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The Glory of Sydney

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When I am there in summer, I like to sit on the terrace of my niece's house on the harbor at night and watch the flying foxes come over. The Australian flying fox, Pteropus vampyrus, is not the most cuddly or charming animal in my country. That distinction, by Japanese/American as well as local vote, goes to the koala bear (not a bear, and capable of scratching your face halfway off, but never mind). The flying fox is . . . well, a bat, and a very big one, some reaching five feet in wingspan. When flying across the disk of the moon, it bears a disconcerting resemblance to the bat in Dracula, but it lives on fruit and insects, and poses no threat to humans. At night, the arc lights on the Sydney Harbor Bridge bring swarms of bugs that, in turn, attract thousands of flying foxes; they gyre above the arch, gobbling and snapping and are usually mistaken by tourists for nocturnal birds. But the main bat colony is in the Royal Botanic Gardens, a little east of the harbor bridge, where the creatures hang out en masse in the trees, suspended in swarms like large, furry pears. Then at dusk they start to migrate inland, and their flight path takes them over my niece's house. Sometimes one will pause on the way: It circles a palm tree and then zooms in, flipping backward at the last moment, claws up, to lock on to a frond. They never miss. They are as common as park pigeons, but they endow their native city with a tone of weirdness and otherness that no mere pigeon, an ordinary rat with wings, could provide. They remind you that in Sydney--from a European or an American perspective--you really are at the other side of the world. As do the voices of the native birds in the morning: the squawking, sulphur-crested cockatoos, the grating screech of the galahs, the guffaw of kookaburras. Not to mention the sound of Sydneysiders themselves, that unique accent, flat and nasal, that visitors (wrongly) suppose is related to cockney.

This Year's Presidents Cup, of course, will be played in Melbourne, the first time it has been held outside the United States. But you will have read enough of that by now--how rival teams led by Jack Nicklaus and Peter Thomson will vie before world leaders, luminaries and a TV audience in the millions on what may be the best course in the world, Mackenzie's West at Royal Melbourne, with its unforgiving bunkers and glass-slick greens. No question, the Presidents Cup will be one of the great sports events of an already sports-obsessed country. But the tournament is not the only thing to see in Australia, just as Melbourne is not the only city; and if you fly out for the Presidents Cup, you would need to be one-eyed not to set aside an extra week or so for Melbourne's great and raffish rival, Sydney--and especially so at this time of this year, before its natural and customary glories can be refracted by its coming role as host of the 2000 Olympics.

Sydney is Fifteen Hours from Los Angeles, direct--one of the longest flights you can take on a commercially scheduled airline. We are far from you, and you from us. But the distance used to be much greater. In the fifties and sixties, one rarely saw an American in Sydney. In the seventies there were plenty--mainly young servicemen on R&R from Vietnam. Tourism (from Japan as well as America) only got seriously under way in the 1980s, and now Sydney is in every way a visitor's city. In terms of services (restaurants, hotels and a sense of what the visitor needs), the Sydney of 1998 is so unlike the Sydney I left thirty-five years ago as to be a different town, and the cause isn't so much incoming tourists as outgoing Australians. Because we ourselves travel more, we have higher expectations. The Boeing 747 changed our culture, and the "tyranny of distance"--to use the phrase coined by the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey to denote the time lapse between events overseas and the Australian responses to them--hardly exists anymore. The old feeling of cultural cringe has gone: Sydney (and Australia in general) has a robust autonomy in all branches of the arts--opera, ballet, orchestral music, literature and painting. No visitor should miss its museums: the Art Gallery of New South Wales, with its excellent collection of Australian painting andsculpture (including contemporary work by Aborigines), the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo (technology and popular culture), the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay and the imaginatively run Australian Museum of Natural History.

Sydney's habits have softened. Its harsh, intolerant machismo--the bad-dream side of Australian mateship, which ran from the Anglophiliac stuffiness of the establishment's clubs to the raucous all-male suburban pubs--is tuned down now. Sydney is not so keen on the ocker (Pacific redneck) image of the Australian: beer gut, thongs, nasal foghorn voice, a nostalgia for gay-bashing and a truculent, provincial certainty. What has emerged in the last couple of decades is a city of quite astonishing tolerance, dedicated to its own definitions of the good life in all senses, cultural, gastronomic, sporting and sexual. Australians don't call themselves hedonists, a word that suggests beachcombing laziness. They just regard pleasure as a right and have none of the self-consciousness about it that Americans, because of their Puritan heritage, sometimes still do. Australia wasn't founded by Puritans but by convicts, and Sydney was never meant to be a "city on a hill," "a light unto the world" or any kind of moral example to anyone. The repressiveness of the Australia I knew in my boyhood--its Catholic horror of the sensuous, its Protestant mania for every kind of censorship--is so completely a thing of the past now that Sydney's biggest tourist draw is not any particular sporting event, but the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. This huge affair's annual parade brings hundreds of thousands of spectators (a coupleof years ago it outdrew the Pope's visit) and fills the whole city with an affable bonhomie. Last year's Mardi Gras even featured a march-past of gay and lesbian police. It seems hardly believable that all this happens in a country where, until the early 1980s, gay-bashing was routine and homosexual acts were criminal offenses.

Neither in Sydney's gay nor in its straight life can one see the kind of sexual elitism--the obsessive and snobbish cult of the beautiful, toned, buffed body--that is so irksome in America. Sydneysiders (and Australians in general) tend to be much more comfortable in their skins, cellulite and all. This goes with a healthy disrespect toward the American cult of celebrity, which hardly exists on this side of the Pacific. There was striking evidence of this recently at a fund-raising dinner for a children's welfare foundation entitled "Aussies without Cossies" and organized by the actress Rachel Ward, who is married to one of themore notable hunks of Australian cinema, Bryan Brown. The redoubtable Ms. Ward rounded up twelve of Australia's better known males --media, TV and film personalities, including her husband, who had no choice about it at all--to reenact the strip scene from The Full Monty in front of some eight hundred Sydneysiders, each of whom had shelled out a thousand dollars for the privilege. To the driving beat of "You Can Leave Your Hat On," the men puffed and waddled and shimmied and shucked their kit down to their jockstraps, and when these G-strings finally came off, the crowd erupted into howls of laughter and appreciative catcalls that could have been heard forty miles west in the Blue Mountains. This, one is bound to feel, is real democracy. You can't imagine the American equivalents of these twelve brave men (John Kennedy Jr., say, along with Tom Cruise, Peter Jennings, Richard Holbrooke and the editor of the New York Times) daring to defy their PR advisors in so flagrant a way. The night made you feel proud to be an Australian.


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