Gerard Fothergill, an English globetrotting botanist of the early 20th century, ran a small bookshop on Willoughby Street in Kirribilli, the same spot occupied by the fun, buzzy and really delicious bar/restaurant, The Botanist. The scene is young and happy; the service is, unusual for Sydney, friendly, attentive and on the ball (the servers and owners are, I am told, a group of friends – hence the good vibe); the cocktails reference the world (referencing Fothergill’s peripatetic life); and the sliders are morsels of goodness. Finally, the bill fits nicely into the wallet, a welcomed relief in this city where eating out can stress the bank account.
On this sunny Sunday morning we drive to a part of Sydney which is new to me. Balmain is in the western suburbs, an area I am told that is frequented by artists and bohemians. Our destination is a two-bedroom ryokan that I have read about months ago and filed away for a distant trip to Sydney. We called the proprietor yesterday and she promised to be waiting for us at 10AM before a Japanese gift wrapping class she is giving at 10:30.
Ryokan Gojyuan is an example of passion made material. Here is an old Sydney family house that has fallen into the hands of 60- year-old Linda Evans, her husband and children. And Linda, whose fascination with all things Japanese reaches back to a childhood memory of the TV program, The Samurai, decided to turn the family home in to a guest house – a Japanese one that marries cultural authenticity with her imagination. The ryokan’s beauty lies in its simplicity and lack of pretension. Each of the two rooms looks out on to a pocket garden that has been meticulously planted and cared for – bamboo, maples, mosses, stones and falling water. The furo, a traditional Japanese bath made of cedar, overlooks another garden scape. What a wonderful overnight getaway after a day at work!
Not that Sydney life seems so terribly stressful to this New Yorker! Heading north, now, to Mosman, we pick up a coffee and some produce in Providore, a local market that I have never found the likes of in New York. From pancetta to cheese, truffles to fish, Providore is replicated throughout the city. And I am jealous. Why, in New York, do we not seem to have this quality of produce presented with the flair and care that I see here? Life is expensive, to be sure, in this city down under, but then wages are high, social systems seem to function and there appears to be a healthy work/play balance. At Balmoral beach, just a step from Mosman town, families are out in force on this last day of winter. It is a healthy life both physically and psychically, and I can well understand how it gets under the skin.
We walked the length of Balmoral beach and lunched at The Bathers Pavillion, a delicious restaurant at the water’s edge owned by one of Australia’s preeminent chefs, Serge Dansereau. Sydney oysters, scallops, pork loin and quail, washed down with a delicious rose, capped a relaxed Sydney morning. I’m already beginning to forget that there is a whole other world out there.
The day started misty with rain which made wandering in the outdoor markets less than appealing. And so we turned towards Bondi and a shop that Jeremy had mentioned many times, Aquabumps. Eugene Tan, the owner and photographer, has stuck close to his passion – surf, surfing, beach – and has a fabulous collection of photographic prints of the same. He started assembling his work with a daily, early morning visit to Bondi beach to photograph the surf and surfers. Over the years he has expanded his locales to include Indonesia, Hawaii and, as above, East Coast Long Island. And this lovely photograph of Sag Harbor now belongs to Jeremy, his birthday present from Mom.
From Bondi we wended our way back to my favorite part of Sydney, Woollahra, a charming neighborhood of pretty houses, boutiques, good restaurants and great produce. We stopped at Victor Churchill, a world renowned butcher that is as beautiful to look at as, I am sure, the meats are delicious. So pristine that you could eat off the floor, watching the racks being trimmed is tantamount to observing an artist creating his masterpiece. There were sides of beef for sale, I noticed, costing well over $100 per pound.
Before lunching at Chiswick on its delicious farm to table menu, we stopped in at a Tibetan shop – Tibet Sydney – that had lovely rugs and lingered at Gingko Leaf on Queen Street, a boutique that focuses on well crafted, well designed contemporary Japanese household items that include ceramics, porcelain, glassware, wood crafts, ironware and textiles. A real find.
Back to the lovely Park Hyatt for the required afternoon nap (still fighting the cold and jet lag), and then I flagged a cab and headed to North Sydney’s Mossman neighborhood where Jeremy and Katie were barbecuing dinner on the balcony of their lovely flat. Skype and face time are all fine but there is nothing quite like being there, fingering the fabrics, walking on the wooden floors, feeling the space. What a wonderful life they have created for themselves in Sydney and how fortunate I am to share a few moments of it with them.
