We came, we saw, we Sydney’d.
It was time to see things that had been recommended while we were on site, to look into museums that could deepen our knowledge, and to walk portions of the city that had not felt our feet. This was our last day in Sydney and last in Australia before flying home to the U.S.A.
Our penultimate wake-up was early, as our final booking required arrival at 6:45am for the Sydney Opera House “backstage tour.” Having seen the building from hotel, bridge, tour van, land, water, and air (on the inbound flight Tuesday), then attended the Wednesday ballet performance inside, this was the opportunity to get under her skin.
Guide Adam, long and thin like the trombone he plays for some of the shows, provided a great deal of detail. We learned there are five performance venues with over 1500 paid performances annually. I doubt there is a show venue in America (outside of the casinos) with such a utilization rate.
Of the two major halls, the one we had enjoyed is home for all performances of the ballet and opera, with seating for 1,547. The larger symphonic hall sitting nearer the bridge seats closer to 2,000 as best I can recall, and is home to every other type of performance including the Australian symphony, rock concerts, major speeches, a comedy festival, etc. It was the former where this day we were taken below the stage, a cramped space where most of the up-to-80-piece live orchestra is positioned to accompany the acts above it.
In the symphony hall we were up close and personal to a 1600-pipe organ, touted as the second largest in the world. How grand it would have been to hear that! Alas, few have such a skill and none in our tour, nor our guide, was equipped.
It is worth saying that those grand white roofs of the harbor-side edifice represent sails. Perhaps those from Colorado have visions of snow-capped peaks, and from our hotel they looked a lot like a headpiece I’ve seen worn by the Pope. It’s quite easy to see the resemblance to a set of spinnakers on sailboats, so let me share two things that are not so easy to observe.
Firstly, the roof line is an entirely separate structure built over the top of the completed building. Of course they are attached for support, but the peaks on the outside are not replicated on the inside in any way. Secondly, the base, or the actual building in which all five theaters are situated, is a design inspired by particular Egyptian pyramids, though I cannot tell you which ones (ask Adam when you see him – – he knows all).
You may have noticed in photos that the white roof reflects sunlight nicely, suggesting something more than a paint job. In close-up photos you begin to see that tiles cover the sails, and that they are not all pure white. These tiles number just over 1 million, each custom-made in Sweden, made to specification for its exact location on the uniquely curved surfaces. Doug thought about climbing the roof to get you more information (photo attached below), but security looked askance toward this effort and it was abandoned. 🙂
I’ll conclude your virtual tour of the facility with a comparison that an Australian isn’t likely to give you: the Opera House is like an aircraft carrier! The top surface is enormously dramatic, but down below is where the truly incredible stuff happens in spaces alternately cramped and cavernous. I assert this simile because I have now toured both a carrier and this house; I say an Aussie isn’t likely to give you the same reference because their navy has no aircraft carrier (a fact you were just dying to have revealed).
After the tour and breakfast in the “green room” of the Opera House, we had another ferry ride to make another beach to see. As we dropped our purchases and early morning outerwear at the hotel it was clear we would miss the 10:00am ferry despite being housed fewer than ten minutes from the wharf. There was zero chance the ferry would leave late, as they are incredibly punctual.
On a whim I went straight from the elevator as it hit the ground floor to the concierge desk in the hotel. I thought the two gents manning that station would recognize me from prior requests for their services. Just for fun, I decided to test whether they had a sense of humor or sense of horror by saying, “We’re trying to catch the 10:00am ferry to Manly and running late. Would you call the docks and please ask them to hold it?”
Their reaction was just what I hoped: a glance at their watches and a look of deep dread because my request was impossible to fulfill, followed by a reflection of my smile and a reply, “Sure, we will call the captain directly!” We had a good laugh at that moment and through these last 24 hours of our stay whenever they saw me passing through the lobby.
From that concierge interaction and other experiences I discerned a trait of Australian humor: if you’re going to “pull someone’s leg,” two quick winks of an eye will alert them that you are having fun. A Sydney guide had acted likewise when he asked Betsy to look for a tower far out on the horizon of the Pacific Ocean as we stood atop the shoreline cliffs. Honest Betsy said she could not see that sight, to which he reacted, “Too bad, that’s San Diego!”
We missed the 10am Sydney-operated ferry, but we were soon streaking across the water on another, the privately run Manly Fast Ferry. In 20 minutes we docked at the ocean-side suburb of Manly, but on the inner, or harbor side of the town. Walking barely 200 meters, we were again facing the Pacific.
Manly was active under comfortable Saturday weather. There was a street fair with unique artistic, fashion, and miscellaneous creations by the locals. We bought a few things that struck our fancy. There were surfers, bathers, bicyclists, walkers, and people watchers galore. Just a few days earlier those people watchers would have been ogling the Prince and Princess on the same ground. We didn’t attract the same attention. 🙂
Venturing along a wide paved sidewalk that followed the waterfront, we went halfway to another beach that was in sight along the same cove, from which point we had a view back to Manly. If time had been available, we would have explored up and down this coastline on foot. To the south one mile or so such a path would rise to the cliffs that form the harbor entrance. To the north were woods, towns, and other beaches for miles and miles. A thought occurred to both of us that if there was ever a future trip to Sydney, staying a few nights in the Manly area would be an interesting option. We enjoyed our two Manly hours this day, then hopped the ferry back to home base and two still-grinning concierge staff.
The rest of our day we ventured south from the hotel, entering spaces we had not explored. Those sights included half mile of Botanical Gardens, the beautiful and functional state library, a grand Catholic church with pealing bells through the late afternoon, and the old Sydney Barracks Museum in a building that once housed many infamous and destitute convict settlers of this land.
I had prepped for my vacation by reading a 600-page history of the first 100 years of white settlement, from 1787 through 1888, which centered on the site of present-day Sydney. On this last day in this world-class city, I stood in one of the buildings that is a part of that history, actively used from the mid-1800s to 1978, and now a museum. The person responsible for the design and construction was a convict-turned-architect named Francis Greenway, sentenced in England to spend “the remainder of his natural life” in this land. Of him we can say he accepted his fate and built something new and lasting as his legacy.
In full view we walked from the museum through Hyde Park and ventured into three shopping complexes. The first was modern through and through, but that wasn’t our destination. The second was the “Strand Arcade,” where we found small shops housed in an ornate building with far more character than the modern mall. Melbourne had treated us to sights like this, with plenty of fashion stores, eateries, and sweet treats.
The last shopping area was the Queen Victoria Building, and what a grand dame she is. Stretching for a long city block, the exterior of the QVB is antique Victorian from her stones to her domes. Inside she is the perfect mash-up of the Strand Arcade and the modern mall, without the department store anchors. She has all the modern fashions you could want, fun-looking eateries, an incredibly captivating clock near the center, and a staircase where the old stained glass windows provide a dramatic reminder of the old and yet ageless place. While the Strand reminded us of Melbourne, the closest we have seen to this center is, shockingly, in Moscow. The Gum department store on Red Square doesn’t have quite the flair inside or out, but is of the same ilk.
A twilight stroll toward our hotel gave Doug a chance to validate a vision he had retained from his one prior trip to Sydney, for two days on business in the mid-1990s. His vague recollection of a night walk through the streets and parks toward the Kings Cross nightlife area was confirmed.
Then it was time for dinner, last good-byes to the evening staff that served us so well at the Intercontinental, and packing of luggage. This trip is nearly complete … just that little item of 26 hours travel to arrive home via the Dallas and Raleigh-Durham airports.
Photos? Sure, we have photos, though not many were allowed inside the Opera House.