The perfect trip: New South Wales
Hot-air balloons rise above the misty Hunter Valley early in the morning. (Pete Seaward)
This southeastern region of Australia is as diverse as it is expansive. Discover world-class wines, protected botanic gardens, year-round surf and, in Sydney, a fast-growing bar culture.
Sydney: Best for nightlife
Dusk comes slowly to Sydney Harbour. As the sun sinks towards the horizon, its light reflects off the tiled white curves of the world’s most distinctive opera house, giving it a pinkish glow. Sydney Harbour Bridge, known locally as The Coathanger for its soaring steel shape, stretches across to the city’s North Shore. Its lights flicker on, creating a zigzag of muted neon following a graceful parabola across the sky, joining with lights from the shore opposite to spill across the harbour in dancing pools of blue, pink and yellow.
Sydney Harbour is a magical place in the evening. It attracts groups of friends to chatter and clatter plates at the waterfront cafés, strolling couples, and even some more exotic visitors – dozens of fruitbats, arriving to dine on the swarms of moths and other insects that are drawn to the harbour lights.
It’s a dazzling setting – but until recently, the question of where to go after dinner at the beautiful harbourfront had relatively few answers. Restrictive laws meant that only large traditional pubs and restaurants could serve alcohol. ‘If you wanted a night out, the options were limited,’ says Martin O’Sullivan, a local Sydneysider. ‘There were clubs or pubs where you could watch rugby on the television. For drinks, you could have beer, chardonnay or perhaps a gin and tonic, and that was it.’
Martin pulls up a wooden chair in the intimate bar The Grasshopper, tucked away in the ironically named Temperance Lane, just a few minutes’ walk from the opera house. This is his creation – a small, boutique wine and cocktail bar that was the first to be set up in Sydney after an amendment to the licensing laws in 2007. Since then, a host of speakeasy-style bars have popped up like mushrooms in the city’s narrow laneways.
There’s the Belle Époque style of the Absinthe Salon, where the green stuff is served in decadent, antique-filled surrounds; Shady Pines, a Wild West whisky bar just off Oxford Street; and Love, Tilly Devine – a low-ceilinged, bare-brick bolthole celebrating the memory of the eponymous Tilly, a legendary brothel madam who ran these streets in the 1930s.
At The Grasshopper, patrons chat over bright cocktails served in jam jars and tuck into creative dishes like quail with beetroot and marjoram. ‘There are cultural changes happening in this town,’ Martin says with a grin. ‘I don’t want to sit in a skanky pub and chug down schooners of beer. Men can come in here and feel free to have a cocktail without being made to feel like a weirdo – that’s a big change. We’ve always had great variety in our restaurants in Sydney, and now that sort of individuality is coming through in the bars as well. It’s inspiring.’
Where to eat
The Grasshopper is a trailblazer. Settle downstairs for a marmalade, whisky and Italian vermouth cocktail or take a table in its snug upstairs Eating House (mains from £16).
Where to stay
This relative newcomer to Sydney’s hotel scene is as slick and contemporary as you’ll find in the city. The Diamant Hotel is a high-rise hotel situated on a hilltop in the Kings Cross district, within walking distance of some of Sydney’s best bars and nightspots. Its 76 expansive rooms are kitted out with king-size beds and plasma screens, and each affords views of the bridge, harbour or city (from £110).
Booderee National Park: Best for indigenous culture
Julie Freeman has luminous eyes and the captivating lilt of a natural storyteller. A Koori Aboriginal elder from Wreck Bay – a community on the edge of the sand-fringed green expanse of Booderee National Park – she is charming a small audience around a crackling fire. Towering gum trees creak softly overhead, and from a hundred metres away, the shushing of the ocean can be heard.