Simply Sydney

While you might not find Dubai-scale grandeur in Australia, what you will find is a wealth of experiences.
Simply Sydney
By Alicia Buller
Wed 12 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

While you might not find Dubai-scale grandeur in Australia, what you will find is a wealth of unique experiences. Alicia Buller ventures down under in search of Sydney's high life.

A bleached-blonde guy sidles up the road, giant board under his arm. ‘Born to surf, made to work' announces his sun-addled t-shirt. Beyond him, Bondi beach opens like a giant rolling canvas - the surfer dudes like Day-Glo bursts of ink. The scene does little to revoke the traditional Aussie stereotypes: the buff outdoorsy bodies, the sprawling Neighbours-esque cul-de-sacs, the astonishing natural beauty, the ever-present shrill of ‘How you going, mate?'

But Marina, my vivacious Sydney-born tour guide, thinks there's more to Australia these days. It's changing, she says. Beneath the wetsuits and easy camaraderie there is a renewed Oz confidence. The economy is relatively buoyant, Australia is doing a fine trade in commodities and it's as if Sydney, recently declared the city with the world's best standard of living, wants to put on a tux and smarten up its act.

While the barbeque and flip-flops lifestyle will always be a natural by-product of Sydney's mild climate, there's a sense now that the Aussies, once content with their lot, want to cut more of a blaze on the world's cultural map.

"Sydney has changed since the Olympics. The service industry improved. The city came up a notch," says one Sydney-sider taxi driver. "The downside is it has became more expensive for residents. Real estate has gone through the roof."

Six billion dollars was ploughed into Sydney's 2000 Summer Olympics, which helped to rejuvenate the city's streets. Infrastructure was improved, taxi drivers were trained and thousands of window boxes were laced along the pavements.

The Olympics also marked the accelerated ascension of Sydney's cultural and entertainment landscape - the city was suddenly thrust onto the world map and one billion TV screens. "Hosting the Olympics is worth US$6 billion in global branding for Sydney alone," calculated marketing bigwigs at the time.

The allure of ‘Down Under' is well documented: the pleasant climate, the outstanding natural deserts, forests and seas, plus hundreds of indigenous wildlife species. But the global recession is taking its toll on the country's staple tourism visitors: Brits and Americans.

While Sydney received over 2.6 million international overnight visitors June 2007 - June 2008, the figure is down by 1.6 per cent on the previous year. Understandably, Tourism Australia is now looking to cast its net wider.

"We recognise the Middle East as one of the largest untapped opportunities because of the respite Australia offers from the heat of the summer months," says Catriona Fraser, director of communications, New South Wales Tourism Board.

"Sydney, in particular, is well placed to attract Arab visitors because it offers the cultural buzz of a global city together with plentiful greenery, stunning harbours and a chance to sample the outdoors life."

Under the beating October sun, Sydney is a carousel of street life: everyone in the city seems to be on the pavements or in the parks. From young to old, there's blur of skaters, surfers, buskers, power walkers and joggers basking in the city's atmosphere of ‘no worries mate' friendliness.

Sydney is a world apart from Dubai, the pace of life is a lot slower and people tend to give way, both on the sidewalks and the roads - which some would say is worth the trip in itself. But while Dubai is famed for its opulence as much as its traffic jams, can Sydney compete in the luxury stakes?

"The city is very luxurious, compared to five years ago," explains Simon Rose, concierge at the Intercontinental hotel, Sydney. "Today you can order what you want. You can sail on a world class yacht and phone up for a helicopter to fly you to the Hunter Valley wine region or the outback."

Rose, one of the city's most respected concierges, claims to be able to turn his magic black book to even the most unlikely of tasks. "I can bring you anything you like from the zoo," he says. "In the past, I've brought koalas, snakes, baby kangaroo, baby crocodiles and wombats to the hotel for private viewings."

