Saturday, January 25, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Holiday Inn Old Sydney & Exploring Sydney

***This post is part 6 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

If you plan on visiting Sydney for three or more days and don't have a rental car, I would highly recommend purchasing a MyMulti weekly ticket, which is good for use on public buses, trains, ferries, and light rail. Depending on how far you want to travel outside of Central Sydney, you can choose between MyMulti 1, MyMulti 2, or MyMulti 3. MyMulti 3 includes the NSW TrainLink Intercity network, which takes you all the way to the Blue Mountains and surrounding suburbs. As of September 1, 2013, MyMulti 1 tickets can no longer be used on the ferry system, and MyMulti 2 tickets do not include the ferry to Manly. This map shows exactly how far you can travel with each MyMulti ticket type.

After arriving at the Circular Quay station, I strolled around the ferry terminal and then headed west towards The Rocks. This is the northern tip of Central Sydney, and in recent years has become a rather cosmopolitan area filled with trendy bars and nightclubs. The Holiday Inn Old Sydney is just a five-minute walk from Circular Quay on the northern terminus of George Street.

Holiday Inn Old Sydney

While the hotel had an older-style atrium layout, the overall design of the lobby was simple and elegant. A huge skylight let in plenty of natural sunlight, and a grand staircase led up to the second floor mezzanine where the breakfast buffet was served. A friendly front desk agent checked me in quickly, and although she didn't give me an upgrade as a Platinum Elite member, I was content with the complimentary (and very fast) WiFi provided to all elite members.



Room 413 was perfectly adequate. Nothing stood out in a positive or negative way, and it reminded me of any other standard mid-level hotel room in the U.S. The bathroom was a bit cramped, but the facility was very clean, and all the requisite toiletries were provided. While the hotel is known to have a stunning view of the Sydney Opera House from certain penthouse-floor rooms, mine faced an inner courtyard lined with restaurants and bars.

View from Room 413

Since I wasn't planning on staying in the room much during the day, I probably would have been happy with anything they gave me as long as it had a comfortable bed and a working bathroom. What I didn't count on, however, was the excruciatingly loud music blasting from the bar outside my window until the wee hours of the morning.

I'm usually up by 6:00 am while traveling, meaning I'm in bed by about 10:00 pm. The music was still blaring when I looked at the clock and saw 2:00 am, so I called downstairs to find out exactly when the bar was scheduled to close. The front desk agent apologized and told me 3:00 am. I knew there was absolutely nothing he could do even though he told me he would lodge a complaint. Even worse, he said that the bar typically played loud music throughout the weekend (it was only Friday).

The following morning, I started my sightseeing activities early despite the grogginess. When I returned to my room in the afternoon, I had a message on the phone from the manager, who wanted to speak to me about the noise complaint. Downstairs, I had a bit of a back-and-forth with the front desk agent who didn't seem to want to be bothered, but the manager finally showed up, apologized profusely for the noise, and offered to move me to another room further away from the bar.

While I noticed the new room was still on the same side of the hotel (but further down the hall), the noise level was considerably lower that evening, and I was finally able to get a good night's rest. The manager even threw in complimentary breakfast for the rest of my stay, which was very much appreciated.

Being a corner unit, Room 420 was slightly more spacious than the previous one. The decor was identical, although the bathroom was a little worse for wear; there were noticeable stains in both the tub and toilet. The view from the window featured yet another courtyard lined by restaurants, but thankfully none of them blasted any music during the late-night hours.

View from Room 420

The breakfast buffet was quite extensive, with more than a dozen hot selections and plenty of fruits, cereals, and breads. One of my favorite parts of the buffet was a juicing station with a variety of pre-sliced fruits and vegetables. There was also an omelette station and the option to request made-to-order pancakes and waffles from the kitchen.

Juicing station

Omelette station



The Holiday Inn Old Sydney is known for its stunning views of the Opera House as well as the Harbour Bridge from the rooftop pool. Unfortunately, I didn't have any time to take an actual dip, but the panorama was indeed spectacular. Note that there isn't a ton of space in and around the pool, so I'd imagine it can get fairly crowded during peak hours.

