The luscious Tasmanian salmon on my plate demanded my attention, but I kept turning my head to stare at the Sydney Opera House, dazzling and surreal in the noonday Australian sun. Viewed from my waterside table on Circular Quay, the structure seemed to be temporarily moored, just waiting to catch a breeze and sail away, attended by a flotilla of boats like maids of honor.
Later, when the sunlight had played out, I would go inside Australia's most recognizable structure for a concert (more than 3,000 classical and contemporary performances are held here each year). But for now, my focus was on the salmon, a fresh Semillon wine from the nearby Hunter Valley and, of course, the Sydney Harbor Bridge towering before me.
Australians affectionately refer to the 440-foot-high span as "the old coat hanger."
Real "sports," as the Aussies would say, have been climbing the bridge since it was built in 1932 -- and used to get jailed for it!
Today, it's a legal three-hour, 1,310-step climb to the city's most spectacular vantage point (www. bridgeclimb.com).
For Jewish visitors, a must-see lies on Elizabeth Street, facing Hyde Park, one of the city's sprawling green spaces.
Built in 1878, the Great Synagogue (www.greatsynagogue . org.au) is a classic Byzantine structure with dramatic towers and stained-glass windows.
"The Great," as Aussies often call it, is a symbol of the Jewish heritage in Australia.
When the American colonies rebelled in 1776, England then annexed Australia to be its new prison colony.
Among the first 1,500 prisoners were 16 Jews, who formed the nucleus of a community that grew as immigrants arrived by the thousands from England and Germany, particularly during the World Wars.
Today, Australia has the largest Jewish population in Australasia, with about 45,000 Jews residing in Sydney. Jews have always played important roles here; two served as Australian governor generals and many have been military leaders.
The Great has a small museum of Jewish history, open for tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the preponderance of Jewish lore lies in the Sydney Jewish Museum on Darlinghurst Road (www.sydneyjewishmuseum.com.au ). It's housed in Maccabean Hall, a hub of Jewish life since 1923. Built to honor those who served in World War I, the building's role expanded in 1992, when it became the Sydney Jewish Museum, showcasing the history of Jews in Australia and the horrors of the Holocaust.
Sydneysiders are so passionate about being outdoors that you'd think good weather is a rarity. On the contrary, the city is temperate year-round, with winter lows of 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This city is made for walking!
Whenever your feet need a rest, the subway and bus systems are convenient and economical.
The Rocks, Sydney's oldest settlement, lies within walking distance of Circular Quay. It's home to the Sydney Theatre, the Sydney Dance Company and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Sydneysiders say that you haven't seen the city until you've been to "the Cross" -- King's Cross, that is -- Sydney's version of London's Soho or New York's Times Square. This multicultural area attracts young backpackers and sophisticates alike to its cafes, pubs, nightclubs, hostels, hotels, art galleries, theaters, gardens and historic buildings.
In the early 19th century, it was home to wealthy merchants and government officials. During the Depression of the 1840s, the grand estates gave way to three- and four-story houses, many of which remain. By the mid-1930s, the city's artists and writers had made it their own.
The Cross is among the top 10 Sydney attractions, drawing some 800,000 visitors a year.
Please Walk on the Grass!
You won't need a guide for the ancient Royal Botanic Gardens, a shady 74-acre park in the heart of the city. A sign at the entrance says: "Please walk on the grass. We also invite you to smell the roses, hug the trees, talk to the birds, sit on the benches and picnic on the lawns."
You'll see folks doing all of these things in this marvelous place. A landmark is Mrs. MacQuarie's Chair, a carved rock ledge overlooking the harbor so favored by the governor's wife in 1815.
Though the gardens are a haven for ducks, geese, pelicans, flying foxes (fruit bats), and raucous kookaburras and cockatoos, you'll find a broader selection of animals across the harbor at the Taronga Zoo (www.zoo.nsw.gov . au). This spacious sanctuary (with its spectacular view of the harbor) houses indigenous Australian species -- from the shy duck-billed platypus and echidna (both egg-laying mammals) to kangaroos, dingos (wild dogs) and Tasmanian devils. There are also the usual lions, tigers, elephants and such, all roaming about in roomy habitats.
Many points of interest, including the zoo, can be reached on one of the ferry boats that buzz in and out of Circular Quay. Getting anywhere by ferry is part of the fun, even if you're only going in a circle, as on the harbor tour.
After hours of walking, you'll welcome the respite and the bracing British tea served on board. The large, two-tiered ferry boats make a slow loop of the harbor as a guide points out beaches, parks, historic landmarks, and homes of the rich and famous. Take the cruise in late afternoon so that you're returning to the quay at sunset, when the Opera House is bathed in golden light.
Sydney's world-renowned Bondi (Bond-EYE) Beach is Australia's most famous sunning spot, and one of the city's most concentrated and thriving Jewish communities, with numerous kosher eateries, shops and synagogues. The Central Synagogue in Bondi claims the largest Jewish congregation in Australasia.
Bondi is home to the Hakoah Club, a casino that, until recently, had a kosher dining room. Locals hope the popular restaurant will reopen soon.
Another beachfront suburb -- the North Shore -- has a more scattered Jewish population, but the North Shore Synagogue, surrounded by acres of lush lawn, is a popular gathering place, especially for kiddush following Shabbat services. The community also has a Jewish theater and many cultural activities.
Sydneysiders love eating out -- and outside, preferably with a water view. Popular restaurants line the beaches and the harbor.
Bondi has a wealth of informal Jewish restaurants, including Avtov, La Briyot and Savion. There are so many ethnic influences at work here that you can count on tasting combination of foods you might never have had before. To stay within walking distance of major points of interest, choose from one of several high-rise hotels near Circular Quay, such as the 34-story Four Seasons (the best hotel in Sydney, according to Travel & Leisure).
Things you should know: Australians are among the friendliest people in the world; however, don't ask them to "throw another shrimp on the barbie" (nobody says that), or assume that "Foster is Australian for beer" (there are other fine local brews), or comment that they drive on the "wrong" side of the road.
And when dining out, keep in mind that an "entrée" is the appetizer. Feel free to say "g'day," call everybody "mate" and dress casually. They do. You'll find that Aussies have some odd expressions, but they love to explain them to foreigners.
For information on Sydney -- where it's now summertime -- visit: www.sydney-australia . biz/tourist.