Good looks, good food, good living: that's the happy mix presented by New South Wales. And Australia's south-eastern state offers a pageant of landscapes: dramatic eucalyptus-clad hills and mountains, stunning beaches, bucolic winelands, lush rainforest and more. There's plenty of room for all this: NSW is more than three times the size of Britain. Yet the population is less than 7 million, about two-thirds of whom live in or near Sydney.
The people of the state capital are probably the most ethnically diverse in Australia, which partly accounts for the sheer vibrancy of the place - and the famously creative food factor: this is one of the best cities in the world in which to dine. The Olympics of 2000 (with an estimated £100m pumped into the city) confirmed Sydney's status as a global leader of glamour and style. And the effect of this continues to ripple outwards.
STAR OF THE SHOW?
... is Sydney, of course. In 1788, when the first convicts arrived, they may not have appreciated the area's potential to become a glittering city with an iconic opera house and landmark bridge. But they would probably have been struck by the natural beauty of the anchorage: the quality of light; the dazzling bays and beaches. Today, the city spreads across some 60km of indented shoreline. The compact, historic heart and its breathtaking harbour remain the most obvious attractions but for sheer pizzazz make for the suburb of Paddington with its catwalk of fashion boutiques, galleries and cafés on Oxford Street, while Double Bay (also known as Double Pay) to the east offers - in both senses - richer retail therapy and buzzing café society.
The city contains some of Australia's tallest buildings, so there are plenty of places to find stunning views. Try the outlook from elegant French-Asian fusion restaurant Forty One (00 61 2 9221 2500; www.forty-one.com.au) at the top of the Chifley Tower in the Central Business District, or make for the bar at Café Sydney (00 61 2 9251 8683; www.cafesydney.com) on the top floor of the historic Customs House right on the harbour. But for a superlative, and serene, panorama, take to the skies. You can make a spectacular morning balloon ride over the city with Balloon Aloft Australia (00 61 2 4938 1955; www.balloonaloft.com; A$295/£118). Departures are at sunrise from Sydney's Camden Airport, about an hour's drive from the centre (or be picked up). You spend about an hour floating over the city on thermals, and after landing the venture is rounded off by a barbecue Champagne breakfast.
WHERE CAN I SLEEP CHIC?
Sydney's swishest hotel is the Park Hyatt (00 61 2 9241 1234; www.sydney.park.hyatt.com; doubles from A$585/£234 including breakfast). Set in the historic Rocks area just below Sydney Harbour Bridge, it is certainly the best-positioned place to stay - the views across to the Opera House are jaw-dropping. Despite the relatively hefty cost of a bed here, all the 158 chic rooms of this curving, three-storey building are frequently booked up well in advance.
Also by the harbour, The Four Seasons at 199 George Street (00 61 2 9238 0000; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from A$320/£140 without breakfast) comes a fairly close second for outlook and elegance. It is large and lavish, with 531 bedrooms (some a little cramped), a well-regarded restaurant (Kable's), café, lounge bar and excellent spa. Smaller and more discreet is The Observatory (00 61 2 9256 2222; www.observatory.com.au; doubles from A$459/£184 without breakfast) also in the central area and offering 99 bedrooms as well as an outstanding spa and swimming pool.
For urban edginess head over to Finger Wharf on the east of the harbour. Set on Woolloomooloo Bay, this pier was transformed a decade or so ago into a hip assemblage of restaurants and a super-cool warehouse hotel. W Hotel has since been bought by the Taj group and renamed Blue (00 61 2 9331 9000; www.tajhotels.com; doubles from A$650/£260 including breakfast). It is an amazing-looking building with a blue and grey exterior and a blue atrium with industrial steelwork exposed.
Meanwhile the many less-expensive boutique hotel options include Establishment in the Central Business District (00 61 2 9240 3100; www.luxehotels.com; doubles from A$350/£140 without breakfast) with just 33 sleek bedrooms tucked away behind an astonishing front of 13 bars and restaurants; and the 40-bedroom Kirketon in Darlinghurst (00 61 2 9332 2011; www.kirketon.com.au; doubles from A$220/£88 without breakfast) with a fun atmosphere, minimalist décor and buzzing brasserie restaurant.
AND FOR FINE FOOD?
You're spoilt for choice in Sydney. What's more, with Melbourne presenting increasing competition as a gourmet destination, the NSW capital has been sharpening its culinary act. Top of any wish list for fine dining in the city is Tetsuya's (00 61 2 9267 2900; www.tetsuyas.com) at 529 Kent Street in the Central Business District. But you'll need to book a good month in advance for a taste of Tetsuya Wakuda's Japanese-French cuisine with an Australian accent - the likes of marinated fillet of trevally with preserved lemon set on sushi rice, and confit of ocean trout served with unpasteurised trout roe.
