Welcoming the New Year in one of the first countries in the world to ring in 2017 seemed like a crazy plan but panned out to be a relaxed, memorable long weekend. The city of Sydney was brimming with revelers from all over on New Year’s weekend. The beaches were packed–Coogee, Bondi and Manly, and so were tourist strips, Darling Harbour and the Circular Quay. With the summer weather, everyone was happy to be out in the sun.
I caught up with my co-adventurers, Lu, Ricardo and his teenaged niece Kirsten at the Sydney airport the day before New Year’s eve. Wasting no time, we headed straight to the Sydney Opera House in the afternoon to see and be awed by this world famous iconic building. I had first visited this incredible landmark thirteen years ago, but had not gone inside the big performance halls. Back then, my friend Jeanette from U.P. who was based in Sydney, took me there to see a contemporary play in one of its smaller rooms. We watched the entire play standing around a boxlike platform where the actor stood.
This time, we joined a guided tour of this multi-venue performance arts centre, and had the chance to see the bigger halls and learn about its beginnings. The architectural masterpiece was designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon in 1957, as an entry to the International competition for a national opera house on Bennelong Point, Sydney. His winning entry with the distinctive sails was said to be inspired by his travels and exposure to shipbuilding. Against the staggering backdrop of
the Sydney Bridge and harbor, the Sydney Opera House stood out proud and magnificent, a work of art that remains cutting edge even to this day. Right outside the Opera House, the harbourside cafes were crammed with couples, families, and friends having drinks while enjoying the spectacular view at sundown. We slipped in one of the high tables, and tried some plates with the local ‘draught’ beer.
We found ourselves back inside the Opera House, three days later at the Concert Hall to watch All You Need is Love, a Beatles tribute featuring four vocalists with a 50-piece orchestra. The largest and most elaborate venue was easily packed. Along with the 2000-strong crowd, we watched and relished the amazing acoustics, sang, laughed, and had an incredibly fun time. During the intermission, we lingered by the panoramic all-glass foyer overlooking the Harbor Bridge, which was a stunning sight at night. Walking along the glass walled corridors, it felt like we were inside a massive ship-cum-gallery.
Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, has remained as the most populous city in Australia at over 5 million, with a third of its population born overseas, making it a highly multicultural city. This diversity among Sydneysiders was evident even a decade ago when I first went to visit. I remember exploring the city with Jeanette’s Thai and Lebanese friends. Fast forward to this trip, we met several locals from different parts of the world. In Bondi Beach, we got some local pointers from Diana, a Greek-Aussie waitress. She said everyone was either half-Italian, half-Indian, half-Japanese, half-something, and that was usual for a local in this part.
Kirsten was thrilled to talk to a young Brazilian guy working down at the healthy food shop because they could converse in Spanish. My college buddy Sherleen from Manila who had just become an Australian citizen took us to Warren’s place for some wine and conversation. We soon found out that Warren was a Kiwi. Our cab driver on New Year’s eve who patiently drove us around downtown past midnight to look for pubs, was from India. This multiculturalism just made the city even more fascinating than it already was.
On the last day of the year, we took the bus from Bondi Junction to Coogee Beach, where we would begin our 6km walk to Bondi Beach. With the 30 degree sun at mid-day, it was too hard to resist getting in the water in Coogee. We soaked ourselves in the packed beach, and later, in dripping swimsuits, we started walking up the trail. It took us over two hours to complete the hike, with a few leisurely stops to drink water, take photos, or just stare at the ocean. It was as scenic as they all describe it to be. Yes, even the Waverley Cemetery on the cliff.
We rewarded ourselves with a hearty lunch of classic Aussie burgers in one of Bondi’s restaurants. The bigger treat turned out to be Diana, who tipped us where to have New Year’s eve dinner and where to watch the fireworks without the maddening crowd, and for free!
Sunburnt but sun-energized, we met up Sherleen later and got ready for dinner. Upon Diana’s recommendation, we walked in a cozy seaside restaurant on North Bondi, and luckily found a table. The place had a relaxed vibe with a bar by the entrance, and a deck overlooking the ocean. On that night, the place seemed plush with the crowd a bit dressed up than usual.
After the seafood dinner, we make our way to Rose Bay, to a small public cove in the eastern suburb of Sydney. A generator was running by the entrance to power the lights at the security check table and the portalets. We easily got through and saw a small yet growing crowd of people scattered on the unlit beach. A few tipsy teenagers were in the water. The sand felt cold as we sat on the cozy beach, and waited for the fireworks to begin. About 15 nautical miles across us was the Harbor Bridge armed and ready to light the sky.
Among the locals and tourists who shared the stretch of beach, we felt too lucky to have found this place, away from the thousands of revelers packing the other shores of the city for another epic New Year celebration. Soon as the fireworks broke out from the Harbor Bridge, we all stood up and shouted, while instantly flipping our phones to video mode. The extravagant show lasted around fifteen dazzling minutes, non stop.
The best thing for me about spending New Year’s in Sydney was being by the ocean, with good friends, just like home. It was hard to believe I was in one of the biggest cities in the world, and yet it felt easy to enjoy a laidback weekend by the beach. It was only the first weekend of the year. Sweet.