Sweet on Sydney: Australia’s Family-Friendly City

Sydney is a great family destination.
With more than 40 beaches, Sydney is a favorite with sun worshippers. Photo by Janna Graber

The creature’s hair is course, rougher on the fingers than I expected. But when she looks up with those soft brown eyes and that familiar button nose, it’s hard to remember that the koala is a wild animal and not a cuddly toy.

Still, the animal sits patiently as my youngest runs his tiny hands across her back. His face lights up with wonder — and then he runs off to see the kangaroos.

I can understand how he feels. There’s so much to see in Sydney that it’s hard to stay in one place for very long.

This Australian city of 4.2 million has a way of getting under your skin. I had first visited the city on business, and had fallen completely in love with the place. And what’s not to like?

Sydney is built around the sea. Stunning harbors jut into the city, quiet bays dotted with sailboats dip into the coastline, and dozens of white sand beaches allow man to cavort with the ocean. It’s a setting many cities only dream of.

As the capital of New South Wales, the town has an energetic and optimistic feel to it. Its modern architecture and exquisite gardens make it a pleasure to visit. Dozens of distinctive neighborhoods, from the seaside bohemian village of Balmain to the more conservative and distinguished Northern Beaches, provide their own unique experiences and lifestyles.

The city’s residents are a mix of heritages, resulting in a rich, multicultural view of life. One in four Sydneysiders was born in another country, and this international influence has taken the town’s eateries from bland English fare to top world cuisine.

The Australians themselves are my favorite part of visiting Sydney. For me, an American, their friendly and easygoing manner is comfortable and familiar. After all, our countries both share similar British roots. (True, there is that bit about the country’s convict beginnings, but it’s best not to bring that up!)

One difference, though, is how the two countries gained their independence: America had to fight for hers, while Australia simply asked for it.

Just over a century ago, there was no country called “Australia.” The land down under was home to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander natives, and a small, but growing, group of newcomers who had arrived on ships from Britain.

These new arrivals considered themselves British subjects, and they set up colonies with names such as New South Wales and Queensland. While the colonists enjoyed their relationship with Britain, they needed the protection and cooperation of a formal federation.

Sydney lets visitors get up close with animals.
The author’s son, Matthew, meets a kangaroo at Sydney’s Koala Park Sanctuary. Photo by Janna Graber

With a simple vote in 1901, six colonies decided to create the Commonwealth of Australia. The British, for their part, were cooperative, passing  a special act that allowed Australia’s new status.

Although Oz (as Australians refer to their homeland) still has an unusual tie to Great Britain that few Americans understand (and believe me,  I’ve tried to understand it), for all intents and purposes, they are on their own.

Although Americans and Australians may have similar roots, we have completely different takes on the English language. The key to  deciphering Australian English is understanding their genuine love of inventing words. They often shorten perfectly good ones (example: a  postman is a postie) or make up their own versions, instead.

To do this, Australians use an inexplicable method of making words out of things that rhyme. A sepo, for example, is an American. How is that  accomplished? It starts with yank, which rhymes with tank — as in septic tank. Then septic is shortened to sepo. Sepo equals American.

I know. I don’t see the logic either. And I’m not so sure I like being referred to as a septic tank, although I’m told it’s a term of endearment.  Nevertheless, Australian English is entertaining, and I’ve come to appreciate its unique rhythms and humorous twists.

Along with their unique use of the English language, Sydneysiders enjoy some of the world’s best weather, in my humble opinion. The city has a temperate climate, and enjoys more than 240 days of sunshine a year. Best of all, when it’s cold in the States, it’s summer down under.

So here I am again, back in Sydney for the fourth time. This time, I’ve brought my family. Admittedly, the thought of bringing three children on a 14-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney had been daunting. But all had gone well. And when our plane lowered over the breathtaking crystal-blue waters of the Australian coastline and the neatly ordered red-tiled roofs of Sydney below, I knew it had all been worthwhile.

The question was, where to begin? There was so much to show my family. Our first stop was the Sydney Tower. Nearly 1,000 feet (305 m) tall, the tower offers an excellent view of the city. My kids liked the Skytour, a 3-D virtual tour of Australia shown on the top deck.

From there, we took the train to Koala Park, a wildlife encounter on the outskirts of town. The park allows for up-close encounters with animals.

The park has been a definite hit. After one more look at the koalas, I follow my son to the kangaroos. We feed them Cheerios (the facility sells them and the kangaroos love them; so do the emus), and then wander over to see the cockatoos, the proud, white birds found all over Australia. They’re noisy creatures, especially at 5 a.m. right outside your window.

Sydney’s 40 beaches are a big part of its lifestyle, so we spend the next few days on the shore. First, we have a picnic at Bondi, the most famous beach in Oz, and home to serious surfers. Later we wander down to Coogee Bay with its lively village and seaside diners.

While the kids skip over the clear blue waves at Coogee, an Australian mother warns me to slather them again with sunscreen. “There’s a hole in the ozone overhead,” she explains. “We have to be extra careful.” Sure enough, I notice that most Aussie kids are wearing long-sleeved knee-length suits, and hats. It never hurts to be careful.

Since parking is a nightmare in Sydney, the bus is our means of transportation all week. It’s cheap and safe, and the novelty of it makes it a fun adventure for us all.

One of our stops is at Darling Harbour, where the pulse of the city beats loudest. Restaurants, pubs, theaters and shops fill the region. We linger at the bayside playground, taking a spin in the paddleboats, and then ogle the sharks at the Sydney Aquarium.

Later, the kids watch a young man play the didgeridoo (a wooden Aboriginal instrument) alongside the sidewalk, and my husband and I get some down time in the quiet Chinese Garden of Friendship.

For dinner, we stop at the Sydney Fish Market, one of my favorite bargain meals in Sydney. We buy baskets of fresh fish, crab and baby octopus, which are barbequed right in front of us. (I love it all; the kids can’t quite get into the octopus.)

Another day, we wander through neat and tidy Chinatown, buying candy from Hong Kong, sampling Malaysian drinks at a roadside stand and then eating dim sum dumplings at a local restaurant.

In addition to the buses, Sydney has an efficient ferry system. We use it as our personal tour-guide service, cruising past the Sydney Opera House, one of the most recognized buildings in the world, and under the beautiful Harbour Bridge, all lit up at night.

On a previous visit, I had done the Bridge Climb, an adventure that allows visitors to walk across the top of the large structure via catwalks and ladders. The 360-degree view from there was amazing.

But the bridge looks just as beautiful tonight, her twinkling lights reflecting in Sydney Harbour while my kids snuggle beside me.

It doesn’t get much better than this, I decide, leaning back and soaking it all in. And then, just like all the other times before, I start planning my next visit.

If You Go

Tourism New South Wales
www.visitnsw.com.au

Australia Tourism
www.australia.com

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