For A-list celeb spotting head over to Bondi Beach and Icebergs Dining Room and Bar at 1 Notts Avenue (00 61 2 9365 9000; www.idrb.com). Quite apart from its glamour quotient it serves seriously good seafood and grills. Meanwhile The Bather's Pavilion is right on Balmoral Beach facing the harbour about 15 minutes' drive from the centre (00 61 2 9969 5050; www.batherspavilion. com.au). There's a bright, casual café with huge picture windows here and a gourmet restaurant offering dishes such as barramundi with pancetta served with horseradish and cauliflower purée.
Over in the fairly newly revamped Pyrmont neighbourhood just west of the old centre, Flying Fish at Pier 21, Jones Bay (00 61 2 9518 6677; www.flyingfish.com.au) offers wonderful harbour views, designer decor and much applauded fish dishes. Further south and east there's an inexpensive gem of a restaurant at 132 Darlinghurst Road: Fish Face (00 61 2 0332 4803) is a tiny dining room and sushi bar where you bring your own bottle and where dishes range from fish and chips to carpaccio of swordfish.
OR A REAL TASTE OF THE CITY?
Among Sydney's mouthwatering food shops are the food hall in the basement of the David Jones department store at 65-77 Market Street in the city centre and the large and lovely Fratelli Fresh (at 7 Danks Street; 00 61 1300 552 119), set in a former printworks in the newly hip Waterloo area just south of Surry Hills.
Or make a guided foodie foray. UK-based Gourmet on Tour (020-7871 0848; www.gourmetontour.com) offers a variety of Food Lovers' Tours of Sydney. These are a combination of hands-on cooking, visiting markets, shopping, and food and wine tasting. You can choose between concentrating on fish and Sydney's fish market or producing the perfect barbecue sourced from farmers' markets. Your guides are either former food editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller, Kathy Snowball, or cookbook author (and somewhat appositely named) Sydney Pemberton who has a cookery school in the city. Tours and classes are on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and cost from A$135 (£54). Walking tours of specialist food shops can be arranged, culminating with a picnic or lunch in a local restaurant, also from around A$135 (£54).
HOW ABOUT THE GREAT OUTDOORS?
Head for the hills. Majestic wilderness is easily accessible from Sydney: within a 90-minute drive from the centre you can be in the midst of the Blue Mountains, with their stunning views, extraordinary rock formations and network of hiking trails. Hidden away by the scenic town of Katoomba is one of Australia's most cherished country house hotels. Lilianfels (00 61 2 4780 1200; www.lilianfels.com.au) is a Victorian-era retreat built as the summer home of Chief Justice Sir Frederick Darley and his daughter Lilian. It now comprises 85 guest rooms, spa, swimming pool, tennis courts, gourmet dining room and more. Among a number of UK travel companies providing tailor-made trips here, Quest Travel (0871 423 0123; www.questtravel.com) offers a 10-night trip to NSW from £1,459 per person (based on two sharing, as are all the packages in this article). The price includes return flights from Heathrow to Sydney, six nights at a boutique hotel in Sydney, four nights at Lilianfels, and car hire for the Blue Mountains leg of the trip.
Meanwhile Walks Worldwide (01524 242 000; www.walksworldwide.com) presents the opportunity to get right off the beaten track in comfort. Its seven- and five-day self-guided Blue Mountain hiking trips take you past towering cliffs and cascading waterfalls to remote rainforest and stunning canyons, ending each day at a scenic rural inn. The tours cost £565 and £440 per person respectively, which includes B&B accommodation, most other meals, luggage transfers, and maps and notes (transport to Australia and from Sydney to the Blue Mountains is extra).
AND SOUTHERN BEAUTY?
About two hours' drive south-west of Sydney, the wide and wonderful Kangaroo Valley is attracting visitors. The area presents lovely, temperate rainforest and stunning mountain scenery as well as a burgeoning arts scene - autumn next year sees the first-ever Kangaroo Valley Arts Festival, which will feature classical music performances and visual art shows (from 20-22 April; for more information see www.artsinthevalley.net.au).
Among the options available for its tailor-made holidays to Australia, Audley (01993 838 000; www.audleytravel.com) can arrange trips to Kangaroo Valley. For example, a seven-night itinerary for two travelling around New South Wales could comprise two nights in Sydney staying at the beautifully positioned Shangri-la (00 61 2 9250 6000; www.shangri-la.com), which offers breathtaking harbour views; three nights in Kangaroo Valley at Crystal Creek Meadows (00 61 2 4465 1406; www.country-accommodation.com.au), a small complex of luxury self-catering cottages from which you can go walking, canoeing and horse riding; and two nights at Lilianfels in the Blue Mountains. The cost from £675 per person covers all accommodation (on a room-only basis) and car hire, including half a day's rental of a vintage MG.
