Make sure you pack your togs for this epic Sydney walk, writes Tara Wells
I know Sydney. After spending just enough time away from my birthplace to appreciate it more, my whole body knows it. My feet explore its footpaths, parklands and national parks. My head plans for places with a buzzy city vibe or those with the promise of quiet. My stomach pipes up with an opinion whether it's been asked or not. And my heart ... my heart still skips a beat whenever the Sydney Opera House comes into view. The contrast of its white sails against the blue Pacific and green botanic gardens reminds me there is more to my suburban life for anyone willing to go out and meet it.
• Wildlife, museums, festivals and more: Australia's best adventures not involving food and wine
• Ask Away: Tips for driving around Australia
• Premium - Australia: A road trip from Sydney brings foodie treats and sight-seeing delights
Yet still, Sydney surprises me.
Walking the new 80km Bondi to Manly track from one iconic beach to another is a revelation. Passing through the city centre and over the harbour bridge, the walk wends in and out of Sydney Harbour National Park. It takes in every available green space and waterfront, yet still delights in traversing urban areas usually reserved for resident multi-millionaires, avoiding main roads wherever it can.
If there was a checklist of what a world-class, semi-urban walk should be, this one ticks it all; must have unmissable big-city attractions and nearly deserted bushland; must offer expansive harbour views and pockets of local favourites; must be easy to jump on public transport to get back to base; must be even easier for native birds and animals to call home.
It's been a long time coming, this walk. Strangely, for a country 29 times bigger than New Zealand, the number of serious multi-day walks were limited to a few Kiwi-style tramps in Tasmania, Victoria's coastal Twelve Apostles, or inland Queensland, South Australia or the Northern Territory for wild and rugged landscapes. Anywhere but New South Wales really, and certainly not the city. The message was clear: even if you flew into Sydney, you must go somewhere else to walk.
Some saw the madness of this. Because we'd all walked our little patch of the city and its surrounds and seen what the coastline had to offer. But until now, only the most determined thought to link each separate walking track together to form one trail.
Parts of the new Bondi to Manly Walk would be familiar to walkers already keen to explore Sydney's natural beauty on foot. I've seen the Spit to Manly Walk - a 10km section now absorbed into the larger 80km route - grow in popularity over the years. The lure of twisting Angophora trees framing views of aquamarine harbour, Eastern Water Dragons scampering away from a sun-soaked patch, topped off with a green-and-gold ferry ride back to the city has captured the imagination.
And then there's the Hermitage Foreshore Track, also passing through the national park despite being on the other side of the harbour. Its five small sandy beaches, gentle waves barely nudging the shore, show there is more to Sydney's foreshore than the two big surf beaches where the walk begins and ends.
So what makes the Bondi to Manly Walk new? Now it's a "thing", there are signs to mark it as such, ensuring no walker gets left behind in street intersections and cafe distractions.
Much like the scallop shell directing pilgrims on the Caminos, the Bondi to Manly Walk is consistently marked with a whale symbol. It was selected with input from local Aboriginal Lands Councils. The humpback whale, or Buriburi, is part of Dreaming stories. Up to 30,000 migrate along this coastline between June and November each year.
As I walk, I keep an eye out for telltale signs of white spray blowing up from an otherwise calm patch of water. Any disturbance will do, because if not a whale, it could be a playful pod of dolphins. Whale watching from land feels more serendipitous than using a swell-tossed boat's radar. But wildlife, by definition, does not perform on demand and I don't spot any today. I console myself with memories of previous encounters, and wonder if the seal that frequents the Opera House will return next year.
The best places for whale watching on this walk are from Gap Bluff and South Head, and Manly's Shelley Beach lookout as well as at North Head. They boast pretty dramatic clifftop vistas too.
The wildlife spotting continues on land. For a city walk, be prepared for more animal encounters than first suspected. There are Water Dragons near Manly, Tawny Frogmouths in the Angophora trees around Bradleys Head, and brush turkeys in revitalised bushland at Cremorne Point. Unless you duck into Taronga Zoo on the way past, there are no koala, kangaroo or wallaby but you may spot the occasional echidna and many native birds throughout the endangered Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub growing along the coast.
What makes this walk so special and accessible is that it can be whatever you want. My ideal would be to do it over eight continuous days, walking a leisurely 10km each day. I'd take my time over a cafe breakfast (try Archie Bear at Mosman Rowers, or kick off the walk at Bondi's Speedos Cafe), break for a swim at one of 20 beaches (a minor detour to tiny Castle Rock Beach in the national park is worth the steep set of stairs), and recharge with coffee at yet another waterside cafe. On this perfect walking day, I'd get to my destination in the afternoon, have a quick scrub and enjoy a sundowner drink and good food with views to match (grab a gourmet burger and craft beer or a cocktail at the Watsons Bay Hotel).
But the reality is to take whatever time I can get; either upping kilometres per day from 10km to 20km - plausible on the route's mostly footpath or boardwalk - making it a four day walk, or breaking it up over a series of weekend stays. Or both.
Although a bus stop is never too far away for a cheeky shortcut ahead or rebound back to that night's bed, keep a tab on ferry wharfs. Chugging across Sydney Harbour by ferry is a highlight that's nearly worth skipping a few kilometres' walk. To sneak in more walk in less time, I'd jump on at Rose Bay or Double Bay, ferry to Circular Quay, and backtrack through the centre of the Royal Botanic Gardens to rejoin the track's waterside approach to the Sydney Opera House.
With so much public transport, the walk can be tackled using the city centre as a base. Look for hotels around Circular Quay and The Rocks to take advantage of those ferry connections.
There is, however, enough accommodation along the Bondi to Manly walk to bed down whenever it takes your fancy. Mix it up with gorgeous boutique hotels and short-term rentals for a local's perspective. The concept of inn-to-inn walking is fairly new in town so luggage transfer providers may take a while to cotton on. I carried a daypack because water refills are plentiful, food options are many, and clothing needs limited. I had just one evening outfit to swap with daytime walking clothes. Oh yeah, and my togs. Because this is Bondi to Manly, after all.
Air New Zealand, Qantas, Jetstar, LATAM and Virgin Australia fly direct from Auckland to Sydney.
Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel. Harbourside chic with sunset views over the city from the downstairs beer garden. Rooms from NZ$317.
Pier One Sydney Harbour. Built on and over the water, many maritime-inspired rooms have views of the Harbour Bridge. Rooms from $305.
Q Station Manly. In Sydney Harbour National Park, this converted quarantine station feels a million miles away. Rooms from $285.