Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021
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What's Up Down Under

Sydney is primed to become the world's most captivating capital

Sydney has come of age. The staging of the 2000 Olympics here in September is a celebration of the city's recently elevated place in the world. Even though it's scarcely 200 years old, it now ranks with the likes of London, New York and Tokyo at the apogee of 21st-century metropolises. It's difficult for Canadians to accept, but Vancouver and Toronto, both of which possess unquestioned charms, pale in comparison. But then again, so do such ballyhooed meccas of civilization as New Orleans and San Francisco.

Many elements go into the making of a great city. A curious mix of people, architecture, history and setting blend, at a moment in time, to produce a new energy and freshness of vision. There's a sudden blossoming, an explosion of vitality. It's happened here -- you can feel the excitement through your pores. Often one ingredient acts as a catalyst. In Sydney's case, it's the setting.

Stand on the city's Circular Quay facing the sea and do a slow 360-degree turn. To your left, the massive girders of Harbour Bridge above The Rocks, Sydney's original settlement. Straight ahead, Sydney Cove opens on the deep dazzle of the bay. A dozen ferries come and go among pleasure yachts and ocean-going freighters. Across the vast waterfront's spectacular crenellated coastline -- 241 kilometres of it if stretched end to end -- rise the gentle hills of North Sydney. Taronga Zoo juts from a forest-clad promontory. Out past the harbour islands you catch glimpses of the surging Pacific. On an outer reef, a bracing 30-minute ferry ride away, the great waves of the ocean crash and roll on Manly Beach. To your right, the Opera House spreads its gleaming wings and behind it, the wide hectares of the Royal Botanic Gardens descend fragrant to the sea. Along the gardens and up a steep hill rise the skyscrapers of this city of six million souls. It takes your breath away.

Many visitors -- especially if it's a first visit -- make Circular Quay the centre point of their city ramblings. Before you leave the area, consider popping over to the opera and picking up tickets for an event that evening: A night at the opera is a perfect way to mingle with the locals -- and to see some fine performances. The complex contains a variety of theatres. That done, begin with a short walk up the hill to the Museum of Sydney. Built on the site of the first Government House, the museum, which opened a couple of years ago, uses artifacts and a series of stunning holograms to create a sense of the place when the British arrived in 1788. The exhibit, spread over three floors, lingers on the fate of the Eora Aboriginals whose way of life was destroyed by the new arrivals.

Certainly this is politically correct, but life was no picnic either for the hundreds of "colonists" who were transported here in chains by Mother England, and the exhibit gives short shrift to their suffering. Fair's fair; cross Australia you'll find signs of hand-wringing as the present dominant population tries, not always successfully, to make amends for the racially motivated horrors inflicted on the indigenous population in the past. The plight of the Aboriginals is discussed and worried over as much, if not more, than that of our own native peoples -- and to about the same effect. Governments launch hearings and investigations; programs fail; land-claim issues move glacier-like through the courts; alcoholism eats away at the edges of the displaced communities like acid. You are as likely to run into an Aboriginal on the streets of Sydney as you are to find yourself sharing a seat on the subway in Toronto with a Mohawk or an Ojibway, which is to say, hardly likely at all.

You do, however, see a lot more native artwork in both commercial and cultural applications. Next stop, the state art gallery. From the Museum, stroll over to Macquarie Street, named for the first governor to realize that the country had the potential to be something other than a prison. On your way, cross the Royal Botanic Gardens, stopping to admire the native and imported plants and flowers -- you won't be able to restrain yourself. Appreciate, too, the gorgeous Georgian honey-coloured sandstone government buildings that Macquarie commissioned and which provided the colony with a fine blueprint for future development.

Continue across the gardens to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and go straight to the elegant and usually crowded outdoor café. You won't be disappointed with the menu, the bubbly atmosphere or the prices. After lunch, plan to spend a postprandial hour in the gallery. That's all the time you'll need to get a sense of the country's European art past and present -- hint: think Canada with eucalyptus trees -- and, more interestingly, what a rising number of Aboriginal painters and sculptors are up to.