Another two hours from Sydney, north and west, lies the Hunter Valley. This is Australia's oldest wine-producing region, where vineyards were thriving as far back as 1824. More recently the area's strengths have been with Shiraz and Semillon grapes while well-rated Chardonnay wines have also been produced. The excellent Hunter Wine and Visitors' Centre in Pokolbin (00 61 2 4990 0900; www.winecountry.com.au) provides maps and detailed information about the 70 or more wineries here as well as advice on non-vinous activities such as ballooning, parachuting and mountain biking.
Over the past few decades the region has become renownded as a place for gourmet getaways, dedicated to fine living as well as to the grape. The most highly respected dining options include Terroir Restaurant at the Hungerford Hill winery (00 61 2 4990 0711; www.hungerfordhill.com.au), which was the winner of this year's Hunter Region Restaurant of the year prize; and Casuarina Restaurant at Pokolbin (00 61 2 4998 7888; www.casuarinainn.com.au) which has won armfuls of awards for its country cuisine based very much on local produce. Meanwhile among the most sought-after accommodation are Peppers Guest House at Pokolbin (00 61 2 4998 7596; www.peppers.com.au), a discreetly stylish retreat with 48 bedrooms and friendly kangaroos that hop about the grounds, and Tower Lodge (00 61 2 4998 7022; www.towerlodge.com.au) on the Tower Estate. The latter is an extraordinary 12-bedroom boutique hotelwith colonnaded pool, huge fireplaces, cascading chandeliers and great swathes of fabrics.
Among its independent holidays to Australia, Bridge and Wickers (020-7483 6555; www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk) offers a luxury two-week trip that takes in Tower Lodge. The cost, from £2,130 per person, includes flights from Heathrow to Sydney, six nights there at the Park Hyatt; two nights at Lilianfels and three nights at the Tower Lodge, as well as six days' car hire. Connections Worldwide (0845 375 0571; www.connectionsworldwide.co.uk) presents an intriguing option of a "Wines and Dolphins" two-day excursion from Sydney, with accommodation in the Hunter Valley at Peppers Guest House. The trip costs from £249 per adult (£174 for children).
I WANT SOME COASTAL ADVENTURE
Make tracks for Brisbane, over the border in Queensland. The drive from Sydney takes in a mix of funky seaside towns and scenic beauty, passing along NSW's laid-back northern playground of beaches, dramatic cliffs and subtropical rainforest. En route, you'll see dolphin-rich Port Stephens, lively Coffs Harbour, boasting impressive banana palms, gracious Grafton inland with its elegant jacaranda trees, and stunning Byron Bay with its beaches and chic, party-town appeal.
Regional specialist All Ways Pacific (01494 432747; www.all-ways.co.uk) offers a 14-night package that takes in some of the stylish best of NSW and continues with a leisurely road trip from Sydney to Brisbane. The land-only price starts at £1,219 per person (based on two travelling together).
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
Contact The Australian Tourist Commission (0906 863 3235, calls cost 60p per minute; www.australia.com). Or visit the website of New South Wales Tourism ( www.visitnsw.com.au). Recently published guide books include Insight Guides' 2006 New South Wales (£14.99) and Lonely Planet's 2006 Sydney guide (£12.99).
HOW DO I GET THERE?
The main gateway to New South Wales is Sydney. Competition on routes from the UK is ferocious. British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) has only one route from Heathrow to Sydney, which is "code-shared" with Qantas (0845 7747 767; www.qantas.com.au). But many other airlines offer connecting services via their hubs in the Middle East, Asia and the US. Sample fares from Heathrow to Sydney in February through Expedia ( www.expedia.co.uk) are £705 on Gulf Air via Bahrain, £739 on United via San Francisco, and £788 direct on Qantas. Travelocity ( www.travelocity.co.uk) has a fare of £827 on Singapore Airlines. From Manchester, Opodo ( www.opodo.co.uk) has Emirates via Dubai at £864.
If you are exploring the north or south of the state, then bear in mind Brisbane and Melbourne respectively as possible entry or exit points; Brisbane is well placed for Byron Bay and environs, while Melbourne provides good access for the Snowy Mountains. If you wish to travel the entire coast, it would make sense to have an open-jaw ticket into Brisbane and out of Melbourne, or vice-versa. Fares on carriers such as Qantas, Malaysia Airlines or Singapore Airlines need not be any higher than a round-trip to Sydney.