An undeniable fact: It’s a long way to Australia from just about anywhere. But, it’s so worth the journey. And when you stop to think about it, how utterly cool that it’s already tomorrow down under. Actually, the long haul flight can be delightful, proving you with a forced break from the minute-by-minute demands of life that is constantly churning 36,000 feet below.
First Stop, Sydney Opera House
When you visit Australia, don’t miss Sydney. And when you visit Sydney, you can’t miss the ultra distinctive Sydney Opera House. Some of the best ways to experience this landmark provide completely different experiences…especially during Vivid Sydney.
- Get tickets to attend a live performance.
- Take a 2.5-hour guided backstage tour for an intimate, small group look at everything that goes on behind the scenes.
- Jump on a ferry from Darling Harbour for a dramatic up-close arrival by water.
- Tackle the BridgeClimb, tethering yourself to Harbour Bridge to look down on the opera house.
- Do any, or all, of the above during the annual Vivid Sydney Festival.
A tip: You know your internal clock best. If jet lag is likely to get the better of you, take advantage of the Sydney Opera House Backstage Tour; it begins bright and early at 7 a.m.
Perched on Bennelong Point at the edge of sparkling Sydney Harbor, this building is without question one of the world’s best-known silhouettes, among the very top examples of 20th century architecture. Its “sails” are thrilling, uplifting in a way that few structures are.
Vivid Sydney Festival
Time your visit as autumn draws to a close. Vivid Sydney is the wildly popular annual 23-night illumination festival that turns Sydney Opera House into a giant projection screen and creates a celebration of sights, sounds, activations, music, lectures, exhibitions and public art installations throughout the city.
The festival attracts 2.5 million visitors every year—and for good reason. Created by Destination New South Wales to help fill the gaps at a slower time of year, Vivid Sydney has become a key travel motivator in its own right.
Watch for the dates of the next Vivid Sydney in May/June, presented by Destination New South Wales in its 12th year.
Bridge Climb, Baby
Stay away from BridgeClimb if you have a fear of heights (or water or bridges). Acrophobics wouldn’t even consider suiting up, tethering oneself to the bridge’s skinny railing and climbing as high as a 40-story building. Otherwise, go for it! It’s a definite thrill and earns you considerable bragging rights.
It’s wild. You’re climbing to the top of the largest steel-arch bridge ever built, fondly nicknamed “the coathanger” for its Meccano-like construction. Underneath your feet, passing cars, rumbling trains and boats in the harbour are framed by your legs if you dare look down. It’s 440 feet up to the base of the flagpole at the summit where your tour leader will grab individual and group photos since visitors cannot climb with anything in their hands or pockets.
Climb at dawn, midday, dusk or at night. Check yourself in, get briefed and deposit jewelry and smartphone in a locker after donning the regulation steely gray coveralls that ensure you’ll blend in with the bridge to minimize distraction to motorists below. Be prepared for 1,000+ open tread, narrow and fairly steep stairs plus catwalks and plenty of places where you’ll need to duck your head. A longer, trickier climb involves ladders as well.
Tip: During Vivid Sydney, there’s an illuminated platform at the top of Harbour Bridge with piped in dance music so you can “Shake It Off” or “Twist and Shout.”
Sydney is a fantastic urban destination surrounded by a splendid state. So, if you’re ready to see your first kangaroo, check out some of the highlights around New South Wales that are within surprisingly easy reach.
Tip: Hiring a rental car? Remember, you’ll be driving on the left.
Sand Dunes and Hot Air Balloons
Head north to Port Stephens on the Central Coast, a 2.5 hours’ drive. Make Bannisters your base for its infinity pool and Rick Stein’s signature seafood dining. From here, embark on your chosen adventures: a camel ride on the beach, a dolphin-watching cruise, a quad bike adventure tour on the vast 100-foot-high expanse of Worimi Sand Dunes.
Where else could you find kangaroos in the vineyards?
