Manly's Shelly Beach couldn't be more inviting. After a hectic end to 2011, and a damp start to 2012 in Auckland, I've been dying to don swimwear and laze around in the sun. The shimmering turquoise water beside the boardwalk beckons. Down on the white sand, reality seems a world away as I doze in the sun, half-listening to the lilting accents of people around me while a gentle breeze dries the salt that a chilly dip left on my skin.
I could get used to this.
It's summer in Sydney and the temperatures are in the low 30s, making frequent beach trips essential. We've come to the right place; the city boasts more than 70 beaches, from secluded bush-fringed bays to the world-famous golden sands of Bondi. Here, glamorous bikini-clad girls and muscle-bound men strut, making it a less-than-ideal spot for a 30-something mother like me, for whom skimpy swimwear is history.
At Palm Beach, 40km north of Sydney, the bull ants are eager to bite and the pounding surf renders swimming impossible on our visit. The rugged scenery of Watson's Bay is spectacular, but the crowds make finding a spare patch of sand a challenge.
So Shelly Beach wins my vote. It is, I'm told, something of an open secret around Sydney. It's a protected marine reserve popular for snorkelling and diving, and picnic tables and barbecues beneath towering palm trees provide a great way to wind down at the end of the day. A reef shelters the beach from ocean swells so swimming is great here, if you don't mind the odd bit of seaweed. Even the boardwalk near Manly Life Saving Club is an experience, lined as it is with million-dollar homes and the occasional water dragon.
Much as I'd love to stay all day, there is boutique shopping to be had in Manly and just enough time to marvel at the super yachts in the harbour over a fish and chip supper before ferrying back to the city.
Two days later, Sydney turns up the heat and, when I'm not supine on a couch with a cold flannel on my face, there are plenty of ways to cool off. We join the other families splashing around in Darling Harbour's many fountains, dodging babies and plastic boats as we rest our weary feet. A half-hour cruise into Circular Quay on a Parramatta River Cat beats the bus hands-down and gives us a unique view of the city's most famous icons, while out in west Sydney, Featherdale Wildlife Park can't be topped for wildlife experiences. It's surprisingly free of tourists and we love the chance to mingle with koalas, kangaroos and other natives. Even my daring rescue of my toddler from a bad-tempered, head-butting goat doesn't dampen our visit.
Sydney Fish Markets is a must-do if fresh seafood is your thing and you don't mind crowds and the slimy scales covering the ground. Vendors and buyers haggle happily, ignoring the fishy smell that fans set to full speed cannot quite dissipate. It's wonderfully authentic but a quick walk round is enough for me.
Instead, we escape to the fresh air and cool climate of the Blue Mountains. Home to the renowned Three Sisters, Blue Mountains National Park is a great getaway spot for anyone desperate to avoid the summer heat. It's 90 minutes by train from Sydney and considerably cooler; our night here is cold, rainy and misty enough to set my teeth chattering. Two days here makes for a packed schedule but we take in all the main sights despite the weather, including the world's steepest incline railway. Descending at a 52-degree angle at its steepest point, this 415m-long scenic train ride into rainforest is a must. My attempts to do it justice in photos fail miserably.
We return to Sydney to soak up the warmth before our holiday ends. Knowing the Kiwi summer may not improve, we're grateful to have had time in the sun.
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