After checking in to the Park Hyatt, a wonderful four-story hotel that hugs the curve of the waterfront and offers these incredible views on to Sydney Harbor, and a quick freshen up, I headed out with Grant Charlesworth, owner of Wild Escapes, a company that provides us with bespoke excursions in cities around the country. We started our whirlwind of Sydney at the Observatory, a wonderful early 19th century building that sits on the city’s highest point. From here you get the lay of the land and the story of Sydney’s founding unfolds…How Captain Cook bypassed Sydney Harbor thinking it only a cove and anchored south a ways in Botany Bay; how a couple of sailors rowed north along the coast and entered the “cove”, only to find that it stretched deep in to the coast and opened up on to a protected harbor; how the British Isles ferried their petty convicts to this end of the earth, settling them in the barracks; how, when the penal colony was foundering, the convicts were set to work, quarrying Hawkesbury sandstone from the Rocks area, to build a town which featured the landmarked buildings that give Sydney, today, so much of its character. Harbor Bridge with its four decorative pilasters, the ANZAC Bridge – the only bridge to carry two nations’ flags – the fingerwharves and 10 Pound Poms housing — all of these were clearly visible from atop Observatory Hill, even as the rain misted down. We then jumped in the car, and drove along George Street with its wonderfully carved sandstone buildings, past MOCA, St. Mary’s Cathedral and along the Royal Botanic Gardens. The gardens, full of palm trees, wonderful fig trees with wide buttress roots, grassy swards, sandstone overhangs, cockatoos, cormorants, grebes, running trails and soccer pitches are gorgeous and stretch back for acres from the water’s edge .
Our next destination was the coast and Bondi Beach but, to get there, we wound around more bays and through charming neighborhoods that had the feel of small European towns, each with its own grocery, cafes, and mom and pop stores. Rose Bay, Woolloomooloo (where Russel Crowe has his pad), Darling Harbor (where Nicole Kidman lives) and the Eastern Suburbs – which the Brits escaped to when the Rocks became too plebeian – all have a unique character.
Bondi is a perfect crescent with a wide, meticulously raked beach. The setting is lovely, the water bell clear, and the surf good. Having come in to its own during the Sydney Olympics it has, in recent years, become a bit grungy. Legislation has just been passed for an upgrade, however, and high end condos are being built and brand stores are moving in. At only 20 minutes or so from the city center, it is quite a jewel. Very beautiful is the coastal trail called the Bondi to Bronte, a 30-minute walk on which to lose yourself in the crashing sound of surf, salt spray and fresh air.
We returned to the city via Paddington, a charming neighborhood of terrace housing that features lovely grillwork reminiscent of New Orleans. We lunched in the sun on a wrap and a flat white at Gusto’s before heading back to the Rocks, where we had begun our day and where Sydney’s story, too, had started.
The evening was still in front of me and, after a quick nap, I met up with my son, Jeremy, and his fiancee, Katie, and we walked up to the Shangri-la Hotel and its overcrowded Blu Bar on 36. This is the Sydney equivalent of New York’s Top of the Rock, and the view is a fabulous panoramic of the city I had seen up close during the day. For dinner, we went underground and had the most delicious meal in a rather edgy, very cool spot called Sailor’s Thai.
And then, collapse, looking out upon the Opera House, boats crisscrossing silently before it, creating an ever-changing view. And as I descended into a deep sleep, I thought of the rather sad story of Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect who won the bid to build this performance center, a building that would become, in time, one of the world’s greatest architectural icons and a listed UNESCO building. As the years passed, the costs skyrocketed and the work dragged on. Utzon decided he had had enough, resigned and departed Sydney, leaving the opera house two thirds completed. Down the years, his son was called in to perfect the acoustics of the halls. Utzon died a few months prior to a scheduled trip to Australia and never saw his Opera House completed.
American architect, Louis Kahn, said of Utzon’s masterpiece, “The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building.”
Hello Sydney! Nice to meet you in the rain…
..in the sun……storm…
…and undecided weather. All within the space of 30 minutes!
I arrived this morning after 19 hours of flying from New York. Good flights – JetBlue’s new business class pods are certainly a huge upgrade over steerage although, if I were to be very critical, I would say that the seats themselves are very strangely padded and quite uncomfortable – and then Virgin Australia which was really superb. Old school flatbeds but, for me, comfortable, and wonderful, attentive service.
Global Entry, a great relief to find on arrival, together with Virgin’s express pass given to business class passengers, made the transit through Sydney’s airport smooth as silk. Paul Roppolo, from International Hire Cars, whisked my luggage away to the sedan, and 30 minutes later I was comfortably ensconced in my harbor view room at the Park Hyatt.
Delicious! And you have already seen my view! The Sydney Opera House is an iconic building and one I have wanted to see for a long time. It’s funny though…I find first meetings with buildings that have intrigued me to be unexpectedly tender. Beautiful is the Opera House with its cantilevered shell, but I am so close to it that the signs of age and its smaller-than-expected scale whisper gently rather than cry out. It sits quietly in a harbor alive with cruise boats, a building whose celebrity has, perhaps, overshadowed its beautiful simplicity.