Remember the scene in Finding Nemo when Merlin and Dory pop their heads out of the water and take in Sydney Harbor for the first time? I know they were thrilled to be closing in on Nemo who was being held captive at 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney by a fish nabbing dentist, but still, they were in awe.
Michael had been here before, but I had not. So my first glimpse of the Opera House and the iconic bridge was right up there with seeing the Eiffel tower for the first time. Just like our heroic fish friends, I was also awed by the beauty of this city. We would spend two weeks here, and once again, due to the kindness of people we met through Airbnb, the blog, and a previous encounter in Dunedin, New Zealand, we had many Sydneysiders ready to make sure we made the most of our visit.
It was difficult to decide where to stay in this big city, but after a search online for the best neighborhoods and using Michael’s technique of finding the center by using the starting point of the walking tours as a search address, we booked our Airbnb in Surry Hills - yet another neighborhood in a city tight for space going through gentrification. We ended up in the part that still needs a little love - but there were plenty of interesting buildings, cafes, boutiques and a very nice grocery store, so we were happy.
Still, when we first arrive at a new place there is some uncertainty about if we made a good choice. We always scour the pictures, read the description carefully (remember those are written by the host, and parse the reviews looking for red flags. But you never know. Not only are you trusting in the host, you are taking responsibility for your final decision. So far, in over 180 Airbnb stays, we have only been disappointed a handful of times. But never to the point, we’d ask to change listings.
The final challenge is we don’t really know where we are in relationship to the center of the city, and there is no “front desk” where the concierge peels a map off the pad to circle the hotel and point out what's nearby. I still love that paper map, so I always grab one at the airport or train station so I can find our street, circle it with a Sharpie and begin to make sense of our location.
Our place turned out to be just a 10-minute walk from Chinatown in one direction and the Central Train Station in the other - and from there you could get anywhere with an Opal Card topped up with travel credit. And, as a bit of serendipity, we were staying just a block away from Airbnb’s Sydney office where we’d be spending time during our stay.
Our first visit to the office was for a “Fireside Chat” - a Q&A session with the staff where we share our story of living life in Airbnb’s and then take questions. We’ve done these at other Airbnb offices in Paris, London, Milan, San Francisco, Portland and Dublin and they are always rewarding. We get some great questions and always enjoy the enthusiasm of the young staffers. And of course we had a great lunch followed by a lovely cake decorated in our honor.
We spent some time outside the office with the manager, and a week later, the marketing team set up a TV interview in our Airbnb with a popular evening talk show called Today Tonight. During that week we also did an interview with the Daily Mail - it may not be the London Times, but it has a huge circulation and it was fun. During the interview, we came up with the acronym PEARL for tips on doing an Airbnb search. Find out what it stands for and read the article here.
As always we took a very helpful free walking tour. And we want on two Airbnb Experiences. Our first one took us on a beautiful walk along the coast from Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach to the less famous Bronte Beach. Our host Matt was a Walking Wikipedia when it came to the duties of Australia's Lifesavers (of which he is one) as well as some great seafaring tales from the past. We ended up having coffee afterwards at his favorite spot in Bronti where he lives. Getting together for coffee here is equal to getting together for a beer!
Our second Experience took us on a leisurely boat ride to Parramatta, the regions first capital city. Along the way, we learned about New South Wales early settlements, and then enjoyed a restaurant based food tour in a city that is a true cultural melting pot. We started with coffee and pastries, then stopped for gourmet chocolates. Next was a Sushi roll sampler followed by delicious shared plates of Thai food. After an artisan coffee break, we sampled “jelly flowers” at an Indian restaurant and sausage rolls at a famous bakery. High tea and cakes were the finale. We weren't sure if we’d had all we’d eat that day, but we were certain we’d covered breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert within four hours.
When we were in New Zealand we hit it off with a couple on a walking tour that live in Sydney. At the end of the tour, they suggested we stay in touch so they could show us around when we got there. Be careful what you wish for - we take those invitations seriously! Peter and Amanda picked us up at the Milsons Point train station early one evening and took us on a Grande Tour of their neighborhood in North Sydney.
We stopped for a picnic of fish and chips under the shade of a giant fig tree at Balmoral Beach. Amanda pointed out two Kookaburras chuckling above us and we enjoyed watching their antics as they hopped from branch to branch.
The food was delicious - but both Peter and Amanda had less than a full order because those Kookaburras swooped across our table, and with incredible precision one took an entire piece of fish out of Peters hand. Then his partner in crime shot through and grabbed Amanda’s calamari! It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen! Afterward, they drove to a few of the best nighttime viewpoints looking back towards the harbor before dropping us at our door.
Later in the week, Michael attended an Aussie Rules Football match with Peter and one of his British friends. He had a wonderful time learning about a sport that may have the word “rules” in its name but seemed to follow very few. It looked like pure mayhem to the uninitiated. The match was between the Sydney Swans and Port Adelaide Power - with the Swans favored to win. Michael was amazed that fans could bet on the outcome in real-time on their phones. The Swans lost in an upset so a few of those blokes probably lost some beer money.
In that same vein, a couple who follows the blog and heard us on the Rick Steve’s show a year ago invited us to get together when we were in Sydney. They were planning to divest themselves of their belongings to travel full time as well and wanted some time with us before they took the plunge. In fact when we met with them, they were just a few weeks away from leaving!
Rosalind and Greg are made for this lifestyle. They are good planners, but looks forward to the unexpected, and are curious about the world. They have retired on the young side and have plenty of energy as well. For our day together they took us on a bush walk in Ku-Ring-Gai National Park where we looked over the sea and admired Aboriginal rock carvings. Next up was a picnic where another animal tried to steal our meal. This time a guanna lizard the length of a baseball bat slithered up the picnic bench and brazenly tried to steal our roast chicken!
