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Scorching in Sydney

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on November 22, 2004

After 25 years of running The Travel Bookshop in west London, Sarah Anderson sold up and has taken off around the world with books for company. In her latest exclusive dispatch for Times Online, Sarah writes an e-mail from Sydney

I was quite relieved to leave America – there was a tendency towards post-election despair among the people I knew, and although I had a good time their despondency had somewhat rubbed off on me.

I arrived in Sydney in the early morning on what turned out to be a scorching day, and made my way to the funky and eccentric Hughenden Hotel (14 Queen Street, Woollahra 93634863). Although my room was small and a little shabby, the general atmosphere with its occasional pianist, friendliness of the staff and outside sitting areas were more than enough compensation.

It was in a part of Sydney described by Peter Carey in Thirty Days in Sydney (2001) ” … as I passed through Centennial Park and into Woollahra beneath huge Moreton Bay figs along street after street of Victorian cast iron, I thought I had never been in such a beautiful city in my life”. This must be prime jacaranda-flowering time, and to quote Carey again: “But look at all these flowering trees. They’re just so beautiful. You know I’d forgotten, but we do have the most astonishing plants.”

One of the first things to do in Sydney is to see the sea; the water-views are what make the city so beautiful: “No one in Sydney ever wastes time debating the meaning of life – it’s getting yourself a water frontage. People devote a lifetime to the quest.” – David Williamson, Emerald City (1987).

Eating sushi at Sushi Raw Bar, at the corner of Warners Avenue and Wairoa Avenue at Bondi Beach (9365 7200), it would have been easy to think that all would always stay well. But, as Bill Bryson warns in In a Sunburned Country (2001): “On a clear, bright calm Sunday afternoon at Bondi Beach from out of nowhere there came four freak waves, each up to twenty five feet high.”

Later, having unsuccessfully tried to dine at the unbookable Billy Kwong (355 Crown Street, Surry Hills, 9332 3300), we went almost next door to Bills 2 (359 Crown Street, Surry Hills, 9360 4762) which is also unbookable. Bill Granger produces cook books as well as having a restaurant; I ate grilled hiramasa kingfish with chickpea salad and sumiac yoghurt, which was deliciously fresh and healthy – just what I needed after airline food.

The Hyde Park Barracks Museum (Queens Square, Macquarrie Street 9223 8922) is a good place to start to get an understanding of Sydney’s past. It was built between 1817-19 and housed, at different times, male convicts, female immigrants, a female asylum and government courts and offices before finally becoming a museum in 1979. The museum has reproduced the old sleeping quarters, with rows of hammocks slung from the low roof, and shows a dead rat in the glass cabinet of “found objects”.

Museums are havens of cool in hot weather, so I walked from the barracks to the Art Gallery of New South Wales where there was an exhibition of aboriginal art from western Arnhem Land, called Crossing Country. About 50 schoolgirls wearing uniform were sprawled on the floor drawing the exhibits – an extraordinary collection ranging from meticulously done geometrical paintings to mermaids and spirits on both bark and canvas.

What I didn’t know, as I walked through the shady Domain and down Macquarrie Street alongside the Royal Botanic Gardens, was that the nightcap oak idothea hardeniana, one of the world’s oldest and rarest trees, was flowering this week. Its flowers look insignificant and are only a few millimetres across, but the species dates back 70-120 million years.

So many writers have visited and written about Sydney, but perhaps the most written about area is Circular Quay. Conrad passed through as a young sailor in 1879 and Anthony Trollope, who was there in 1871, wrote: “It is so inexpressibly lovely that it makes a man ask himself whether it would not be worth his while to move his household gods to the eastern coast of Australia in order that he might look at it as long as he can look at anything”.

There is a literary walk around Circular Quay, with 49 plaques commemorating local and visiting authors. These include Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote that “there is material for a dozen buccaneering stories to be picked up in the hotels at Circular Quay” and Clive James: “In Sydney Harbour the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has every right to call us back” (Unreliable Memoirs, 1980).

The Opera House didn’t make me gasp as it had done on previous visits. I put this down to jet-lag, but when I heard some passers-by saying that it didn’t look as impressive as it used to, I looked at it again from the café of the Museum of Contemporary Art. It really does seem to have lost its sparkle.

Caffe Agostinis (118 Queen Street, Woollahra, 932 6140) was just down the road from my hotel, and is delightfully situated in the same courtyard as the excellent Lesley McKay’s bookshop (9328 2733), where I had been earlier.

Australia’s bulky currency makes it seem an oddly old-fashioned place, but I am unquestionably glad to be here. “My impression of Australia is that there is too much amusement here. We have nothing like it at home,” wrote Alfred Viscount Northcliffe, My Journey Round the World, 1923.