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Sydney: The Other Side of the Rainbow

One of my favorite novels is The Accidental Tourist. The premise, rich with irony, is that a hidebound travel writer pens visitor guides for tourists who don’t want to experience anything new, who want to feel as if they’ve never left home.

My judgement of Australia is that it is more like the U.S. than anyplace else in the world, more like the U.S. than the U.K. or even Canada. But that’s where The Accidental Tourist metaphor ends. Sydney is full of nuances that render it unique compared to the States, and many elements that are sort of jarringly delightful. My impression of Sydney — and of Australia in general — is that it’s similar enough to the U.S. to be comforting and just different enough to be exotic: a delicate balance.

Sydney is somewhat like a dream version — a pleasant, quirky distortion — of a U.S. city. It’s cosmopolitan yet spotless. It’s urban and efficient yet also inescapably, colorfully resort-like (a slew of seaside public pools). It’s casual and athletic but with proper remnants of its British history: Witness the kind of Victorian-style retail arcades similar to those in London, and the many shops selling meat pieces. (You’ll also see Lamington sponge cakes sold everywhere — and though they seem like British imports, these coconut-sprinkled sweets are actually indigenous.) Instead of saying “Brilliant!” like the Brits (often dripping with sarcasm), the Australians have their own version: They exclaim, “Gorgeous!” without a trace of irony.

Lamington sponge cakes

Lamington sponge cakes in Australia.

There’s a sort of whimsy to this country known affectionately, and aptly, as Oz. Stop in a bar or deli and the counterman may shower you with a smattering of local endearments: “G-day, Mate!” and “What would you like, Billy-boy?” And there’s that extra –y or –ie attached to various words: “breakie” for breakfast, “nibblies” for nibbles (snacks), Aussie for Australian. It’s adorable and childlike — the cute slang makes me feel that nothing is taken too seriously Down Under.

Of course, “breakie” aside, disembarking from your Holland America Line cruise in an English-speaking city on the other side of the planet is both shocking and familiar at the same time. That’s the first thing I notice. The second thing I observe is how healthy and robust the people are. To me, that rhymes with America. And the third thing I notice is the summer-casual attire in Sydney, where it’s always our version of June, July or August. Since I tend to avoid cold Northeastern winters, summer as the default season makes me feel right at home.

To me, the famous 90-year-old Bondi Icebergs Club is the most quintessentially Australian thing I experience. It’s the Aussie version of la dolce vita: improbable, athletic, indulgent and beautiful. Anchored by a pair of vast lap pools that hang off the continent over the South Pacific, seemingly precariously, this complex at the end of Bondi Beach is also home to a bistro with sweeping views, a sauna, gym and small historical museum. The pools are some of the most frequently photographed in the world; still, nothing prepares me for this unusual sight. I’m a regular swimmer, so I’m absolutely fascinated by the sight of the sea sloshing against the edges of the pools.

Becoming a member of the swim club (an “Iceberg”) is serious business — it’s an exclusive organization for dedicated swimmers — but a day visitor like me doesn’t have to concern himself with that. I just pay the small entrance fee. I decide if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go all in. I purchase the iconic navy blue trunks, with “Bondi Icebergs” emblazoned on the back. I head to the bigger pool, the one that runs roughly parallel to the ocean, and jump into the furthest lane.

The water is bracing, and almost immediately I see curtains of bubbles through my swimming goggles — the waves are crashing right over the seawall and into my lane. I have to remind myself to do my freestyle stroke like normal. But there is nothing normal about this. You know that feeling when you realize that you’re experiencing something for the first time, something totally sensory and physical and completely unique, that rush of excitement? This is it. I’m going to remember swimming through the South Pacific’s waves, in a pool, for the rest of my life.

Did I mention that it’s the austral winter (August), and that the water is really cold? I last just minutes — 10 minutes of chilly glory — and then I head to the sauna. What warms me up even more is a pot of steaming black mussels, some Sydney rock oysters and a glass of Yalumba Y Series cabernet sauvignon from South Australia. Anyone can grab a window seat in the sun at Icebergs Club Bistro — you don’t have to plunge into a pool full of ocean water to enjoy the Icebergs experience.

Sydney's famous Bondi Beach.

Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach.

Bondi Beach itself is also iconic, of course. The pumped-up, surfers-and-lifeguards scene is like Southern California’s, but somehow more. There’s a Speedos Café where you can sip herbal tea and order gluten-free items. The people-watching is superb, and you can continue your stroll on a clifftop walk that leads from Bondi to Tamarama Beach to Bronte Beach — this is the stunning Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk. Again, the landscape and seascape are vaguely reminiscent of coastal walks in places like San Diego, but it’s more. The sands are more golden, the water is aquamarine, and the picturesque coves stretch deep into the land. It’s almost too gorgeous to bear.

That moment in Sydney when …
… I have a night at the opera

the scenery of sydney opera house

Because Sydney is a frequent South Pacific embarkation port, I grab an opportunity to see a performance at the famed Sydney Opera House. Just taking in the architecture — those gleaming, nesting white sails set against Sydney Harbour —is amazing. But to actually experience The Mikado (I score two tickets) or Madama Butterfly at the Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theater or the Concert Hall ranks as one of the world’s most enviable cultural experiences.

Drew LimskyDrew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.

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