Undoubtedly, today's Australia offers a smorgasbord of experiences, some of them more luxury than others. In this two-part review, you'll discover the diamond gems of Sydney and its surrounds. This month, First Class goes in search of premium experiences in Sydney, and next month, in part two, we'll uncover luxury trips further afield in New South Wales. The best of luxury Sydney

Fort Denison Australian Cheese and Wine Experience

Hosted on Fort Denison, a former defence island in Sydney Harbour, this Australian cheese and wine course showcases the best of country's cheesemaking talents alongside some great Australian wines.

The setting itself is stunning. A boat will take you directly from the harbour to the Fort, where you'll be greeted with a glass of Australian bubbly and given a few minutes to explore the grounds and take pictures of the harbour.

Inside the Fort, the course is held in a charming crypt room. The host, Claudia, is like an Aussie-version of British TV chef Nigella Lawson. She oozes charm, appetite and a passion for life. "Cheese is a living organism," she gushes, "it's alive!"

On the plate, there are 14 exceptional Australian cheeses, accompanied with four tasting wines. Claudia encourages the tasters to eat the cheeses with their fingers, to get a feel for ‘moisture content, texture and smell'. We are also encouraged to test each cheese with different sips of wine to gain a better understanding of our own preferences. Claudia teaches us the background of Australian cheese and how the local diary industry has progressed over the past 200 years. "Since the restrictions and embargoes on dairy have lifted, Australian cheese makers have become more experimental in the last 20 years," she says.

The breadth and quality of Australia's cheese industry is evident on the plate. Ranging from a mild goat's milk cheese (Willowbrae from Wilberforce, New South Wales) to a pungent cow's milk offering (Crem Dalblu from Denmark, Western Australia), these really are some of the freshest, most striking cheeses I've tasted.

You'd be hard pushed to find a better introduction to the local cheese industry, and a more enthusiastic and charming host. The course runs for 2.5 hours and costs US$160, including boat transfer. www.mcintoshandbowman.com

Let's Go Surfing

The Let's Go Surfing team has over 10 years know-how in delivering surfing lessons to everyone from beginners to experts. Based at Sydney's famous Bondi beach, this surf school offers private lessons from US$130 an hour, plus US$70 per extra person for families. The board, wetsuit, insurance and sunscreen are all provided.

After just 30 minutes, I was able to stand up and ride a wave all the way to the beach - especially good going for a klutz. My instructor also taught me about the nature of the waves and what to look for in nature's signs to catch the best surf. And if you make the grade and manage to stand up on your board, you'll be given a certificate to proudly place on your mantlepiece. This school comes highly recommended. www.letsgosurfing.com Bondi to Bronte Cliff Walk

This coastal walk along the cliffs stretches from Bondi to Bronte and is one Australia's finest capital-city strolls. A walk of about 4km, it encompasses four ocean beaches, two rocky bays and plenty of surfer dude eye-candy.

On most days, especially the sunny ones, the great kilometre-long curve of sand and rolling breakers and the cafes and restaurants along Campbell Parade attract thousands of visitors.

Bridge climb

The Discovery Bridge Climb will take you right into the heart of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Securely held on with harnesses, you'll get to climb to the top of the bridge and feel like the king or queen of the world as you take in the breathtaking 360 degree views of Sydney Harbour.

Via your well-trained and friendly guide, you'll also discover the rich history of the bridge as you make your 134 metre ascent. All climbers should wear enclosed rubber-soled shoes and comfortable clothing, as everyone is required to wear a BridgeSuit over their normal clothes. The climb takes approximately three-and-a-half hours. www.bridgeclimb.com

High Tea at Sydney Opera House

An afternoon of decadence, High Tea features sublime food from Michelin-trained culinary maestro Guillaume Brahimi and an exhilarating performance, up close and live, by some of the world's most famous opera singers.

You will be welcomed with a glass of fine Australian sparkling wine, then presented with an assortment of beautiful teas, exquisite savouries, pastries and petit fours. Forget cucumber sandwiches and stale scones, how about fresh crab with coriander mayonnaise served with a 20 minute opera recital?

This is a truly first class environment - housed in one the world's most iconic buildings, the restaurant is fringed by the lapping harbour. And the experience of having a world-class songstress singing within feet of your table is an experience not to be missed.

