During 50 walks in fair weather and foul, Sarah Henry falls in love again with the city of her youth.
I thought I'd won the jackpot when a San Francisco-based travel guide publisher gave me the green light to create a series of walking itineraries in Sydney. An avid walker, I'd left Sydney more than 20 years ago for northern California but returned frequently for extended visits to get a hometown fix.
Who knew I would single-handedly break the drought? I landed in Sydney two winters ago, in the middle of one of the worst winter storms in almost 60 years. Trees were felled, power failed and a ferry wharf sunk in wild seas. Just a fluke flood, I told myself - a one-off.
For almost three weeks I slogged through driving rain researching the guide. I had the trails and streets pretty much to myself. My glasses fogged up. It was impossible to write. I talked into a tape recorder protected from the elements by a plastic bag. I went to work in brightly coloured rain gear and waterproof boots. I developed a nasty fungal infection in my big toe (so much for the waterproof boots). Some days I thought I might get blown off a cliff.
And yet I had a blast. I fell in love with my home town all over again. I got to visit places I had never been in my 20-odd years growing up in Sydney. I rediscovered favourite haunts and learned about revitalised areas worthy of an afternoon amble or an all-day exploration. I encountered kind, encouraging and helpful locals just as keen as I was.
The physical act of putting one foot in front of the other proved therapeutic. That was particularly true then because, back in my adopted home, my personal life was unravelling. Despite the constant rain, Sydney revealed itself in all its glory. It didn't hurt that many of the paths I took were familiar from sunnier times. Those memories - and the promise of brighter days to come - made slogging alone through deluges a worthy trek.
Here are my five favourite walks.
Anzac Bridge, Glebe Foreshore and Sydney Fish Market
A tad industrial and gritty, with a little green and sea thrown in for good measure, this loop provides a close-up look at Sydney's other architecturally interesting bridge.
This inner-west walk begins with glimpses of maritime activity and city views as you cross the Anzac Bridge. Further along pass a marine scrap heap and timber yard, before you reach the renewed foreshore parkland. Technically three parks that merge into a wide swatch of grass, this is a great inner-city haven - complete with towering Moreton Bay figs - for dog-walkers, joggers and families. A wonderfully creative kids' playground is well worth a visit.
Continue along the water's edge, past the restored Bellevue Cottage and learn a little about the area's industrial roots and link to renowned architect Walter Burley Griffin. Then saunter on to end this outing at the Sydney Fish Market with a seafood feast.
Coogee Beach to Maroubra Beach
This is the less-travelled leg of a trio of seaside clambers that form the Eastern Beaches Coastal Walk. Pack your cossie.
Sydney's saltwater rock pools feature at the beginning and end of this excursion. You'll first pass both the women's-only McIvers Baths and the co-ed Wylies Baths. This section of the hugely popular beach walk attracts a more diverse crowd than trendy Bondi and Bronte (though those pathways offer some pretty fabulous people-watching.)
I'm fond of the wooden boardwalk on this route, surrounded by scrubby native bush and a swamp filled with frogs that serenade you on your travels. Benches along the way provide perfect pit stops to contemplate the elements.
If you're lucky and in the right season you might spot a pod of dolphins or migrating whales frolicking out to sea. A slice of suburban Sydney makes a brief appearance before you wind up with panoramic ocean views at Jack Vanny Memorial Park.
Mahon Pool is another sweet spot for a splash. The Pool Caffe offers gourmet grub. Or head down to Maroubra Beach, with its vast expanse of sea and sand, where you can watch some serious surf action while sipping a well-deserved drink at the Pavilion Beachfront.
Rose Bay to Nielsen Park
Want spectacular harbour and city views as you traverse some of the more pristine bushland in inner Sydney? This field trip is for you.
Tucked between two eastern suburbs private schools, the Hermitage Foreshore Scenic Walk is one of those hidden gems you'll be delighted to discover on your own. Find patches of rainforest, a bit of bush and a triplet of tiny strips of sand. You can troll for shells, stop for a picnic or simply admire the views at Queens Beach, Hermit Point or Milk Beach.
Forge ahead and cross the grounds at historic Strickland House to reach Greycliffe House, a Victorian-era sandstone former residence, now housing an office of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Keep going and you reach Nielsen Park, the popular harbourside hangout with a shaded promenade and picnic areas.
The calm seas make this an ideal place for a swim. And, of course, the beachside Nielsen Park Cafe does a roaring trade in cappuccinos and gelati.
King Street, Newtown
Fun, funky and fresh, Newtown draws all sorts: fashionistas, bohos, hipsters, academics and the occasional flaneur.
King Street, like most of Sydney's inner west, has undergone gentrification in recent years, which has its pros and cons. The area's rough-around-the-edges charms are apparent on the commercial strip, where you can still find authentic eateries such as Vietnamese fave Thanh Binh.
Duck down Wilson Street to Vargabar Espresso for a good coffee. Catch a movie at the Dendy or indulge in a little retail therapy. Explore the quieter, southern end of the street and find an eclectic range of vintage-inspired, second-hand clothes, along with collectables from books and buttons to records and retro furnishings.
Clifton Gardens and Georges Heights to Balmoral Beach
This north-side expedition has beaches, views, historic buildings and some fine places to nosh. Begin by hopping on a ferry to Taronga Zoo Wharf. Invigorated by all that salt air, follow the walking path through Bradleys Head National Park before emerging at the wide, green reserve known as Clifton Gardens.
Take a refreshing dip in the bay, sip a beverage from the beachfront Bacino Kiosk or head uphill for lunch at one of two Chowder Bay offerings: the swanky Ripples or the more casual Bacino Bar. Freshly fortified, climb the steep steps to link up with the walking track to Georges Heights. Wander around Headland Park, a former army post turned public space, explore the tunnels at Georges Heights and marvel at the stellar views from the elegant Tea Room at Gunners' Barracks and the Georges Head Lookout.
From here, it's an easy descent to Balmoral Beach, where you can eat well if you haven't already, cool off in the water or just seat yourself on the sand for a well-deserved rest.
City Walks Sydney: 50 Adventures On Foot by Sarah Henry (Chronicle Books/Hardie Grant Books, $24.95). Each card has a walk description and route, with tips on what to see and do, where to eat and a map on the back.