Art is wonderful at giving a sense of what goes on under the surface of a culture, but the surface itself can be more entertaining. Time to plunge into the city proper. George Street is where you want to be. The shops and general feel of the experience owe more to London than New York -- although all the frantic building that's gone on in preparation for the Olympics owes more to L.A. than anywhere else. Whatever the architecture, downtown you'll find plenty of souvenir outlets to pick up T-shirts, boomerangs, placemats, costume jewellery featuring native animals and other "great-for-the-folks-back-home" goods, all heavily festooned with Aboriginal-like markings. Jewellery shops which specialize in opals also abound, often staffed exclusively by polite and attractive young Japanese women.

The two "must-visit" emporiums are the Strand Arcade, an enclosed and skylighted shopping street that runs between Pitt and George and, my favourite, the refurbished Queen Victoria Building, which takes up a full block along George south of the Strand. Don't miss the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) shop for topnotch videos on the country and all kinds of Australian memorabilia you won't find anywhere else. The building also houses a number of quality Australian designer boutiques, including the classic Country Roads and a gaggle of more trendy clothing stores. Quality and design meet the highest international standards and the goods are priced accordingly. Australia isn't all sheepskin and woollens, but they do some pretty nifty stuff with that too.


Unless you're a shop-until-you-drop type, your afternoon here will give you a chance to sample much of the best the country has to offer. If you see something you like, buy it now, don't wait until you see something better -- or cheaper -- somewhere else on your travels because you probably won't.

Catch your breath over a hot chocolate or a latté and a biscotti -- the country has, in recent years, been lattÄd from Darwin in the north to Tasmania in the southern ocean. The shocking truth about the new Australia is that now it's probably easier to find a cappuccino almost anywhere than a pint of Foster's lager.

With the shadows lengthening, head back toward the sea again to The Rocks. The early convicts suffered appallingly here -- read The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes for all the ghastly details. Today the narrow streets are bricked, boutiqued and restauranted. Choose from one of many offerings or, if you're in the mood for seafood served very fresh, stroll down to nearby Circular Quay to Doyle's, a Sydney landmark. After dinner, take in that show at the Opera. Remember, you bought tickets this morning!

Of course there's lots more to see and do in Sydney, including a visit to the newest attraction, the Fox Studios at Bent Street, where the next two Star Wars movies will be shot. The Chinese Gardens, in the same area, are worth a visit. So are many of the inner-city residential districts with their luxuriant lanes and gardens and lacy wrought-iron balconies. Paddington also has an interesting shopping street where you'll find few tourists. You may also, at some point in your stay, want to visit King's Cross, Sydney's sexy, seedy Soho district; spend a day at famous Bondi Beach -- more tourists use it than do Sydneysiders; or visit Sydney National Park. But before you get carried away, first explore the harbour. It can no longer be ignored.

It's hard to avoid the water in Sydney. And who would want to? When I'm in Sydney I take the ferry back and forth to my hotel or B&B in Manly Beach, a $3, 30-minute ride from Circular Quay (15 minutes by JetCat, $3.85). Ferries leave for every part of the city from the Quay. Use the green-and-cream Sydney Transportation Authority line to follow your own itinerary or book a commercial harbour cruise. The latter can be as short as an hour or last half a day -- or night -- and include such on-board delights as lunch, tea, dinner and even dancing.

However you choose to go, the sights are the same and they're terrific. Here's a sampling:

Darling Harbour: A short one mile from Circular Quay under Harbour Bridge on the other side of the point. The recently opened tourist area's main attraction is the aquarium. Just across the bay is the National Maritime Museum and it's an easy walk to the serene Chinese Gardens. Consider lunch in Chinatown.

