In Australia, Sydney and the Hunter Valley are worth a three-week vacation. We had three days…and made the most of it.
By John and Sandra Nowlan
It takes a long time to reach Australia, even by airplane. In our case, it took 24 days as we chose the pleasant, slow route by cruise ship. Sailing into Sydney Harbour, with its iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House, is one of the world’s great travel experiences.
Once disembarked we headed about four miles from downtown Sydney to Australia’s best-known swimming and surfing area, Bondi Beach. This long stretch of wide, smooth sand faces the open Pacific and attracts hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sun and surf lovers each day to its fantastic beach and carnival atmosphere.
The north side is usually calm and suitable for family swimming, but the south end of the beach has rip currents with significant waves that offer a challenge to the mostly young surfers who flock here to test their surfboard skills.
Behind the beach, along Campbell Parade, the community of Bondi bustles with youthful energy and dozens of cafés, bars, ice cream outlets, boutiques, surf shops and restaurants.
A Quirky Hotel, A Great Restaurant
Our hotel could not have been more convenient. The QT Bondi is just a block up from the beach and has a quirky, young-at-heart ambiance that’s a perfect fit for the town.
Our well-equipped two room suite had a comfortable bed, modern furnishings, and a spacious bathroom. All 69 rooms in this boutique hotel include a full kitchen and washing machine. The fridge and microwave were very useful since there’s a supermarket less than a block away.
Our restaurant that first evening in Australia was a gem, one of the best we’ve ever experienced. Blanca on Hall Street is a bit hard to find (it’s a few blocks up from the beach), but the extraordinary Mediterranean/Japanese fusion cuisine is worth a special trip.
We chose the ten-course tasting menu with accompanying sake and wine. We were astonished and delighted with the wide variety of unusual, tasty and beautifully presented dishes. Our favorites were the Sydney rock oysters with mandarin-Szechuan pepper sauce, the aged raw beef with fresh wasabi mayo, the grilled Fremantle octopus with garlic confit and the Blanca Black Bun (crispy soft-shell crab, mayo, and spicy red cabbage covered in a soft black bun colored with squid ink). The dishes at Blanca were as good or better than many we’ve had at Michelin-starred restaurants.
The Hunter Valley Harvest Wine Experience
We love visiting wineries and made a point the next day to take a trip to the Hunter Valley, a couple of hours north of Sydney and home to one of the world’s great wine producing regions. AAT Kings offers an excellent full-day tour called “The Hunter Valley Harvest Wine Experience,” led by a knowledgeable and entertaining guide/bus driver.
Our first stop was at the 50 hectares Brokenback Vineyard, part of Leogate Estate, close to the picturesque Brokenback Mountain range. Grape vines planted in the mid to late 70s are now producing premium Shiraz, Semillon, Chardonnay, Verdelho, and Tempranillo. It was before noon, but our busload of guests (many were Chinese) enjoyed the winery tour and generous tastings. We were told that one particularly good shiraz was chosen by Quantas for its first class passengers.
An excellent lunch (shared platters of local food with wine, of course) was served to us at the Hunter Valley Resort, a combined hotel, and vineyard harvesting mainly shiraz grapes from its 50-year-old vines. This was followed by another round of wine tasting (we were happy we weren’t driving!) and optional craft beer sampling (the winery also has a brewery).
The final winery was McGuigan, a brand well known in North America. With a family heritage dating from 1880, McGuigan has been awarded “International Winemaker of the Year” a record four times. As expected, they’re well prepared for visitors with a large, comfortable tasting room and generous samples of white and red wines, some in the $50+ range.
Our efficient AAT Kings bus driver/guide returned us to the city and our hotel, the QT Sydney, another in the small Australian chain that specializes in quirky and comfortable. Even the usual doorman has been replaced by a greeter with bright red hair. She calls herself, “The Director of Chaos” (and she’s very efficient).
A Hotel Inside a Department Store and State Theatre
QT Sydney is centrally located and has 200 rooms constructed inside the historic Gowings Department Store and State Theatre. All rooms have a slightly edgy design with an unusual combination of gothic, art deco and Italian influences. But the rooms are large and quiet with modern conveniences and excellent service.
Its dining room is very popular and offers a wide variety of Aussie and international specialties in the style of a European brasserie. The hotel includes a small spa with a good choice of people pleasing procedures.
On our final day, we found QT Sydney’s central location to be ideal. Just next door is the Queen Victoria Building, finished in 1898 as a Grand Market and, after several renovations, continuing in that tradition today. It’s probably the best example in the world of a grand retail building from the Victorian era. It has six levels of shopping, mostly high end.
We were also within a few blocks of the outstanding Australian Museum established in 1827 and the oldest in the country. Known for its Natural History and anthropology collections it can entertain and educate adults and kids alike. Well worth a few hours.
Our Sydney visit was too short, but we were inspired to plan a return visit in the future. The modern and efficient Sydney airport (excellent duty-free shopping) made the wait very comfortable as we prepared for a long flight back to North America.
– All photos by the authors