The Opera House also offers a high-end ‘Sea & Stage' experience package, where you can enjoy the performance of your choice, a dinner cruise on Sydney Harbour, an interval drink and a hosted tour. www.sydneyoperahouse.com Restaurants

Icebergs

Now, this restaurant is really is swish. The minimalist tables adorned with crisp white tablecloths are set against Sydney's world-famous Bondi beach. The charming waiter Ronnie delivers service with a smile so polished it practically gleams. The exemplary wine list also will impress. Icebergs prides itself on simple, fresh, well sourced produce and it shows.

I try sample the tomato sauce mussels from Adelaide, which are also marinated in pig's cheek (nicer than it sounds) and Formaggio cheese. It's exquisite and the flavour has been released by cooking the mussels for 2.5 hours. Next I sample the Wagyu beef, which has been corned-reared over 250 days. It's very rich, but if you like a heavy steak then you'll love Iceberg's 300 gram Japanese meat feast. Overall, Iceberg's is an elegant, hip affair. As soon as you walk in, you'll see why Nicole Kidman decided to host one of her 40th birthday parties here. www.idrb.com

Tetsuya's

Tetsuya Wakuda has refurbished a heritage-listed site in the city to create his dream restaurant offering a bar for pre-dinner drinks, private dining rooms for group bookings, and two larger main dining rooms overlooking a Japanese garden. Tetsuya's cuisine is unique, based on the Japanese philosophy of natural seasonal flavours, enhanced by classic French technique.

Tetsuya's offers one of Sydney's most remarkable wine lists, and will match the dishes with wine available by the glass. The restaurant serves a ten-course degustation menu which changes regularly. What's more, Tetsuya's was awarded the highest rating in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2009 (Three Chef's Hats) and the sommelier was awarded best sommelier of the year in the same guide. www.tetsuyas.com

Marque

Walking into this intimate room is like stepping into another world, the chocolate walls are perfectly illuminated by the softly-lit egg-shaped lamps on the tables. It's private, discreet and quiet - perfect for a date or a high-profile meeting. This restaurant serves light modern French cuisine that contrasts flavours and textures, so expect the unexpected.

The menu is extremely adventurous, so if you're a meat-and-two-veg kind of eater then this restaurant is not for you. However, if you want to experience Sydney's vibrant and inventive culinary scene at its most experimental, then you'll love it. Expect magnificent concoctions such as beetroot and Foie Gras macaroons, octopus and ‘nicoise' pineapple sage, and roast spatchcock with chocolate. Marque's sommelier is on hand to expertly complement meals with wines. www.marquerestaurant.com.au

Guillaume Bennelong

Being underneath the Opera House sails provides a perfect stage for Guillaume Brahimi's decadently rich French cuisine, from his addictively artery-thickening Paris mash to Iberico ham with figs and 20-year-old balsamic. Sterling service and superb wines make this one of the city's truly great dining destinations, whether it's to share a 1.2kg Wagyu rib-eye or enjoy the Kangaroo Island chicken with duck foie gras ravioli, Chinese cabbage and truffle jus all by yourself. www.guillaumeatbennelong.com.au

Quay Restaurant

Quay is one of Sydney's most respected restaurants and has been established since 1988. The eatery is a magnificent setting for the highest culinary endeavour with a sense of occasion. Day or night, the view from the restaurant, Sydney Harbour Bridge to the right, Opera House to the left, is spectacular. Again, three hats awarded from the Sydney Morning Herald Food Guide 2009, and Restaurant of the Year Award. www.quay.com.au

Universal

Christine Manfield, renowned chef, author, gastronomic traveller, food manufacturer, presenter and teacher returns to the Sydney dining scene after a seven year absence since closing the highly acclaimed Paramount Restaurant in 2000, opening the award winning East @ West in London's Covent Garden in 2003 and working on various other global projects within her expansive portfolio. www.universalrestaurant.com

Est.

