There is something primal about those first few breaths you take as you step out of an airport. I find myself savouring that first nose-ful of air, scouring it for clues about my surroundings. Meanwhile my brain is subconsciously storing away these memory triggers. The physical recollections of place conjured by a distinctive smell go well beyond that of a photograph.
From the dry, cold air with its promise of snow-laden mountains as you exit a wintery Swiss airport to the chaotic assault on your senses of incense then sewage, sweetness and spice, then diesel fumes that barrages the weary traveller’s head at Mumbai, I have many such memories stored away from my travels.
In Sydney it was the jacaranda trees.
I clearly recall turning my head to locate the source of the delicious scent that drifted casually on the sun-laden breeze as we stepped wearily out of Sydney airport that October morning. The sight and scent of those few trees, draped in their dreaming purple, was a restorative tonic for what had been one of the more trying flights of our long haul travels with young children. In that moment, calm was restored, my senses awakened and my sense of adventure reignited.
We were in Sydney, Australia!
Just as well we had the jacaranda to give us a boost. After all, we only had thirty six hours in Sydney before another flight would take us south-west to Adelaide and from there by road and boat on to Kangaroo Island.
It would be a mad dash of a visit to this famous city, made even the madder by the young age of our children. Still – it had seemed a shame to merely jump on a connecting flight and pass up the option to explore.
Opting to spend a little more for a taxi – what we assumed was the ‘easy’ option into Sydney did not help our rushed schedule. We had timed our arrival for morning rush hour in Sydney and lost an hour stuck in traffic. Fortunately we reverted to rail travel on the way back during the following afternoon’s rush hour – a much wiser choice.
Holiday Inn, Old Sydney
Governed by our time restrictions, we opted to stay in Sydney’s tourist heart.
I did not have any expectations from the Holiday Inn Old Sydney other than it providing us with a convenient and good value roof over our heads with easy access to the main sights of Sydney and its transport hubs.
I was pleasantly surprised. The Holiday Inn Old Sydney is an imposing building with a large, airy foyer. Its family-friendly credentials made it a particularly pleasant stop-over with the staff seeming genuinely focused on making our stay as easy as possible.
Family friendly bonuses included a pushchair to borrow, crayons and an entertainment station strategically positioned in the foyer to distract little people during check-in, baby and toddler friendly crockery and cutlery, waving their capacity recommendations for a twin room and allowing us to squeeze in a travel cot too so we could all share one room (on condition we acknowledged this would make it a little cramped)…the list of practical, common sense little touches went on.
On top of that the staff had huge welcoming smiles and an engaging manner with the children. The staff made us feel that we and our children were truly welcome, not just merely accommodated.
We had two things we particularly loved about the Holiday Inn Old Sydney. One was the excellent breakfast. There was every possible offering, including a DIY juice bar. Unlike most hotel buffets, the selection of food on offer was still going strong at the tail end of breakfast.
The other was the views from the roof. Taking in the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge lit up in all their night time splendour, surrounded by the twinkling lights of the city, all whilst simultaneously enjoying a dip in the hot tub (the pool was a bit chilly) was pretty special.
Staying in the historic area of The Rocks, Old Sydney worked out really well for such a short stay in Sydney. Within a five minute wander of our hotel we stumbled out onto the world-famous views of Circular Quay with both Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House looming up close. Back along the quayside our old friends, the jacaranda trees, painted splashes of soft violets against a vibrant urban backdrop.
Circular Quay is a pleasant place to promenade, if inescapably tourist heavy, and to watch the ferries coming and going (when the view isn’t blocked by a cruise ship that is…), to check out Sydney Opera House and for starting a stroll in the Royal Botanic Garden. With a train station, bus and ferry terminals, it is also perfectly positioned as a jumping off point to explore.
Fast Ferry to Manly Beach
With the sun shining brightly and our beach kit in our bags, we leapt onto a fast ferry to Manly with the plan of working off our jet lag on the beach. The blissful thing about Sydney is that being built around a huge harbour travelling by ferry is a practical way of exploring with the added bonus of jaw-dropping views of Sydney’s iconic landmarks and the wider city. We made the most of every one of our ferry trips by bee-lining, like the excited tourists we were, to the outside top deck. Well, every trip apart from the one in the driving rain that is…
Out on Sydney’s North Head, with a small sheltered city beach facing in towards Sydney Harbour and the other long expanse of sand fronting the wilds of the open ocean, Manly feels a lot further than the twenty minute boat ride by fast ferry that separates it from the heart of Sydney.
