Text and photos © by Robert W. Bone
SYDNEY - Bob Weiss, sole proprietor of Sydney Mainsail, dropped anchor in Sydney Harbor, across the water from downtown Sydney. In a moment, his guests were over the side, laughing and swimming between the boat and a small sandy beach, not far from the landing for the Taronga Park Zoo.
"A few years ago this would not have been possible -- or irresponsible," the catamaran captain explained. Sydney Harbor, always one of the most beautiful in the world, nevertheless was not clean enough for anyone to swim safely so close to the CBD -- an abbreviation for the Central Business District, home of the Opera House and the famed Sydney Harbor Bridge.
But today, in advance of the hoop-la, the city is bursting with freshly scrubbed pride and boundless optimism, and not just because of their traditional rivalry with Melbourne and other major Australian cities. Residents -- called Sydney-siders -- say the city has convinced itself that it is about to take its rightful place alongside the great cities of the world.
With plenty to see and do it's a good bet that the travelers who jump the gun on the Olympics will find the city a winner. It's even easier to get into the CBD, these days. The brand new railroad link from Sydney International Airport is about to open, cutting an expensive half-hour cab ride through the suburbs into a cheap, 10-minute dash.
On one of these, travelers can get an idea on what the life of actor Paul Hogan ("Crocodile Dundee") must have been a few decades ago when his talent was discovered while he was a maintenance worker far above the water on struts of the "old coat hanger," the Sydney Harbor Bridge.
Now almost anyone can take part in the "Bridge Climb," a three-hour experience with more safety measures than you can count, for a cool $100 in local currency. (The Aussie dollar has been running at about 75 cents American, which makes everything seem like more of a bargain when converted to the Yank dollar.)
For those who want to get into the Olympic spirit early, there are bus tours and ferry trips out to Homebush. There the former industrial neighborhood of brickyards and rubbish dumps has been converted into a wetland preserve (protecting, among other things, the endangered Golden Bell Frog) while it was constructing the stadiums and several other structures needed by the modern Olympics.
In contrast to other Olympic cities, Sydney had had all facilities ready months in advance, and has been using them successfully for local athletic contests.
You can buy Sydney 2000 souvenirs already at the official Olympics store on Pitt Street, which has been turned into a mall in the middle of the CBD. (Don't take a camera in the store, however. Photography is prohibited because organizers don't want to find cheap knock-offs created in the ubiquitous factories of Taiwan or the Philippines.)
Sydney-siders today are serious when they claim their city is an exciting rival of the great metropoli of the world. Some of this has even been done by decree. Recently the City Council adopted a resolution encouraging bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues remain open until midnight or later in an admitted effort to imitate some of the sophisticated late-night ambiance of Paris, Rome, and Vienna.
Speaking of restaurants, many have been attracting or training gourmet chefs to cater to ever more sophisticated Australian tastes. The current leader in Sydney is Post, in the newly restored 150-year-old central post office. Other big names are Banc, Lucio's, and Wockpool.
Australian author and well-known social commentator Hugh Mackay recently sat back and took an inspired look at the Sydney scene:
"Australians are now eating food that 20 years ago, they wouldn't have been able to pronounce," Mackay said.
IF YOU GO
For further North America information on travel to Australia and on the Sydney 2000 Olympics, contact the Australian Tourist Commission, 2049 Century Park East, Suite 1920, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Phone (310)229-4870. The ATC's consumer website is http://www.australia.com.
Other web sources: Sydney Convention and Visitors Bureau -- http://www.scvb.com.au, Qantas Airways -- http://www.qantas.com, Sydney Mainsail -- http://www.sydneymainsail.com.au, Bridge Climb -- http://www.bridgeclimb.com, Aussie Duck -- http://www.aussieduck.com, recent pictures of Sydney by travel writer Robert W. Bone -- http://robertbone.com/sydney.htm.