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Sydney Surprise

Sydney Park Hyatt

Photos by Catherine Sutherland

Park Hyatt Sydney

Think Melbourne is Australia's capital of cool? Try telling that any Sydneysider. Sydney is changing faster than a kangaroo at full tilt. From new bistros and bars to a booming hotel scene, just-opened cultural spaces and trendy shopping, the once-quiet city is shaking things up. Here, seven great reasons to put the Harbour City on your 2013 travel list.

1. What's Old Is New on the Hotel Scene
There will always be some new, hot, young thing in town. But a slew of refreshed hotels is proving that Sydney, a classic never goes out of style. Here, three gussied-up grande dames to check out when you're looking to check in.

The Back Story:
A favored stomping ground for well-heeled travelers thanks to its excellent service and prime location in the historic waterfront Rocks neighborhood, the Four Seasons kicked off the city's hotel renovation revolution when it started redoing its 531 guest rooms in 2009. Four years and nearly $65 million later, the property recently reached the finish line with the launch of its new restaurant, The Woods.
The New Look:
Rooms are quiet and classic, with a mix of earth tones and metallic shades.
Insider Tip: The Four Seasons' new rooms might be classically oriented, but Grain, its new bar that opened last fall, strikes a decidedly mod note. Patrons pack into the stylish yet rustic space for cocktails that offer cheeky twists on classics. There's also a menu of gourmet bar eats: the "burger," for one, is a tasty sandwich of pulled short rib, radish, onions and sorrels on a brioche bun.

The Back Story:
Arguably Sydney's most iconic hotel, the Park Hyatt already had a lot going for it, including a bang-up location opposite the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. But the property decided to close for 11 months and invest $60 million on a makeover that was unveiled last year.
The New Look: The 155 guest rooms come with plenty of luxe touches, from deep soaking tubs and bathroom products from cult NYC beauty brand Le Labo to art by prominent Australian artists. The top adds, however, are the balconies and new floor-to-ceiling windows that offer jaw-dropping views of Sydney's waterfront.
Insider Tip:
Don't miss the new spa, offering treatments grounded in aboriginal healing and using indigenous ingredients.

The Back Story:
Yet another hotel that kills as fas as location (also in the Rocks) and the view, the Shangri-La spent more than $20 million refitting its 563 rooms.
The New Look: 
The new accommodations give a subtle nod to Shangri-La's Asian heritage, but the best features are the newly installed leather window seats—super-comfy perches from which to take in the hotel's stellar views.
Insider Tip: The Shangri-La is home to one of the city's most ambitious hotel food and beverage programs; its hallmark is the spectacular Altitude on the 36th floor, which has earned a Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide hat award.


Gowings Bar & Grill at QT Sydney.        

2. Boutique Hotels Are Shaking Things Up
Here, how two new high-profile hotels—QT Sydney and The Darling—match up.

QT Sydney:
The QT isn't lacking in personality. Located in Sydney's business district in a historic building, the property defines cheekiness, from the staff uniforms created by Dame Edna costume designer Janet Hine (guests are greeted by black-clad, red-wigged attendants called directors of chaos) to the elevators that play different songs based on the number of people in them (I kept hearing Akon crooning "Lonely" during my solo rides).
The Darling: With its soaring glass and steel lobby decked out in sculptural installations and rugs by Japanese-Australian designer Akira Isogawa, The Darling makes a play for the jet set. In fact, the high-design retreat that's part of The Star—a $1 billion mixed-use casino, restaurant and entertainment complex on Sydney's Darling Harbour—would be at home in New York City, South Beach or even Sin City. Little wonder that George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio are reportedly fans.

QT Sydney: The design incorporates historic details—heritage windows, art deco fittings, "curated artifacts" such as lamps made from bowler hats—with contemporary style. Rooms come in two different styles: Those on the Gowings side feature the original timber wood floors, while State Theatre rooms are carpeted and have beds with funky embossed-leather headboards.
The Darling: The QT may deal in the quirky, but The Darling is all about the plush. The 171 rooms are kitted out in shades of espresso, plum and gray, and the custommade beds are topped with the world's slikiest sheets.