Close enough to Sydney for a weekend retreat, at less than two hours inland, there’s a complete change of scenery when you reach Hunter Valley, the foremost wine region in all of Australasia. To appreciate the landscape’s serenity at dawn when early morning fog lifts, climb into a basket to float above it all with Balloon Aloft Hunter Valley.
Throughout the wine region, more than 150 wineries are pouring regional specialty wines—Shiraz and Semillon, in particular—in tasting rooms known locally as “cellar doors”, plenty of quality restaurants, concert venues, charming inns and mobs (groups of 10 or more) of hopping kangaroos. The annual Hunter Valley Food and Wine Festival traditionally coincides with Vivid Sydney.
Head for a lovely Hunter Valley country hotel with excellent dining, like Spicers Guesthouse and Vineyards Estate in Pokolbin.
Plan on visiting three or four wineries in a day; the ideal agenda includes pairing wines with salami (Tulloch Wines), chocolates (Glandore Wines), and a delicious meal at Brokenwood Winery, a vast contemporary space and 2019 winner of best cellar door.
A tip: On the drive to or from Hunter Valley, don’t miss taking a tea break at Distillery Botanica near Gosford. Its fragrant three-acre garden contains a boutique distillery and a small bar where herbalists make limited spirits in attractive signature bottles.
Where to Stay in Sydney
Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbor is a five-star high rise with harbor views, a champagne bar at the top, an infinity pool and a delightful, big breakfast spread. Walk to Barangaroo, Sydney’s newest food, fashion, and lifestyle destination, which is a wonderfully decorated with imaginative Visit Sydney illuminations.
Walk for blocks along Wulugul Walk at the water’s edge to choose a different international cuisine for every meal. Sydneysiders love drinks and dinner out-of-doors at cosmopolitan spots like Anason, an authentic Turkish restaurant with an Istanbul-inspired meze bar.
For the best close-up views of Sydney Opera House, stay at the Park Hyatt Sydney in The Rocks, a luxury hotel with a rooftop pool. Alternatively, only five minutes’ walk from BridgeClimb, explore the historic district’s cobblestoned streets, art galleries, design museums, restaurants, and public houses with a few rooms above.
Tip: Get to know these neighborhoods and their stories intimately while sampling local culinary treats on a guided walking food tour led by Taste Cultural Food Tours. Come hungry and walk it off as you go!
Getting to New South Wales
Kia ora! Raise a glass to crossing the International Date Line. As long as you’re losing a day whilst up in the clouds, indulge yourself in the Air New Zealand Premium Economy experience via Auckland. Traveler reviews in TripAdvisor place the airline number one in its class, so stretch out in a roomy leather seat with a leg rest and foot support while browsing the extensive entertainment and food menus. You’ve got time to catch all those movies you missed and still catch 40 winks.
Depart at night and arrive refreshed in the morning—of the following day, that is. (Say, for argument’s sake, that you don’t care for Mondays…who does?) Leave the USA on Sunday night and you’ll be in Sydney just in time for breakfast on Tuesday. It’s as though Monday never happened.
Tip for Wine Lovers: Did you know that Air New Zealand is the single largest server of that nation’s wines, pouring around eight million glasses every year? What makes them so good? Expert judges conduct blind tastings to select the perfect wines for the low humidity and high altitude that do affect our in-flight palates.
P.S. “Kia ora,” a is a Māori-language greeting that’s on everyone’s lips on Air New Zealand. It means “cheers” and “hello there” and “best wishes” and “bye for now” all at once.
Note: The author was a guest of Destination New South Wales and Air New Zealand; she received no financial incentives and all views expressed are her own.
A career-long tourism, destination, hotel sales and marketing pro, Laurie Jo Miller Farr is a dedicated urbanite who loves walkable cities and has a knack for always finding the best public restrooms. As a San Francisco-based travel and copywriter, she enjoys views from its crazy signature hills following half-a-lifetime promoting her dual hometowns, a couple of oh-so-flat places: NYC and London. Her work is found online at USA Today, Yahoo, Eater, CBS, Where Traveler, and more. She tweets @ReferencePlease and posts on Instagram @lauriejmfarr.