There's no better way to explore Sydney Harbour than to holiday on it, writes Sandra Hall.
We had planned to stop at Cockatoo Island and take in the potted history of Sydney Harbour that you absorb as you wander around the island's old jail, grain stores and shipyards. It's just a short dinghy ride away.
But after lunch on the deck in the sun, we feel too lazy, so we sit around admiring Birchgrove's waterfront real estate until it's time to raise the sail and make our run across the harbour to Clifton Gardens, where we're going to anchor overnight.
We're on a harbour sailing holiday, spending five nights aboard a 36.2-foot Jeanneau Sun Odyssey owned by our skipper, his partner and a group of friends. We've been on several overseas sailing holidays together. In fact, this expedition is an anniversary of sorts. Twenty years ago, the four who have chosen to come on the trip sailed a chartered yacht along the Turkish coast between Marmaris and Kas. This year, we had nothing planned until it was suggested that our friends take advantage of their own boat. To us, it seemed like a great idea. Others regarded it with wonder. Surely we'd at least go as far as Pittwater? Five days just on the harbour? You'll get cabin fever after two, they said.
We haven't. Nor do we regret our failure to step on to Cockatoo Island. A few days later, we're receiving an even more concentrated dose of harbour history at what must surely be the most poignant and evocative of all the city's museums - the Manly Quarantine Station just inside North Head.
We anchor in Spring Cove next to Store Beach, which takes its name from the grim fact that the Quarantine Station's earliest inmates were dumped on the sand with enough stores to see them through their period of isolation, which was spent in tents.
Glowing in the distance are the lights of the city and just across the bay are the ferries, zipping back and forth like motorised fireflies.
On a lighter note, these beaches are also home to a fairy penguin colony and they have the bluest, clearest water in the harbour. We have a swim and next morning, I take an unplanned dip when I slip while climbing out of the dinghy as we come into shore. One of the museum's staff kindly runs over with a towel and we wait for the tour guide, whom we are going to have to ourselves.
The quarantine station closed in 1984 and the buildings which once housed its inmates have been re-modelled as a hotel and function centre. But two of the hospital wards, together with the old shower block and boiler room, remain as they were, and built into the cliff is a museum with an assortment of photographs and artifacts chronicling the most traumatic events in the city's medical history.
During the 1881 smallpox epidemic, the place became so overcrowded that the particularly unfortunate were consigned to a dilapidated hulk, the Faraway, moored just off the beach, where they more or less had to fend for themselves without a qualified doctor and with only a few nurses.
By 1918, the year of the influenza pandemic, things were organised more systematically - according to the prejudices of the time. Accommodation was divided into first, second, third and "Asiatic" class and the station could take up to 1500 people. We walk through one of the wards, which looks much as it did in 1918.
There's even a mannequin in the all-enveloping uniform and visor worn by the nurses and doctors. And we visit the shower block, which is even creepier - partly because of its cream paint and neat, orderly appearance. This was the first stop new arrivals made after surrendering their luggage to be fumigated in the station's autoclaves. That must have been unnerving enough but worse was to come. Phenol was added to the water in the showers, so they emerged with peeling skin as well as shrunken clothes.
After that, the only remaining hazards were boredom and uncertainty. You get a hint of the way it was from the inscriptions that generations of inmates carved into rocks on the beach and in the bushland. There are so many of these that a Sydney University team assigned the job of translating and recording them will take years to finish.
Appropriately enough, it's here at Spring Cove that I experience my first bout of seasickness in years. It's the swell from the Manly ferries which criss-cross the harbour at such regular intervals that the rocking doesn't stop until late in the evening. The compensation is that while sitting on deck - which my stomach prefers to the cabin below - I experience the glories of the harbour at night. Glowing in the distance are the lights of the city and just across the bay are the ferries, zipping back and forth like motorised fireflies.
The next day, we sail back to The Spit. We've already explored Middle Harbour, winding up with a blissful afternoon at Sugarloaf Bay, where we anchor for lunch just off H.C. Press Park, which is named after the entrepreneur, Henry Christian Press. He bought land at the tip of Castle Cove in the late 19th century and established "pleasure grounds", which became popular with Sunday trippers. On this day, however, our fellow pleasure-seekers number just two seagulls and a pair of ducks.
We have cooked a few good dinners aboard the boat - delighted as well as relieved by the efficiency of the boat's small oven - but we're on a mission to prove the harbour's holiday potential, and that means a thorough sampling of its restaurants. We start at Ripples which is perched on the cliffside at Clifton Gardens' Chowder Bay among the timber buildings which once housed an army barracks and engineerings workshops, along with a military hospital.
We've already strolled along the cliff to the old gun emplacements on Georges Head. The earliest date back to 1801 and the Napoleonic Wars - proof that Australia has never underestimated the possibility of a threat from Over There. But now we're concentrating on lunch, the most vital decision being a choice between ocean trout, swordfish and barramundi. The chef, Kristian Gamble, is an expert in delicate flavours and textures. The restaurant also makes its own focaccia and it's a complete success. While our skipper restrains himself because he has to sail the boat to its next mooring at The Spit, the rest of us relax and enjoy.
At The Spit on the following night, we have our next culinary adventure at Ormeggio, which is on the d'Albora Marina, where we have moored. It's a strange setting for fine dining, tucked away behind the petrol bowsers and motor cruisers on the marina's jetties. But the chef, Alessandro Pavoni, and his team soon confirm the skills which have earned Ormeggio two hats. They offer a degustation menu which augments the restaurant's Italian style with unlikely but delicious combinations.
We spend our final morning on the eastern side of The Spit, having coffee in the sun at the yacht club cafe while watching scores of kayakers gather for their own harbour trip. We agree that the naysayers didn't know what they were talking about. And we've only skimmed the harbour's surface.
More information destinationnsw.com.au
There are several companies on the harbour which have yachts available for bareboat charter. They don't require prospective skippers to produce written qualifications but they need to be assured that you're an experienced sailor.
EastSail, based on the d'Albora Marina at Rushcutters Bay, has a fleet of 21 yachts of varying sizes and styles. Standard facilities include a galley with gas oven, crockery and cutlery, fridge, bathroom with hot water, CD stereo with iPod jack. EastSail: D'Albora Marina, New Beach Road, Rushcutters Bay. Phone 9327 1166.
Sailcorp at McMahon's Point also has a large range of yachts similarly equipped. SailCorp: The Lavender Bay Boatshed, 23a King George St., McMahon's Point. Phone 9955 2537.
Liquid Edge, a smaller company at Balmain, has two yachts - a Bavaria 35 and a Hunter 38 - which sleep up to six people and have the same facilities. Liquid Edge Yacht Charters: 57 Campbell St, Balmain. Phone 0410 088 028.
All companies require a security bond. Rates vary according to the type of boat and the length and time of the charter.
You can provision the boat yourselves. The marinas have trolleys which help you to carry shopping bags and boxes on to the boats which have a surprising amount of storage space.