30-minute scenic harbour flight costs from $133 per person.
The experience: You don’t have to head too far out of the city in search of some whitewater fun. The result of having to build a venue for kayaking for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Penrith, on the way to the Blue Mountains, now boasts the southern hemisphere’s only manmade whitewater course, where you can try your hand at rafting, with or without a guide, and kayaking, on the very route that one-time Olympians vied for glory. You can also go wake boarding just down the road at Cables Wake Park. [AW]
Cost: It’s $89 for rafting.
The experience: If skydiving on Wollongong beach isn’t your thing and you prefer to stay on the plane to get your kicks, you can now join the ‘Gong’s historical flying circus. In a two-seater bi-plane you’re taken up into the air, hats and goggles firmly in place as you loop-the-loop over Wollongong beach in the open-air cockpit. After a few acrobatic loops, the pilot guarantee you’ll be loving the powerful g-force giving you a face-lift, even if you are regretting your breakfast choice. The guys south of Sydney are trying to revive the golden era of aviation when “sexy muscle planes ruled the skies”. You know, before the days of industrial action, cramped seating and flavourless beef or chicken options. But golden days aside, the guys have over 20,000 flying hours and a perfect track record. And thanks to it being 2012, they offer you a high definition DVD at the end. [AH]
Cost: A 30-minute Boeing Stearman open cockpit flight experience costs $350.