Sydney: Hostel with the mostest

By Sharon Stephenson

There are amazing views from the roof of the Sydney Harbour Youth Hostel, which shares a block with the city's priciest hotel. Photo / Supplied
There are amazing views from the roof of the Sydney Harbour Youth Hostel, which shares a block with the city's priciest hotel. Photo / Supplied

The last time I stayed in a youth hostel was in New York in the mid-90s. It had bunk beds with plastic sheets, no hot water and rooms that clearly had never been troubled by a bottle of Spray & Wipe. My fellow guests included mosquitoes the size of coffee cups and a drunk Scotsman who liked to disrobe at every opportunity.

It was, quite possibly, the worst travel experience of my life.

So when the opportunity arose to stay at the spanking new Sydney Harbour YHA in the historic Rocks area, let's just say that my expectations were paddling around in the shallow end.

Sure, the photos of the roof terrace - from where you can almost reach out and touch the Opera House and Harbour Bridge - look stunning. And the fact you're sharing the same block as guests at the city's priciest hotel, the Park Hyatt, for a fraction of the cost, also held a certain appeal.

But having said goodbye to my youth a while back, I wonder if I'm too old to stay at a YHA? And what if I'm allergic to dorm rooms? Ross Lardner, manager of the 356-bed accommodation that's so new not even the taxi driver had heard of it, says I needn't worry on either count.

"These days, YHAs are open to anyone of any age and we have a range of rooms suitable for everyone from backpackers to families and couples wanting a double/twin room," he says.

That would be me. So we check into a spacious, third-floor room where the harbour view takes my breath away and I don't get it back until I leave two days later.

Think boutique hotel rather than dodgy hostel: all rooms feature en suite bathrooms with showers (even the shared four to six-bed rooms), they're spacious and air-conditioned and a thoughtful touch is the cupboard with power-point that lets you recharge your laptop, iPod or camera while you're out exploring.

Downstairs, the enormous communal dining area and kitchen features 12 internet terminals and lockers to store your food. But if you don't feel like schlepping to the supermarket, reception will sell you a packet of cereal and milk for the princely sum of A$2 ($2.61) or a DIY cooked breakfast for A$6 which includes eggs, bacon, baked beans and tea and coffee. And, joy of joy, there's also an on-site barista who'll whip you up a decent cup of Joe.

But what really sets the Sydney Harbour YHA apart - aside from the fact it's so pristine I worry about scuffing the floor - is its unique location above an active archaeological dig. At a mere 500m from where the First Fleet of Europeans landed in 1788, this spot has links to the earliest days of colonial Australia.

Archaeologists have uncovered all sorts of remains, including the foundations of a house built by First Fleet convict George Legg and parts of a slaughterhouse owned by George Cribb, a butcher and bigamist whose illegal alcohol still was found at the bottom of his well, believed to have been thrown there during a police inspection.

The Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre, which butts up against the accommodation, features a fascinating look at relics found on the site, including crockery, crop seeds and bottles. But it's the often tragic stories behind the items that are even more interesting: as well as plague deaths, records show local families were decimated by smallpox and overcrowding was a constant problem - at its peak in the 1800s, about 300 residents were crammed into little more than 30 cottages.

To ensure the integrity of the fragile site, the YHA has been erected on stilts and designed to "float" in 52 places so as not to impede the work of archaeologists. Rooms are built around an internal courtyard so whenever you exit, you can look down into the well, cesspits and foundations of the first generation of settlers.

If you're not all history-ed out, there's more interesting stuff to be found at the Susannah Place Museum across the road, while the Rocks Discovery Museum, once the place to go to buy opium, is a five-minute stroll away.

And when you're tired of shopping, lolling around the waterfront and stuffing yourself with seafood, wander back to the YHA rooftop with a bottle of wine and enjoy a view that, as every writer is legally obliged to note, is absolutely stunning.

Sharon Stephenson was a guest of the Sydney Harbour YHA.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Sydney Harbour YHA is on the web at www.yha.com.au.


- NZ Herald

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