If Middle Harbour were anywhere else, it would be lauded as one of the world's most scenic urban waterfronts. In Sydney, it doesn't even rate a dedicated page on the city's official tourism website.
True, Sydney's main harbour is bigger, bolder and offers more obvious attractions. But if you're looking for an alternative Sydney, then Middle Harbour offers plump beaches, attractive suburban walks and slivers of almost-original landscapes.
Spit Bridge provides the easiest public-transport access to Middle Harbour, and from both sides terrific walks unfold. On the north side, a three-hour, highly scenic walk brings you to Manly across clifftop bushland with sweeping harbour and city-centre views. Alternatively, kick back at popular Clontarf Reserve, which has a suntrap beach, swimming and play area for children, and two cafés.
On Spit Bridge's south side, make your way to Chinamans Beach, which gets full sun but also has a shady adjacent park (Rosherville Reserve) with playground and BBQ facilities. A 20-minute walk onwards through posh suburbia brings you to Balmoral Beach, which has lovely sands, 1920s promenade and several restaurants.
These are the only well-known parts of Middle Harbour, but explore further by boat, kayak, car or on foot and you'll find a series of watery indentations, leafy suburbs and national park.
From Sagrado Street in Seaforth, for example, a track leads down past an unexpected little waterfall to Sagrado Park, which has a saltwater pool and pretty harbour views. Engraving Track, which starts at Seaforth Oval, meanders past Sydney's biggest collection of Aboriginal rock engravings, which include human figures, canoes, marsupials and fish.
On the opposite (eastern) side of Middle Harbour, upmarket Castle Cove sits high on a peninsula graced with fine water views. Take to the up-and-down four-kilometre North Arm Walking Track and you'll give your lungs a workout while taking in classic Middle Head scenery.
Nearby suburb Castlecrag is another peninsula, although views are somewhat obscured by private properties. However, Castlecrag was developed by architect Walter Burley Griffin and showcases over a dozen of his houses and other buildings. The suburb's many dead-end streets are interlinked by delightful pathways and steps through pockets of bushland.
At its furthest end, Middle Harbour steepens and narrows. One of few foreshore intrusions is First World War explosive magazines at Bantry Bay. Otherwise, this is one of few places in all Sydney which retains the unspoiled damp gullies and sandstone headlands enjoyed by indigenous people prior to European arrival.
Garigal National Park preserves over 100 Aboriginal sites, including rock art, rock engravings and middens. Frenchs Creek Falls is surely the best waterfall in urban Sydney, at least after rain, although the track to its base becomes a slippery challenge.
The national park's three-kilometre Cascades Trail, favoured by horse riders and mountain bikers, winds along a gushing creek shaded by scribbly gums and bloodwoods. For more of a biking challenge, hit the rough and sometimes steep Bare Creek trail, or the two purpose-built Serrata and Gahnia trails.
You'll find less heart-thumping activity and more relaxation in Davidson Park, which has waterside barbecue spots under giant trees and is good for kayaking and boating. Walk north and Middle Harbour ends in mangroves and mud in a rather ordinary finale to a magnificent spectacle.
Bus numbers 169, 178 and 180 service Spit Bridge, and various others Middle Harbour suburbs. See transportnsw.info
An overnight yacht charter from Sydney by Sail is a great way to enjoy Middle Harbour's most tranquil recesses. See sydneybysail.com
Sydney Harbour Kayaks at Spit Bridge offers rentals and kayak tours. See sydneyharbourkayaks.com.au
Brian Johnston travelled at his own expense.