RETURNING to a Canadian winter and collecting my baggage at the airport, my cellphone rang with a call from a friend: "How was your trip?"
"Well. I surfed, sailed under the Harbour Bridge, flew in a helicopter, played golf and rescued two girls from drowning in a rip!"
Welcome to Sydney, New South Wales, at Christmas, where the adventure begins.
Having grown up in and loved Sydney for 15 years, and now as a full-time Vancouverite, my family and friends don’t need to lobby very hard to convince me to return to Australia for two weeks to soak up some sun, eat some turkey and play backyard cricket (a favourite Aussie pastime) over the Christmas period.
Landing a few days earlier — fly Air Canada direct, I flew Air China very indirect — the mercury was hitting 30C and I needed to ditch my winter threads for more appropriate holiday attire.
Pitt Street in downtown Sydney — the fourth most expensive street in the world for retail rental space — is the perfect place to find the latest summer trends. I lose the jeans and hoodie for some cool Speedo board shorts and a couple of shirts from top Aussie designer Wayne Cooper.
With a pair of thongs (the things typically worn on your feet) thrown in, I’m set.
As Christmas Eve was fast approaching, I called an Aussie mate and three Irish expats now living in Australia, and a plan was hatched to head out of the city on a surf trip.
With our car loaded with surfboards, we arrived at one of my favourite beaches and secret jewels of the central coast of New South Wales, Avoca Beach, about a 1.5-hour drive north of Sydney.
Now, recognizing that the Irish are as about as adept at ocean surf survival as Torontonians, my Aussie mate Jason and I decided a quick lesson in the danger of rips (strong seaward-flowing currents) was in order for the expats. Scorned, we were assured by two of the expats, Steph and Nola, of their swimming pedigree.
Whatever, the waves are better than a metre high and perfect with a water temperature of 23 C. Jason and I delved into a quality surf session while the expats sunbaked on the beach.
Following our surf, we headed back to our spot on the beach to warm up; Steph and Nola finally decided to dip their toes. Wading right into the rip, they were quickly carried out by a strong current.
Panicking and screaming, no one heard or noticed their predicament. The three of us left on the beach were not in a position to see the commotion either, and went about relaxing under the midday sun.
Luckily, perhaps an early Christmas present, I told the other two as they lay in the sun: "This sun is intense, I’m going for a swim." Leaving my board on the beach, I headed into the water. Spotting Nola struggling to keep her head above water, I headed over to see what the problem was. "Adrien, get me out of here, I want out!" Then I heard another voice, much further out.
It’s Steph, and she’s in even worse shape by the looks of it. She disappears from sight and sound.
Two Irish girls in a world of trouble.
It ends well though, after I dragged Nola out of the rip and on to a sand bank, and then enlisted a couple of surfers to help me find Steph and get her back to the safety of the beach.
What do five 20-somethings on holidays do after something like that occurs? One thing and one thing only: a few laid-back beers at Avoca Surf Club. All is good in the world again.
Tip to holiday beach-goers in Australia: Always swim in the patrolled area of the beach and between the flags.
After a hectic trip to the beach on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day produced the goods with a giant turkey, some backyard cricket and a drink called ‘Kryptonite’ — so named because it contains enough champagne and melon liqueur to knock out Superman.
It was a blue-sky day and the older crowd was soaking up the sun on my aunt’s balcony while the younger generation whacked a tennis ball around the backyard with cricket bats in one hand and glasss of kryptonite in the other. No professional sportsmen here, just a tonne of Christmas cheer.
Then it’s Boxing Day, and for any sailor worth his salt that marks the start of the world’s greatest annual ocean race: the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.
With Sydney Harbour in fanfare and the racing yachts crewed by sailing royalty that included Americas Cup sailors as well as the youngest person to ever circumnavigate the globe solo, Jessica Watson, the fleet set sail for Hobart, Tasmania.
The event is not to be missed by any sailor in Sydney this time of year. Chartering a spectator boat out to the start line is highly recommended.
However, I chose to avoid the commotion in favour of a casual game of golf, knowing that I would be out on the water the following day. Besides, a casual nine holes on one of Sydney’s estimated 105 golf courses sounds like the perfect way to unwind and get some exercise to work off the Christmas turkey.
The next day I set sail around Sydney Harbour with a boat and skipper borrowed from the Royal Australian Navy Sailing Association. We anchored off a harbour beach on Sydney’s north shore for some champagne and smoked salmon. Half of the crew decided to dive into the water and swim to the nearby beach, but the rest are hesitant because of a perceived risk of sharks in the area.
I learned a few days later that a surfer was attacked by a 1.8-metre Bronze Whaler at the very beach we were surfing at on Christmas Eve. This is Australia, though, and nature can sometimes have a wild side. Aussies just take a laid-back approach to life here — a "she’ll be right" attitude.
Moving away from the coast, a few friends and I headed up to the world-famous Hunter Valley for a wine, cheese and chocolate tasting tour. Yum. We hired a tour bus driver for $65 each to avoid the need for a designated driver.
It’s beautiful up here, and after a day of free sampling with the Hunter Valley scenery in the background, it’s easy to see why they call Australia the "lucky country."
Expert travel writer’s pick of vineyards: Buy any wine from Wynwood Estates and you won’t be disappointed. Wine here comes from a vineyard known as "one of the best in the Hunter Valley."
Still, it’s not long until the siren call of the ocean called me back, so I headed out to renowned Bondi Beach for a couple of days, about a 10-minute drive from the Sydney CBD. It’s a place with a "celebrities aren’t anyone and everyone is someone" attitude about it.
Overlooking a Snoop Dogg concert on the beach from a rooftop party across the esplanade, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m bringing in 2012 with a few requisite Coronas. Earlier in the day, I woke up at a friend’s apartment to capture the last sunrise of 2011 on camera.
If you have never seen the sun rise over the Pacific, then Bondi is the place to be. It’s where the Aussie dream is born every day.
Wrapping up my photos and a quick swim, I headed to one of the many small boutique coffee shops for a morning latte. No need for chain shops here; there are too many top-notch baristas with a strong multicultural and Italian influence.
Courtesy of my brother Robbie, and my dad, I tookto the air over the city on a 30-minute helicopter flight before leaving for home, aperfect vantage point for photos of the harbour and Opera House. I also spotted a few dozen climbers endeavouring to reach the summit of the Harbour Bridge by foot.
It’s my last full day in Sydney and a helicopter flight is the perfect way to say goodbye.
— Postmedia News