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Stories from our Travelers

Five Sides of Sydney Harbour

Climbing a Tall Ship mast

Sydney skyline from Manta Restaurant
by Ian Neubauer

“We had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world,” Captain Arthur Phillip, the first governor of Sydney, wrote on discovering Sydney Harbour in 1788. Despite the massive city of 4.5 million that’s grown around it, Sydney Harbour remains one of the world’s greatest aquatic playgrounds. It’s at its most brilliant in the summertime from October to March, when Sydney-siders strip down to swim, fish and boat around in its sparkling blue waters. A stellar line-up of events adds a festive feel, kicking off with the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race on December 26.

Now in its 67th year, the Sydney to Hobart grew from a friendly rally in 1945 to one of the richest – and most danger-fraught – bluewater challenges in the world. Five yachts sank and six very experienced sailors perished when the field sailed into a hurricane-strength storm in 1988. It lead to tough new safety regulations now benchmarks of competitive sailing that have helped make the last 12 Sydney to Hobarts fatality-free.

The best place to see the start of the race is from Nielsen Park in Sydney’s eastern suburbs or Ashton Park on the lower north shore, where the clap of the starter’s gun resonates at 1pm on the dot. And if you can’t be there on the day, there are still plenty more ways to splash around in Sydney Harbour. Here are five of the best:

Extending about 10km northwest from the mouth of Sydney Harbour, Middle Harbour is a dramatic drowned-valley estuary. It cuts like a knife through the steep, forested ridges behind the city’s northern beaches that for two centuries were put in the ‘too-hard basket’ of Sydney’s great urban sprawl. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, with much of the thickly forrested foreshore now safeguarded by parks, gardens, national park.

Learn about the waterway’s rich natural and social history – including the story of the “ammo dump” at Bantry Bay near where Captain Philip’s party spent a night – on a half-day Middle Harbour Eco Tour with Sydney Harbour Kayaks. Departing from the marina at Spit Bridge, tours include kayak hire, lessons and morning tea served at a small beach fronting Garigal National Park.

Endemic to Australia and common to Sydney Harbour, White’s Seahorse was named after Captain Phillip’s surgeon general. A chameleon that uses camouflage to ambush its plankton-like prey, this delicate and beautiful creatures change from orange, to ivory, to maroon and opal.
White’s Seahorses hide in the seaweed gardens under the shark nets at Watsons Camp Cove, Watsons Bay, the netted baths at Balmoral Beach and other popular harbour locations.

For the ultimate White’s Seahorse sightseeing session, try a one-on-one dive with Bondive, who’ll pick you up from your hotel, drive you to a dive spot and bring you face-to-face with the species.

“You have to look very carefully before you see one, but once you recognize them, you’ll spot them everywhere,” says dive instructor Marion Shoaw. “But unless you’re patient, you can easily do a dive and not see them at all.”

Perched on the harbour’s edge at Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf, Manta is where Sydney’s rich and famous come to sip cocktails at sunset and pick at high-end seafood. The menu includes three kinds of caviar, king prawn ceviche, Alaskan king crab spaghetti and the signature fish pie. But for real local flavor, try a half-dozen Sydney Rock oysters – freshly shucked and served on a bed of rock salt with red wine, vinegar and shallots.

“Nothing makes you appreciate the beauty of Sydney more than spending a sunny afternoon relaxing here, a chilled Manta Martini in one hand and a Sydney Rock oyster in the other,” says owner Rob Rubis.

Of all the chores sailors suffered in Captain Phillips’ time, few were more hazardous than climbing the mast. But on the Southern Swan, a replica 1850s-era tall ship, climbing the 22-meter mast with special harnessing is part of the fun. The Southern Swan departs from the historic Rocks district three times a day for 2-hour cruises that sail under the Sydney Harbour Bridge and past the Sydney Opera House. A seafood barbecue lunch or dinner is thrown in along with the chance to try some hands-on sailing and optional mast climb.

“No matter what anyone tells you, the best sunset views of Sydney Harbour aren’t from a building or even the Harbour Bridge. They’re from the top of our masts,” says marketing director Marc Dewitte.

For more than 150 years, ships entering Sydney Harbour suspected of carrying contagious diseases were detained at the Quarantine Station at Manly near North Head. When the station closed in 1984, the site was incorporated into Sydney Harbour National Park and its buildings were heritage listed. Now operating as a boutique hotel and conference centre, Q Station’s proximity to the city and pristine bush settings make it one of the most unique places to base your stay in Sydney. “The slogan used to say ‘seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles form care’,” says journalist John Piggot, whose great, great, grandfather was quarantined there in 1855.

Accommodation consists of hillside suites with French doors that lead on to private balconies with panoramic water views; or beautifully renovated workman’s cottage with private yards and two to four bedrooms. There are three restaurants to choose from—Views Restaurant for breakfast, the Boilerhouse Restaurant and Terrace overlooking Quarantine Beach and the Engine Room Bar overlooking the harbour—plus a pub, a museum, bushwalking tracks with spectacular vantage points, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and even ghost tours for the kids.

If You Go
- Sydney Harbour Kayaks, 81 Parriwi Rd., Mossman; eco tours depart 8:30a.m. Sat-Sun for $99 per person; tel. (61) 2 9960 4389,
- Bondive, $350 per person for one dive (half day) or $650 for two dives with restaurant lunch, all equipment hire and transport included; tel. (61) 422 847 573; - - Manta Restaurant and Bar, Wharf 6/Cowper Wharf Roadway, Woolloomooloo; Mon-Sun noon-3p.m. & 6p.m.-midnight, tel. 61 (0)2 9332 3822;
- Sydney Tall Ships, Kiosk 3, Wharf 5, Circular Quay, +61 (0)2 8243 7961; Tours are $99 for adults, $45 for kids and depart Wed-Tues 1:30p.m., 3:45p.m. & 5:30p.m. Add $25 per person for mast climb;
- Q Station Retreat, 1 North head Scenic Drive, Manly; high-season rates from $240 per night; tel. (61) 2 9466 1500,

Photo credits:
Balmoral Beach
Tourism NSW; Balmoral: Tourism NSW; Tall ships: Tall Ships Sydney; Manta: Manta

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