Cultural city break or chilling by the ocean? Stylist’s video director Scott Nelson managed both on a trip to Australia.
Sydney is already a pretty stunning city – the Opera House, Bondi Beach, the Harbour Bridge – but every year it is literally lit up with ideas, music and creativity for a popular three-week festival most of us in the UK have never heard of: Vivid Sydney. I flew 24 hours (I recommend taking the biggest crossword book you can find) to see what we’ve been missing.
There is something remarkable about being so far away (more than 10,000 miles) yet feeling so instantly at home, and staying at the Paramount House Hotel had a lot to do with that.
Part of the former Paramount Picture Studios has been converted into this stylish hotel with a friendly atmosphere. Sharing the site is the Golden Age Cinema and Bar (an unbeatable mix of art deco interiors, cocktails and classic movies) and the Paramount Coffee Project, which is the perfect spot for breakfast.
The hotel is situated in the emerging district of Surry Hills, meaning there is no shortage of nearby cafes and patisseries to keep you caffeinated. A personal favourite of mine was Cuckoo Callay. Choose a quaint outdoor chair, sit back and enjoy the mac and cheese experience – I wasn’t hungry again for days.
I’ve never claimed to be a huge seafood fan (and I’m only tentatively going to say it now) but a trip to North Bondi Fish may have converted me in one fell swoop. Accompanied by an unparalleled view of Bondi Beach and an ice cold beer, the hiramasa kingfish ceviche was incredible.
The real reason I made the 24-hour trip, however, was Vivid Sydney. I’d never heard of it before, but working in film, the idea of a citywide cultural festival celebrating light, ideas and music sounded like a winner.
For 23 nights in the cooler months of May and June the city is transformed and two million visitors come to see it. Iconic buildings are illuminated by captivating, storytelling light projections which can be seen for free; music venues are filled with diverse acts (from experimental musician FKA Twigs to the classical Concertos On Fire) and talks and creative workshops take place across the city.
Wandering around the illuminated streets, with their giant lit-up pandas and laser-beam tunnels, was a stunning, uplifting experience. The displays were oddly gripping – you didn’t want to walk away too soon in case you missed something.
Every night you could find new installations to enjoy. The Sydney Opera House and surrounding harbour were graced with vibrant floral imagery and motion-captured dance (the work of LA artist Thomas Huang) which beautifully transformed the exterior of one of the world’s most photographed buildings.
But the crowd favourite – and mine – was a projection by Pixar Studios celebrating 30 years of their animations. Lying on the floor of an empty road tunnel, you were taken on a visual journey of how their animations are created. There’s nothing like spending your evening watching the Toy Story gang in action on a 100ft-high wall. I could have stayed for hours.
After the drama of the lights, music and action, I took a two- hour drive south of the city to Kiama, on the coast, for a total change of pace. A beach town, Kiama (derived from the Aboriginal word meaning ‘where the sea makes a noise’) is famed as a favourite day trip destination for Sydney residents and for being the site of the Kiama Blowhole, a rock formation that projects seawater 25m into the air.
Having strolled around and browsed the local boutique shops of Kiama, I headed even further south to Shoalhaven Heads to stay at Bangalay Villas. Only metres away from the national park of Seven Mile Beach, it was impossible not to unwind on the private terrace of my luxuriously laidback villa. The calming view of the coast was exactly what I needed after the hustle and bustle of Sydney.
Among the restaurants and cafes in the area there are a lot of claims of ‘best in the world’ and ‘world-famous’, but if you’re looking for the best doughnuts, take it from me that you need to seek out The Famous Berry Donut Van. Tucked away in the small town of Berry, the van was a massive draw. Queuing for doughnuts at 6pm on a Thursday evening sounds absurd, but I’d do it every day for these freshly made cinnamon champions.
If wine is more your thing, skip the doughnut queues for a trip to Tertini Wines, just outside of Bowral, where you can sample their famed pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay. An evening walk along the coast isn’t something I often get the chance to do, so before I faced the long plane trip home I headed to Seven Mile Beach and gave it my best shot. It was a beautiful end to a full-on trip, but I’ll have to come back to complete the remaining six miles another time.