The Experts' Guide To The World: Sydney
Sunday 13 February 2011
While Sydney has dozens of beautiful beaches, the one that draws me back time after time consists not of sand but concrete. Of course, it's not Clovelly's Brutalist terraces and walkways – reminiscent of a 1970s housing estate – that are the appeal of this narrow, sheltered inlet. It's what they enclose: a giant rock pool, with exceptionally clear water full of marine life.
This is, without doubt, one of Sydney's best swimming spots, and, although hardly off the beaten track, it is frequented by locals rather than tourists. From November to May the water is warm enough for even a spineless Englishwoman, and several times a week during the southern hemisphere summer I steal an hour away from my desk to revisit nirvana.
My favourite time is late afternoon, when the sun's glare is less harsh – that concrete can be unforgiving – and the after-schoolers are starting to leave. However, the vibe varies according to the time of day. Mornings are particularly chilled, with regulars – many elderly – reading newspapers and seeking out puddles of shade.
Some swim laps across the bay; I just glide along, scattering shoals of tiny, silvery fish and glimpsing the large groupers on the seabed. Then I head for the mouth of the inlet, where there's always a swell and you can recline as if in a watery armchair while being gently buffeted by the breakers.
That's my routine – but one thing I like about Clovelly is its unpredictability. Some days it is ironing-board-flat; others it's like a washing machine, and it's quite a feat just to launch yourself into the water then haul yourself out, with the waves slapping furiously against the quays.
When it's especially rough, I adjourn to the beach, a patch of soft, golden sand usually the domain of small children and families. Clovelly has a 25-metre pool, too, and changing-rooms, and an overpriced café and takeaway kiosk. The latter serves excellent chips, but the surly staff are the one discordant note in this heavenly symphony of sunshine and saltwater.
The lifeguards note the water temperature on a whiteboard every day. For me, 19C is the absolute minimum. One year, after acquiring a short-sleeved wetsuit, I braved the water in early September. It was 17C and just bearable, although it made my head ache.
Clovelly is not just a swimming hole; it's a residential area, one of a string of beachside suburbs that lie south-east of the city centre. Unlike some of its neighbours, it has a distinctly sleepy feel. Rather than fast-food joints and surfwear chains, it has old-fashioned cake shops and one-off boutiques. It reminds me sometimes of an English seaside town – minus the weather, naturally.
It is also on the route of one of Sydney's most popular coastal walks: the four-mile track that meanders between Bondi and Coogee, dipping in and out of numerous bays and beaches. Clovelly is near the southern end, and its jolie-laide charms can be appreciated from the clifftop above. Just around the corner is Gordon's Bay, where I occasionally swim off the rocks when it's not too choppy.
As I write, the summer holiday is over in Australia, with schools re-opening this week. I feel sorry for the kids, but not that sorry. Clovelly gets rather crowded at holiday time. Now it will revert to being the somnolent little place I love – and the water will be bathtub-warm for another three months.
Kathy Marks is Sydney correspondent of The Independent
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