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West is best

The only view many visitors get of Sydney’s true heart is from the window of their aircraft. They should take a closer look. Story: Jeremy Bourke.

Fancy an island holiday? Camped in a cosy, uber-comfortable tent just metres from the water’s edge. A glorious vista in front of you, the serenity broken only by the occasional passing of a yacht. Plus some ferries. And a freighter or two. And a regular stream of not-inconsiderable aircraft overhead. Oh, and that bridge looks familiar.

So it isn’t the Whitsundays, but no other island in the world has what Cockatoo Island serves up to day-trippers and overnighters in its corner of Sydney Harbour.

It has several histories, as a brutal (was there any other sort in the colony’s early days?) prison, as a major shipbuilding yard, and now as a resort. Of sorts.

What I love about it the most is that its difference as a holiday island reflects its different location to the great visitor icons of Sydney. The Opera House, the zoo, Bondi Beach, the Cross, the glitz … that’s all east of the bridge. On the western side is a far more diverse Sydney. Enclaves shaped by the physical barriers of the river, the railways and the twisting main roads produce character-filled pockets of what, for 90% of those who call this sprawling city home, is the real Sydney, full of cream-tiled pubs, continental delis and cafes and side streets so tiny you almost have to breathe in to squeeze down them.

The Cockatoo Island sojourn is a bit of R&R after several days of this style of discovery, which starts on the site of, among other things, an abattoir.

Inside the stadium of Olympic Park

Olympic Park

When the biggest show on Earth, the Olympics, came to town, it settled in western Sydney, and if anything Olympic Park today is “faster … higher … stronger”. It still hosts the city’s busiest sporting and concert venues, and it’s in the largest that we’re going not only backstage but above-stage.

The Gantry Tour of ANZ Stadium is no Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb, to be sure, but you’re still 45m above the playing surface on walkways which, attached to the support structure that holds up the Akubra-shaped roof, gives a feeling of being inside the skeleton of a dinosaur. It’s a complicated process putting on a major sporting fixture, so if you want to get the minutiae along with the bird’s-eye view (and you’ve over the age of 12), check it out.

Back down on the concourse outside the stadium, it’s fun to walk among the forest of artist-designed poles bearing the names of the 74,000 Australians who volunteered at the 2000 Games. Also listed are some unexpected Olympic venues, including Tel Aviv, New York, Ornskoldsvik (Sweden) and Arnhem (Holland, not Land) – they hosted the Paralympics before that event synched with the main Olympics in 1988.

If you want more of the Olympic spirit, get into it. You can do that funny heel/toe walk along the boulevards named after Australian athletes, hire a bike in Bicentennial Park and do a Cadell along the paths through the mangroves up to the river, or take aim with a beginner’s session at the Archery Centre

Luckily for us, our hotel – the excellent Pullman Sydney Olympic Park – doesn’t have a pool. Instead, house guests get free entry to the Olympic pool across the road, and while the atmosphere isn’t the same without thousands of screaming Aussies urging Thorpey on, it’s great for an end-of-day swim, spa soak and sauna. And we thought the sauna was hot – until we took a friend’s advice and tried Rams, a Sri Lankan takeaway place tucked down an arcade in nearby Henley Rd, Homebush West. Mutton curry with rice, and vegetables with naan – this is the sort of food for which very cold beer was invented. Magnificent.

A scone with cream and jam

Inner Western Sydney

From Olympic Park, you head can towards town along Parramatta Rd and take almost any turn left or right and you find the local heroes of inner-western Sydney.

If you find yourself in Five Dock, check out the shabby chic Cremeria De Luca (84 Ramsay Rd). The De Luca siblings are third-generation ice cream makers who do gelato and cake singly and in all sorts of dreamy combinations, such as brioche with pistachio ice cream. And the coffee, which is perfect, comes in fine china cups.

In Haberfield, Ramsay St becomes Ramsay Rd, and around the intersection of Dalhousie St is a great collection of Italian cafes and, if you’re self-catering, food stores. Go to Peppe’s Pasta (#151) for the fresh version, while the Lamonica supermarket two doors down seems to be half imported dried pasta and half everything else Italian.

Closer in is Leichhardt, where Bar Italia (169 Norton St) is in its seventh decade of serving food that wouldn’t be out of place in Rome, Sicily or even Lygon St. Its authenticity is confirmed by postings on the internet that it’s strictly “no soy”.

And if you find yourself in Annandale at dinner time, the Booth St Bistro (#127) is more than a nod to modern Australian fare, and at very non-Sydney prices. But why does it have only one NSW wine on the list? Mercifully, it’s what the state does best: Hunter Valley semillon.

The white rabbit Gallery in Chippendale

My Sydney detour

To find more on our own would send us and our GPS into a spin, and we’re not getting the intimate local knowledge. So up steps the irrepressible Richard Graham. The star of the My Sydney Detour experience could be Richard’s 1964 EH Holden (especially its Portsea blue/ivory green colour scheme) but it’s really his encyclopedic knowledge of inner-western Sydney. He reels off the facts as he dips in and out of Redfern, Erskineville, Newtown and Marrickville. The White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale has the largest collection of ancient and modern Chinese art outside China. Redfern is where Australia’s expansion was kick-started because that’s where the country’s first trains were built – the Eveleigh workshops now host a farmer’s market every Saturday morning. In Lawson St, Redfern, leading away from the Glengarry Castle Hotel is the longest row of continuous terrace houses in NSW – 34 of them. And take a close look at the buildings around the main quadrangle of Sydney University – the decorative gargoyles are a rare design, even for this part of the world: kangaroos and other Australian animals.

