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January 14, 2010

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Soaking up sun and sea breezes in harbor city discovery tour

LIVE in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air" is how American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson described his idea of what the simple life should be.

But I didn't fully understand the meaning until I recently took a marvellous winter-to-summer transition by flying from chilly Shanghai to sunny Sydney on Australia's east coast.

There I discovered wonderful city life with sunshine, the coast, kangaroos and koalas under a pure blue sky.

The genuine Australian character and flavor I experienced on the visit started on the Qantas non-stop flight, with a range of wines and snacks served by the broadly smiling Australian air hostesses.

It doesn't seem like a 10-hour flight, with new blockbuster movies and popular TV and radio programs available to each passenger on video systems in the seat.

And the company was good, with a veteran Australian lawyer talking enthusiastically about the week he spent in Shanghai °?- the food, the people he met, the weather and how he was missing his hometown farm.

"Is it your first time to Australia? You should love it. You should," he says. "The coasts, the lavender farms, the wine areas and the hard working locals with a passion for leisure gosh, it's your first time. You should have come earlier and more often."

His words built more expectations into my visit, although I had done a lot of homework before leaving.

After movies, music, wine, food and a short sleep, I found myself standing outside Sydney Airport, breathing in the sea breeze and soaking up the sunshine of the coastal climate.

And when Jerry Liu, a friend who has been studying, living and working in Australia for five years, throws my bags in the back of his car and starts driving, he switches into my local guide. For me in this unfamiliar city, there is so much ahead to explore.

The first thing that spikes my interest is the roads that follow the city's hilly contours, not as flat as Shanghai, and the variety of vehicles.

The personalized number plates, including color and content, are fun for newcomers, such as a plate which read "NO WAY" and many others with weird mixtures of letters and numbers.

Now and then I see classic cars driven along streets lined with modern buildings, offering a contrast in time. To add a fast and furious element to driving in this city, screeching motorcycles flash along the roads, thrilling and alerting passers-by.

Like most first-time visitors, I chose Circular Quay, the harborside transport hub of the city's central business district, as a starting point for my discovery. People can reach almost any part of Sydney by catching a bus, train or ferry from this point.

Although it's drizzling when I arrive, sitting on a bench with the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background gives me a sense of peace watching boats crossing, commuters passing and birds flying in this busy area. Somehow, it feels like a postcard in action in the cool summer.

The Sydney Opera House is within a few minutes' walk, as are the Royal Botanic Gardens and a number of Sydney museums.

Strolling along the concourse to the Opera House, it's hard to resist the impulse to book a seat for a session of music, ballet, opera or live theater.

The Opera House appears to be unexpectedly simple when I take a closer look, finding a concrete design with few decorations, and I am a little disappointed at first. Its exterior of light yellow ceramic tiles in the shape of fish scales is not as white or glamorous as how it comes across through television, brochures and postcards.

However, when I get to the Royal Botanic Gardens I am able to appreciate the harmony and beauty of the backdrop formed by the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. The sail- and shell-like Opera House is really a magic design and reminds me that some beauty looks even better when seen from afar.

"Why not have a cup of coffee outside the Opera House?" Liu suggests. "You can appreciate the seascape and enjoy yourself at one of the world's most scenic spots." It is then in the dimming light of the drizzling, fading day beside the harbor that the Opera House becomes a glittering spectacle.

For those wanting a quick city tour, the Metro Monorail, a single-loop light rail ideal for tourists, cannot be a better choice.

Stopping at almost all of Sydney's best attractions, it connects Darling Harbour, Chinatown and the Sydney central business and shopping districts.

It winds above Chinatown and the Spanish quarter, over Sydney's main streets, including George Street, and through the shopping heart of the city. It also travels past the historic Queen Victoria Building to the entertainment and dining area Darling Harbour.

But I was happy with a "derailed" city tour and rather than taking a bird's eye view by monorail, I followed the route on foot, in and out of streets and into many alleyways where different experiences awaited.

Walking takes longer but it provides an opportunity to get a better feeling of a city's mood.

Since most shops close around 5pm, except on Thursday when there's late night shopping, major entertainment is centered in restaurants, pubs and bars which are situated on almost every corner.

Darling Harbour is a waterside mecca in the heart of the city and features an incredible range of restaurants but it is also one of Sydney's premier dining precincts.

It is exceptionally popular at night when people step out for fun and food in the cool sea breeze.

Side-by-side along the piers, restaurants featuring fresh fish and juicy beef vie for customers. Most of the venues are open-air style, offering diners an opportunity to savor fine food and enjoy the charming water views of the harbour.

Liu recommends the Sydney Fish Market to enjoy more fresh seafood.

Two kilometers west of Sydney's CBD area, it is at a working fishing port and incorporates a wholesale fish market, fresh seafood retail outlets, a delicatessen, a sushi bar, bakery, gift shop, fruit and vegetable market, beverage outlets, a seafood cooking school, indoor seating and an outdoor promenade for visitors.

Here seagulls fear nobody, some being even bold enough to swoop in and "rob" food off the plates of people dining outside.

Apart from the dominant Western cuisine, Asian flavors, including Thai, Malaysian, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean, are also popular. The needs of Sydney's multicultural population have allowed a blossoming of multiple dining choices.

Take the Chinese cuisine available, for example around Chinatown, located in the Haymarket area. I tried Cantonese dim sum, hotpot from Chongqing Municipality, and Dapanji, also known as "big-plate chicken," from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

They were different from what I had at home, having been adapted to cater for the tastes of the diverse group of Sydney residents. Yet some retained original flavors, certainly enough to make overseas Chinese feel nostalgic.

"It's enjoyable to have local flavors in Chinatown, with its restaurants, grocery stores and clinics," Liu says. "Without shop signs in English, I often think I am actually in a domestic Chinese city."

The short trip ends with shopping and a really nice walk along Brighton Beach where the seaview is enhanced by takeoffs and landings at Sydney Airport.

The serenades of seabirds are still ringing in my ears and memories of the Sydney sunshine are warming my days in Shanghai. I hope to do more swimming, boating and even surfing on my next trip to Australia. Scenic Spots in Sydney

Sydney Wildlife World

Address: Aquarium Pier, Darling Harbour

Hours: 9am-6pm

Transport: Take the Monorail train and get off at Darling Park station.


Sydney Aquarium

Address: Aquarium Pier, Darling Harbour

Hours: 9am-10pm

Transport: Take the Monorail train and get off at Darling Park station.


Sydney Tower

Address: Podium Level 100 Market Street

Hours: 9am-10:30pm

Transport: Take a bus at Circular Quay.


Sydney Opera House

Address: Bennelong Point

Hours: 9am-6pm (closed on Sundays)

Transport: Take a bus at Circular Quay.


Central Coast

Transport: Take a 1.5-hour drive from the city or a train from Central Station Sydney directly to the venue.



Transport: Take a 1.5-hour drive from the city or a train at Central Station Sydney directly to the venue.


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