Travel: A whale of a time
“In the winter, it is like a whale highway,” says Captain David Higgins, as he steers the large sailboat towards Manly Beach off Sydney Harbour in Australia
“In the winter, it is like a whale highway,” says Captain David Higgins, as he steers the large sailboat towards Manly Beach off Sydney Harbour in Australia. In front of us, up yonder, stretches the south Pacific Ocean. Every January, some 60,000 humpback whales—their numbers, happily, are increasing every year according to Captain Higgins—leave the frigid, krill-rich waters of Antarctica and undertake the longest mammal migration in the world. They travel 5,000 kilometres to the warmer waters of Northern Australia to mate, calf and nurture their babies. Then they turn around and return to their home waters in Antarctica around March. “Sometimes, you can barely steer the boat,” says Captain Higgins.
We are aboard the Enigma, one of the two sailboats owned by Lifestyle Charters, a company that takes small groups of people into Sydney Harbour and beyond. We sail out on the morning of the Sydney marathon. Groups of runners are everywhere, reminding us once again that Aussies are an outdoorsy lot that love to swim, run and hike. As we go from cove to cove, Captain Higgins points out homes, their prices ranging from AUD $5 million for a small water-facing apartment to AUD $30 million for a decent home on Manly Beach.
Sydney is a rich city—and a rich person’s city. We are on a breakfast cruise with just two crew members: Captain Higgins and Cameron MacDonald—tall, lean and handsome, who serves us a terrific breakfast of croissants, fruits, coffee and an asparagus quiche. With me are a few tourists, including a New Zealander. Two hours later, we are back at the harbour.
Sydney harbour is the deepest in the world, a boon, because large sailing ships can dock close to land without a problem. I see this first-hand: a giant Princess cruise ship is docked just outside my hotel.
‘Doing’ the opera
I am here in Sydney to engage in adventure and theatre, two things I have been longing for during Covid. I stay in two hotels, both in downtown Sydney: the Four Seasons (whose general manager, Uday Rao, is Indian), and the Park Hyatt. The club floor of the Four Seasons serves excellent coffee, or flat-whites as they are called here, along with great views. The Park Hyatt is more intimate, and pretty much on the water. When I check into my spacious standard room, I find a single lemon as a welcome gift. How odd, I think. Who keeps a lemon? I pick it up, turn it around and squeeze. Out gushes some white cream. The whole thing is edible and extraordinary.
Both hotels are walking distance from the Sydney Opera House, where I go on Day One. Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon, a genius ahead of his time, this magnificent structure with its billowing sail-like roof is now a World Heritage Site. When I visit, The Phantom of the Opera is playing, a marvellous spectacle of colour and composition.
The civilised way to “do” the opera is to dine before the show. Most Sydneysiders head to the Opera Kitchen to share poke bowls and wine. As you dine, you can see the lights of downtown Sydney and the Harbour Bridge straight ahead. During the day, by booking in advance, tour groups can walk up to the top of the Harbour Bridge, a vertiginous experience. I didn’t do this.
The next morning, at Bondi Beach, I decide to take the plunge and enter the Pacific Ocean. The water is cold but not freezing. The waves are gentle, and before long, I am inside the salty ocean. I look to the horizon for whales but see surfers instead. After breakfast at The Depot, a chic bistro nearby, I head back for some art and shopping, all in the downtown area. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is free, and its rooftop cafe serves up views of the Opera House alongside great coffee.
Wickets to music
Indians are the third largest tourist group to visit Australia, after Kiwis (from New Zealand) and Americans. They come for the food, wine, and, of course, cricket. Despite its name, the Sydney Cricket Ground hosts a variety of concerts—Bruno Mars and Elton John are coming up—along with football and cricket games. Established in 1848, it is the oldest cricket ground outside England. During our tour of the grounds, bowler Nathan Lyon drops in and graciously chats with us. Sitting in the Bradman box during a game is a dream but for now a walkthrough will have to be enough. My friends and I repair to The Potting Shed to talk scores over craft beer and shared plates, all in a recreated rustic barn filled with plants.
We have a big night ahead. If you love musicals like I do, Covid was torture. Given a choice between a Broadway musical in faraway America and a direct flight from Bangalore to Sydney by Qantas, the latter seemed eminently doable.
Sydney’s historic Capitol Theatre is showing Moulin Rouge, created by native Australian director, Baz Luhrmann. An exuberant cast of Australian and global actors perform in the contemporised version. Capacious, yet cosy because of the dark wood and thick drapes, Capitol Theatre is old-school. After the show, we move to The Orient hotel where live shows abound. A spirited local crowd is dancing to all the ‘80s songs that I know and love.
It is mid-morning when I get to Wild Life Sydney Zoo. I am there to see all of Australia’s endemic animals—the kangaroo, wombat, possum, wallaby, secretary bird, and the koala (calling it a bear, is inaccurate, I learn). The koala, like the kangaroo, is a marsupial that carries its young in a pouch. Australia is where a whole variety of species originated. The zoo is a place to see odd endemic and enigmatic creatures, like the Tasmanian Devil that sidles out during feeding time.
After a few days, I take an hour-long flight to Byron Bay. It is there, from the lighthouse with ocean all around, that I see the whale. She is slicing through the ocean below, on her way home. Much like I need to be.
Shoba Narayan is an author, columnist, journalist and content creator who has been writing about travel, food, wine and culture for 30 years
From HT Brunch, October 8, 2022
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