Christmas Eve back in England is invariably cold and grey. Waking in our hotel on the other side of the world in Sydney, we knew it was going to be a scorcher.
Australia doesn’t do Christmas as excessively as the UK. Decorations are more restrained, the pubs aren’t as packed with work parties getting trashed and the stores are nowhere near as rammed with half-crazed shoppers. But there are plenty of TV ads trying to whip up interest and bizarrely, in the height of a Southern Hemisphere summer, some feature snow.
It was too hot to spend the day amid the concrete, glass and steel of Sydney city centre so we decided to visit Manly, one of its most famous beaches. And judging by the numbers, half of Sydney’s population was heading for the sand and sea too. The ferry from Circular Quay takes about 30 minutes and the breeze made for a pleasant journey out towards the North Head, the tremendous sandstone peninsula that guards the entrance to Sydney Harbour.
Manly, which was named by Governor Arthur Phillip because of the features of the indigenous people he found there early in the life of the new colony, lies on an isthmus. The ferry docks in a sandy cove but its famous beach is on the ocean side, a short walk away through a pedestrianised shopping street. This has touches of Victorian glamour, a reminder that Manly has long been an escape for city folk, but also the tackiness that attaches to many seaside resorts around the world.
Walking back through the crowds later in the day, a queue had formed outside the church ahead of a carol concert and three camels and their three kings were parading up and down drumming up support for the event.
We were carried along by the crowds to the famous beach, which was incredibly busy and lined by majestic and towering Norfolk Island pines. Surfers were taking advantage of the big waves, others paddled and it looked very inviting. I couldn’t understand why we hadn’t bought our swimming gear, but the fact there was so little shelter on the beach meant I wouldn’t survived long on the beach anyway.
So at the suggestion of a helpful woman in the tourist information centre we went for a walk along the shore towards Shelly Beach, which lies in Cabbage Tree Bay. It’s a marine nature reserve and the beach is very small compared to Manly, but it was very busy indeed and chairs were all set up for a wedding. Personally, I couldn’t imagine being dressed up in all my finery and sitting out in the heat and humidity we were experiencing and watching a wedding. Suffering and sweating, I was grateful that we chose to stop at the beach’s Boat Yard bar for a drink.
Refreshed, we continued walking up to the headland, with its great views beyond to Sydney’s northern beaches and the vast Pacific Ocean. Chunky Eastern Water Dragons perched on the rocks, soaking up the sun. The sandstone cliffs had been carved by wind and rain and sea into marvellous shapes.
By the time we’d reached an old World War Two gun emplacement I was suffering from the heat and we turned back, stopping at the Boat Yard for beers and big bowl of tasty prawns.
On the ferry back to Sydney, the sky turned a dark grey and a storm broke. Great forks of lightning exploded from the sky and the rain came down torrentially but somehow we got on the train to Bondi Junction for our date with Graham’s brother and his girlfriend.
It’s odd that Sydney’s most famous beach is not on the rail line so we drove from the junction to the seafront. The beach is another welcoming and expansive stretch of sand but I wasn’t as impressed by Bondi as I was by Manly. In fact, it reminded me of a British seaside town, somewhere like Bournemouth or Eastbourne. At least the men were dreamily fit and I could’ve happily sat in a bar and watched them strutting around the sand for hours without getting bored!
But as the rain had been and gone, we went on a short walk around Mackenzies Point down towards Tamarama Beach – and back again. More spectacular sandstone cliffs greeted us and the sun came out.
We all had dinner and drinks in the busy seafront Hotel Ravesis, before we parted for the evening. The two of us spent the evening in the CBD, having a few beers. But it was very quiet and I couldn’t have felt less Christmassy if I tried.
Christmas Day was a very different day, much quieter and spent surrounded by family – Graham’s brother’s girlfriend’s family, deep in the Sydney suburbs. We ate and drank, swapped presents, and made new friends. Which is what Christmas is all about.