On our flight to Sydney from Cairns (“just say Cans“), I sat next to a nice couple from Queensland––”hobby farmers” they called themselves. I didn’t catch their names and didn’t even think to ask what they farm, but it could be sugar cane. I usually ignore my seat mates on a plane, but this time we started chatting, which was a good thing. The woman became quite friendly and gave us these great tips for our Sydney visit.
She told me about a quaint inn where they like to stay the night before a cruise because it’s an easy walk down to the dock: Mercantile Hotel at 25 George Street, in the Rocks area. The inn, walking distance to the Discovery Museum, Circular Quay, and to the steps leading up to the bridge where one can get fantastic views, especially at dusk.
The Mercantile hosts Australia’s oldest Irish Pub where we ate our first evening in the city. Bob and Anita had Bangers and Mash with mushy peas (Anita had to show the grumpy waitress the menu to get her peas), Irv had Squid and chips but no mushy peas, and I had the Happy Hour Special––fish and chips including mushy peas and wine for $15.
When we saw the same friendly couple there eating their fish and chips, I asked them about tipping in Australia. We had tipped something like 20% at one restaurant in Port Douglas where the waitress smiled––big––but also looked slightly confused. That’s when I remembered that the issue of gratuities is not clear cut in Australia. This couple was adamant, like most Australians: Do not tip. Of course they don’t want tipping to be expected; in Australia, unlike the US, waiters are paid a living wage. From then on, we just rounded up or tipped a little, but never over 10%.
Walking up to the Rocks about the time everyone was getting off work, we saw a lady in black and white garb and a curled white wig. She was pulling a case on wheels and wore a nasty scowl on her face––otherwise I might have asked for a picture. My first thought was an actor, but then Anita remembered that judges in Australia wear wigs, and, because hers was a short wig with curls, we decided she must have been a public defender having a bad day. I wish I had taken a picture.
The chatty lady had told me about the handy Opal “tap on––tap off card” for public transportation. We bought ours at an IGA Express market near our hotel, and used them for buses, trains, and ferries, including the Manly ferry to––where else?––Manly, where we had dinner at the 4Pines brewpub near the wharf. My tip: their celery root-potato soup is yummy.
The card works as long as you make sure to go “in” where there is a green arrow, and not where there is a red X, because the red X is for people leaving. Sounds easy enough, but the four of us ended our Sydney visit with different residuals––or in one case, even a deficit––on the card, even though we all bought the same dollar amounts to start. Shoulda read the instructions.
The exception to gratuities is for the volunteer guides on the free tours, which we also learned about on the plane. “The volunteer guides expect tips, and are worth it,” she said. “Meet at the fountain in Hyde Park.” Our hotel was quite close to the park, so we walked over the first morning and milled around the fountain with a few dozen other people until a guy in an orange shirt showed up, separated the walk tour participants from those of us wanting the bus, and led us to the other side of the park. There we paid him $18 per person in cash to cover the cost of bus upkeep, and boarded a big roomy bus.
His name was Martin and he provided a running commentary as he drove. He spoke really fast and had a cute way of pronouncing “Sydney” as “Syd – nee – eh.” Quite funny too: “Keep your same seat. You came for the tour, not for the drama.” We debated his nationality, Irv said Indian, or maybe Fiji. I thought Fijian sounded more correct. Martin turned out to be from Uzbekistan. “You know the movie Borat? I’m from the next village over.”
He kept to a tight schedule as we made the three stops plus numerous “hop off for a photo and jump back on” stops. We had plenty of time at Mrs. Maquires chair area to take our pictures and walk around, and time at Bondi Beach to buy a snack.
Martin told us about the green lorikeet, a noisy bird that travels in flocks. (At Manly, we heard a flock of them pass overhead and Anita saw a flying fox land in a tree there too.) And Martin shared that Australians say “doing a Bradbury” if one has a bit of last minute luck. Named after 2002 Olympic gold medal winner in short track speed skating, Steven Bradbury, who won because the other finalists fell in front of him, and according to Martin, that is how he got there in the first place––the same thing happened in the semi-finals. Watch. Martin was a good guide, and we handed him a few dollars when the tour ended.
So much information we gained from my chatty seat mate––our visit was better for it.
Date of travel: May 2018.
Hotel in Sydney: Wyndham Sydney Suites.