Manly is one of Sydney's most famous tourist attractions but may also be one of its least penetrated and understood.
"Every concierge in Sydney will tell their guests to come here," says Manly Centre manager Meegan Clancy. "But when they get off the ferry, they don't have a clue what to do.
"Some remark how tiny Manly beach is, presuming it's the one by the wharf on the harbour. Others ask how else they can get on and off the island.
"Most never see more than The Corso between the wharf and the beach."
Manly was named after Captain Arthur Phillip for the "confidence and manly behaviour" of the indigenous people living there when he led the First Fleet into Sydney in 1788. It could be that many of Manly's modern-day visitors are just as lost by their surroundings.
Clancy suggests visitors who come to Sydney base themselves in Manly. "It's a surf village on the edge of the city," she says.
But Manly is no Bondi, the locals will tell you. "No one will judge your handbag or sunnies here. It's less transient than Bondi too," says Clancy, who is originally from Adelaide but has lived in the northern beaches hub for 15 years.
"The vibe here is different. More relaxed," she says. "There's a warm blanket over Manly, which allows friendships to grow, and people to grow."
And the best way to grow like a local?
"Follow the people with dogs and prams," says Clancy. "Get away from the main drag."
Armed with tips and recommendations from those who know and love Manly, I aim to spend a weekend like a local. Here are some of the gems I discovered.
GRAB A BITE
Manly's food and bar scene has exploded in recent years. Hugos, on Manly Wharf, remains a favourite. The gourmet thin-crust pizzas, classic Italian dishes and cocktails are a delight and there's no better place to watch the ferries come and go.
But some of Manly's best bars and restaurants are off the beaten track. Belgrave St and Pittwater Rd could well be the suburb's coolest corner. Try Jamtown, a small, vibrant spot serving Jamaican classics such as barbecue jerk and curried goat alongside 20 Jamaican rums, and Sunset Sabi, which serves imaginative modern Japanese fare.
A few doors down, the Belgrave Cartel (6 Belgrave St) is your perfect shadowy wine bar, complete with dripping candles, tiled walls and more than a few eccentric knick-knacks. It also serves decent food.
At 10 Belgrave St is Good Hope, one of Manly's newest restaurant and wine bars. Serving seasonal sharing plates and fine Australian wine, it's the perfect place for a tasty catch-up with friends.
Some of Manly's restaurants have stood the test of time — The Boathouse, a rustic beachside kiosk, cafe and restaurant on beautiful Shelley Beach, is one of them.
Nor should you overlook the Steyne, the road that hugs the beach. If you're up for a cosy drink or a bite among books, Hemingway's is your pick, while The Pantry, right on Manly Beach, offers the best views in town of the beach and surf. It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
For a late night hot-spot, Donny's is your place.
There's a niche selection of craft beers, high-end tequilas and rare whiskys and live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
FIND SOME BALANCE
Manly locals are big into healthy living. After your Saturday morning acai breakfast bowl (try superfood cafe Bare Naked Bowls), follow the flow to the yoga studio.
The Yin Yoga at Power Living isn't just any yoga. "It works on our connective tissue not our muscles," says instructor Eliza, "so it's more like a pillow party than a workout class."
It's certainly a way to get intimate with the locals; our room is packed.
EXPLORE THE UNDERWATER
The walking trails on the headland around Shelley Beach offer stunning views out to sea and to the beaches further up the coast. But after swooning at the turquoise waters of protected Cabbage Tree Bay, the best thing to do is dive into them.
Cabbage Tree Bay is divided into three differing environments: the rocks, the sandy bottom and the kelp forest. So there's a huge variety of wildlife to see. Highlights are the sharks (Port Jacksons, dusky whalers and wobbegongs), which come into the protected waters to breed, as well as the turtles and bright blue gropers.
There's also an eerie old motorbike on the seabed, which Manly Council secured with concrete blocks after it became a habitat for so much marine life. For info on bushwalking and snorkel tours, visit ecotreasures.com.au
GET ON TO THE HARBOUR
With the ocean and beach as a playground, why wouldn't you be inspired to get up early and get active? Flow mOcean offers fitness classes with a difference: your gym is the water, your machine a stand-up paddle board or kayak. My group of kayakers are mostly locals who check out the weather from their window when they wake up on Sunday morning. If it's fine, they come on down for a paddle.
We kayak across the beautiful harbour to the Quarantine Station where we do a workout class on the wharf before kayaking over to stunning Store Beach, where the station's food was kept safe from hungry residents. These days it's a spot that's still only accessible by water. We hop off for some ab work on the beach, saving energy to speed paddle across the ferry lane back to Manly Sea Life Sanctuary.
HIT THE BEACH
Despite what's on offer for locals and tourists, the best thing about Manly is the natural beauty that has been enjoyed since the days of the first settlers.
Shelley Beach is one of the city's most sheltered coves, which makes it perfect for children. And since the suburb juts out into the sea, with Manly Beach on one side and Harbour Beach on the other, it is one of the rare places in Sydney you can sit on the sand and catch the sunrise and sunset.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Sydney.
Manly is easily accessible from Sydney's CBD by road or by ferry. The latter is by far the prettiest way to arrive. For info, visit transportnsw.info.
Staying there: The Novotel Sydney Manly Pacific offers comfortable rooms with balconies overlooking the beach.