Rooftop pool and the Harbour Bridge

Opera House

If you are looking for a fancy or luxurious hotel, head on down the street to the Park Hyatt Sydney. If all you need, however, is a safe, clean, centrally-located place to stay without all the extra frills, then the Holiday Inn Old Sydney fits the bill perfectly. Early sleepers should request a room away from the bars and restaurants, especially during the weekends.

Perhaps the most obvious place to start sightseeing is the Sydney Opera House, located on the opposite end of Circular Quay and a quick 15-minute walk from the hotel. Despite the throngs of tourists milling about, it wasn't difficult to find a quiet spot in the midst of this vast landmark. I'm no student of architecture, but it was truly breathtaking to witness such a famous and iconic work of art in person. In hindsight, I regret not taking a tour of the interior or even seeing one of the many concerts and performances held at the venue, but traveling on a budget often means sacrificing a few big-ticket items on the checklist.

I was somewhat surprised at how open the Opera House grounds were, as tourists are allowed to walk virtually anywhere around the buildings. If time permits, be sure to take a stroll behind the landmark, where there are far fewer people and you can catch some wonderful views of the Harbour Bridge. Walking further along Farm Cove takes you past the Royal Botanic Gardens, where I would highly recommend spending some time.

Walking all the way to the end of Farm Cove takes you to a stunning lookout known as Mrs. Macquarie's Point, a site popular with professional and amateur photographers alike. Here, you can capture in one shot the Harbour Bridge along with the Opera House further in the foreground. I came here to take pictures both in the morning and afternoon. In the end, I think I preferred the dramatic shadows cast in the late afternoon. Mrs. Macquarie was the wife of a former governor of New South Wales during the early 19th century, and there is a bench carved into an exposed sandstone rock that still bears her name where she would sit and enjoy the panoramic views.

Royal Botanic Gardens

Collapsed Dragon Blood Tree

Sydney skyline

Harbour Bridge and Opera House from Mrs. Macquarie's Point

The next morning, I took a 30-minute ferry ride from the Circular Quay terminal to Manly, a quaint suburb about 11 miles northeast of Sydney. A MyMulti 3 ticket includes this journey, while MyMulti 1 and 2 tickets do not. Even if you decide to skip Manly, I think a boat trip out on the harbor is a must, if only to experience this beautiful city from the water.

Once I arrived at Manly Wharf, it was a short walk along The Corso pedestrian street to reach the famous Manly Beach. The Corso has a plethora of shops, restaurants, and cafes to suit any taste, and a number of talented street performers to entertain the crowds.

Ferry to Manly

Sydney from the harbor

 Street performer on The Corso

I really liked Manly Beach, even though it was a bit chilly for sunbathing. There were plenty of locals and tourists, however, who were out enjoying the mild weather. An easy stroll along the Marine Parade at the southern end leads past numerous rocky pools to Shelly Beach, a protected cove popular with snorkelers and beginner scuba divers. The trail continues up a hill and ends at a nice lookout point, where surfers enter the water to catch a break.

Manly Beach

 Shelly Beach

After returning to Sydney, I decided to take a stroll around The Rocks. Having been mostly gentrified in the last few decades, this tourist hub is now teaming with souvenir shops, galleries, and outdoor markets set up all throughout the week. One of my favorite activities was sampling all the delicious local cuisines in the food market and buying fresh fruits from the vendors.

The Rocks is also known for its historical roots, featured prominently in the colonial architecture of many restored buildings. Some of the oldest surviving pubs in Sydney, in fact, still reside in The Rocks. With its close proximity to the most famous landmarks in the city, this is the perfect location to take some stunning nighttime shots of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

 The Rocks outdoor market

Harbour Bridge from The Rocks

Opera House from The Rocks

The next morning, I decided to head out to the world-famous Bondi Beach. Since there is no direct rail access, the fastest way to get there is via Bondi Junction Station. From there, walk over to the A3 stand at the adjacent bus terminal and catch the 333 (or the slightly slower 380 or 389) bus to Bondi Beach. Any stop along Campbell Parade works, but the closest one is located at the intersection with Hall Street.

