It has long surprised our friends and neighbours here in NZ that, with all the travelling we’ve done over the years, and especially given that we now live in NZ, we have never visited Australia. There are a couple of reasons for this, and the one that I’ve always told our Australian guests is that I was traumatised by being taken by my father to see Nicolas Roeg’s film Walkabout as a young child (it was on a double-bill with one of the Planet of the Apes movies) and I begged him never to take me to the horrible, terrifying country where it took place. (If you never saw the film–and it seems very few people have–it’s about a pair of spoiled kids from Sydney whose unhinged father strands them in the outback, leaving them to fend for themselves as they struggle to get back to the city, with only their meagre possessions and an Aborigine boy on his ritual walkabout, to help them.) But probably the main reason was lack of interest, since prior to moving here the country seemed too far away, and too similar to the US, to be worth travelling to when there were more exotic places we had yet to visit.
So why did I go now? It was purely to attend a luxury trade show that our lodge association had negotiated a good deal for, and since it was coming so soon after our return from our big trip, J2 decided that he would stay behind and take care of the house (and the dogs) while I made the trip on my own.
The trade show lasted three days, but I decided to spend six days to give me a chance to spend a bit of time actually enjoying the city. Flying in early on Friday, and with the first trade show events only on Sunday, I had two full days to explore before having to get down to work. I fully expected Sydney, with its reputation for sun and warmth, to be, well, sunny and warm, so I was a bit disappointed to find that it was in fact grey, rainy and actually pretty chilly. As a result, my first impressions of the city were decidedly mixed, since it seemed like just an antipodean version of Vancouver. Happily for me, and the future of my relationship with our big neighbour, the weather improved markedly on Sunday (naturally, the day that I started having to spend most of my time indoors) and I developed a much greater fondness for the city.
I found Sydney to be extremely easy to navigate, something that became a bit of a joke since my lodge-owner colleagues kept coming to me for help getting around the place even though all of them had been before and it was my first time. Perhaps it’s due to my having been raised in NYC and being used to public transportation, or perhaps it’s because I am good at using Google Maps, but I certainly became very familiar with Sydney’s numerous ferries, buses and trains very quickly. It didn’t hurt that Sydney offers some very visitor-friendly public transport fares, including a Sunday deal where you can ride as much as you like and spend just AUS$2.50.
On my first day I really didn’t do anything much other than wander more or less aimlessly through the centre of town, visiting bookstores, clothing shops etc but buying nothing. The guy I was staying with through AirBNB took me out for a drink in the evening at a very happening place in a converted old department store before I met up with Malcolm, a fellow lodge owner, for dinner at Tetsuya’s. Tetsuya’s is probably Sydney’s first real world-class restaurant, set up 25 years ago and always winning top awards in annual restaurant rankings. I had wanted to visit ever since I first heard of it, so when Malcolm suggested it, since he once worked with Tetsuya himself a number of years ago, I leapt at the chance, even though it promised to be a very expensive evening. In the end, the food was exceptional but the service left me a bit cold, as did the plating, which was kind of boring, but Malcolm and I had a great time enjoying the experience and a chance to spend a bit of time together for a change.
On Saturday I got a bit touristy, starting off my morning with a short visit to The Rocks market (a weekend event in the neighbourhood where Sydney was first established) and a lengthy stop at the impressive Museum of Contemporary Art. Even though the day continued to be rainy and chilly, I decided to venture out a bit further from the centre, riding the ferry to Manly for lunch. As the ferry proceeded across the bay, an unintelligible announcement came over the loudspeakers. I had no idea what they were telling us until suddenly the boat began rocking and rolling as we hit a stretch of open water where the weather had more of an impact on the waves. Once in Manly, I found a little place for lunch where I had my first taste of barramundi, a fish that I see prepared a lot on Masterchef Australia. It’s a delicious fish, and the place’s chef managed to turn it into the best fish and chips I have ever had. In the evening, in contrast with the previous night’s blow-out dinner at Testuya’s, I decided to try Japanese food at the other extreme of the price spectrum, having an ethereal bowl of ramen noodles at a stall in a food court. Even though it cost 1/20 what I paid at Tetsuya’s, I imagine I’ll remember those noodles much longer!
These trade shows inevitably include a lot of socialising, and with a luxury travel show you’d think they’d take you to the crème de la crème of the host city. So I was a bit surprised that the opening reception was to be held at Luna Park, an amusement park on the other side of the harbour from the central business district. One advantage of this location was that it afforded me a chance to ride the ferry over in the evening, giving me a chance to get some nice shots of the city. And in fact the reception was in a fairly nondescript building that could have been anywhere, though the food and drinks they served were pretty good (and no, there was no cotton candy or popcorn). On the second night the organisers invited high-end consumers to the trade show and had a leading Sydney restaurant, Quay, cater a cocktail party for them. Unfortunately, the servers were under orders not to let any exhibitors near the food (even though we were the ones paying to be there), so a bunch of us decided to leave and fend for ourselves for dinner. When we got to our chosen restaurant, Mr Wong’s, which had been recommended to me by many former guests of ours and is even owned by a former guest, we were surprised to find that a huge contingent of NZ lodge owners and managers had made the same choice! Happily for all of us, the food was excellent.
The trade show was held in a converted wharf on the inside of the harbour, just under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Like most of these events, the days of the show were filled with 15-minute meetings with agents from around the world, some of whom were aware of us but most of whom were not (I purposely chose to meet more with new agents, since that seemed to me to have the most potential impact on our business). Even though I started the show with a bit of nervousness (“what am I doing here, alongside all these super-lodges and Ritz-Carltons?”) after a couple of very positive meetings that dissipated and I got into a bit of a groove. All together I had about 50 meetings, and only one or two were duds, or seemed to be, and I ended the show feeling very glad that I went. Now I’ll have to plan to return some day for a proper visit, and perhaps even bring J2 along.