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Sydney: Still an Olympic city

SYDNEY — As a result of the 2010 Olympics, the eyes of much of the world are trained upon Vancouver, Canada, right now, and many people are thinking, "My, what a lovely city and beautiful harbor."

I remember thinking the same thing about Sydney a decade ago, don't you?

The vast Southern Continent had been much in my travel dreams before then, but the 2000 Summer Games, and Salt Lake City's own 2002 Winter Games shortly thereafter, really kicked those hopes and wishes into high gear.

Happily, I was not alone. A group of friends reached mutual agreement, and we finally made our way to the land down under.

One friend had been saving magazines and articles about Australia for more than 10 years, as had I. Her summer 2000 issue of National Geographic Traveler includes a quote from Thomas Keneally — a Sydneysider (for so the residents are called) best known for writing "Schindler's List " — that well summarizes this curvaceous harbor city of many coves and peninsulas: "Sydney today is like a hearty colonial boy or girl reaching for the light," Keneally said. "It is a city of grace as well as a city whose colonial rough edges are still there, but whose life is extremely urbane, and whose temper of people on the street is very engaging, and there is a sense of something going on all the time."

Exactly.

Our down under journey was to take us farther afield, via airplane and ship, but Sydney became our primary base, in a way. And our accommodations there were always smack in the middle of the colorful, historic yet modern city, whose metropolitan area is home to more than 4 million people.

Sydney's skyscrapers rise just beyond Circular Quay, the settlement's original 222-year-old pier on Sydney Cove, still busy with ferries and excursion boats, and The Rocks, a compact precinct of now-trendy — and mostly 19th century — buildings that serve as clothing stores (Gucci!), eateries, jewelry shops (Australian opals, anyone?) and art galleries.

The quay dates to the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet, an 11-ship convoy mostly populated with convicts being forcibly transported by and from England. The controversial practice continued for decades and brought an estimated 160,000 people to the continent and subsidiary prison islands liked Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and Norfolk.

The First Fleet's commander, and the colony's first governor, Arthur Phillip, chose Sydney Cove on Port Jackson (better known today as Sydney Harbour) for the initial settlement, naming it for Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, then the British home secretary.

To most Englishmen, Robert Hughes wrote in his bestseller "The Fatal Shore," it was as if the convicts, men and women (as well as their governors and keepers), were being shipped off to "another planet — an exiled world."

But also right here, today, are what British writer Geoffrey Moorhouse, in his book "Sydney: The Story of a City," posits as "two of the half-dozen most recognizable constructions of the modern world": Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The evocative white-tile-trimmed, multi-"sail" superstructure of the iconic opera house, conceived by Danish architect J?rn Utzon, picturesquely catches eyes and the wind on Bennelong Point, just across Sydney Cove from The Rocks.

And the ever-busy steel bridge — nicknamed "The Coat Hanger" because of its arched shape, and built from 1923 to 1932 — has its south foot on Sydney's Dawes Point, just above The Rocks, and its north foot planted across a strait on Milsons Point.

At the city's visitor centers — I popped into one tucked into The Rocks — travelers can find all manner of brochures and maps presenting sightseeing options. One is "Sydney: The Official Guide," which includes discount coupons for just about every outing imaginable, from jaunts on sailing ships and whale watching to the many museums and even "surf school."

In the first pages, the guide includes a list of "must-do" activities. These include:

"Take a guided tour of Sydney Opera House."

"Climb Sydney Harbour Bridge at twilight."

"Learn to surf at Bondi."

"Explore Sydney's dramatic coastline on foot."

"Set sail on a harbour cruise."

"Amble around The Rocks."

That's a basic set of suggestions. And in an imprecise fashion, we pretty much followed that advice.

Jutting picturesquely into the harbor, the opera house — really a multi-venue, and very busy, performance center — is difficult to miss. And it is indeed beautiful and original, inside and out. Our guides offered telling descriptions and anecdotes that made the tour a true highlight.

