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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The best tour of Sydney - and it only costs $15 with Opal Card

The Opal Card, Sydney's new electronic ticketing system, may have its critics, but if you want to take an inexpensive day tour of the city and its surrounds, nothing beats it. 

Monday to Saturday you can travel anywhere in Sydney with Opal for a maximum of $15 per day. On Sundays the cap is only $2.50. Even better, your travel is free if you've already made eight paid trips earlier in the week.

With the weather looking promising, the author set out yesterday on the ultimate Opal day tour. All trips were taken by ferry, but other modes could easily be integrated if needed.

Balmain East was the starting point. For the majority who live elsewhere, the first leg is a bus or train ride to Circular Quay.

Balmain East has stunning views towards the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Barangaroo Headland Park. The architecture is a mix of early colonial sandstone cottages and Victorian terraces, interposed with ugly apartment blocks from the 1960's and 70's. Residents are blessed by the fabulous Euforia Café on the corner of Darling and Johnston Streets.

The first Opal tap is at Darling Street Wharf on the F4 line for a 7:45 departure. There are two more stops, McMahons Point and Milsons Point, before the ferry sails under the Harbour Bridge and turns into Sydney Cove.

On a glorious Spring morning, is there a better sight in the world?


Transfer at Circular Quay to Wharf 3 to board the Manly Ferry for an 8:10 departure. The ride to Manly is the number one iconic Sydney ferry trip and an early start is recommended to avoid crowds on a warm day in school holidays.

After Bradleys Head is rounded, the sandstone cliffs of Middle Head come into view. The sight of the Pacific Ocean to the east is menacing, but the Outer Harbour is benign today. It is not always so. The sun is dazzling, the water is emerald green and Manly Cove looks pretty much like a tropical resort.

Highly recommended at Manly Wharf is a take away breakfast from Artisan Oats www.artisanoats.com.au . Steel cut oat porridge with rhubarb topping is only $4.50. Yum yum. Other toppings and bircher muesli are available. Enjoy it slowly at the Manly Cove water's edge.

From the wharf, head up the Corso to the surf beach. Turn right here and follow the promenade round to Shelley Beach for sun, sand, swaying casuarinas and water dragons.   

The essence of Sydney beach suburb culture is captured at Manly. It is most vivid on Sunday mornings when every possible element is on display - surf competitions, bustling cafes, Nippers, beach volleyball, joggers and cyclers, backpackers, old men with sun damaged leathery skin and melanomas, present or imminent.

But this ambience is also plain to the visitor on any warm sunny morning.

Stroll back to Manly Wharf and take the 9:45 ferry returning to Circular Quay.

Cremorne Point/ Neutral Bay

Transfer at Circular Quay to Wharf 2 and take the F6 ferry , departing at 10:30 for Cremorne Point. It's usually either a First Fleeter or a Lady boat. Cremorne Point is only 10 minutes away. You may see another water dragon here, but that's where the similarity with Manly ends. This part of the trip introduces the visitor to the sedate, well heeled Lower North Shore. 

After leaving the wharf, head left past the bus stop and take the walking track along the edge of Shell Cove. A highlight is the beautifully restored historic Macallum Pool. The walking track ends at Bogota Avenue. Continue on Bogota Avenue, then turn left at Honda Road, right at Billong Street and left at Kurraba Road. Pause outside Hollowforth at 146 Kurraba Road, a superb example of Federation architecture in an Art Nouveau style.

At this point, the traveller has a choice. If it's Wednesday to Sunday, you can visit May Gibbs Nutcote House www.nutcote.org in Wallaringa Avenue; or keep walking along Kurraba Road to the access point for Kurraba Wharf for the 11:13  ferry. If you elect to go straight to the wharf, you will have time to stop at Kirribilli at one of Sydney's best cafes, the Anvil Coffee Co. www.anvilcc.com.au  

Whichever option is taken, you do not have time to dawdle. It's a 25 minute walk from Cremorne Point to Kurraba Point wharf. If you do choose to dawdle, maybe take a dip in the Macallum Pool, you can forego both Nutcote House and the Anvil and catch the following ferry from either Neutral Bay (11:40) or Kurraba Point (11:43).

The Anvil Coffee Co is a great example of the benefits of not going overboard in infrastructure investment and just concentrating on what's important. It's perched on the idiosyncratic Kirribilli Wharf and seems to floats on the deep clear water. The views are breathtaking, the coffee is super good and the DIY fitout adds to the charm.