We opted for the harbour beach to while away an hour or two – the other was closed to swimmers. I would have liked to take a hike on the many trails around the headland that start from Manly but even if I could have summoned up the energy to conquer my jet lag and lack of sleep, there was no way I was going to convince the others. The children were in heaven splashing about in the sea with a host of other little people. Roo’s eyes grew round when the local kids’ surf club appeared after the school day finished. The opportunities the climate and landscape around Sydney offer for an outdoor childhood are impressive.
As we waited on the wharf for our ferry back to Circular Quay, now buzzing with city commuters in the early evening sun, I admit to having had a rare moment of fond longing for the old days before we had a family. How idyllic would it be to end your working day with a beer and some nibbles in one of the bars on the sunny quayside of Manly, before or after your ferry ride commute home?
Hiking in Sydney
Our second day in Sydney saw the sunshine replaced by drizzle and grey skies. Undeterred and feeling well rested despite Beth falling asleep at the restaurant table the night before (a pancake restaurant of all places too!!), we set off to find a hiking trail.
Despite being famous with tourists for its landmarks, beaches and social scene, Sydney offers lots of possibilities for accessible hiking for all ages and abilities.
The kids were keen to catch another boat, so this time we caught the Topanga Zoo ferry. I’ve heard that the zoo is a good family day out but we hoped to see plenty of unfamiliar wildlife out in its natural setting during the rest of our time in Australia. Instead we set off on a hike around neighbouring Bradleys Head.
Not knowing what to expect, I was pretty impressed at how quickly our walking trail took us away from the city feel. Our tree lined path on the outward trail gave us tantalising glimpses of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House as well as leading us on inviting side-trails down to tiny beaches for more open views.
The Bradleys Head trail was a perfect choice for our first Australian walking adventure. It offers fantastic views out to both Sydney’s city and the wilder looking Port Jackson Bay. It’s a short, easy walk but there are plentiful options to extend for keen walkers, or to shorten as required.
Whilst the Bradleys Head circular trail is not pushchair friendly, it is not that hard for little legs to manage, with only the occasional fairly gentle set of steps to challenge them. The path is well signed, there are toilets half way round at the end of the peninsula and the shaded path prevents over exposure to both sun and rain, although the wind can be a bit blustery on the end of the peninsula.
Our kids also loved the information boards which provided a fascinating insight into the multitude of creatures that call Bradleys Head home. Not wanting to spook them, we were a little selective at first about sharing every detail of how venomous a few of the locals were with our mini hikers. Instead we told them how lucky they would be to spot something. And lucky they were…
On the return leg, now confident of their surroundings, the girls had raced ahead. Suddenly, with a wail of surprise, they both came tearing back again! They had surprised a sizeable water dragon that had been peacefully bathing in a puddle in the middle of the path. I’m not sure who got the biggest shock!
We also saw bush turkeys, mynah birds and lots of other bird life, all with a backdrop of Sydney Harbour Bridge. It’s possible to even see whales in the waters of the harbour from here too if you’re very lucky.
The Australian Museum
After our first family encounter with Australian wildlife, we were keen for more. The rain by this time was pouring – so bad that even we were persuaded to sit inside on our return ferry trip to Circular Quay…
Back on dry (ish) land we opted for shelter. A bus ride from the terminal next to Circular Quay delivered us to the Australian Museum in Darlinghurst. Housing all manner of natural history, anthropological and geological treasures, the Australian Museum proved to be an ideal stop-off and introduction to our Australian travels.
As well as the excellent exhibitions on Australian wildlife, ecological and environmental challenges and its marine life, we also found specific displays on Kangaroo Island and Tropical North Queensland – both upcoming on our itinerary.
Other than the awesome dinosaurs, our favourite, family friendly bit of the Australian Museum was the Search and Discover room. There the children could touch or pick up most exhibits.
A super-engaged member of museum staff was also on-hand to guide curious little minds on their journey of discovery. She helped us to identify the water dragon the girls spotted on the hike earlier that morning and, on discovering we were just arrived in Australia, invited us to email any other photos of unfamiliar wildlife we should find on our travels. That room and that lady’s infectious enthusiasm fired us up for the adventures yet to come.
Sadly, all too soon our time was up. Reluctantly we retraced our steps through a very soggy Sydney – too wet to ditch the bus and wander back via the grounds of the Royal Botanic Garden as we had originally planned. Back at the hotel we picked up our bags and headed to the train station at Circular Quay to add a final mode of transport to our Sydney experience.
All too soon we were back at Sydney Airport being assisted by some of the most gorgeously family friendly airline staff I’ve yet come across (thanks Quantas). We shrank gratefully out of the damp into the shelter of the terminal building, the scent of the jacaranda trees outside now dulled by the monotonous rain. Sydney had been fantastic despite our brief time there, but now it was time to chase the sunshine south. Adelaide and Kangaroo Island were calling.