SYDNEY, Australia — Like its landmark Opera House, Sydney always seems to be under full sail.
It is a sprawling city, larger in area than London or New York City, and one of its constants is water--the pounding South Pacific and the gentler coves and inlets of massive Port Jackson harbor that lap the headlands and islands of Sydney's lush landscape.
Yet this town is not so much surrounded by water as it appears to float on it. The modern glass skyscrapers emerge from behind the Circular Quay, Sydney's bustling transportation center. It is an image reminiscent of the view of Manhattan from Queens: just towering buildings out of the flat--no land in sight.
And from the sun-warmed deck of a Sydney ferry, really the best way to get your bearings, it's easy to imagine that the vessel is anchored and that the gorgeous Royal Botanic Gardens are slipping past, or that massive Harbour Bridge, nicknamed "the Coat Hanger" by locals, is drifting high overhead, dangling from some invisible skyhook.
Sydney is a charged city of 3.5 million people; it is Australia's generator, and never mind that the folks in Melbourne argue that their town deserves equal billing in Australia's heirarchy of influence. Sydney has the banks, the culture, the thriving club life, the fabulous waterfront bungalows that hang like treehouses from the hillsides, the restaurants that serve Thai and seafood, cheap Indian and pricey nouvelle.
Sydney is balmy temperatures and terrific white-surf beaches like Bondi (that's bond-EYE) and Manly, both only a few miles from downtown. Sydney is an ethnic mixing bowl that rivals New York: More than half of its population is foreign-born or one generation removed, and the city has long shed its pre-World War II image as a British outpost.
It has a populous gay community and it is the magnet for the nation's artists, writers and designers; the attitude is Southern California, except it's more like '60s SoCal than '90s.
It is still part Wild West--check out any pub in the historic, pseudo-funky Rocks district--and part Wall Street, though the mood is rarely frantic. But often Sydney's homogenized approach at being laid back can be grating. From more than one angle, Sydney looks like a corny version of Boston's Quincy Market.
Darling Harbour, for example, is a precious, prettified mall cluttered with tacky T-shirt stands and "aboriginal" boomerangs at inflated prices, and the food is standard shopping-center fare: cinnamon buns, frozen yogurt, burgers, pizza. Darling Harbour has two saving graces: Virgin, the largest record store in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Virgin Cafe, a cheery bar that pours Red Back draft beer, Australia's best.
The city may appear well-scrubbed at first look, but some of its ragged neighborhoods have a used-up look that's hardly rescued by the occasional charming terrace or restored townhouse. Kings Cross is Sydney's combat zone, an obstacle course for tourists who have to step off the curb of the main drag of Darlinghurst Road to avoid the strip-club touts and the hookers, who look more embalmed than beautiful in their makeup.
Paddington, just east of the central business district, has a frenetic Saturday scene at its flea market, but the goods are either ratty or overpriced. What Australia doesn't need is another stall selling stuffed koala bears made in Taiwan.
Sydneysiders march purposefully through their town, stopping obediently for traffic lights, queuing for buses, keeping rather starchily to themselves except when they cross the threshold into the hotels or pubs, where pints of Fosters and Tooheys are the great ice breakers and conversation makers. (Many really do say "g'day," but the more common expression is "no worries," which sums up a rather basic Australian attitude.)
Residents are immensely proud of their villages and their "slurbs," which is what they affectionately call the suburbs, and protective of their enclaves. So much so that, in six days of traveling about the city I did not once see an aboriginal Australian, although many make Sydney their home.
It's another example of how Sydney and much of Australia seem to be, culturally and socially, a step behind their American cousins. Although Australian women were enfranchised to vote nearly two decades before American women, their advancement in government and business lags behind their Yank sisters.
The machismo of the country's male-oriented society comes through loud and clear in the shouts from any pub. And the inability of Australia to integrate the aborigines into any strata of white society (considering that those people populated the land 40,000 years before white Europeans set foot on it) is a result of ignorance or insensitivity, or both.