Sydney’s world-class seduction

When Sydney hosted the incredibly successful Olympic Games in 2000, the city was instantly propelled into the global spotlight. Suddenly, everyone began to take notice and question whether Sydney had now become a “World City.” The answer, it seemed, was a resounding yes but with what criteria was this determined? What sanctioning body had awarded this glamorous title, one that would seat Sydney in an elite class with the old metropolitan guards of Paris, London, Rome and New York?

One would expect a world city would have a rich history marked by an indelible record of deeds performed by great men and women who would one day grace the pages of our children’s textbooks. But Sydney’s original men and women were exiled British convicts.

It was the famous Captain James Cook who sailed up the east coast of Australia in search of a suitable location to establish a British colony. He had originally decided upon Botany Bay, just south of where Sydney sits today. But years later, in 1787, when a fleet of 11 vessels left Britain to set up a penal colony where Cook had landed, it was decided the location was unsuitable, and soon Sydney’s famous harbour was settled upon. Houses had be built, roads and streets fixed from stone, fields and countryside nurtured. Slowly, the seeds of life were sown, and Sydney established itself as the desolate penal colony thousands of miles from anywhere.

Since then, Sydney hasn’t had much of a history, certainly not in scale with its metropolitan mates. In fact, other than some brief clashes with the Aborigines when the city was first settled, Sydney has remained virtually quiet on a historical level.

Landmarks, then? Surely, Sydney would score high in this category, with Harbour Bridge, otherwise known as the Coat Hanger, standing proudly as example. Aside from being one of Australia’s most famous and distinguishing landmarks, The Bridge also plays a key role in the city’s movements, a link between Sydney’s northern and southern suburbs. It took nine years to build, weighs 60,000 tonnes and is 134 metres above sea level at its highest point. But it is, after all, only a bridge. Brooklyn Bridge in New York, although instantly recognizable from countless films, isn’t what makes The Big Apple great. And Golden Gate Bridge, arguably the most famous of all, hasn’t put San Francisco anywhere close to the top. They are merely monumental accessories that ultimately enhance a city’s profile, not determine it.

Time to get a sense of the present
So what was the world so enamoured with? Had the media simply made Sydney great with clever uses of imagery? My questions remained unanswered. The right thing to do seemed obvious. I needed to allow myself the pleasures of the city and do touristy things while getting a sense of what the city had to offer.

The bridge climb, I was told, was one of the city’s most successful attractions, similar to climbing the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the CN Tower. After a mandatory blood alcohol test and a spacesuit fitting, I was on my way up, quickly understanding why its popularity. The exercise was great – a gentle climb to the highest point where the view and the euphoria was exhilarating, then back down in the space of three hours. Afterward, I walked down to the water and hailed a water taxi.

The driver took me to Watson’s Bay, the last before the harbour’s mouth opened up into the sea. We bounced along at high speeds before we reached the end, and I could see the ocean in the distance. Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting on a beach in Camp Cove, part of Watson’s Bay. To my right and in the distance, kids were jumping off cliffs. To my left, people were snorkelling just off the shore by some rocks. In front of me and all around were all the reasons to love this city: its bond with the sea.

Somehow along the way, this city founded upon the principles of crime and punishment has evolved into a society of peaceful innocence. True, Sydney may now be experiencing some of the downsides of being a big city, such as homelessness, crime and drug warfare, but it’s the beach culture and untroubled lifestyle that ultimately prevail. It’s the beautiful beaches that combine to form the true image of life down under. For Australians, the beach is more than just a holiday destination. It’s a crucial part of their national identity and burgeoning culture.

This is no less true in Sydney, which is slowly becoming the world’s sand-in-your-toes metropolis. The pulse of the city is at its strongest just south of the harbour along the eastern coast where the main beaches are. From north to south, Bondi, Tamarama, Bronte and Coogee form a string of beaches separated only by breathtaking headlands.

Next page: Bondi Beach

Bondi Beach is arguably the most famous beach of them all and is certainly one of the world’s most recognizable. Roughly one kilometre long, the beach is enclosed north and south by rocks and cliffs that make up the headlands. On any given day, you’ll find plenty of activity around the rocks. Scuba divers, fishermen, artists, tourists and swimmers all show their appreciation in some way to these powerful beach accessories. In fact, the word “bondi” itself is an aboriginal word meaning “water breaking over rocks.” The cliffs are most pronounced on the south side where they provide a breathtaking view of the entire beach, as well as the beginning of a fabulous coastal walk that connects all the beaches.

Past Bondi is Tamarama, more of a surfing beach set in a small cove. The sea tends to be a little rougher here, but it’s still a great beach to relax on. Further south again is Bronte, which is small but surrounded by parkland and lined with cafés. Families come here to enjoy the combination of parkland and surf as well as the numerous barbecue pits.

But Bondi remains the heart of Sydney, a focal point and a central place in the culture of the city. The changing uses of Bondi Beach over the past 100 years or so has resulted in many physical changes to its landscape. As water sports and recreation have grown, buildings have been built to accommodate the specific needs of those activities. The Bondi Surf Bathers Lifesaving Club was the first of its kind in the world, inaugurated in 1906 to protect beachcombers from the natural hazards of the pounding surf, burning sunlight and dangerous forms of marine life. The Bondi Pavillion was built in 1911 to attract the ever-growing number of visitors, who stayed to dine and dance in the Pavillion’s ballroom.

Today, the beach has a hipper atmosphere, and diners have been replaced by cafés, which take the popular coffee culture very seriously. Elegant restaurants have been replaced with a more casual sort that cater to a more health-conscientious crowd, offering wraps, salads and fruit smoothies with energy and protein shots. Trendy clothing stores line Campbell Parade just behind the beach. There is very little left of the earlier architecture to reveal any signs of previous life. True, the ballroom at the Pavillion still stands, but the only thing you’ll find swinging in there are spiders from their webs.

The face of Bondi has been lifted, nipped and tucked and, along with that, a new profile of Australian life has emerged that is ultimately more relaxed and undeniably enjoyable.

Similar to our snowy playgrounds in the winter, Sydney’s beaches in the summer have become the environment of the city, intrinsic in their relationship with the attitudes and lifestyle of its residents.

There is no governing body by which cities are judged, and there probably never will be. Because cities don’t need to be judged in order for them to be great or world-class. It is simply a feeling you get once you’ve spent some time in them. With Sydney, the flirting is over and what began as a mild fascination — for me and anyone who visits — has  blossomed into an enduring romance.