Australia had always felt overwhelming to me; too big, too far, too expensive. And that flight: 14-plus hours from Los Angeles across the international date line.
I’d set aside thoughts of a trip there; then I discovered Sydney’s Bondi Beach. An online search for swimming pools uncovered its 50-meter stunner at the edge of the Pacific, filled by waves that wash over the deck. The pool, part of a swimming hub called Bondi Icebergs Club, blends with the cliffs, seemingly a part of the natural landscape. Bondi, I learned, was the most famous among a string of suburban beaches, many with such rock pools, less than 30 minutes on a city bus from downtown Sydney.
In a single photo, Bondi became a dream destination, symbolizing Australia’s warm, rugged spirit and love of things aquatic. I pictured myself looking out from the pool to distant boats and surfers riding waves; I saw myself gliding down a lane, buoyed by saltwater and great views.
Last March, opportunity and ability conspired, and I boarded a flight for Sydney, Australia’s most populous city, where the sun shines 340 days a year and daytime highs reach into the 70s. I giggled my way through the wait at customs with two fellow travelers because one of the gate agents improbably resembled a young version of the Australian-born star Hugh Jackman. Oh yes, this trip was off to a good start.
For a Midwesterner emerging from winter, Australia is a bath of sunshine and joy.
After gathering my things, I stepped into a temperate midmorning sunlight that soaked the world in unobstructed radiance. I had slept through all but a few hours of the flight, but I took a pause under the deep-green palms at an outdoor airport cafe with my first of many flat whites, the silky Australian espresso drink infused with milk microfoam.
The cab from the airport to my rental apartment in the Bondi neighborhood would be the last in a monthlong stay because the city is covered by a network of clean, safe, easy-to-navigate buses and trains with helpful transit workers.
Sydney is renowned for the unique architecture of the shell-like opera house in its harbor, but in the residential areas adjacent to the beaches, broad-leafed palms and rainbow-colored birds outshine the houses and mid-rise apartments. Most homes in Bondi, near Sydney’s central business district, are uphill from the beach and yet the water isn’t visible from ground level because of the rich foliage. What struck me most when I arrived in this neighborhood wasn’t the sights, but the sound of a bird’s repetitive call that resembled an angry infant’s wail. It was so loud, I wouldn’t have been able to sleep — not that I wanted to. I was bound for Bondi Beach within minutes.
A block from my apartment, a barefoot surfer passed by on the sidewalk, his hair wild and still damp, the top of his wet suit unzipped and pulled down to rest on his hips, a board under his right arm. I realized with a smile that I was near a big-time beach with a style so strong it spills onto the streets.
Eager as I was to see the Icebergs pool, I savored the anticipation, stopping at the sidewalk window of the popular cafe Bondi Massive for another flat white.
This would be my routine for many days in the coming month: the walk from the apartment to the beach. Flat whites at Massive followed by a beachside yoga class and a bircher muesli from a beachside pavilion or a morning swim, then a breakfast of T.A.F.E., tomato with a leaf of basil, avocado, feta and a soft-boiled egg on a slice of French bread.
A sense of welcome
Australians are among the friendliest people in the world. The collective result of being called “luv” several times a day is a constant sense of being welcomed.
My host for part of my stay, Caroline Hendra, belongs to a group of friends who swim Bondi Bay before work several times a week. They follow it up with breakfast at a cozy cafe across the street, Chapter One. What a way to start a day: a swim with friends on one of the world’s most gorgeous beaches.
Bondi is the biggest of Sydney’s beaches — more than half a mile long and nearly as wide in parts — but it is just the beginning of the beach bounty in the eastern suburbs. Connected via a cliffside paved pedestrian path are Bronte, Tamarama, Clovelly, Coogee and Maroubra.
At all of them, it’s beginner beware.
Australia’s beach waters are part of the South Pacific, but they still felt cold on my first ankle-deep wade. I silently chided myself: If Australians can handle this water temperature, surely a Minnesotan can. The bigger adjustment was to the velocity of the waves. The key is to get in and out of the deep quickly to avoid getting knocked down by the lashing waves.