The first thing that struck me about Bondi was just how massive it was. I walked the entire length and back, and my feet were already quite sore about halfway through. It's easy to see why this beach is so popular though, with its pristine sand, beautiful surf, and laid-back small-town atmosphere. The nearby historic Bondi Pavilion houses not only public changing rooms and restrooms, but also a community center featuring a theater and gallery.

At the southern end of Bondi is the start of the Coastal Walk, a pedestrian pathway that connects the suburban Sydney beaches all the way down to Maroubra. While I don't recommend doing the entire walk (that might take the greater part of an entire day), a pleasant stroll up to Marks Park is a great way to take in the panoramic views of Bondi Beach and beyond. Along the way, the Bondi Icebergs Club provides a perfect rest stop for a drink and, for the more adventurous, a dip in the Olympic-sized pool overlooking the ocean.

Bondi Beach

Coastal Walk

View from Marks Park

After a morning at the beach, I returned to central Sydney and decided to explore some of the local landmarks. My first stop was Hyde Park, site of the Archibald Fountain and Anzac Memorial. While not as grand as the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, I found the Anzac Memorial to be a fitting place for a moment of quiet reflection. Next, I visited the imposing St. Mary's Cathedral across the street, seat of the Archbishop of Sydney.

Hyde Park

Anzac Memorial

St. Mary's Cathedral

From Hyde Park I walked west on Liverpool Street, eventually arriving at Chinatown, which is centered around the pedestrian Dixon Street. There are tons of ethnic restaurants, snack shops, and cafes of all persuasions in this neighborhood, and it is the perfect place to relax and people watch. Just along the border of Chinatown and Darling Harbour is the lovely Chinese Garden of Friendship, a gift from Sydney's sister city of Guangzhou in 1988.

Chinatown at Dixon Street

The Darling Harbour Precinct is a relatively new development west of Central Sydney, with a mix of shopping malls, hotels, entertainment centers, apartments, and open space. As I walked through Tumbalong Park towards Darling Harbour, I noticed a huge festival taking place with food stalls, games, and even a stage set up for performances. After asking around, I realized that I had stumbled upon Sydney's annual Ritmo Brazilian Day, a celebration of food, dance, soccer, and all things Brazilian.

With the lively festivities going on, I decided to stay for a bit and enjoy the music and dancing. After the sun had set, I ventured north towards the Habourside promenade, taking in the tranquil views of the Sydney skyline at night. Finally, I crossed the Pyrmont Pedestrian Bridge back into Central Sydney.

Ritmo Brazilian Day at Tumbalong Park

Darling Harbour at night

Downtown Sydney

Sydney metro

On my final full day in Sydney, I decided to venture out to the Blue Mountains aboard the NSW TrainLink Intercity railway, which is included in the MyMulti 3 ticket. Most of the Intercity trains depart from Central Station in Sydney, so a quick transfer via metro from Circular Quay or wherever your hotel is located may be needed. Trains depart from Central Station approximately once every hour, and the journey takes about two hours total.

The scenery en route to the Blue Mountains is a gradual transition from the bustling, crowded streets of central Sydney to the lush and tranquil landscape of the highlands. As the train begins its climb into the foothills, each successive rail station becomes more provincial and desolate. Still, it is quite amazing that such an expansive area of unspoiled terrain can exist relatively close to the largest metropolitan area in Australia.

My final destination was Katoomba, the largest town in the Blue Mountains, and the jump-off point for many of its most famous scenic locations. Upon exiting the station, I walked up the main thoroughfare in town, Katoomba Street, and located the first public bus stop just outside of The Carrington Hotel. MyMulti tickets are valid on all public buses operated by the Blue Mountains Bus Company, so there is no need to pay extra for the private hop-on hop-off tours. Be aware, however, that public buses run less often, so making a note of the schedule could save you some time.

