Sydney is one of the world’s great cities. Verne Maree sees it from two outstanding vantage points – The Establishment: a slick, trendy hotel in the heart of the central business district; and Jonah’s: a byword for gastronomic excellence perched on a cliff overlooking Whale Beach just an hour’s drive north of the city.
There being so many places to see and not enough time or money to see them all, why would you return to Sydney – or anywhere else, for that matter?
Here’s why. Because this time you can relax and enjoy it – you’ve done the mandatory sights, and now you can do what you like. Second time in Paris, you don’t have to climb the Eiffel Tower; in Cape Town, Table Mountain; in New York, the Empire State Building.
This is my third trip to Sydney. The first was a birthday present for Roy, and we ticked off each item on the list – a show at the Opera House, crossing the Bridge, exploring the historic precinct known as The Rocks, shopping in George Street, slumming it in King’s Cross, gobbling mash-topped pies at Harry’s Pie Cart at Woolloomooloo, washing down yabbies and fish and chips at Doyles. We hurtled in a speedboat across the famous harbour, petted a koala at Featherdale Wildlife Park, bought wine in the Hunter Valley and dutifully ticked off each excellent experience.
Then came a media familiarisation trip with a climb across the famous bridge (overrated unless you’re 12), an overnight excursion to the exquisite Blue Mountains, shopping at Paddington Markets, walking the cliff-path from Bondi to Bronte Bay, and – the highlight for me – the stage show of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
There’s nothing to beat having local friends to hang out with you and give you tips on where to go and what to do. On this trip, we are lucky to have Lindsay and Simon in central Sydney, and Kevin and Judy in Whale Bay, so we are guaranteed to get it right.
Central and Sexy
An Aussie expat here in Singapore sniffed a bit when I said we were staying in the CBD. “That’s not Sydney,” she said. “And when the office workers leave, it has no character.”
I beg to differ, but then again our timing – arriving on Friday morning and leaving on Sunday – was perfect. What’s more, we had chosen the perfect place to stay: the ultra-trendy Establishment, whose magnificently colonnaded bar opens onto busy George Street.
Behind The Establishment’s main bar is the Gin Bar, which has a buzzy city vibe and at Friday lunchtime is full to bursting with well-dressed office types nibbling on Thai salad, quiche, tapas and the like. It’s such a slick and friendly outfit that we don’t feel uncomfortable standing at the bar to wait for seats – fortified with a couple of beers, naturally. Let the people-watching commence!
Before telling you about the crowd at the main bar on a Friday night, I must confess that when I read the hotel website’s description of it as “achingly hip”, and its guidelines on how to dress for the occasion – “‘it’ bags”, “designer dresses” and the like – my lip upper involuntarily curled. But now, having seen the crowd in all its competitive, eye-swivelling, dressed-to-kill glory, I take it all back. For once, no one can accuse me of being overdressed.
For a quieter place to chat, stake your claim to a comfy leather couch at Hemmesphere Bar upstairs. It’s a popular respite from the sociable mayhem in the main bar below. Lindsay says it’s her favourite; after years of living in Asia, she likes the pierced Chinese rosewood screen at the entrance, the 80s chill music and the exotic gloom. We like the amazing service: hotel guests are given special priority, and even though you need to book here and the place is full, they wangle us a sofa in a prime position and keep the crisp martinis coming. The wait staff is immaculately turned out and I’ve never seen such an elegant crowd anywhere.
And though we neglected to book for Saturday-night dinner at the estimable fine-dining restaurant Est, nothing seems to be too much trouble. The place is full, but the restaurant manager actually sets up a completely new table for us. It’s a superb eatery: you choose from an a la carte menu or a dégustation menu of either five or seven dishes, all the best of modern Oz cuisine, presented exquisitely and served immaculately.
Walking through the main bar after dinner is a revelation: the swish Friday-night crowd in designer togs has been entirely replaced by a herd of teeny-boppers who seem bemused and none-too-pleased to have their space invaded, even so temporarily, by wrinklies. And accordingly to general manager Luke Harley, Tuesday night is Latino night – a completely different crowd again.
A five-minute stroll down George Street and a duck down a side alley to the left takes you to The Ivy, also part of the Merivale Group to which The Establishment belongs. This, says Lindsay, is the top pick-up joint in town. Gorgeous models with wide Aussie grins are there to meet and greet and show you to any of an amazing variety of destinations: ours (on Friday night) is Ucello’s, adjacent to and with a view of the Pool Bar. This locale can only be likened to a swimming pool and bar on Miami’s South Beach that has been surreally transported to the fourth floor of an old city block.
Ucello’s does good, casual Italian and we enjoy more excellent service from fellow-South African Wayne Smith. Like the rest of Sydney – and Australia, for that matter – it’s fairly pricy – about A$100 each for two not particularly fancy courses and a couple of glasses of wine.
“We’re so famous for our entertainment areas that many people don’t realise we offer accommodation, too,” says Luke. Our room and bathroom are spacious and attractively furnished with top-notch fittings and facilities, free broadband internet and a good working area. No view, alas; this is an inner city building. And parking is at the Macquarie Bank Wilson parkade next door; it costs A$40 a night and is, it must be said, a tad inconvenient. For a couple of days in Sydney, if you’re not going far from the centre, it’s probably better to use taxis and other public transport.
