Sydney day 4, and wrap-up

Backdated. Posted 17/11/2014.

Day 4 — Sunday

Not much to report. Breakfast at Darlinghurst’s Jekyll & Hyde — which was a bit meh. M’s order came with unwanted eggs, which I adopted. Afterwards I realised it was one of the breakfast places I’d ruled out because some of its Urbanspoon reviews didn’t sound that great (though it had a respectable score of 89). I’d happily go back to The Bunker or The Royal, but not this one.

After that, packed up, got a taxi to the airport (M had a Cabcharge). The traffic was okay, though going the other way it was jammed up due to a crash.

Got to the airport in plenty of time. Checked-in the night before online, and used a boarding pass on my phone for the first time. Flight and Skybus/train back was uneventful (though I must remember to walk to the Qantas Skybus stop in future to save time) — back home by mid-afternoon Sunday.

Loading our plane home, Sydney airport

Virgin boarding pass on mobile phone

Short holidays

Long-term blog readers would know I’ve taken a few short 4-5 day breaks over the years. I quite like that style of holiday.

You’re not going to see everything, but you’ll get a good taste of a place without having to organise things like laundry.

I like having a few things planned each day, but nothing absolutely essential, and the flexibility to change things around — add stuff if you find there’s extra time, skip things if it feels rushed.

I’m also a fan of the centrally located hotel. It’s good to have a base that’s close to the action, making it easy to stop back past there during the day if desired. Walking distance to a supermarket and cafes/restaurants is also a great thing for breakfast and dinner. Hotel breakfasts are often an option, but generally quite expensive compared to a local cafe.

In our case, this time the hotel wasn’t right in the CBD ($$$), but a very short walk from a nearby railway station that has frequent services — every 10-15 minutes every day until midnight — and as often as every 3 minutes in peak hour.

The transport system

Which brings me to some random thoughts on Sydney’s public transport system, which we used fairly extensively while visiting. (See here for the blog post all about the Opal card.)

The trains have impressive capacity. They never seemed too crowded, though our use was mostly outside peak hour, and I did see other trains passing that looked pretty packed. (It’s unclear if double-deck trains overall can carry more people, due to generally slower dwell times — see this ABC Fact Check article).

The rail network as a whole seems very staff-heavy compared to Melbourne. Guards on trains, and on one platform at Central in peak hour I counted about a dozen staff… to assist with boarding?

It’s a shame the City Circle direction isn’t shown on train maps. That would have saved me some time.

The buses are extensive, and at least in the inner-city, are impressively frequent. But as noted, they often duplicate train routes, and at key locations such as Bondi Beach, are clearly inadequate for the task they’re given.

The ferries were a lot of fun, and quite practical given the geography (the same reason they don’t really suit Melbourne) though I suspect some routes are much more economically viable than others.

333 buses following each other, Paddington, Sydney

The new(ish) numbering of all modes and routes is interesting, and makes it much clearer when trying to remember which route you have to take, rather than memorising a lengthy line name (eg line T4, rather than the Eastern Suburbs & Illawarra Line). At present there’s still a fair bit of confusion with inconsistent signage though. And it does result in some slightly confusing overlaps with F being used for ferries and freeways, and T being used for trains and airport terminals. It’s all about context I suppose, though a sign mentioning T1 and T3 at the airport that appeared to be pointing down to the trains threw me momentarily.

Airport rail is terrifically convenient, thanks to it being fast and frequent. It’s expensive given the surcharge, but even at that near-exhorbitant price, I’d rather have it than not. Being able to get to a major destination such as the airport without being at the mercy of traffic is a godsend.

The monorail is gone. I used to ride it as a visitor, but honestly, can’t say I miss it, and nor do I suspect does most of Sydney.

In conclusion

I really enjoyed Sydney… again. Can’t wait to go back!

Sydney trip day 3: Saturday

Backdated. Posted on 16/11/2014.

Saturday! The weather was warming up — have I mentioned how I’d jetted in on Thursday, a day after a huge storm passed through the city? Good timing (well, luck) is essential to any holiday, even a short one.

After breakfasting at The Bunker in Darlinghurst, we caught the train across the Harbour Bridge to Milson’s Point — and walked back.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Harbour: water police

From the station it’s only a couple of minutes walk to the footway over the bridge. Plenty of others were out and about doing it as well, and there were also a few security guards around — I don’t remember their presence last time I did this, but that was about 20 years ago.

