Discoveries Down Under Part 4 – Sydney And The Blue Mountains
Sydney requires no introductions, boasting some of the most photographed landmarks in the world. With iconic buildings, beaches and impressive city skyline, it is no wonder this great city is on so many people’s wish list. It has been on our bucket list for years, in fact it is unbelievable that it has taken us so many years to visit this place. To finally be here was another “pinch me” moment like so many we had on our Australian trip.
If you have been following our journey you know that we had to catch a ferry back to Hamilton Island, backtracking ourselves for our flight with Qantas to Sydney via Brisbane. We have again used the Qantas “walkabout pass”, which has been very convenient and it has also saved us money. The pass can only be purchased in conjunction with the international flight, in our case we did a London to Perth flight, and flew back (another big advantage of the pass) from a different city, Sydney. The internal flights around Australia are very easy to book using the excellent Qantas website and all the internal flights were easy to check in using the Quantas phone app, allowing us to board with electronic boarding passes, again saving the faff of checking in at the airport or finding a printer. Isn’t technology great when it works! We have not been sponsored by Qantas to say this, but our experience was excellent, all flights were perfect, comfortable and on time.
Our home in Sydney was conveniently located 2 minutes walking distance from Darling Harbour,. The apartment hotel had a spacious well equipped kitchen/dinning/sitting area, very comfortable bedroom and en-suite shower. The apartment could have done with a bit of a freshen up in places, but was clean and location was spot on….though unfortunately no great views from our window.
We had five days to explore this great city, so after leaving our luggage at the apartment we walked the short distance over a pedestrianised bridge to Darling Harbour, Sydney’s hub of entertainment. It is a lively harbour side area with many restaurants, cafes and bars overlooking the beautiful harbour which is surrounded by towering buildings from its nearby Central Business District neighbour. We spent our first evening eating and hanging out at Darling Harbour and we watched this place come to life as the sun was going down over the city skyline. The many street performers kept us well entertained.
Over the next few days we found our way around by walking everywhere or taking the excellent public transport such as train, buses or ferries. We got hold of a free Opal card (is like the Oyster card in London) and loaded it with money. The maximum fare charge per day is just under AUD 15 and on Sundays just AUD 2.50 to go anywhere and you never pay more than that. We even used the Opal card to visit the Blue Mountains (independently by train, more on that later). We loved that the trains had two levels. We got hold of an Australian sim card for our mobile phones so we could use Google maps to find our way around Sydney, and it was a revelation – what a fantastic app, that even tells you what platform your train will be leaving from, or if catching a bus it will tell you what bus stop to go to, and once on the bus you can follow along all the stops to your destination. Over the week we learned that the public transport combo of bus, train and ferry made it super easy to get about. We managed to pack in a lot of activities – here are some of our favourites:
Cruising The Harbour
Do not leave Sydney without seeing its iconic sights from the water, a cruise around it’s beautiful harbour is a must. There are many companies offering all sorts of cruises, including some that would include a meal or join a kayak tour for some serious paddling around the nooks and crannies of Sydney harbour . We chose to do it like the locals and cruised around by simply using the slow and classic yellow and green commuter ferry that transport hundreds of people every 30 minutes over to Manly from Circular Quay. Crossing during sunset was magical.
Visiting Manly and walking to Shelly Beach
Manly is easily accessible by ferry from Circular Quay, we took the classic, slow, big yellow and green doubledecker commuter ferry (using our Opal card) and sailed pass the Sydney Opera House, the Royal Botanic Gardens, little harbour islands, Rose Bay, Watson’s Bay. The calm waters of the harbour were busy with other cruise boats, speed boats, yachts racing each other around or the more low-key kayaks, quietly gliding along. We also passed some of the most expensive real state in the world, amazing homes built to make the most of the incredible harbour views. Within about 30 minutes we arrived at Manly Wharf and walked through a pedestrianised, lively promenade area full of surf shops, I had never seen so many. There is a bohemian laid back vibe here. We spent a few happy hours watching the surfers, eating the most delicious fish and chips by the water front, and walking to nearby Shelly Beach.
There are many breath taking trails from Manly, but we chose the very easy 20 minute coastal walk to Shelley Beach and we were not disappointed, from the very first bend there are gorgeous views across into the Pacific Ocean, rocky coves, rock pools, palm trees and plenty of wild life to see. There are lots of water activities such as surfing, snorkelling, kayaking, scuba diving etc. Manly feels like a small resort town, it was one of our favourite neighbourhoods in Sydney.
Coogee-to-Bondi coastal walk
The Coogee-to-Bondi or vice versa Bondi-to-Coogee is probably the most popular coastal walk in Sydney. We did it on a sunny, but not too hot week day and found it to be lively but not uncomfortably busy. We caught a bus from near our hotel to Coogee Beach, the start of our walk. It was an easy 6 km walk that took us about 3 1/2 hours to complete at a very leisurely pace with plenty of rest and photo stops along the way.