Sydney Harbour Bridge is famous for its "BridgeClimb" — a roped hike up the outer arch to the summit. And a few of us yearned to try out such an adventure. But due to the cost — $198-$295 (in Australian dollars) per person, depending upon the day and hour — and our limited time, we settled for a walk up the stairway inside one pylon to, and along, the bridge's pedestrian walkway. Automobiles and trains swished by beyond a high fence.

From the bridge pathway perch, the opera house is visible just to the east, and ferries, taxi boats, tugs and other craft create elegant curving and crisscrossing wake swirls in the blue harbor waters below.

A bus tour helped us check off several of the Sydney guide's "must-do's."

We rode through Sydney's midtown — the Central Business District, or CBD — ogling buildings old and new, small park lands and statuary, into the Domain (the large public park and arboretum) and onto Mrs Macquaries Road.

At the tip of the peninsula (which offers wonderful views of the opera house and bridge together) is situated a carved stone seat from which the wife of one colonial governor could look toward Sydney Harbour's headlands and the ships coming and going.

Our tour guide believes Elizabeth Macquarie was homesick, because her husband, Lachlan Macquarie, was the appointed governor of New South Wales for quite a stretch, from 1810 to 1821.

An informational display is more sanguine, saying she "liked to sit and admire the view of the harbour. Her husband had his workmen carve this special seat for her."

Also chiseled into the rock, in an antique script with lettering of various sizes, is an official-sounding declaration with very little punctuation:

"BE IT THUS RECORDED that the Road Round the inside of the Government Domain Called MRS MACQUARIES ROAD IS named by the Governor on account of he having Originally Planned it Measuring 3 miles, and 377 Yards Was finally Completed on the 13th Day of June 1816."

Our coach tour then took us southeast to the Tasman Sea shoreline and what is often deemed to be Australia's most famous stretch of sand: Bondi Beach, in Waverley.

The beach teemed with mostly young, swimsuit-clad Aussies. Surfers, swimmers and wave-boarders were testing the ocean's gentle swells. And it is a lovely setting, backed by food concessions in a stately building and the headquarters of an all-volunteer lifeguard corps, founded in 1907 as "The Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club."

As for my Sydney brochure's recommended harbor cruise, there are multiple options, from semi-luxurious cruise boats, including exploration and dining, to jet boating, whale watching, sail boating and even cruising on many-sailed "tall ships."

We, however, opted for the regular ferry, a most economical and entertaining choice, with several stops around the harbor shore.

We left Circular Quay, passed Sydney Opera House and made short stops at small Rock Island (known popularly as Pinchgut, from penal days), topped by Fort Denison, and a suburban quay.

The ferry returned to Circular Quay, but I remained aboard and went up the bay, under Sydney Harbour Bridge (BridgeClimb hikers clearly visible atop the beams) and passed near the Luna Park resort on the north shore, with its Ferris wheel and gigantic, grinning entryway, sometimes called "The Face."

The ferry continues on to Darling Harbour, a former industrial wharf that has been transformed into a commercial hub and convention center, and site of the Sydney Aquarium and the Australian National Maritime Museum.

A replica of Capt. James Cook's 18th-century exploration ship HMS Endeavour is just one among many vessels anchored outside the museum. Cook and company explored Botany Bay, south of Sydney (the original target for settlement), and much of Australia's east and northeast coasts in 1770. The intrepid seaman claimed the land for England, of course, despite meeting some of the indigenous Australians already there, the Aborigines.

Among the other craft on display at the museum: a destroyer, a submarine, a tug — and a Vietnamese refugee boat.

Then it was back again to Circular Quay.

As for ambling among The Rocks, we did plenty of that, due to our nearby lodgings.

This is where Sydney got its start. Here were King's Wharf — subsequently Queen's Wharf, when Victoria assumed the crown in 1837 — the marketplace and the post office. The first colonial business offices and the first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette, established in 1803, were also here, according to an information stop.