Est. head chef Peter Doyle is widely regarded as a founding father of modern Australian cuisine. With a career spanning 30 years, he has been referred to as a ‘homegrown legend' and ‘inspiration to the industry'. Est. is Establishment's fine dining restaurant. This elegant space features the magnificent heritage aspects of the building together with luxurious furnishings and fittings. www.merivale.com/establishment Shopping

Rocks Markets, George Street

Whatever the forecast, you can still browse through this bustling marketplace. A sail-like canopy covers the entire space and promotes a welcome breeze when it gets crowded. The Rocks Market has grown since 1991 to more than 150 stallholders and extends from George into cobbled Playfair Street.

Gift and souvenir-hunters will find all manner of arts and crafts, from bent-fork mobiles to breadboards, jewellery and trinkets, wind chimes and fairy frocks, and curios from around the world. Throughout the year, the market's calendar of special events includes art exhibitions, antiques fairs and craft shows and entertainment such as street theatre and musical groups. Open Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm.

Paddington Markets, Oxford Street

The Paddington Markets have long been regarded as the thread of Australian fashion which weaves itself through this colourful suburb. A number of home-grown fashion stars have started out behind a humble market stall including Dinosaur Designs, Collette

Dinnigan, Lisa Ho, Third Millennium and Von Troska. 10:00-16:00, Saturday only

The Strand Arcade, George Street

The historic Strand Arcade is Sydney's epicentre of fashion, style and glamour. Housing some of Australia's leading fashion designers, jewelers and beauty salons, this city landmark combines a striking blend of architectural grandiose with contemporary style and design. www.strandarcade.com.au

Hotels

InterContinental Sydney

This is the hotel where President Bush stayed on his last visit to Sydney. Not surprisingly, he stayed in the Australia Suite, the hotel's swankiest room which will set you back around US$6000 per night. But it's worth it. It boasts stunning views, all mod cons, private butler and cook service, plus a grand piano should the mood take you.

In fact, this hotel is a celeb's dream in terms of privacy. The hotel is able to key off floors and also has the advantage of two concealed entrances. No wonder, Celine Dion and Nicole Kidman have also stayed here.

But even the standard rooms are an elegant mix of the classic and the contemporary and won't disappoint.

Another major feature of this hotel is its impressive club floor lounge which overlooks Watson's Bay to spectacular effect. The club is booked months ahead in advance for New Year's Eve simply because of its views of the Sydney Harbour fireworks. And if you're ever stuck for anything to do, Simon Rose, the hotel's expert concierge can get you into the city's most booked up places with ease. Like he says, the Intercontinental prides itself on being ‘in the know' and offering the best local experience.

However, if you're a smoker, then bring your own cigarettes. The hotel's room service doesn't sell them and you might find, like me, that you get directed to the 7/11.

Four Seasons

Four Seasons Hotel Sydney overlooks the harbour in the historic Rocks district, a short walk from the city's shopping and business centres. As with all Four Seasons, you can expect a grand entrance and a footman to assist you at the entrance, What's more, the rooms are among the best you'll find in Sydney. The recently modernised junior corner suite is lavishly decorated and boasts a huge desk for all your work needs. The furniture is also impressively stylish and modern.

One of the hotel's key features is its luxurious spa featuring exclusive skincare and aromatherapy treatments. Just launched is its unique crystal therapy massage which aims to cleanse your body of negative energy - it's so relaxing and calming that you'll feel like you're in a trance for a few hours afterwards.

Overall, the Four Seasons offers a seamless luxury experience in the heart of the city.

Swissotel

This hotel is central to Sydney's shopping and business districts, placed in the heart of Market Street. Walk in through the entrance, and then catch a lift up to the eighth floor and you'll be amazed how they've managed to fit such a huge hotel into what looks like an upstairs shop space. But don't be fooled, this hotel is five star throughout.

The first thing that's noticeable about the Corner Suite room is its clean, bright and airy design. It also has a balcony with a table and chairs with an impressive bird's eye view of urban Sydney. The bed is king-sized, as is the bathroom, which was pleasantly larger than expected and equipped with Molton Brown toiletries. The room boasts most mod cons too, including a Bose radio.

This hotel is a pretty safe bet for a comfortable urban stay, but be warned, it must be popular as it's very, very busy. It's also worth noting that check out time is an earlier than usual 11am.

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