Waverley Cemetery which opened in 1877 is State Heritage listed due to its many intact Victorian and Edwardian monuments. Located in this iconic location, on a cliff top near Bronte Beach it is an incredible place to visit, the most beautiful graveyard I have ever seen. The Coastal Path used to be down the boardwalk in the photo above, but due to damage from the storms of early 2016 which caused severe erosion to the path, the coastal walk has now been diverted and we walked through the Cemetery for a little while, instead of walking by the coast.
My son James was a big fan of the show, Bondi Rescue, a reality TV show which documents lifeguards patrolling and saving the lives of many unfortunate swimmers who end up in trouble on the seductive waters of one of the worlds busiest and most famous beaches….Bondi. I watched the show many times with James, so it was lovely to bump into “Harries” at Bronte and get a selfie with him, he was absolutely lovely and charming.
Our reward for the long walk was lunch and a very cold drink at Icebergs watching the surfers doing their board tricks on the famous Bondi Beach waves. The film crew were at Bondi filming another episode of the popular Bondi Rescue show. It was fun to watch them in action.
Coastal Walk from Bondi to Watson’s Bay
We returned to Bondi another day to do another coastal walk, this time to charming Watson’s Bay. We found this coastal walk not so well marked and ended up getting a bit lost, spending more time walking on the road and around the neighbourhood houses then by the sea. For this reason we prefer the Coogee-to-Bondi coastal walk we did before, although it was nice to see the Sydney CBD and Sydney Harbour Bridge from a different perspective. We also enjoyed hanging out at Watson’s Bay and had planned to eat dinner of fish and chips at Doyles, the most famous fish and chips there, but we soon learned that the last ferry to Manly was at 4 pm and therefore it would be too early for us to have dinner there. We ended up having dinner at Hemingway’s in Manly instead, a lovely quirky restaurant by the water front.
Climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge
Brian and I went our separate ways on this day, since he wanted to do a fishing trip on the harbour and I wanted to fulfil a long time ambition of climbing the Harbour Bridge. One of the most famous bridges in the world, its steel metal frame has become an iconic symbol of the city. Built in 1932 during the great depression, it gave jobs to many metal workers that risked their lives every day to build it. The climbing is a well organised and safe affair.. you are first taken into a small room to fill in forms and sign the paper work, after passing the breathalyser test, climbers are given a pack with the blue and grey suits to wear on the bridge. Underneath the suit you are told to wear only your underwear, the rest of your clothes and belongings are kept safely on your given locker . We were also given a harness belt to which we could clip ourselves to the bridge railings. Other things like a hat, sun glasses, a handkerchief and headsets are clipped to the back of our suits. We were also told what to expect once out on the bridge. Before the climb we were given the opportunity to practice the technique of ascending and descending the ladder by attaching our harness belt to a practice ladder rail and walking up and down on it. Once ready and all kitted out we are told to slap on some sun cream, which is provided and we were good to go. We closely followed the guide who was super enthusiastic and kept us well entertained with many stories and titbits about the construction of the Harbour Bridge. From the bridge summit the views are fabulous, it was an amazing and unforgettable experience which I will forever treasure.
To climb the Sydney Bridge is relatively expensive, but if your budget does not allow it, you can walk over the Harbour Bridge for free, there is a pedestrianised walkway with gorgeous views of the harbour below, it is also possible to visit one of the Pylons to get a birds eye view of the harbour and to learn a lot about Sydney’s history of how it all began. Costs are a lot lower than climbing the bridge and the views are probably just as fabulous. For me the Bridge Climb was not just about the views, but about overcoming a challenge and the pleasure of having an experience that was important to me. I will never watch a New Year’s evening fire works of Sydney Harbour Bridge in the same way again, I will forever remember how it felt to reach the top.
A day trip from Sydney to the Blue Mountains
We researched different ways of visiting the Blue Mountains on a day trip from Sydney. We did not want to hire a car and drive there and we did not want to go on an organised tour. We wanted to do it independently and have the flexibility of doing what we wanted to do. It is also a lot cheaper; with the Opal card the train ticket there costs just under AUD 15. We got the 7:20 am train from Sydney Central Station to the town of Katoomba, again with help from Google maps, and the train journey took about 2 hours from Sydney. The journey is very scenic. We sat upstairs in the quiet carriage on the left side, and enjoyed some fabulous views as we entered the Blue Mountains National Park. It was an enjoyable and relaxing journey. Katoomba is the most visited town in the Blue Mountains, and used to be the centre of the coal mining industry in this area. On arrival at Katoomba Station we walked upstairs to buy our ticket for the Blue Mountains Explorer Bus. The bus ticket is a small booklet with maps and a guide to all the different stops and attractions within the National Park. We also bought the Scenic World Discovery Pass there.
From Katoomba station it is a short walk to the red explorer bus stop, and once on the hop-on hop-off Blue Mountains Explorer Bus the friendly driver gives a running commentary about each attraction and where to hop off. Our first stop was at Scenic World, which is a bit like the Disney of the Blue Mountains, very touristic but we loved it. The rides are great fun with absolutely stunning views across the valley and gorges. There are 4 main attractions.
