Mention Sydney, Australia, and the mind conjures images of the city's opera house, glistening harbors and stunning bridges. On a first trip there recently, I managed to take in those worthwhile sites in a matter of days. With time to spare, I began exploring more in-depth excursions in and around the area. As it turned out, these trips gave me a more intimate experience of this beautiful place and its environs. Next time someone informs me of plans to visit the cultural capital of the "Land Down Under," here are the outings I'll insist make the itinerary:
HUNTER VALLEY WINE REGION
Australia's oldest wine region produces a mere 2 percent of the country's wines, so you'll rarely spot bottles from its wineries in the United States. While I was eager to sample the award-winning full-bodied whites, I felt less enthusiastic about riding a massive tour bus with throngs of tourists. Instead, I discovered Sydney Boutique Tours. For about $100, a comfortable shuttle, seating no more than 14, picks guests up at their hotels for the two-hour trip north and visits four vineyards, with lunch at a local restaurant.
Nigel, our group's chatty guide, played Johnny Cash on the ride up while filling us in on the region's history. That day, we tasted an array of wines, including impressive semillons at the large McGuigan and Tempus Two vineyards, and a hardy port at the highly regarded Savanna Estate. But my favorite stop was the smaller Lambloch Estate with its spare and sunlit tasting room overlooking distant mountains. Here, too, the wines were noteworthy, but what made the stop truly special were the kangaroos hopping among the rows of grapevines and the spectacular rainbow above it all.
THE BLUE MOUNTAINS
Plenty of tour companies offer day trips to this World Heritage site, but an excursion is easy enough to make on your own. Trains to Katoomba -- the hippie-ish mountain town where visitors can grab lunch, browse quirky shops and see the sights -- leave nearly every hour from the city's Central station. Check the schedule on the Sydney Transport website, then arrive early and purchase your ticket before boarding.
On the two-hour journey, as the train climbed higher into the mountains, I kept gazing out the window as my view of the city gave way to mountain vistas. If walking isn't your thing, it's easy to catch a taxi when arriving at Katoomba Station. But I found it fun to follow the signs and trek the 1.5 miles downhill to Echo Point and its view of The Three Sisters. These three pointed rock formations rise up nearly 3,000 feet against the backdrop of the mountains. What makes them particularly remarkable is the way the sunlight plays against the stone, so they appear to change color throughout the day. For those who want an even closer look, nearby Scenic World gives visitors a chance to see the sights from a suspended cable car.
To break up the day, grab lunch at any of the small cafes on the main drag, or enjoy high tea at the historic Carrington Hotel near the station before heading home. Since I wanted to extend my time in the mountains, I hopped a train one stop farther north and booked a room at the newly reopened Hydro Majestic. Opened in 1904 by one of the country's wealthiest businessmen, the place has survived blackouts, fires, years as a war hospital and still more years when it was shuttered, before its current incarnation. If you can swing it, a room with a valley view is worth the more than $300 price. And if you really feel like splurging, dinner in the Winter Garden dining room is a memorable experience.
This excursion took just 20 minutes from my hotel in Darling Harbor. But one look at the crescent-shaped beach, the rolling waves of the Pacific and the craggy cliffs, and I felt far from any city. To get there, I caught the 333 bus from Hyde Park to Bondi Junction, though visitors can determine the best route and bus pass for them on the Transport Buses website.
The must-do here is the cliff walk along the ocean from Bondi to Bronte Beach. Don't worry, it's not treacherous and takes less than an hour. When I wasn't gawking at the scenery and fantasizing about becoming a surfer, I was reading signs along the route that offer details about the place's colorful history. The walk took me by Icebergs, a restaurant and swim club with an enormous swimming pool at the cliff's edge. It's supposed to be a great people-watching place at cocktail hour, but I'd arrived at lunchtime. And so, after my walk to Bronte and back, I found an outdoor table across from the beach at The Bucket List, where I ordered fish and chips and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and then sat back and soaked in the sun and the view.
HARBOR-HOPPING ON THE CITY'S FERRIES
Of all my excursions in and around Sydney, this was the easiest. On a sunny afternoon, I headed to Circular Quay, a harbor hub at the northern edge of Sydney's business district, situated only a few minutes' walk from the Opera House. Signs there advertise dinner and cabaret cruises, but I kept things simple, buying a ticket for about USD $30 on a Hop-On Hop-Off Cruise. This was an easy way to take in the harbor sights and wander many different areas in and around the city. Boats leave every 45 minutes and stops include The Rocks, Tarongo Zoo and the city's historic amusement center, Luna Park. Most memorable for me was a visit to Watsons Bay, where Doyle's On the Beach fish and chips restaurant is a popular stop. I'd already had my fill of that particular dish, so I strolled among quaint cottages instead, then headed to the Gap, an ocean cliff overlooking the Tasman Sea. It was all so beautiful that I lingered long enough to catch a glorious sunset on the final day of my trip.