Bronwyn Sell has a city break with her family and finds Australia's biggest city has plenty to keep kids happy.
From his pram, the 2.5-year-old studies the cars lined up across the wide Sydney street. The light goes green, and they accelerate away, en masse.
"Daddy, who's winning?" he asks.
It's an indication of how suburbanised we've become that he's not used to seeing more than a few cars queuing at an intersection. We live in a beach-side suburb north of Auckland and my husband and I no longer work in the city, so the closest we usually come to tall buildings and multi-lane streets is when we drive over the Victoria Park flyover.
These days, holidays have become more about spending a week in a beach bach (or, if we're feeling especially flush, a fale). A "city break" is something we used to do before we had kids and when our nearest airport was London Heathrow.
And yet I remember the thrill of a visit to the city as a country child - the red bollards along the docks, the buildings shooting up into the sky, Smith & Caughey's coffee lounge, Mum getting stressed because she was always in the wrong lane.
So this winter we announced to the kids that we were taking them on a different kind of holiday - to a city. Sydney city.
"Will we stay in a hotel?" asked the 4.8-year-old.
"Will there be elephants?" asked the 2.5-year-old.
The Sydney CBD, we discovered, was a children's wonderland - especially around Darling Harbour - with enough attractions and distractions to make any little mind boggle. Animals, dinosaurs, boats, a playground - even the Wiggles.
This came as a surprise to my Sydney-born husband and me. We had once lived within walking distance of Darling Harbour, when we were in a demographic that was still blissfully ignorant of pram mechanisms and the existence of parents' rooms in shopping malls.
Sydney turned out to be a great place for a family winter getaway - even without a beach (or an elephant) in sight.
Five things to do with kids in Sydney city
1. The Sydney Aquarium
For the 2.5-year-old, our visit to the Sydney Aquarium at Darling Harbour became all about the pursuit of the great white shark (I did tell him it was technically a grey nurse shark, but he dismissively corrected me). So the curious platypuses, the charming penguins, the Nemos and the Dorys, the grumpy stone fish and the bizarre sawfish were all quickly dispensed with as he pushed on in search of his quarry. And the menacing predator didn't disappoint - the 2.5-year-old nearly screamed the tank down in glee every time it glided over the top of us.
2. Dinosaurs at the Australian Museum
This was as much of an education for me as it was for the boys.
"What's that one, Mum? What's that one? What's that one?"
"It's an, uh, ah, cripes, psitta- psittaco- psittacosaurus. Or is that the oviraptorosaurus?"
With 10 complete dinosaur skeletons and eight life-size models, it was the perfect rainy-day pursuit for two dinosaur-mad little boys. The Surviving Australia exhibit next door was also a hit. Among other strange beings, it had a life-sized model of an extinct giant wombat-like creature the size of a small rhino. The museum also has a Deep Oceans exhibit on until October 14.
3. The playground at Darling Harbour
It's billed as the best playground in Australia. And it's definitely very cool.It has a network of water races and gadgets for the kids to splash around in (take a change of clothes), a big sandpit with built-in diggers, a 21m flying fox and a 3m slide, plus the usual swings and climbing frames. And there's an old-fashioned carousel next to it. Save yourself a lot of money by letting the kids spend all weekend there, while you drink coffee from the new Darling Quarter nearby.
The highlight of Sydney for the 4.8-year-old was patting a live snake at this boutique Australian zoo at Darling Harbour. Also popular here was Rex, the grinning 5m crocodile who was taken into custody after he developed a taste for the pet dogs who visited the waterhole he once lived in. The kids were also entranced by the butterfly house, and stayed reverentially still when the curious little flutterers landed on their hands or hair. Given the chance, the 2.5-year-old would happily have snuggled up with the sleeping wombat for his afternoon nap.
If you have a little Wiggles fan in the family, you won't escape without a visit to the Powerhouse Museum, which has an interactive exhibition about the four coloured ones and their friends. Older kids (and adults) might prefer to step into the world of Narnia: The Exhibition, if you can get there before August 26. There are also loads of cool permanent exhibitions, including one on space.
Getting there: Emirates, which flies its A380s return to Sydney daily, has arguably the best offering for kids of any of the transtasman airlines: full service, comparatively spacious seats, seat-back on-demand entertainment, generous kids' entertainment packs, specially prepared kids' meals and fares to rival the budget airlines.
Where to stay:
Adina Apartment Hotel, Surry Hills: We stayed in a spacious two-bedroom unit with kitchen and laundry. It's in a quiet spot on Crown St, a short walk to Central Station, and within strolling distance of half a dozen cool cafes. The renowned bistro Bills - owned by celebrity chef Bill Granger - is downstairs and offers room service.
Medina Grand Sydney: The Adina's sister apartments on Kent St are a great place to base yourself if you want to enjoy the action in Darling Harbour. It offers one, two and three-bedroom apartments, all with kitchens and laundries, and has a heated pool.
Vibe Hotel Sydney: If you're happy to bunk in together and don't need a full kitchen, the trendy Vibe Hotel on Goulburn St is a good family-friendly option. Kids under-12 eat free at the hotel restaurant and get complimentary kids' packs, and there's a heated pool.
Bronwyn Sell was hosted by Destination NSW, Emirates and the Adina Apartment Hotel.
An insider's tips: Five free activities for kids
By Emirates' regional manager of commercial operations Tim Harrowell, a father of one.
1. Bike riding
Sydney Olympic Park has more than 35km of cycleways for safe riding where you can explore more than 430ha of rolling green parklands and tracks next to the harbour. You can bring your own bike or they can be hired.
2. Sydney Harbour Bridge
Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and then climb to the top of the southern pylon for a fantastic view of the city, harbour and opera house.
3. Barranjoey Lighthouse
Drive down to the famous Palm Beach on Sydney's northern beaches, then climb along the 1km track to the top of the headland to see the lighthouse and beautiful views over Pittwater and Palm Beach. You may even see a TV star as this is where Home & Away is filmed.
4. Mrs Macquarie's Chair
Walk from the opera house through the botanical gardens to a carved out rock known as Mrs Macquarie's Chair to look back at the bridge, opera house and city.
5. Eastern Beaches headland walk
Walk along a very safe pathway from famous Bondi Beach to Bronte Beach along the headland. It has great views of the ocean and you may even see some dolphins.By Bronwyn Sell Email Bronwyn