Today, George Street is The Rocks' main thoroughfare, lined with colorful structures from eras long past. Thomas Dowse described it in 1824: "Adjacent to the Liverpool wharf … and occupying a lazy frontage to George Street was placed the Australian Hotel, that rendezvous of captains and old salts….

"Upon the opposite of the road were two public houses, cheek by jowl together, at which the sea faring fraternity did liquor much."

Today many buildings, like The Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank, retain their original facade names; others have become sandwich shops (we stopped by The Bakers Oven), purveyors of precious stones and jewelry (the Rockhound), The Fortune of War ("Sydney's oldest pub … since 1828"), pizzarias and art galleries.

There are also a few small museums tucked into the neighborhood, including the free Rocks Discovery Museum and the 19th-century Susannah Place Museum, a preserved row of four working-class houses. Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art is on the Circular Quay shorefront, housed in the former, art-deco Maritime Services Board Building.

Guided tours of The Rocks are also available.

But what would a visit to Sydney and Australia be without an up-close encounter with the island continent's amazing creatures?

We achieved that via a coach-ride to the city's outskirts, where we got to see (and, for a few, cuddle) a baby koala, and hover near and feed wallabies and kangaroos at the Featherdale Wildlife Park.

We also glimpsed an enormous crocodile, an anxious echidna (a small down under echo of a porcupine) and all manner of birds, from emus and endangered blue penguins to the "great skua," "tawny frogmouth" and "laughing kookaburra" (a couple of which really seemed to get a noisy kick out of my attempts to photograph them).

Although we didn't get a chance to visit, on Sydney Harbour's north shore, just across from the opera house and accessible via ferry, is Taronga Zoo, home to animals both native to Australia and from foreign lands.

And hailing from Salt Lake City, an Olympics host city itself, we were most curious to see Sydney's incredible Olympic Park, at Homebush Bay, about 7 miles west of the Central Business District near the Parramatta River.

The vast park is packed with venues that continue to operate to this day. Preliminaries for the Australian Open tennis tournament were under way when we dropped by.

The huge Olympic Stadium, which featured the opening and closing ceremonies in 2000, is now called ANZ Stadium and hosts a variety of athletic competitions, notably rugby, cricket, soccer and Australian football.

Outside the stadium's main entry is a forest of rainbow-hued poles, some of them interactive. They are part of the "Games Memories" tribute to the 2000 Summer and Paralympic Games' athletes, participants and volunteers, whose names are listed in alphabetical order. An Olympic torch is ensconced in one pole; others have audio and/or visual components.

Nearby is the Olympics' Sydney SuperDome, where spectators watched basketball stars and agile gymnasts. Now, it is ACER Arena, a venue for concerts and other events. When we visited, outside banners advertised upcoming performances by Coldplay and violinist-conductor Andre Rieu.

Street signs and street names ("Olympic Boulevard") are reminders of those days of Olympic glory, and the eco-friendly tiled streets and roofing continue to channel and store rainwater that, when treated, is used to irrigate the park's playing fields and grasslands.

Obviously, there is much to see and do in thriving Sydney. Even the helpful brochure, "Sydney: The Official Guide," contributes to the feeling that one is only skimming the surface of what there is to see, do and enjoy.

Besides the "must-do's," the guide suggests a more extensive list of to-do's titled "Putting it together: Sydney for the first time," outlining specific locations to visit over the course of an entire week.

And there are other seven-day sets for "Sydney with children" and "Sydney for the second time," as well as tips about "Sydney after dark" and "Aboriginal Sydney" — for as the latter section indicates, in reality this harbor has been home to the continent's Aboriginal peoples for at least 30,000 years.

Congratulations, Sydney. The travel dream hasn't gone away.

I can only hope to return to further explore the magnetic harbor city down under.

e-mail: features@desnews.com