For refreshments, Richard goes for the indigenous menu of Aunty Beryl at Gardener’s Lodge Cafe in City Rd opposite the university, or Chapter Five Espresso (2 Little Eveleigh St, Redfern) which warns: “We do not have wi-fi – talk to each other.”

Heading down a small street then a smaller street then a tiny lane, an old warehouse reveals itself to be Young Henrys Newtown Brewery. Treat it as a bar (it’s open seven days) or take a tour. They have seasonal beers, and you’ll possibly end up taking away a refillable 2.0L ‘growler’ bottle.

By the time we’ve recorded the presence of Frangos Portuguese Chicken (98 New Canterbury Rd, Petersham), The Stinking Bishops cheese shop (63 Enmore Rd, Enmore), the Corinthian Greek Restaurant (283 Marrickville Rd, Marrickville), the cheese burger at Revolver (291 Annandale St, Annandale), and the gelati which last year was voted best in the world, from Cow And The Moon (181 Enmore Rd, Enmore), Richard has convinced us that “you don’t need a water view to have a fabulous meal in Sydney”.

Customers shopping in the Sydney fish market

Sydney fish market

Richard is no early riser, and so we’re on our own for his suggestion of the 6.30am tour of the Sydney Fish Market, which after the incredible Tokyo Fish Market has the greatest variety of seafood in the world. So says our guide Erik, who loves being able to show the place to the world. “The Melbourne market is all done behind close doors,” he says.

The auction has been running an hour by the time we hit the market floor, but it’s a subdued affair anyway – dozens of fishmongers watching numbers and dials on a large screen and bidding electronically. The real colour is in the product, in hundreds of plastic crates arranged across the auction room. You watch the artistry of the man packing mud crabs with his bare hands – “they have to know where to grab them or they lose a finger”, Erik says, while giving us a quick lesson in how to sex a mud crab – males have bigger nippers.

Eric says it can be hard to get a properly prepared seafood meal. “Most fish and chip places overcook, which is sad.”

There’s little chance of that in the market’s adjacent food court, where some of the clientele are ordering Sydney’s most expensive breakfast: a freshly cooked lobster for $100 or so a pop.

We settle for the just as tasty fare back at our nearby lodgings, the boutique 1888 Hotel, where the rooms in this wonderfully restored space range from suites all the way down to the one they quite rightly call the Shoebox.

Cockatoo Island as viewed from the sky

Cockatoo Island

And so now we find ourselves on our island resort, a 10-minute ferry ride from the King St Wharf in Darling Harbour. There should be no guesswork involved in how Cockatoo Island got its name – although signs warn it’s the seagulls that can get aggressive – and everything else about its history is clear and in plain sight.

Up on the island’s highest points, for instance, are the ruins of the convict quarters. The wonderful views aside, you can imagine what these places must have been like, and the ordeal of Bill Day is telling. Sent to the punishment cell for spearing another prisoner in a convict version of Russian roulette, he tried to keep his meagre supply of food safe by storing it in the boots he was still wearing. No go: the rats got to it anyway, by gnawing their way through the soles of the boots as he slept.

The island’s disused slipways launched some of Australia’s most famous ships (e.g. the Empress of Australia) and most tragic (the destroyer Voyager). And the vast sheds of its industrial precinct now play host every two years to the Biennale of Sydney, a series of contemporary art installations with which we’ve coincided. The artworks may be incomprehensible not just to this writer but even his far more knowledgeable companion, but you cannot deny the thrill that the artists must have to display their works in such an incredible venue.

There’s heritage house accommodation on the island, but the place to stay surely is the camping ground facing the main Parramatta River channel. All the tents are already there, along with mattresses and camping chairs, and you just bring your sleeping bag and a torch. Or interstaters like us who are travelling light can get the ‘glamping’ option: absolute waterfront location, beds with sheets, a lantern, towels and a sunlounge. The last item is of little use on this rainy Sydney afternoon, but after an early dinner of pizza, sleep comes easily enough, with nothing to disturb the quiet apart from the splash of the river against the sea wall, the occasional toot of a ferry, and the slightly more regular hum of a Boeing or Airbus bringing more visitors to a city where they may never opt for a taste of its golden west. Their loss.


A great way to get another perspective in inner-western Sydney is to do part of the Sydney Harbour Circle Walk. It avoids main business areas, instead taking you through small parks, around harbour inlets and down heritage streets. We walked from the Darling St Wharf in Balmain around to Woolwich in 4-5 hours and barely saw a shop or a traffic light. Get detailed maps at www.walkingcoastalsydney.com.au.


You can also get more harbour walks and details on the new app Thirst For Sydney, compiled by experienced travel writer Rob Dunlop. It’s for iPhone and iPad, and is available free on the App Store. Get it via www.thirst-for.com/sydney.

Written by Jeremy Bourke
April 01, 2015