Taronga Zoo: A short hop across the bay. If Sydney is your only Australian destination -- or you're travelling with kids -- it's a must. You can't go home without seeing a kangaroo, a wallaby, a koala and a platypus. On the other hand, there are larger, less structured animal sanctuaries all over the country which you might enjoy more. Indeed, there are many opportunities to see animals up-close in Australia, including, unfortunately, running over them in your car. Our family had a white-knuckle night drive down the coastal Bruce Highway a few years back. Every kilometre or two, kangaroos standing on the very edge of the asphalt flared in the headlights. The many corpses we passed suggested they often leaped as well as looked. After that gut-wrenching ride, we gave up night road trips entirely.

Manly Beach: 15 or 30 minutes from the Quay. Imagine a city centre that's a short ferry ride away from an ocean beach with big sand, big waves and a Mediterranean ambience. Add dozens of restaurants, pubs, hotels, B&Bs, art galleries, small shops and a superb climate; exotic trees and plants; flocks of multicoloured parrots, budgies and pink and grey cockatoos. Go over for a swim or take accommodations and commute to the rest of the city.

These are only a few of the destinations offered by the S.T.A. The information office at the Quay can give you the full picture, including a booklet that describes walks you can take from ferry dockings around the bay.

The city is preening for the Olympics which run from September 15 to October 1. Although no one should need an excuse for visiting, the Olympics are as good a one as any. The town -- and the whole sports-mad country -- is so gung-ho for the event they actually completed the facilities a year ago.

The main stadium is a marvel. The roof membrane is designed both to protect spectators from UV rays and to collect rainwater which is then recycled to water the field and to operate the venue's 1500 toilets. It's already a financial success. Organizers quickly sold 125 private boxes to corporate clients, each of which offers facilities for up to 40 guests. The price: $250,000. Other hot sellers were $35,000 passes which give purchasers free admission to all events -- except rock concerts -- for the next 21 years. Not only that: The stadium has been staging paid events since last March. A controversial national Olympic ticket lottery held earlier this year quickly sold out. Demand ran so high and, for premier events especially, the number of seats available to lottery winners were so few that it caused a scandal which almost brought down the government.

The obvious question for any would-be Canadian Olympic-goer is: Can I get tickets? The answer: Yes -- and no. Olympic tickets can only be purchased through your country of origin. The Canadian Olympic Association has designated the Carlson Marketing Group of Toronto (tel: 888-351-5999; <www.>) as its exclusive agent. The firm offers three packages which include airfare, accommodation and tickets to six or eight pre-selected events -- not always the most popular ones -- spread over five or six days. These packages go for about $10,000. Prices for the ticket portion, which can be purchased separately, range from $1556 to $2936.

Speaking strictly for me, this kind of package isn't worth it. I'm a huge Olympics fan and don't like to miss any of the track and field events. But if we're talking this kind of money, I'd rather invest in a high-definition TV set and take in all the action from the comfort of my living room. On the other hand, Australia is a wonderful country and those two weeks in September are probably going to be the best Olympic party ever staged. Whether you actually see any of the events may not be that important and you can always try the scalpers. Here's a list of the venues.

Homebush Bay: Fifteen kilometres west of the city centre. A new rail link can carry 36,000 visitors in an hour to and fro. The main Olympic Park is here. Events include the opening and closing ceremonies, archery, badminton, baseball, basketball, diving, gymnastics, handball, hockey, pentathlon, ping-pong, soccer, tennis and volleyball.

Sydney West: Within 30 minutes of the stadium you'll find cycling, equestrian events, shooting and softball.

Darling Harbour: Grab the monorail from downtown or take a ferry at Circular Quay. Events include boxing, judo, tae kwon do, weight-lifting and wrestling.

Sydney East: Includes portions of Sydney Harbour and Bondi Beach. Look for beach volleyball, sailing, soccer and the triathlon.

So should you go to Sydney for the Olympics? Yes, yes and again yes. My curmudgeonly comments above notwithstanding, Sydney is going to be the centre of the universe for those two weeks next fall and, boy, are they ever ready for it. Can't make it? Then go next year, or the year after. This is a country that can open your eyes and give you a renewed sense of the glory and beauty of this planet.


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