QT Sydney: Culinary options—such as the brasserie-style Gowings Bar & Grill with its farm-to-table approach and buzzy atmosphere—cater to Sydney's cool kids. Even the ground-level coffee shop morphs into a wine bar after dark.
The Darling: Taking inspiration from Vegas, The Star houses 20 restaurants helmed by a clutch of international and Australian celebrity chefs. In The Darling's lobby is Sokyo, a top-notch Japanese eatery, where Nobu-trained chef Chase Kojima dishes out artistic creations to a captivated crowd.

QT Sydney: You'll be hard-pressed to leave your unbelievably comfortable bed, which is topped with a nearly 200-pound, custom-made, gel composite mattress. And thanks to in-room dining, you realy don't have to: The restaurant's extensive menu is on offer, and it's all brought up in a black lacquer bento box, which makes it easy to actually eat in bed.
The Darling:
With its treatment menu featuring services using the über luxe La Prairie line and service beds that are the most comfortable we've ever experienced, The Darling's spa is hands-down Sydney's best.

The colorful (and delicious) heirloom tomato salad at Chiswick restaurant in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra.        

3. The Dining Scene Is Blowing-Up
These are just some of the new restaurants that have exploded onto Sydney's scene in the last two years.

Hospitality entrepreneur Justin Hemmes went all out on this cavernous, bilevel space, which gets major points for its Chinois-chic design. But, it's the food—extremely well executed Cantonese and Asian fusion fare—that shines. Standout Dish: We love the Singaporean black pepper crab, which comes fresh out of a tank in the kitchen, Chinatown-style.

Chef David Chang first made his mark in New York with his much-loved chain of innovative Asian-inflected eateries. So the brand's first Aussie effort was highly anticipated, to say the least. Chang delivers with this black-on-black, 30-seat space at The Star. Diners pack in nightly for elaborate, three-plus-hour tasting menu meals. Standout Dish: With offerings such as the light Chinese-style buns filled with roasted pork belly and slices of pickled cucumber, Chang elevates cooking to an art.

Surrounded by gardens in the picturesque suburb of Woollahra, this light-filled spot comes from highly acclaimed local restaurateurs Matt Moran and Peter Sullivan. Many of the dishes on the menu are made with ingredients from the garden just out back. Standout Dish: Sliders with fried cakes of snow crab and kewpie mayonnaise (a creamier version of mayo from Japan, made with rice vinegar) are divine. The plate of raw kingfish, sea salt-crusted avacado, radishes and nachi pear is almost too beautiful to eat.

Chef Hamish Ingham cooks much of the food at this new Four Seasons restaurant in a woodfire oven on slabs of naturally flavored Australian woods. That sets the tone for this rustic yet stylish eatery where many of the dishes are kept simple to let the infused flavors shine through. Standout Dish: Stick to what the oven turns out; the crab roasted on olive tree wood and served with local garlic and pepper berry (an aromatic, antioxidant-rich berry that's another indigenous product of the bush) is a favorite.

4. Farm-to-Table in Sydney Is Far from Familiar
Who needs shrimp on the barbie? Try wallaby, emu and kangaroo. Chefs around Sydney are putting a distinctly Australian twist on the farm-to-table trend by bringing native ingredients back into their kitchens.

What It Is:
Old man saltbush is the gray-blue shrub that grows like a weed all around the Aussie bush. Chefs love to forage for the plant and integrate its subtle, savory saltiness into their dishes.
Where to Find It: Head to modern Chinese eatery Billy Kwong in Surry Hills, where chef Kylie Kwong turns out a delicious stirfry of saltbush leaves with ginger. (Editors' Note: Billy Kwong is temporarily closed while it relocates to Potts Point. It will reopen in December 2014).

