Olympian heights of sophistication

The Games are but one reason among many to visit brash, exuberant Sydney
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The Independent Travel

Some cities coyly conceal their charms; Sydney is not one of them. As the plane penetrates the final layer of cloud on its descent into Kingsford Smith airport, the world's most ravishing harbour offers itself up for inspection, a shimmering expanse of blues and golds crowned by the sublime architectural pairing of the opera house and Harbour Bridge.

Some cities coyly conceal their charms; Sydney is not one of them. As the plane penetrates the final layer of cloud on its descent into Kingsford Smith airport, the world's most ravishing harbour offers itself up for inspection, a shimmering expanse of blues and golds crowned by the sublime architectural pairing of the opera house and Harbour Bridge.

There could be no more fitting introduction to the city that hosts the 2000 Olympic Games next month, for Sydney's harbour is its heart and soul, shaping its identity and defining its rhythms, a serene counterpoint to life on dry land in this brash, sophisticated, exuberant metropolis.

Whether admired from a rugged clifftop or the terrace of a seafood restaurant, or glimpsed between skyscrapers in the city centre, the harbour never fails to astound and delight. A hub of transport, leisure and commerce, it exercises an irresistible pull, drawing Sydneysiders to its 150 miles of undulating shoreline.

For visitors seeking distraction from the extravagant carnival of sport that runs from 15 September until 1 October, the best way to explore Australia's largest city is from and beside the water. Start by taking one of the antique cream and white commuter ferries that fan out from Circular Quay to nearly all points of the compass. A short hop away is Cremorne Point, a scenic spot on the north shore. As you leave Circular Quay, look back over your shoulder and feast your eyes on the gleaming white shells of the opera house and the proud arch of Harbour Bridge. A little further on is Taronga Zoo, where the giraffes are said to have the most spectacular views in Sydney.

Ferries also run west to Homebush Bay, site of the main Olympic venues, but for an archetypal Sydney experience, the 30-minute voyage to Manly - a down-to-earth seaside resort at the northern mouth of the harbour - is unrivalled. In Manly, a 10-minute walk around the headland brings you to Shelly Beach, a quiet, pretty cove, and Le Kiosk, a tiny gem of a restaurant on its golden sands.

Good food and great views can also be found at the Bathers Pavilion, on stately Balmoral Beach, and at Catalina's, in Rose Bay, where you can watch the seaplanes depart for Palm Beach, a swanky northern suburb. For a loftier perspective over the water, book a table at Forty-One, on the 41st floor of the Chifley Tower in the city centre, or on the balcony at Café Sydney, in the newly restored Customs House at Circular Quay.

That Sydney is a centre of gastronomic excellence is not widely known, and the near-perfect climate - warm and balmy in September, which is early spring - means that alfresco dining is a habit rather than a treat. There is an abundance of inexpensive restaurants serving up Pacific rim cuisine as well as food from the south-east Asian and southern European communities that have made this engaging city their home.

When you tire of gorging yourself, head for the beach. Each of Sydney's 70 beaches has its own personality; the harbour beaches, with their calm waters, are favoured by swimmers, the wave-lashed ocean beaches by surfers and families. Raffish, colourful Bondi is currently disfigured by an Olympic volleyball stadium; try glamorous Tamarama next door instead. Two of the best beaches are in the eastern suburbs: Nielsen Park, which is backed by bushland and shady trees, and Camp Cove, a perfect arc of sand in a dreamy location.

If you feel energetic, try one of several scenic walks that wind along the harbour foreshore. A popular route begins at Bondi Beach and meanders south across the clifftops, dipping in and out of a necklace of bays and beaches - Tamarama, Bronte, Clovelly - before ending at Coogee about two hours later. On the north shore, a seven-mile track runs from Spit Bridge to Manly, passing harbourside mansions, yacht marinas and ancient Aboriginal sites, and traversing pockets of subtropical rainforest inhabited by noisy kookaburras and rainbow lorikeets.