Bondi’s slogan “between the flags” serves as a warning for bathers. Riptides are a powerful force on Australian beaches; the red and yellow flags indicate where dipping in is safe.
The word Bondi comes from the aboriginal “noise of water breaking over rocks.” Like the wailing bird in town, the sound of slapping waves was a signature of the beach.
Surfers, skateboarders and backpackers converge on Bondi, adding to a laid-back vibe. This is an urban oasis, not a remote respite. The beach is bounded by Campbell Parade, a busy roadway lined with touristy shops, hostels, hotels and restaurants.
Swimmers tend to gather on the north end, wherever the red and yellow flags are planted. Runners and bikers use the path that snakes the length of the beach. At the midpoint, a pavilion houses a souvenir shop, a restaurant and picnic tables. The beach’s southern end, which tends to be rougher, is reserved for surfers. They drift by the dozens offshore, sitting atop their boards, waiting to catch a wave for a few upright seconds.
Icebergs, the fitness-dining-social club with the rock pool, stands as the landmark on the south end. Opened in 1929 as a place for lifeguards to maintain water fitness in the winter, it’s a hub for lap swimmers and a training ground for toddlers taking their first dives.
“No one is above anyone else here,” one woman told me when I asked which lane I could use.
Path connects beaches
I headed out early on the third day of my stay, seeking an overview of the land. I packed water, cash and sunscreen and struck out on the footpath that links Bondi with several other suburban beaches. The path — which takes between two and three hours to walk depending upon pace — winds, rises and falls the entire stretch.
Tamarama Beach — little more than a finger of water at the bottom of craggy cliffs — is the first stop, about 20 minutes from Bondi. Small but mighty, Tamarama is tough for swimmers. As I passed, lifeguards practiced their skills by hauling one another through the waves and onto the sand.
After 10 more minutes of walking, I hit Bronte Beach, which also has two rock pools for swimmers, one natural and one man-made. Bronte backs up with grassy parkland and cafes, making it a comfortable spot for families.
The walk gets more rugged from there. I spent almost an hour, climbing and descending steep stairs, to reach Clovelly Beach. Popular with snorkelers and sunbathers, Clovelly is actually an ocean channel hemmed in by concrete. The beach felt eerily industrial, so I continued to Coogee Beach, eager now for the breakfast that awaited.
The walk, however, was another rugged 45 minutes, including a long, heart-pounding climb. When I got to the hilltop, I was rewarded with a sweeping view of Coogee, its bay, and an island not far from shore. Bathers were sparse, but spirited players were deep into a beachside Sunday morning volleyball match. If not for an insistent hunger, I would have stayed longer on that bench atop the grassy hilltop. Instead, I headed to the recently restored Coogee Pavilion, where I enjoyed a grilled ham and cheese sandwich at a window table while gazing at views of endless blue water and sky. I was nearly alone.
On other Sundays, I would take the bus to Coogee in the late afternoon, sit at the bar sipping white wine and eating raw oysters, mesmerized by the liveliness of a packed house.
Coogee merits multiple trips. Like Bondi, it’s a place with much to do. On the south end, Coogee has a rock bath popular with toddlers and young swimmers. Just a couple of minutes uphill, the serene McIvers Baths is open only to women.
Entrance to McIvers relies on the honor system. Toss a couple of dollars into a bucket and head through the metal gate. On the hill above the baths, an impeccably clean changing house has a free library-book exchange and an open-air view of the baths below. The stairwell down passes through trees with lightly wooded grassy patches for sunbathers, topless or not.
After my rigorous morning walk, I welcomed a gentle paddle around McIvers. I stopped and rested my arms on the mossy rock facing the ocean, watching tourist helicopters above and giant jetliners to the south floating into Sydney’s international airport. Amid all that Aussie warmth and beauty, I had to wonder why anyone, let alone me, would skip a trip here.