Out and About
Get your shopping shoes on, because you’re right in the heart of the partly pedestrianised George Street precinct. We aren’t in shopping mode, so we get away with a straw fedora for me from FCUK (devoid of bobbing corks, to my disappointment); Roy merely admires a $1,500 Panama at Strand Hatters in the gorgeously Victorian Strand Arcade. Check out the Aussie designers at Myers and visit David Jones, the oldest and perhaps favourite of Australian department stores.
Bondi Beach (say it with an “i” not an “e” sound at the end or you’ll irritate the locals dreadfully) is a 15-20-minute drive from the CBD, depending on the traffic. A summer thunderstorm has driven off all but the most intrepid beachgoer, and we find the water surprisingly chilly.
We join our friends for lunch at the protected Balmoral Bay (pictured below), an idyllic family beach with a variety of restaurants. Their favourite is The Bathing Pavilion, but it is packed, so we lunch at The Bottom of the Harbour, a popular café that does meals such as a huge prawn and rocket salad, and good, fat calamari rings with chips. “Here,” says Lindsay, “if a restaurant is not good, it doesn’t last.”
Take a drive through the Botanic Gardens to Macquarie Point, where you can take the classic photograph of an unobstructed Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Having dropped the car back at the hotel, we walk up to the historic Rocks District. It’s about 6.30pm, and the excellent Saturday market is closing up, so we stroll down to Circular Quay for a drink at a bar on the wharf, right next to the passenger terminal where the enormous cruise liner Rhapsody of the Seas is moored. It’s hugely entertaining, and I come away with three major impressions: how dressed the women are; how many women there are; and how very drunk they appear to be before sunset.
Whale of a Time
Though just an hour’s drive from Sydney, Whale Beach seems a world apart. We arrive in the strangest weather – at 40 degrees Centigrade, it’s the second-hottest November day ever recorded. This has to herald a cold front coming through, so I cajole Roy down to the beach, prop him against a casuarina in the shade with his book and shimmy off to explore the beach. It’s weird: a hot wind is blowing over the cold waves. At the northern end, the surfer boys and girls do their thing; at the southern end is a little rockpool where youngsters can safely swim.
But we’re here for gastronomy, not for the beach. Most famous for its kitchen, Jonah’s is the only Relais & Chateaux establishment in the state of New South Wales. It all started with the restaurant: back in 1929, the widow Constance Vidal opened a roadhouse in what was then the middle of nowhere – “a romance of Australian brick and stone”.
In those days, as now, it caters mainly for visitors to Sydney and to Sydneysiders themselves. According to our friends, locals hardly go there. It’s not clear why they don’t, as the place is simply beautiful and its prices are no higher than at some of the other local establishments we tried.
Back in the thirties, the 50km trip was made by boat and then along a rough track from the beach and up the hill. Now, you can take a scenic 12-minute seaplane flight from Sydney’s Rose Bay.
On arrival we are treated in the atmospheric lounge to a light lunch – a delicious antipasto platter with a glass of champagne; just the thing to get us in the mood. It being Sunday, the restaurant is full to the gills with day-tripping diners enjoying the sweeping views of the bay from its prime hilltop positon.
The highlight of our stay at Jonah’s is, as you’d expect, its 80th Birthday Degustation Menu Retrospect (A$95 per person), a celebratory seven-course feast designed in honour of the establishment’s culinary traditions. First come piquant oysters Kilpatrick, featuring palate-awakening chilli, Worcestershire sauce and bacon. An excellent avocado con frutti di mare follows, then a buttery herb and egg tagliatelli, a succulent lobster thermidor, and Wagyu beef fillet with green peppercorn sauce. To my taste, the desserts – rather heavy crepes Suzette and “1930s style fairy bread”, inspired by one of the items on the original Jonah’s menu – are missable and smack of stodgy school puds. After the first five courses, however, they are surplus to requirements. Service is brisk, knowledgeable and genuinely friendly. The breakfasts at Jonah’s are not particularly exciting (lukewarm eggs, for example, and only white bread served) and not up to the standard of the other meals, but that’s a small quibble.
The accommodation consists of seven luxurious suites, a penthouse, and Jonah’s Private – a residence comprising three suites with a pool. (The other suites do not have access to a pool.) Most of the suites have beautiful views from their private terraces across Whale Beach; each one is comfortably furnished and has a spa bath in which to wallow, glass in hand.
Out and Aboat
A brilliant recommendation from our friends Kevin and Jude sees us catching the 11am ferry with them from nearby Palm Beach through Ku-ring-gai National Park and the scenic waterways of Broken Bay to Cottage Point Inn. This ferry sails from chi chi Palm Beach to Patonga, Cottage Point and Bobbin Head, the skipper giving an entertaining commentary along the way, then picks you up again on the way back – at 2.15pm exactly from Cottage Point Inn. Our meal was outstanding.
Judy’s Foodie Recommendations
• The Boathouse at Palm Beach, for coffee, breakfast or lunch – “relaxed, cool and incredibly chic”. – call +61 2 9974 3868.
• Rockpool Bar & Grill – 66 Hunter Street, Sydney – call +61 2 8078 1900.
• The Gourmet Traveller – an Australian magazine.
• Ripples at 24 The Strand, Whale Beach – modern Oz cuisine and friendly service, mere metres from sand and sea. Call +61 2 9974 5111.
SIA’s 7½-hour night flight leaves Changi Airport at 12.30am and arrives in Sydney at about 11am. (There’s a three-hour time difference.) Through the Airport Car Rental Company we picked up a terrible old knacker of a car, booked in a moment of misguided frugality; it had done more than 100,000km and should long since have been put out of its (and our) misery.
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