It is this easy intimacy with nature that makes Sydney so special; unlike, perhaps, any other big city, it combines the best of urban living with a backdrop of rare and accessible natural beauty. In Manly, take a bus to North Head, one of two towering sandstone outcrops that guard the entrance to the harbour, and savour the isolation and grandeur.

Across the water, the views from South Head - a short walk from Watsons Bay, home of Doyle's, a venerable seafood restaurant - are almost as striking. The bus ride to Watsons Bay, with the city skyline behind you and the harbour unfolding below, is unforgettable.

North and south of the city are national parks containing vast tracts of unspoilt bushland; to the west lie the fabled Blue Mountains, tinged blue by a haze of eucalyptus oil that rises from the trees.

All can be reached on day trips, but you need not venture that far. In the heart of the city are the tranquil Royal Botanic Gardens, home to 7,000 species including giant Moreton Bay figs and a Wollemi pine - a Jurassic-era tree assumed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in a remote canyon six years ago. In Palm Grove, marvel at the colony of fruit bats hanging upside down in the branches overhead; they look like small, furry umbrellas.

A 10-minute walk away, overlooking the harbour at Woolloomooloo, is the Art Gallery of New South Wales, with its acclaimed collection of Australian, Asian and Aboriginal art, and a varied programme of exhibitions.

The Olympics have triggered a wave of urban renewal that has led to Sydney receiving a major facelift. Pavements have been widened, new public spaces created and dozens of artworks commissioned, some of them for a Sculpture Walk through the city centre and Botanic Gardens. Locals grumble that Sydney has been a construction site for years, but they are now reaping the benefits of the improved infrastructure, which includes new expressways, new domestic and international air terminals and a rail link between the airport and the city's main railway station.

In the wake of the building boom, new bars and restaurants have sprung up, enriching an already buzzing nightlife. In the centre, join the city slickers in CBD, an Art Deco bar, or in Winebanc, tucked away in an old bank vault. Aqua Luna is an excellent restaurant in "The Toaster", a new development at East Circular Quay. Try the inner-city eastern suburbs for a cooler and more casual crowd. In the redeveloped wharf at Woolloomooloo, Otto, a stylish new Italian restaurant, is highly recommended. Other recent additions to the scene include Chicane, a bar in Darlinghurst where the beautiful people hang out.

Sydneysiders are bracing themselves for an estimated influx of half a million visitors during the Olympics, a prospect that inspires mixed feelings. Some locals are looking forward to basking in the international limelight, but most cannot wait for the Games to end - so that they can get on with enjoying their fabulous city without all the fuss and attention.

Getting thereAustravel (tel: 0870 055 0206) has returns to Sydney with Japan Airlines for £484, for travel from now until the end of September, and to Melbourne for £569 with Garuda Indonesia.

SydneyMost hotels are booked up during the Olympics, but the travel agency Traveland (tel: 0061 29264 3777) can advise on availability. From early October, there are many vacancies.

Doubles at the Park Hyatt (tel: 0061 29241 1234) - haunt of rock stars, with views of the Harbour Bridge - cost from £300 per night. The Regent (tel: 0061 29238 0000), recently renovated, has doubles from £160 per night. The Quay Grand (tel: 0061 29256 4000) is a new hotel near the Opera House with doubles from £170 per night, including breakfast.

MelbourneThe Prince (tel: 0061 39536 1111; net: www.theprince.com.au) has double rooms from £72 per night with breakfast. At Hotel Lindrum (tel 0061 39668 1111; net: www.hotellindrum.com.au), doubles start at around £185 per night.

Further informationThe Australia Traveller's Guide includes information for Olympics travellers (tel: 0906 863 3235, calls cost 60p per minute) or visit www.australia.com.

The official Olympics website is at www.olympics.com. Sportworld (tel: 01235 554 844; email: travel@sportsworld-group.plc.uk) is the official tour operator to the Olympics.

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