It's now 11:46, so time to catch the ferry back to Circular Quay. The F5 line provides the best view of the Prime Minister's home, Kirribilli House. Next door is the Governor General's Sydney residence, Admiralty House.

Cockatoo Island

Change at Circular Quay to Wharf 5 for the 12:07 F3 ferry to Cockatoo Island. This is a Rivercat service, which operates via Darling Harbour then goes direct to Cockatoo Island. First Fleet Ferries travelling via Balmain, Birchgrove, Greenwich and Woolwich also go to Cockatoo Island.

On the way to the Darling Harbour stop, the ferry passes the Barangaroo construction site (on your left, heading towards Darling Harbour). This includes the transformation of an old industrial site into a six hectare harbour foreshore park in a naturalistic style with a huge performance space underground. New commercial and residential buildings are being constructed south of the park.
Cockatoo Island www.cockatooisland.gov.au provides the heritage component of the trip. An audio tour is strongly recommended. The old convict quarters and massive former shipyard buildings create a redolent atmosphere. The restored Biloela House sits at the highest point and provides fabulous views of Sydney.

The island is at its best when hosting a big event or when the Island Bar is open (Thursday to Sundays). The place comes alive.

Take the 13:40 RiverCat to Circular Quay, or 13:19 First Fleeter if you are getting itchy feet.

Watsons Bay

Transfer at Circular Quay to the F7 Ferry departing Wharf 4 for Watsons Bay. 

For jaw dropping scenery on a day with clear skies, Watsons Bay is hard to beat.

If the lower North Shore is sedate and well heeled, parts of the Eastern Suburbs are plain opulent. The journey on the ferry provides good views of some of the most ostentatious residences in Sydney, plus glimpses of beautiful harbour beaches. The pick of them is Nielsen Park, just before the ferry pulls into Watsons Bay. 

After disembarkation, head up the hill through Robertson Park to the viewing platforms overlooking the Gap. The view is spectacular and unexpected after a quiet ride in the harbour. The views back to the city are also stunning.

Watsons Bay has a cute fishing village feel combined with the hustle and bustle of visitors, sunbathers and swimmers. A refreshment at the Watsons Bay Hotel, overlooking the ferry wharf, is recommended. www.watsonsbayhotel.com.au If you have time, you can also walk to South Head for another spectacular view, looking across the Heads to Manly.

Take the 15:45 ferry back to Circular Quay.

Taronga Zoo/ Walk to Bradleys Head

 It is starting to get late in the day and you probably need to wind down a little and recharge. No better way to do it than a short walk in natural bushland at Bradleys Head.

On returning from Watsons Bay, transfer to Wharf 2 and board the 16:20 ferry to Taronga Zoo. It should be a double ended Lady Class boat, the oldest of the Sydney Ferry fleet. The two Lady boats are the last in a line of double ended screw ferries which have served public transport in Sydney since 1892. Sit in the open upper deck area immediately behind the wheelhouse to enjoy the late afternoon breeze.   

The Zoo has now closed for the day, so don't try to go there. On leaving the wharf, walk up the right hand side of the road about 200 metres until you reach the Bradleys Head walking track. Follow the track all the way to Bradleys Head.

This walk gives you a sense of what the Sydney Harbour foreshore was like before the ravages of European settlement: graceful Angophora trees, wildflowers, secluded beaches and sandstone outcrops. You will wonder how it is possible that such natural beauty can remain just 12 minutes by slow ferry from the centre of a city with a population of nearly five million. The little beaches look like something out of Treasure Island.

Wander back and catch the 17:12 ferry back to Circular Quay. You can always catch a later one if you want to dwell longer at Bradleys Head. The last ferry leaves Taronga Zoo wharf at 19:01.

More Information

The ferry times provided are based on the week-day timetable. Week-end timetables are different. To replicate this trip, please follow either the week-day or week-end/ public holiday itineraries shown below. Note that the order of some trips on the week-end is different to accommodate the week-end ferry timetable.

If you plan to start your travel on the ferry anywhere on the Parramatta River on a sunny Sunday, please reconsider. Rivercats regularly reach capacity on trips inbound to Circular Quay on Sunday mornings.

The Sydney Ferry timetable is not strictly a regular interval timetable (see other posts on this blog about the benefits of regular interval timetables). This means you cannot assume that connections will still work if you take an earlier or later service than the ones indicated in the itineraries.

All photographs on this post were taken by the author using a Fujifilm X-20 camera, except for the image of Maccallum pool, which was sourced from the website Sydney.concreteplayground.com.au .

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