Hitting its Stride

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Cities, like people, reveal themselves in different ways. There are those whose charms emerge shyly, after long acquaintance; others whose grandeur inspires awe and respect; some whose attractions are sought in vain. And there are others whose personality is instantly engaging. With confidence leavened with humor, self-indulgence tempered with generosity, brashly modern yet strangely ancient, Sydney is such a place.

A bare two centuries old, Sydney has grown into one of the world's great cities, a bustling repository of dreams for its four million inhabitants, whether their aim is to take on global financial markets, dazzle the world's artistic or sporting communities--or tend the backyard of their quarter-acre suburban block. Allowing for differences in size, Sydney is as exciting as New York, as sophisticated as Paris, as colorful as Hong Kong and as irreverent as '60s London.

This is a city of sometimes incongruous pleasures, an important business center set in what feels like a holiday resort--Frankfurt on the Cote d'Azur. The subtropical climate lures office workers to sun themselves in the early evening on the golden chain of Pacific beaches; million-dollar yachts chase rust-stained dinghies between the cream-and-green ferries on the harbor; ships like concrete office blocks glide under the Harbour Bridge to the container wharves, past tourists beaming over the gunwales of replica 18th century sailing vessels. The twin architectural highlights of Bridge and Opera House flank a modern CBD that seems to rebuild itself every few years, while an ocean of agreeable, if bland, suburbs unrolls along the highways that linked the rest of Australia to the nation's gateway port. All around, the beauty of the bush enfolds the city in its embrace.

Pleasures of the flesh are lavishly catered for: Sydney's chefs have evolved a style of cooking that fuses European and Asian cuisines into an exciting Australian idiom. The city is packed with pubs and bars, themselves packed with noisy, friendly crowds, and its nightlife could shock the most jaded roue on the planet.

Such are sydney's obvious--perhaps superficial--attractions, and they should be more than enough for the Olympic Games juggernaut of athletes, officials, business executives and media that lands in September, and for most of the holidaymakers drawn in its wake. But there is more to Sydney, some of it darker, some of it frivolous, a hint of irresponsibility that suggests its delights are the fruit of serendipity rather than foresight. Too often Sydney's leaders and functionaries have been indolent, self-serving or downright corrupt, but somehow locals remain confident that, in the Australian vernacular, "she'll be right"; things will turn out fine. More often than not, they do. And, the wisdom of their inaction confirmed, Sydneysiders get on with business, head back to the beach or the barbecue. If, as author Donald Horne once famously declared, Australia is the lucky country, Sydney is its happy-go-lucky heart.

To see how that optimism was born, look no further than the harbor. As long ago as 1871, English novelist Anthony Trollope, not usually short of words, found Sydney Harbour "inexpressibly lovely." And to this day, despite some wildly irresponsible development, it is the restless heart of the city, whose inhabitants are drawn instinctively to its foreshore in moments of collective passion, to celebrate, protest or play. Regardless of their background, Sydneysiders are united in love of their harbor: its waters dissolve their separate identities and reflect a common image; it is both solvent and balm, mixing disparate peoples and smoothing over their differences. Its own life grows richer: as industry becomes more environmentally enlightened, the harbor's waters have improved. Above the sharks that cruise its depths, dolphins surf the bow waves of the ferries, and a couple of times a year a migrating whale takes a wrong turn and passes a day or two marveling at the harborside mansions of the eastern suburbs.

Sydneysiders take for granted an intimacy with nature that would astonish most city residents worldwide. Inner-city suburbs echo to the screech of sulfur-crested cockatoos and the laughter of sturdy kookaburras; brilliant rainbow lorikeets hang upside down in fruit trees squabbling over berries. As night falls, mighty Port Jackson fig trees discharge clouds of flying foxes, while possums patrol urban gardens and clatter across the rooftops. Everywhere, in parks, gardens, at the water's edge, the luxuriant subtropical vegetation--mosses and ferns, cabbage palms, ash and she-oak, ancient angophora forests and a hundred species of gum tree--reminds the resident that humans have a tenuous hold on this land.

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