Scenic Sky-way – is a cable car that glides between cliff tops, across a gorge above the Katoomba Falls, with amazing views of the Three Sisters in the distance. The cable car, which is the highest in Australia, is suspended 270 metres over the rain forest canopy, and you get a view of the forest below from the glass floor inside the cable car. From the cable car we disembarked at Skyway’s East Station and walked a short distance to various lookout points over the vast forested valley and views over to Echo Point and the Three Sisters. After exploring around here we took the Scenic Sky-way back to the main Scenic World hub where we had lunch with lovely views over the valley.
Scenic Cable-way – takes you on a journey that descends 545 metres into Jamison Valley, it is the steepest cable car in the Southern Hemisphere. From the cable car there are views out to the Three Sisters, Orphan Rock, Mt. Solitary and Katoomba Falls. We disembarked at the bottom station to access the Scenic Walkway.
Scenic Walkway – We exited the cable car into the ancient rain forest boardwalk and walked its 2.4 kilometres. This elevated boardwalk is through a Jurassic rain forest on the Jamison Valley along beautiful towering Eucalyptus. We kept looking out for the wildlife, hoping to spot the elusive Koala or the native Lyre bird, but no luck on that aspect. We also enjoyed learning about the coal mining industry in this area, and along the way we found the entrance to a coal mine, a replica miner’s hut, and scale bronze sculptures of a miner and his pit pony. Eventually we arrive at the bottom of the Scenic Railway to take us up to Scenic World centre again.
Scenic Railway – the world’s steepest public passenger train, a 52 degree incline, originally constructed for a coal and oil shale mining operation. Once inside the train there is a way of adjusting your seating position allowing you to choose how you want your seating position to be during the ride, up to 20 degree. The cliff hanger is….well the clue is in the name. The cable-driven funicular railway descends, or in our case ascends, 310 metres through a cliff-side tunnel.
There are different types of passes for Scenic World, at different prices, and with each pass you are given a different colour wristband to show at each of the attractions entrance point. We chose the Unlimited Discovery pass one that gives unlimited freedom to ride up or down the valley as you please, and we had great fun doing exactly that. If you do not wish to spend the cash visiting Scenic World there are plenty of bush trails and other activities in this area, that will not cost much.
The viewing platform here gives the best views of the Three Sisters which have the Aboriginal names of; Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo. The sisters are the best known attraction of the Blue Mountains – a distinct rock formation of three soft sandstone pinnacles formed by millions of years of erosion. They look magnificent against the blue tinge of the valley, where the oil escaping from the eucalyptus trees creating the blue haze that gives the region its name.. There are many bush trails around here and we walked down to The Giant Stairway via a series of steep steel and stone steps to reach one of the Three Sister’s pinnacles, you can even touch it. We did not go further down into the Valley, but the route follows the Dardanelles Pass to the Leura Forest, along the Federal Pass and then back to Echo Point, about a three hour circular walk that unfortunately we did not have time and energy left to do it.
Interestingly the Blue Mountains are not technically mountains, but a huge sandstone plateau shaped by millions of years of erosion, it has a diverse ecosystem with a variety of wild life not found anywhere else, many different species of eucalyptus trees, fern gullies, beautiful waterfalls and caves with Aboriginal history thrown into the mix. It is a stunning area to explore. We caught our train back to Sydney from the town of Leura. It was a very intense day of exploring, but totally worth it, and we were so glad to have done it independently. It would have been nice and perhaps a lot less tiring to have been able to stay for few days in a hotel in Katoomba or Leura and explore further the many beautiful hiking trails, but unfortunately we just did not have time for that.
Our journey of discoveries Down Under was sadly fast approaching the end. Although we did not feel ready to leave, work and other commitments were waiting for us back home. During our three weeks in this vast country we didn’t even scratch the surface of all that it has to offer, its landscapes as diverse as it’s wildlife. During our stay we explored three very different states; from the up and coming, cosmopolitan Perth in Western Australia to the incredible Great Barrier Reef, vibrant tropical beaches and Islands of Queensland, to Sydney in New South Wales, one of the most amazing and liveable cities in the world, the heartbeat of Australia. It was an epic trip. We are extremely grateful to our Australian cousins, who have made our trip so memorable, who looked after us so well, meeting them was the absolute highlite of our trip Down Under.
Since being back in the UK we have started the hard process of selling our home, downsizing our lives and starting the count down to financial independence and freedom, on my next post I will give you a taste of how things are developing on that front.
So it was goodbye Australia, for now. We had had fabulous weather wherever we went, and seemed to arrived everywhere just as bad weather turned lovely, and returned to bad again as we left. Apart from one rainy day in the Whitsundays (but warm rain, very novel for us…) we were blessed with warmth and sunshine wherever we went and we loved it. We ended the trip a few thousand down on the bank balance, but with our memory bank immeasurably richer. Thank you Australia, we had a blast.
I hope you have enjoyed this collection of 4 posts as much as I have enjoyed writing it. And if you have been to Australia, I’d love to hear what were the highlights for you.