The roadways were busy. Some of the old toll gates still seem to be in place, though I assume in the age of the eTag, they’re not used anymore.

Also still present: what appear to be support structures formerly used for tram overhead wires, until trams were removed from the bridge in 1958.

Sydney Harbour Bridge pedestrian walkway

The sun was shining, making me wish I’d packed my hat. Despite the presence of many safety fences, there are some great views from the bridge. I could see the grey-suited bridge climbers as well, who no doubt were getting an even better view. Perhaps on my next trip to Sydney I’ll try that out.

As usual, the harbour was busy with boats: everything from Sydney ferries small and big (cue “Reckless”) to sailing boats to a tall ship. A police boat and one marked “Maritime” (some other authority no doubt) were circling someone who had taken a dunk in the water, presumably to rescue him.

It was only a few days until the G20 in Brisbane… I spotted one sign from Sydney’s APEC meeting in 2007 (perhaps best remembered for the Chaser motorcade) still on display stuck to part of the Bridge. It said you had to obey reasonable directions of Police. Not sure about unreasonable directions.

APEC signage, Sydney

Rhapsody of the Seas, at Circular Quay, Sydney

Sydney Harbour: Cruise ship Rhapsody of the Seas, and a tall ship

A gigantic cruise ship named “Rhapsody of the Seas” was docked at Circular Quay. M said it had disgorged thousands of passengers earlier in the week, and there seemed to be plenty of them wandering around The Rocks, Sydney’s historic harbourside suburb.

After a quick walk around The Rocks, from Circular Quay we caught a ferry to Cockatoo Island, formerly used as a prison and a shipyard, now a heritage and cultural site.

A ferry comes into Circular Quay, Sydney

Bangaroo precinct under construction, Sydney

I was a bit disappointed that it was a newish, modern ferry, unlike the “traditional” type I always picture (the equivalent of a Melbourne W-class tram perhaps), and which seemed to be operating on some of the other routes. Not to worry; we ended up getting one of those on the way back.

On the way the ferry stopped off at Darling Harbour, passing the massive new Bangaroo Barangaroo precinct, which at the moment is a huge construction zone, but is planned to be a casino, hotel, cultural area and apartments. From what I hear, the transport planning around hasn’t been well thought-out, with no mass transit options provided except a long walkway to the nearest distant station at Wynyard — about 300 metres from the southern end of the precinct, but over a mile from the northern end.

After about half-an-hour we landed at Cockatoo Island, and started exploring. The island has various areas showing off the different aspects of its heritage, and we explored for quite a while, discovering tunnels, convict areas, old shipyards (some parts still used, it looks like). There’s also an area full of tents, where you can camp, and if you prefer a more civilised place to stay, a Bed & Breakfast.

Cockatoo Island, Sydney

In some spots there were also a large number of very cranky seagulls — extremely noisy and some trying to swoop to scare people away from their hatching areas.

In one spot there was one of those fake owls, perhaps to try and calm them down. It clearly doesn’t work — in fact they’d pooed on it.

Seagulls at Cockatoo Island, Sydney

Seagulls at Cockatoo Island, Sydney

We then went to the Island Bar, and snacked on a pizza for lunch over a drink or two. The view was glorious, though once again I felt myself getting sunburnt.

It was enjoyable just lazing, eating and drinking there for a while, though for the middle of the day, the staff just seemed a teensy bit over-zealous — for instance the security guy asked specifically if we had food or drink in a bag when we entered (would they have made us chuck it out before entering?), and the wait staff seemed very quick to descend and straighten-out any unoccupied deck chairs which had been moved out of position.

The jukebox was playing music, and at one point “Brazil” played, making me think of the movie of the same name, and I pondered whether this paradise was in fact a bit more authoritarian than it needed to be. That said, the ambience made it clear that some people were there not sightseeing, but partying, so I can understand why there was a security presence, and perhaps it helps explains the vigilance.

Island Bar, at Cockatoo Island, Sydney

Sydney Harbour

Train crossing Sydney Harbour Bridge

We headed back on another ferry — on the other route that serves the island, so seeing a few different sights on the way back.

From Circular Quay (after topping up our Opal cards, which as I’ve noted, it turned out we didn’t need to do as we’d hit the daily fare cap by this point, and wouldn’t be using PT on Sunday) we headed south to have a bit of a look around the shopping areas of the CBD. By this point — Saturday afternoon — it was pretty packed with people, especially in Pitt Street Mall.

There were also large numbers of pedestrians along George Street, and I found myself appreciating that Sydney (like every other Australian capital city other than Melbourne) doesn’t allow motorbikes to park on the footpath, instead providing areas on the road for them to park. This especially helps on narrow streets, but even George Street with its wide footpaths benefits.

George Street, Sydney

QV building, Sydney

While in the area, I thought we might duck into Uniqlo, whose signs were prominent around the MidCity centre, but they hadn’t actually opened yet in Sydney. Looks like it opened a few days later.

We caught a train from Town Hall back to the hotel to relax for a short while, then headed back to Town Hall to catch a bus to my friend KW’s place for dinner in Drummoyne. Google Transit and Transport for NSW’s journey planner agreed: several reasonably frequent bus routes could take us there, but we still ended up waiting about 15 minutes, and when we got off the bus I noted two others in close succession. Sigh.

Kings Cross, Sydney, Saturday night

One mighty fine dinner later, we headed back by bus/train. Being Saturday night, Kings Cross was super-busy, and noisy. About as noisy as the seagulls, but less aggressive.

I must say though, little of the noise penetrated the hotel room, and we slept like logs until morning.

Sydney’s Opal card

(Backdated. Posted 14/11/2014.)

During the Sydney trip I tried out Opal card, and M got one as well to try.

It’s worth remembering that although the system is provided by Cubic, who built London’s Oyster system, its cost is not insubstantial — $1.2 billion over 15 years. It’s not quite as expensive, but is in the ballpark as Myki ($1.5 billion over ten years).

Opal card standalone reader

Obtaining and topping up

I ordered mine online; it arrived by post within about a week. They’re only available online, or via retailers. Not stations.

Same with topping up, which is heavily restricted as to the amounts you can use. At retailers it’s $10, $20 etc. Online it’s only $40, $80, $120…! At least online topup is fast — one hour vs Myki’s “up to 24 hours” (though in practice Myki is often faster).

The cards are free, but with a minimum top-up.

It’s unclear if they will make buying and topping-up more widely available in future or not. One local contact believes they plan to push Auto Topup for most users — this of course is impractical for most tourists.

For now the paper (magnetic stripe) ticket machines remain in use, and presumably will be kept for some time, alongside Opal — perhaps indefinitely as a single use ticket option?

Sydney station ticket machine

In use

This is what really matters: from the first trip on the airport train on the first day, to the last use late on Saturday night, it was easy. Tap on, tap off (and that’s the language they use). The response times on stations, buses and ferries seemed uniformly fast, unlike Myki (which changed its language from “scan” to “touch” when it became obvious the response times wouldn’t be fast enough for “scan”).

The fare gates and buses still take the mag stripe tickets as well. Suburban stations and ferry stops had standalone readers on poles, which are a lot nicer looking than the Myki or Go Card ones. (Unlike in Brisbane, which has readers on the ferries, Sydney’s are on the wharves.)

The balance/status was shown on each tap on a colour screen… but it doesn’t stay up if you hold the card to it, as with Myki.

Fares

The fares are confusing.

Sydney is keeping its segmented fare system, and the base fares are reasonably priced, but the different modes are all charged separately.

Change from bus to bus? Or train to train? Ferry to ferry? All free, as long as the next trip is less than an hour later. (The light rail is not yet on Opal.)

Mix the modes? You get charged again, with no discount. It means the fares can quickly add up — on one day we took all three modes, and it ended up costing about double what similar travel might have costed cost in Melbourne.

No free transfer between modes has big implications for the network, and helps explain why so many Sydney bus routes run all the way into the city, duplicating trains.

Apparently there are hints that fares will be reformed in the future, but nothing is confirmed.

There are caps to stop costs getting too out of hand. This I found somewhat confusing.

It’s 8 journeys then free for the rest of the week, so if you travel a lot at the start of the week, you’ll find the rest of your travel until Sunday is free. I knew about this one, but expected (rightly) that we wouldn’t get to the 8, even with a fair bit of moseying around.

There’s also a $15 per day cap (a bargain $2.50 on Sundays). We hit the $15 cap on Saturday, via multiple train, ferry and bus trips.

The caps replace most of the weekly/monthly/yearly options on the old ticket system. There have been complaints that a lot of people end up paying more overall under the new system.

Opal fare gates, Circular Quay

I didn’t know (or had forgotten) about the $15 cap, and we ended up unnecessarily topping up our cards as I thought we needed to pay a few more fares on our travels.

But we hit the $15 cap on Saturday, and ended up with balances above the top-up levels, meaning we would have never hit zero if we hadn’t topped-up. So we needn’t have bothered. Perhaps… or not? Unlike Myki the minimum balance to tap-on and keep travelling isn’t zero — it’s the minimum possible fare: $2.10 for buses, $3.30 for trains, and $5.60 for ferries. This reflects that the card itself is free, though you could still drive the balance below zero by then making a trip that’s a longer distance.

So if we hadn’t topped-up, even though we hit the daily cap, I don’t know if we’d have been able to keep tapping-on to travel, because we would have been below the minimum balance.

As it is, I have $20.28 left on my card ready for my next trip to Sydney. It seems you can get an unused balance refunded by returning the card — but only paid into an Australian bank account or via a cheque, so impractical for overseas tourists.

Opal web site

Web site

Finally, the web site. It’s good. Obviously it’s relatively new. The Myki web site appears not to have been revamped since its original design probably in about 2007.

The transaction list updated a little slowly for buses, but quickly for trains and ferries (which have fixed readers). It’s a lot more readable because it shows the data by trip, rather than by individual transaction/touch like Myki does.

In conclusion

Over three days (not the most exhaustive test), I found the Opal system reliable and fast (consistently faster than the notoriously inconsistent Myki), but there are very limited top-up options (and it’s unclear if this will be fixed), and fare system leaves a lot to be desired (ditto).

Sydney trip day 2: Friday

Posted 12/11/2014. Backdated to 7/11/2014.

On the morning of day two in Sydney, after a sleep-in, we breakfasted. I’d looked at UrbanSpoon and concluded that every venue reviewed has its share of whingers — it’s a matter of identifying who is complaining about Real Stuff and who is complaining about trivia or a freak bad experience. The Royal in Darlinghurst seemed to have fewer whingers than praisers, so we headed there. They served up some very nice eggs on toast, and a (I’m told) superlatively tasty mushroom dish.

Paddington, Sydney

Escape attempt? The old Darlinghurst Gaol

We then strolled the short distance through Darlinghurst (past the old gaol) to Paddington to have a look along Oxford Street. Although it’s something of a traffic sewer, it’s also got a lot of shopping. A specific shop was M’s aim, and it did not disappoint — though we were highly amused when a delivery bloke asked if she was Judith Lucy. Despite only a passing resemblance, this is in fact a semi-regular occurence.

Next we walked to the Art Gallery of NSW, which on the map isn’t very far from Kings Cross, but in practice involves cutting through numerous backstreets. Thank goodness for Google Maps and GPS on my phone.

Brougham Street, Woolloomooloo

Match sticks (Almost Once, by Brett Whitely), near Gallery of NSW, Sydney

Art Gallery of NSW

The Gallery is in a spectacular building set in the gardens. We’d aimed to do this on a weekday as we wanted to look at the new “blockbuster” exhibition: Pop to Populism — I figured it’d be packed out on weekends.

It had all the greats of the pop art world… Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and many others including Australians like Brett Whiteley and the not-as-well-known-as-he-should-be Mike Brown. I found myself admiring Brown’s work “Hallelujah”, which scandalised the art world in the late 60s, and then I remembered that he is Age reporter Clay Lucas’s dad, so I couldn’t resist letting Clay know they had four of his works on display.

In a neat coincidence the exhibit shop had Robert Milliken’s book on rock music journalist Lilian Roxon on display, which has a section on the influence my dad played in her story.

Art Gallery of NSW: Roy Lichtenstein: In the car

Art Gallery of NSW: works by Mike Brown

We had lunch in the gallery cafe — delicious but a tad overpriced, as gallery lunches often are, but you can’t help but hope the profits go back into the institution.

From there, a quick walk around the eastern side of the CBD, then back to the hotel. (Have I mentioned how handy it is staying in a hotel that, if it’s not in the city centre, is at least close to a frequent fast train?)

Sydney Hospital

The plan (on local friend KW’s recommendation) was to see Sculpture By The Sea, an event on its final days, at Bondi Beach.

Given we were close to the station, the logical route seemed to be the train to the terminus at Bondi Junction, then the bus.

Bondi Junction wasn’t planned to be the train terminus — various plans had it contining on to North Bondi and Rose Bay, or Randwick, University of New South Wales and Kingsford. Later proposals have suggested extending closer to Bondi Beach, but it hasn’t happened.

While the terminus is well set up as a bus/train interchange (up the escalator from the platforms and you’ll find yourself in a bus interchange, making transfers theoretically easy, unlike say Melbourne’s Box Hill), there were so many people heading to Bondi Beach that the well-advertised route 333 bus connection had a queue of perhaps 150 people.

We joined the back of the queue, slowly shuffling along each time a bus turned up, which according to the timetable was every 10 minutes — on paper that’s frequent for an Australian bus route, but in practice completely inadequate for the passenger numbers.

After perhaps 15 minutes (im)patiently queuing, it was our turn. I watched a bloke come up and queue-jump, and growled at him: “mate, the queue starts over there“. He mumbled something back. He didn’t back off, but he certainly didn’t get aboard ahead of me.

The bus was one of the extended, articulated variety, and was packed to the gills. But at least I could overhear travel advice from that most reputable of sources — English tourists who knew their way around Bondi — so I knew which stop to get off at.

Bondi Junction: Queue for buses to the beach

Bus 333 to Bondi Beach

Bondi Beach: Queue for bus back to Bondi Junction and Sydney city

Bondi Beach: Queue for bus back to Bondi Junction and Sydney city

The queues for the bus back were just as crowded, as you can see from these pics. It seems to be a classic case of where the buses are inadequate for the loads — there’s obviously scope to increase bus services, but in the long term if the popularity of Bondi Beach continues to increase, extending rail might make more sense.

It might also be possible to re-organise bus routes so that they duplicate the trains less. Many Bondi routes go all the way into Sydney’s CBD. But the fare structure penalises bus/train transfers, so this is difficult. (I’ll have more on that in my post about Opal and Sydney public transport.)

Bondi Beach

At Sculpture By The Sea there where some terrific artists display sculptures, as the event name would suggest, by the sea. It was busy, but not as busy as was expected on the closing weekend. (For that, authorities actually recommended people walk three kilometres from Bondi Junction instead of wait for a bus.)

Unfortunately one work had been removed due to vandalism, but there were still dozens on display.

As in any great gallery, there were some terrific works to admire and reflect upon, and it was a very scenic walk from Bondi Beach to Tamarama Beach.

Sculpture by the sea, Bondi, Sydney

Sculpture by the sea, Bondi, Sydney

Sculpture by the sea, Bondi, Sydney

Rather than walk back and catch the packed 333 again, we caught a local bus from Tamarama back to Bondi Junction station. It too was packed, but the bus driver managed to squeeze everybody on, rather than turn people away. From there a train back to the hotel.

For dinner we stomped around Victoria Street in Darlinghurst looking for something to inspire us, and eventually settled on Sel & Poivre, a French restaurent. All the wait staff seemed to have authentic accents, and the food was utterly delicious.

From there we had a walk around Paddington, and a long exploratory detour via Rushcutters Bay to get “home”.

Darlinghurst’s lovely old fire station

I couldn’t help but hum Paul Kelly’s “Darling It Hurts” almost constantly while walking around Darlinghurst on our short break in Sydney. Likewise “From St Kilda To Kings Cross” came to mind when in the Cross, and Australian Crawl’s “Restless” when catching sight of the Manly Ferry and Circular Quay.

In the middle of Darlinghurst, still in use, is the fire station, a lovely old building built in 1910. In Melbourne a lot of these old fire stations have been re-purposed as flats, or are in use by the fire brigade, but with a more modern building next door for actually parking the fire engines — which over the years I suspect have grown too big for some of the old facilities.

In Darlinghurst though they still seem to use the original buildings. The fire fighters stand in the road to stop traffic while they back their vehicles in when returning from jobs.

On Sundays however a sign (reminiscent of Victoria’s ambulance dispute) is on display saying that the station is closed due to budget cuts. ‘Cos fires don’t happen on Sundays, right?

Sydney: a fire engine being backed into the Darlinghurst fire station

Sydney: Darlinghurst fire station

Sydney: Darlinghurst fire station: closed on Sundays