What It Is:
These leafy greens that grow around coastal areas and taste like slightly bitter spinach were one of the first native ingredients to become popular with European settlers. But they fell out of favor until recent times.
Where to Find It: The menu changes frequently, but New York-based chef David Chang has a penchant for integrating these greens, whether puréed, blanched or roasted, into dishes at his new restaurant Momofuku Seiobo at The Star.

What It Is:
This small, pale yellow fruit is found in northern Queensland and has a strong/lime/grapefruit flavor.
Where to Find It: Chef Mark Best is known for his highbrow, molecular approach at his Surry Hills eatery Marque Restaurant. But he's not above pulling inspiration from the rainforest: His dessert menu has featured a dish with chamomile, white chocolate, yogurt, lemon aspen and a cookie.


The Baxter Inn.        
Perusing the fresh fashion picks at Scanlan Theodore boutique.        

5. Sydney Knows How to Pour a Good Drink
If you know any Australians, you know they like to have a good time. Spurred by the recent availability of cheaper bar licenses and government grants for small businesses, these quirky establishments are heavy on theme and low on attitude.

ABSINTHE SALON: You can sample more than 30 different absinthes from around the globe (though we wouldn't recommend it!) at this Surry Hills watering hole. Like something off of Montmartre's streets circa the turn of the century, the space calls to mind la belle époque with its art nouveau styling and staff dressed in period costumes.

GRANDMA'S BAR: A stretch of Astroturfed stairs leads down to this 50-person basement bar, which offers up granny glamour in the form of retro-style furniture and kitschy prints (the moose head on the wall might be pappy's influence). Despite the trappings, the cocktails don't take a page from nana's book (read: no cordials). Potent concoctions such as the Hemingway daiquiri (a mix of rum, maraschino liqueur, lime and grapefruit juice) will keep you fueled through the night.

THE BAXTER INN: With its very low light, iron fittings and exposed brick all around, this basement bar in the CBD feels a bit like a dungeon. There's a nice selection of cocktails and beers on tap, but the true star of the bar is whisky. To wit, Baxter offers nearly 500 different types of the distilled alcohol.

6. Sydney's Style Is All Its Own
Fashionistas take note: With its many (and we mean many) boutiques, art galleries and lifestyle stores, Paddington is Sydney's undisputed retail mecca. And since most of the boutiques are distinctly Aussie in appeal, visiting this suburb is a must. Most shops congregate along Oxford Street, which deals in more established Aussie brands, and William Street, a great source for avant-garde indie finds. Here, a few of our favorites:

Arguably Australia's most established luxury clothing label, Scanlan Theodore is the best place to tap into the country's mainstream fashion trends. At the cement-floored shop on Oxford, load up on clean-lined cocktail dresses that are heavy on structure, sleep crop pants and micro minis in metallic shades. Meanwhile, The Corner Shop (located, naturally, in a charming corner street space) proffers uniforms for Sydney's hipsters with its mix of Australian and international indie designers. At Leona Edmiston, you can update your wardrobe with the Australian designer's lovely jersey frocks that are perfect for travel (they can go from your suitcase to your form, no iron necessary). Time your Paddington visit to a Saturday morning or afternoon when you can visit Paddington Markets. The mix of 150-plus stalls offering funky fashions, art, beauty products and homewares along Oxford Street is the best outdoor street market in town.

7. The City Is Flexing Its Cultural Muscle
The most important art institution dedicated to contemporary international and Australian art on this side of the world, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia has just emerged from a $53 million, 21-month renovation and redevelopment. A visit to the museum in the Rocks should top the list of all arts-oriented travelers. the complex now includes the original sandstone art deco building, plus a new wing house in a striking glass and white cubelike structure. After browsing through the museum's thought-provoking exhibitions (including next August's show on the evolution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander textiles), take a quick stroll to the nearby Aboriginal Art Galleries, the perfect place to tap into Sydney's vibrant aboriginal arts movement. The space represents more than 125 artists—from the traditional to those with a contemporary perspective—working in various mediums, including painting, basket weaving, ceramic arts and glasswork.

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