After lunch, we went for a sea swim at their favorite local beach. The waves were pretty aggressive, so I appreciated having two seasoned swimmers on either side of me, with Michael as a backup lifeguard on shore. Again we were delivered to our door and were grateful for another day of exploring with new friends.
Then there was an afternoon spent with Jenny Power. Another blog follower and a new Airbnb host that hoped she could share some Sydney love with us. We had a great afternoon down on the waterfront exploring the Opera House up close and watched the action in the harbor from front-row barstools at a waterfront bar. She and her husband built a stunning “green home” 3 hours north of sydney on Blueys Beach. It looks like a fine retreat.
Lastly, we spent a day with parents of a person we hadn’t even met yet. Followed by a day in the Blue Mountains with the sister and mother of his wife, who we also hadn’t met! Complicated? Yes. In this case, the couple, Derek and Gabriella had attended the Airbnb Open in Los Angeles and heard us speak. They had also written a book about the business side of running a successful Airbnb using their own properties in Sydney and a stunning retreat in the Blue Mountains as examples. They reached out to us for some host contacts and as the conversations continued, they asked if I would write the foreword to the latest edition of their book.
They are from Sydney but live in Singapore. We knew we’d finally meet them in person when we got there, but in the meantime, they enlisted their family to make sure we enjoyed our time in Sydney! And boy, did they. Derek’s parents, Brian and Ann are two fascinating people that we could have easily spent days with. Brian is a distinguished Chemical Engineer, now retired, and Ann, a former nurse, had a myriad of experiences in her career and volunteer life but now happily makes complex quilts for friends and family. Unfortunately we only had time for stops at two viewpoints and then an extended lunch near Mosman’s Bay at restaurant called Burnt Orange. Another day filled with places we would not have discovered on our own.
Two days later, we stepped off the train in Wentworth Falls high in the famed Blue Mountains where we were met by Gabriella’s sister Tamera and her absolutely captivating almost 4-year-old son Manu - who happens to love opera. Tamera works in the non-profit world helping to settle refugees. Our first stop was tea at a friends house. That friend being Catherine Hunter who is a renowned documentary film producer and her artist husband Scott Baker who creates magical mosaics out of reclaimed wood (I fell head over heels in love with his work). Their cottage was tucked into a yard filled with blowsy flowers where we sat in shabby-chic garden furniture and enjoyed a delightful homemade plum tart. This IS the life.
From there we headed to Gabriella and Tamera’s mothers home. This was a place that could be showcased in Architectural Digest. Maybe because Joan and her late husband were well-known architects! The deceptive simplicity of the design and the way the house just nestles into its hillside locale are remarkable. But really, as you cross the entryway straight into the back garden the view of the mountains and the valley below are what takes your breath away. So, we were able to experience the Blue Mountains without ever stepping into a tourist trap and enjoyed a leisurely lunch prepared by Tamera with Joan, one of her close friends Beverly, and one remarkable little boy.
In summary, once again I have to say the people we meet along this journey are the absolute treasure that no money can buy.
You’d think there wasn’t much left to see or do, but we discovered we were in town during the final week of the Sydney Royal Easter Show held on the site of the 2000 Summer Olympics. It’s a long-running agricultural extravaganza complete with wood-chopping competitions, sheep shearing exhibitions, carnival rides, bake-offs, gizmos, hundreds of bad-for-you food stands, and a nightly show in the stadium that included circus acts, motocross stunts, a rodeo and spectacular fireworks! Any Sydneysider we mentioned it to was impressed we’d gone at all, but also stirred fond memories from their youth and vowed to go again.
We also walked the span of the Sydney bridge. And then spent our last Sunday exploring the city and harbor, because with your Opal Card you could ride the buses, trams and ferries all day for $4.00. We met an American couple who'd retired in Fiji doing the same thing. We laughed about “frugal travel hacks” and congratulated ourselves.
On our last day, we were ready for a day without other people. Including each other! I took a ferry to Sydney's famous zoo where I finally had my longed-for Koala encounter. While Michael took in the State Library and the Art Gallery of New South Wales which he loved.
As I often say, we feel very blessed to be on this journey, so it was appropriate that we pay our respects on Good Friday and Easter Sunday while we were in Sydney. On Good Friday we attended a very moving production of Handel's Messiah at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. We walked by the banner heralding the event outside the church and immediately bought our tickets. Not only was the church stunning, the intimate space and impeccable acoustics made for a very moving performance.
Easter Sunday was a completely different experience. We tried to find a more modern Christian church like our beloved Bethany Community Church near Greenlake in Seattle. We miss the worship music and the meaningful messages by Pastor Richard. We found a church called "Sydney Life" a half hour bus ride away from our Airbnb. It met all our expectations but also had some surprises. The pastor was a feisty Scot who, while speaking to us, was also streaming live to his many followers outside the congregation, so he kept one eye on us, and the other aimed at the camera.
The most unusual part of the service had to do with the eucherist. Now we’ve taken communion in many different ways on this journey, but this one “takes the wafer”. We were given something that looked like a coffee creamer container. Thankfully the woman next to Michael gave us instructions on how to partake. First, as a congregation, you lifted up the cover and inside was the “bread” presented as a penny sized wafer. Then you lifted up the second layer for a sip of grape juice representing the “blood”. It was unusual, but as we say, “Praise the Lord” any time you can.
Sydney stole my heart just as it had Michael’s on his previous visits here. I put it right up there with our home city of Seattle with its busy harbor filled with ferry traffic, a skyline filled with iconic buildings, and show-stopping mountains on all sides. I miss them both.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads