Sydney, Surry Hills and the Shangri-La
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Just after six in the morning, the sun began to peek through the drapes of my Premier Grand Harbour View Room at the Shangri-La Hotel Sydney. I went over and opened the curtains; I haven’t yet tired of the view, and I don’t think you ever seriously could. There, tinged in shades of amber and yellow, were the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and Carnival Cruise Line’s recently-arrived Carnival Spirit.
It’s a pity I can’t board Silversea’s Silver Discoverer here in Sydney; the hotel is literally a five minute walk from the cruise terminal. But, other Silversea vessels do call here during the Australian summer (North America’s winter), and I am already actively plotting to come back here.
But while we’ll embark Silver Discoverer in Broome on Monday, today is a great opportunity to explore Sydney and revel in our Shangri-La homebase.
The revelations started with breakfast in Café Mix on the hotel’s first floor. Being an international brand, breakfast at the Shangri-La was a suitably international affair. French cheese, Australian sausages, Japanese Miso soup…they were all on offer this morning. In fact, it’s one of the better breakfast buffet spreads I’ve seen at a hotel.
Guests with Horizon Club Membership and those staying in select suite categories can also avail themselves of light breakfast and fresh tea, coffee, juices and newspapers in the Horizon Club Lounge on the 30th floor. Situated next to a five-story bank of windows, this is the ultimate private enclave.
Back in Café Mix, I asked for a long black (black coffee) this morning and felt rather proud of myself for remembering the local jargon. The girl even came around again when she noticed I’d finished my first coffee and asked if I’d like a second long black. Seconds later, it materialized. I normally eat breakfast quickly and go, but today I lingered for well over an hour, enjoying coffee and orange juice and catching up on the local news.
One of the best ways you can get to know a place is by giving the local newspaper a read. I’ve discovered I love the Australian style of journalism; it’s fact-based but sprinkled with clever little asides and bits that warn readers to, perhaps, not take the fellow quoted too seriously as he’s got vested interests a mile long.
Making waves today in Australia is the story of two business magnates – James Packer and David Gyngell – who came to blows on Bondi Beach last weekend. Rupert Murdoch’s New Corp. reportedly paid $200,000 for photographs of the beachside smackdown, an action which already seems to be stirring up more controversy with a renewed focus on the priorities of the media.
Says AFR Weekend: “they scrapped with a cartoonish lack of practice before Packer was prised away by his minders, telling him to ‘walk away’.” Both men were slapped with $500 fines from the New South Wales police.
There was also a remarkable article on why writers procrastinate, though I fear I’ve adopted Hemingway’s unique brand of procrastination, which typically involves a drink with an alcohol percentage listed on the bottle.
But along with reading the newspaper, I believe that setting out on foot is one of the greatest ways to experience a new place. It directly involves you with the place you’re in, making you an active participant in its ebb and flow. As much fun as hop-on, hop-off tours are, they’re passive: a stroll through a new place involves you intimately with it. You’re no longer a tourist; you’re an explorer.
No one knows a new city like a local, and yesterday I had some great advice passed along to me from the Shangri-La’s own Director of Marketing, who drew me a fabulous map on a sheet of paper (“this isn’t to scale”, she warned me), folded it up, and titled it “A Great Day in Sydney.”
The route would take me from the Shangri-La to Oxford Street, an easy 30-minute stroll away. Oxford Street is the start of one of Sydney’s most eclectic shopping districts, and the gateway to the suburb known as Surry Hills.
Surry Hills is a hip, happening part of Sydney. Just past Sydney’s gorgeous Hyde Park, Oxford Street begins rather unassumingly. There’s a handful of ho-hum stores, a Subway restaurant, and a few pharmacies. Stay with it; you’ll be rewarded by one of the most diverse streets you’ve encountered.
The low-budget shops give way to a vibrant gay district, which gives way to a sex shops and nighctlubs district, which gives way to some fabulous vintage clothing stores and antique shops. That, in turn, gives way to a very upmarket, trendy section of Oxford Street, complete with high-end clothiers, chocolate shops, and even shops selling custom-designed object d’art.
The scenery, as you might imagine, is constantly changing. I also noticed the Aussies has a fun love of wordplay, with one Thai restaurant called “Thai Me Up” and another encouraging people to ”Show some f*king passion!” on a sign in their display window.
One recommended stop was a three-story bookstore called Berkelow Books. I love books, and make it a point to seek out new shops in every city I visit. This one was notable for having a spectacular selection (including a large offering of Australian fiction and nonfiction authors), coupled with a Café and wine bar on the second level, and a treasure-trove of secondhand books on the third floor.
Five minutes up the road, on Williams Street, is the smallest chocolate shop you’re likely to see. But it’s also an institution of sorts here in Sydney, and was in fact profiled in the newspaper this very morning. Just William Chocolates has been in Sydney for over two decades, operating in the same little, out-of-the way space. It also seems to do a booming business; a steady stream of customers was coming and going while I was there. Their chocolates are excellent – but highly addictive!
Now, from Williams Street, I could have easily caught the #380 bus out to Bondi Beach (‘bondi’ is pronounced bon-dai) – but I was having a ton of fun walking around Sydney, so I retraced my path back up Oxford Street and to the western edge of Hyde Park.
I stumbled upon a place on George Street called The Galleries. Key feature: Kinokuniya,a 300,000-title bookstore with offerings in English, French, German and Japanese. It’s the largest bookstore I’ve ever seen in my life. Sadly, they didn’t seem to stock my own masterwork. Highly recommended on any visit to Sydney, though.
Less than half a block up is the Gilded Age shopping experience that is the Queen Victoria Building, a multi-story shopping center originally built in 1878 and left largely as originally built. High-end boutiques and restaurants are located here, but it’s worth a stroll-through even if you don’t intend to buy anything.
One thing I noticed that I had never considered before: the escalators here are screwing me up. Much as traffic patterns are reversed (cars in Australia are all right-hand drive), so too are other behavioural patterns. The escalator on the far left always goes up, while the one on the right goes down; the inverse of North America. Just to make me look like a jackass, I went through all of yesterday and most of today wondering why everyone was standing on the left-hand side of escalators until I realized the old London Tube standard of “stand on the right, walk on the left” is reversed here. People stand on the left and walk on the right.
After leaving the Queen Victoria Building, a short 15-minute walk took me back to the Shangri-La Hotel Sydney. I’m convinced this is the best-located hotel in the city. I walked past others today, including the Marriott, InterContinental, and other boutique properties. But the Shangri-La is so amazingly close to the key attractions that everyone wants to see in Sydney, plus it’s close enough to walk to nearly anything else you could want to see.
Tonight, I attempted to head on up to Blu Bar on 36 for a cocktail again, but half of Sydney beat me to it. Seriously. If anything, the Shangri-La might be victims of their own success on this one. With tuxedo-clad patrons filing into Altitudes for dinner tonight, and a steady wait-list for window tables in Blu Bar, I get the sense both venues could be twice the size and they’d still be packed. That’s to the hotel’s credit, of course, but you’ve really got to be on your game for these. If you’re coming here, reserve, reserve, reserve.
While the rest of Sydney gave me the business up on 36, the Lobby Lounge on the ground floor was to be my soothing oasis tonight. It’s an equally-gorgeous space situated just off the main reception area, and the soft sounds of a live pianist tinkles throughout.
The menu is extensive as well, spanning 15 pages that include everything from mocktails to cocktails and the hotel’s own specially-crafted Caesars, along with a huge selection of Dilmah teas.
I went for the local brews tonight, choosing the James Squire Nine Tales Amber Ale. One thing’s for sure: the Aussies really know how to make a good beer. Bonus points to the Shangri-La for pointing out which part of Australia each beer hails from (NSW, or New South Wales, in my case.)
But wait!, I hear you cry. Shouldn’t you be drinking Fosters?
No. Fosters is the Australian equivalent of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Choose something different. Choose something local. Like reading the local paper or taking a walk through the city, nearly every major city has their own unique brews on tap. If you ask the bartender, he or she will generally be able to point you in the right direction. It’s a great way to get the real flavor of the locals.
Tonight is my last night in Sydney, and at the Shangri-La – and I have ended up being impressed by both. Sure, I nearly take the wrong escalator every time and I am flabbergasted that a simple paperback book goes for $20, but Sydney has a very unique charm about it. Take London, New York, Vancouver and Los Angeles, roll them all together, and you’ve got Sydney, Australia.
The same can be said of the Shangri-La. American readers may not be familiar with the chain, but Canadians living in Vancouver and Toronto no doubt will, as they’re the site of Shangri-La’s two Canadian locations. The beauty of the Vancouver property is why I chose to stay here, and I haven’t been disappointed in the least.
I admire the Asian sensibility and flow to the Sydney property, but also the use of Australian materials and earthy colours. There’s nothing ‘in-your’face’ about the property. Instead, it’s a relaxing, soothing hotel that nurtures and caresses, whether you’re here on business or for pleasure.
Years ago, before I began writing, I used to hate staying in hotels. It turns out I was picking the wrong hotels. I’d pick some North American chain I’d heard of before and, in doing so, deprived myself of a truly international experience.
That’s what the Shangri-La Sydney offers: an international experience in the heart of Sydney that’s truly tough to beat.
Silver Discoverer, The Kimberley Coast, Australia to Indonesia
|May 9, 2014||Day 1 - Arrival Down Under|
|May 10||Day 2 - Sydney and the Shangri-La|
|May 11||Day 3 - Perth|
|May 12||Day 4 - Embarking Silver Discoverer in Broome|
|May 13||Day 5 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 1|
|May 14||Day 6 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 2|
|May 15||Day 7 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 3|
|May 16||Day 8 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 4|
|May 17||Day 9 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 5|
|May 18||Day 10 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 6|
|May 19||Day 11 - Wyndham, Australia|
|May 20||Day 12 - At Sea|
|May 21||Day 13 - Savu, Indonesia|
|May 22||Day 14 - Komodo & Pink Beach, Indonesia|
|May 23||Day 15 - Waikelo, Indonesia|
|May 24||Benoa, Bali, Indonesia|