Sydney Side Up

To the New York sensibility, it feels as though Sydney cannot be a serious city. You will notice it the moment you pass through customs: the plastic banknotes, all those flip-flop sandals, the colorful attire. Even before you see the beaches, you will note the infrastructure. Too new, too crisp. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is painted continually; the tunnel beneath the harbor is gleaming clean. For this you flew twenty hours across the world? The Truman Show?

Sorry, folks, it’s real. In fact, Sydney, a city of 4 million, just happens to be built around the most spectacular harbor in the world. Its citizens, as a former boss of mine used to say, are geographical millionaires. “Look at the bloody morons,” he’d say to me. “What are they whining about?”

The ingratitude of the urban proletariat notwithstanding, there is no bad time to be there. Even August – that’s midwinter – is sunny and clear-skied. But step off the plane in December, and you have arrived in the best time of year. It is jacaranda time, champagne season, summer. If you need a reality check, try CNN; otherwise, the only snow you’ll see will be the toxic foam dripping off the Christmas trees in the department-store windows of the CBD, the Central Business District. Outside on the pavement it will be 90 degrees, maybe 100. Fifteen minutes away, at Bondi Beach, the long green waves will be rolling in from the Pacific, and bricklayers on lunch break will be waxing up their boards.

There’s a lot written about the Aussie cultural renaissance, as there should be, but the very best thing about this world-class city is not that it has an opera house like a well-stacked dishwasher, or bookshops like the ones New York used to have before we drowned them with caffeine. The very best things about Sydney, as any posh real-estate window will tell you, is the unrealistically beautiful harbor. If you plan your trip cleverly, you will stay in a hotel right on the water. The Park Hyatt has the harbor lapping at its door, and from there you can travel to Utzon’s fabled opera house by water taxi. You should also visit Taronga Zoo on the ferry, and the wild parkland at Middle Head. You might ingratiate yourself with a friendly Aussie and go sailing in Pittwater. And when you go to the theater, you must go, at least once, to the Wharf, not just because the theater is likely to be good but also because it was once, as its name suggests, a working wharf on Sydney Harbour, and you can have a wonderful meal afterward.

Given our boiled-mutton English heritage, it is almost impossible to explain why dining in Sydney is so spectacular – it is necessary merely to assert it, and have you thank me later. Before you leave home, make reservations at the Rockpool, the Boathouse, Tetsuya’s, and MG Garage. Difficult as it is for New Yorkers to imagine, you will not be able to get a table after you arrive.

Sydney is such a hedonistic city that I can easily imagine two weeks spent doing nothing more than going to the beach all day and eating in a different restaurant every night. I won’t pretend that Sydney doesn’t also have miles of dreary redbrick suburbs, but there’s no need to ever see them. Likewise, the Central Business District, which lies tucked in behind the ferry station at Circular Quay, has little to recommend it. There are good hotels there, but you don’t need them. The museums, galleries, boutiques, bars, and restaurants are mostly in nearby districts like Paddington, Darlinghurst, Balmain, Woollahra. These districts are museums in themselves, presenting continual Victorian streetscapes that are unlikely to fit with your expectations.

In fact, whatever image you have of Sydney is almost certain to need adjustment. The straight macho world of Paul Hogan does not prepare you for the huge gay population or the annual gay Mardi Gras. Nor does our racist white-bread history prepare you for a city that can boast almost as many ethnic groups as New York. While we do have “barbies,” no one would be caught dead saying “shrimp.” (That would be “prawn.”) Sydneysiders will tell you that they are now a part of Asia, an alliance that has doubtless helped produce all that fabulous fusion cuisine but that has also propelled the giddy plunge of the Australian dollar. Cruel news for my Australian friends who are now bankrupted by their trips to New York, but a treat for you. Your AmEx bills arrive home before you do, but you will see that every one of them is reduced by 40 percent.

Australian novelist Peter Carey, the author of Oscar and Lucinda and, most recently, Jack Maggs, lives in New York.

Sydney Side Up