If you’re privileged enough to live in Sydney, even for a short while, it’s hard not to fall in love with Sydney Harbour. Home to some of the most expensive real-estate in any city in the world, yet at the same time, wonderfully accessible, this gift from nature is Sydney’s great equalizer, as families and young people escape the heat at public beaches and sheltered baths in the shadow of palatial mansions and moored yachts. Some of my most cherished memories of living in Sydney are taking the harbourside walk through Hermitage Foreshore Reserve, which skirts around the exclusive suburb of Vaucluse. The path comes out on Shark Beach and Nielsen Park where Sydneysiders from all walks of life enjoy arguably the city’s best free assets.
Of course, it’s also nice to spend a day living like the other half!
There are plenty of ways to enjoy Sydney Harbour, but if you’re really looking for something exclusive and special, it’s pretty hard to go past a long lunch on a private boat. Setting out from King Street Wharf on the edge of the CBD and Darling Harbour, this 4 to 5-hour cruise takes in the length of Sydney Harbour from the CBD to the heads that guard its entry. Along the way, lunch is served one course at a time at two of Sydney’s most famous restaurants, each offering spectacular water views. Then, there’s the boat itself, to say nothing of hand-crafted desserts and sparkling wine. You’ll quickly realize how easy it is to get carried away.
On reaching King Street Wharf, our host, Tim, welcomes us aboard with sparkling wine and a short introduction to what we can expect for the day. Though the boat is large enough and capable of carrying up to 16 passengers, our Friday departure is all our own, sharing the boat with just Tim and our skipper, David. Rounding the new Barangaroo development on the northeastern edge of Sydney’s CBD, we enjoy close up views of Cockatoo Island, the Observatory, and the Wharf district that contains Sydney’s largest theatre and dance companies (and some of its most desirable apartments), until finally, Sydney Harbour Bridge comes into view.
As Sydney’s most recognizable steel icon looms above us, this side of the harbour is wide enough and quiet enough for us to loop around, simply enjoying the view and catching some photos. We then continue under the bridge, past the famous Sydney Opera House and Fort Denison, bound for the shores of the chic eastern suburbs.
A trip on Sydney Harbour is a must for anyone visiting the city, even if it’s the local ferry to Manly Beach. But as Tim makes arrangements for the start of our lunch (and generously keeps the wine coming), David fills us in on the history of these remarkable shores, both since European settlement and before. We pass by the peach-coloured home of Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s current Prime Minister, and of course the Hermitage Foreshore Reserve track I know so well.
We’re almost to the southern heads when the boat pulls into our first stop, Doyles on the Beach. This family-run seafood restaurant overlooking Marine Parade has been a Sydney institution for years. Sitting right on the beachfront, we enjoy a mixed seafood entrée with some of the most spectacular Sydney Harbour views to be had. Oh, and a note for American Globetrotters? Entrée is the “appetizer” course in Australia, though you wouldn’t know it by the generous and deliciously fresh platter served up at Doyles!
Casting off again, now just a little nervous about fitting in our “main course,” we pass by the mouth of the entrance to Sydney Harbour, also known (along with several connected waterways) as Port Jackson. Even as the waters get a little rougher, there’s no taking away the beauty of this discrete gateway to the Pacific. In fact, the harbour’s unique shape almost kept it from being discovered by Europeans at all. Initial expeditions missed Sydney Heads entirely, landing at the far less hospitable Botany Bay, where Sydney Airport is now located. Also easy to spot from our boat are the ruined batteries of George’s Head, which protected Sydney Harbour during World War 2. Even these formidable defenses didn’t keep the invading Japanese Navy out entirely. In 1942, two midget submarines snuck through into the harbour before being discovered and self-destructing. A third managed to scuttle the converted ferry, HMAS Kuttabul, before it too was wrecked.
If the shores of Sydney Harbour are soaked in history, so too is the site of our main course. The Public Dining Room overlooks the historic and once highly controversial Balmoral baths. Dating back to 1898 (when God forbid, a lady should show an ankle!), the baths are one of many sheltered swimming spots along the many coves and bays of Sydney Harbour, and on a warm Friday afternoon, they remain as popular as ever. As Tim and David abscond for their own lunchtime tradition of fish and chips, we take our seats, again overlooking the sparkling waters. Tim has already intrigued us with stories of a lamb shoulder for two that’s proven too much for more than a few passengers on the cruise. Still, my partner and I are coming to the end of a nonstop two week Australia vacation. We’ve trekked through national parks, explored the depths of top notch art museums, and climbed Sydney’s infamous McElhorne Stairs. We’re not about to be undone by a piece of…
Oh. Oh, wow.
Having made it roughly two thirds of the way through the slab of flawlessly succulent meat that’s spent the better part of the last hour falling one delicious piece at a time before our advancing forks, we finally concede defeat. Tasty, glorious, overstuffed defeat.
The cheese platter that Tim produces on-board a half hour later is just there to tease us, I’m sure.
Oh, all right then!
With a little extra time up our sleeves (the advantages of a small group), David offers us a unique opportunity to round The Spit and see more of the little bays and estuaries that branch off from Sydney Harbour, as well as the pricey and often eye-popping homes that overlook the water. Most of the afternoon is pretty relaxed however, as the boat turns back toward the CBD and begins to pick up speed. Still, there’s one last challenge before we arrive back at the dock.
Adriano Zumbo artisanal desserts, anybody?
One passionfruit pudding, one white chocolate mousse, and a twenty minute laze on the sunny front deck later, we give our regards to the Prime Minister’s other (official) residence, Kirribilli House, before passing back under the Harbour Bridge. The added speed throws up a spray that’s not only welcome in Sydney’s mid-afternoon summer heat, but is probably keeping us both from toppling over the brink of a happy food coma.
Even as a former local, it’s hard not to return to King Street Wharf with a new appreciation of Sydney’s awesome natural gifts, its history, its laid back devotion to a high quality of life, and yes, its food. After such a fulfilling day, it’s near impossible to go back to the hotel with any regrets, except one…
Next time, lamb shoulder. Next time.