Sydney Central Station

Foggy and rainy Katoomba

Unfortunately, I visited the Blue Mountains on one of rainiest days the area had seen in months. When I arrived in the morning, the weather hadn't taken a turn for the worst yet, despite the thick layer of fog. After waiting about half an hour at the stop, the 686 bus finally arrived, and we were on our way to Echo Point, the spectacular lookout with views of the Three Sisters and Jamison Valley. When we arrived, this is what I saw:

The "breathtaking" view from Echo Point

With fog shrouding the entire valley, there was not a thing to see. Although, in a strange way, I have to say it was kind of cool to stand there before this monstrous white entity, enveloping you from every direction as far as the eye could see. After a quick stop at the souvenir shop, I made my way to the start of the Giant Stairway, a path leading all the way down to the bottom of Jamison Valley by way of the Three Sisters.

This is a great little hike that I would highly recommend to anyone who is in relatively good shape. With more than 800 step down a steep but well-maintained stairway, it may not be pleasant for those who are afraid of heights, but the views (even in dense fog) was simply stunning. I can only imagine what it would have looked like on a clear day! Near the beginning of the path, there is a short bridge that allows access to one of the Three Sisters.

Trail to the Giant Stairway

Start of the Giant Stairway

One of the Three Sisters

More fog

Once you arrive at the bottom of the valley, the environment is noticeably more lush, with thick growth shadowing much of the sunlight. From here, it is a 2.5 kilometer walk along the Federal Pass trail to Scenic World. The path is relatively flat the entire way, and the scenery makes for a peaceful stroll that I very much appreciated after a few hectic days in Sydney. Be on the lookout for tropical birds, large tree ferns, and even a few small waterfalls along the way.

Federal Pass

Scenic World is a small nature-themed park that occupies a plot of land once used as a mine at the bottom of Jamison Valley. The main building, however, is located at the top of the valley walls, and it is connected by both a scenic railway and a scenic skyway. The scenic railway is purportedly the steepest incline railway in the world at 52°, and it is definitely a unique (and somewhat terrifying) experience I would highly recommend. The scenic skyway is a typical gondola cable car ride.

Once I arrived at Scenic World, I decided to do the loop along the boardwalk pathway, taking you further down into the valley. While the walk itself wasn't spectacular, I did enjoy the informative signposts along the way with interesting factoids about the region. 

View of Jamison Valley from Scenic World

Old mines

View from the bottom

Afterwards, I decided to take the scenic railway back to the top. As I waited for the next train, I noticed that the fog had finally lifted slightly, and I was able to catch a glimpse of the Three Sisters. Luckily I snapped a few pictures because within five minutes, the fog had returned and the sisters disappeared once again.

Taking the scenic railway was a bit like going up a roller coaster's first drop... backwards... and very slowly. It gave me a somewhat queasy feeling, and I think it did with all the other passengers as well, since the woman behind me started yelling for dear life and looked like she was about to have a heart attack. The entire ride, however, only lasted about a minute, and before we knew it, we had already pulled into the station at the very top.

The Three Sisters

Scenic railway

Crazy incline

Following a brief wait for the bus, I returned to Katoomba, where the fog slowly morphed into a heavy downpour. Without much protection from the elements, I decided to just call it a day and return to Sydney. My luck, however, wasn't cooperating either, as I missed the first train by about two seconds (the doors actually slammed in my face). So there I sat for the next hour until the following train arrived.

While I did the Blue Mountains as a day trip, there are actually tons of things to see in and around the area, including a number of other small towns along the way. If you have a longer stay in Sydney, it might be preferable to spend a night or two in the mountains and fully explore the region.

There is never enough time when visiting an enormous city such as Sydney, and certainly three days was not enough for me. Regardless of that fact, I am glad I had the opportunity to see a few of its most iconic landmarks in a short period of time. Hopefully this post can generate some good ideas for itineraries, whether your stay is only three days or a comfortable three weeks.

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