One of the big bonuses of visiting Sydney in the summer (Dec–Feb) is that you get to experience the beaches in their full glory. Most major city beaches, such as Manly and Bondi, have lifeguards on patrol, especially during the summer. They check the water conditions and are on the lookout for “rips”—strong currents that can pull a swimmer far out. Always swim in the area between the red and yellow flags that mark the patrolled area. Fiberglass surfboards must be used outside the flags. (Expect a warning from the loudspeakers and a fine if you fail to do this.)
What About Sharks & Other Nasties? -- One of the first things visitors ask before they hit the water in Australia is: “Are there sharks?” The answer is yes, but fortunately, they are rarely spotted inshore—you are far more likely to spy a migrating whale. In reality, the chance of a shark attack is very small. Some beaches—such as the small beach next to the Manly ferry wharf—have permanent shark nets, while others rely on portable nets that are moved from beach to beach. Shark attacks are most likely in early morning and at dusk—avoid swimming at these times!
More common off Sydney’s beaches are “blue bottles”—small blue jellyfish, often called “stingers” in Australia (and Portuguese man-o’-war elsewhere). You’ll often find these creatures (which are not the same as the stingers in north Queensland) washed up on the beach. Be on the lookout for warning signs erected on the shoreline. Minute stinging cells that touch your skin can cause minor itching. You might be hit by the full force of a blue bottle if it wraps its tentacles around you, which causes a severe burning sensation almost immediately. Wearing a T-shirt in the water reduces the risk somewhat. If you are stung, rinse the area liberally with seawater or fresh water to remove any tentacles stuck in your skin. To combat intense pain, take a hot shower. In the unlikely event that you experience breathing difficulties or disorientation, seek medical attention immediately.
South of Sydney Harbour
Sydney’s most famous beach is Bondi. The beach, sadly, is cut off from the cafe and restaurant strip that caters to beachgoers by a busy road that pedestrians have to cross to reach the sand. On summer weekend evenings, it’s popular with souped-up cars driven by young men strutting their stuff. To reach Bondi Beach, take the train to Bondi Junction, and then transfer to bus no. 380 or 333 (a 15-min. bus journey). The 333 bus takes about 40 minutes from Circular Quay.
If you’re facing the water at Bondi, to your right is a scenic cliff-top trail that takes you to Bronte Beach (a 20-min. walk) via gorgeous little Tamarama, nicknamed “Glamourama” for its trendy sun worshippers. This beach is known for its dangerous rips and is often closed to swimming. Bronte has better swimming. To go straight to Bronte, catch bus no. 378 from Circular Quay or pick up the bus at the Bondi Junction train station.
Clovelly Beach, farther along the coast, is blessed with a large rock pool carved into a rock platform that’s sheltered from the force of the Tasman Sea. This beach is accessible for visitors in wheelchairs on a series of ramps. To reach Clovelly, take bus no. 339 from Circular Quay.
The cliff walk from Bondi eventually will bring you to Coogee, which has a pleasant strip of sand with a couple of hostels and hotels nearby. To reach Coogee, take bus no. 373 or 374 from Circular Quay.
Escaping a Rip
Plenty of tourists get into real trouble on Sydney’s beaches each year by being caught in a rip tide—a fast current that moves away from the shore (but that will not pull you under the water). If this happens, the most important thing to do is not to panic. If you can’t stand up and are being pulled out to sea, try and attract attention by raising a hand in the air. Whatever you do, don’t try to battle it out with the rip by trying to swim against it back to shore. You will quickly become exhausted; this is how people drown. Keep calm, and swim parallel to the beach. If you run out of energy, float on your back. If you swim parallel to the beach you will be pulled a little farther out to sea—it won’t take you far out—but before long you should be out of the rip and able to swim back to the beach. Never swim outside of the area marked by yellow and red flags on a beach patrolled by lifeguards. If there are no lifeguards around, it’s safest not to swim.
North of Sydney Harbour
On the North Shore you’ll find Manly, a long curve of golden sand edged with Norfolk Island pines. The best way to reach Manly is on a ferry from Circular Quay. Follow the crowds through the pedestrian Corso to the main ocean beach, ignoring the two small beaches on either side of the ferry terminal—this is not your destination!
Facing the ocean, head to your right along the beachfront and follow the coastal path to small and sheltered Shelly Beach, a nice area for snorkeling and swimming. This is one of Sydney’s nicest walks. Follow the path up the hill to the car park. Here, a track cuts up into the bush and leads toward a firewall, which marks the entrance to the Sydney Harbour National Park and offers spectacular ocean views across to Manly and the northern beaches.
The best harbor beach is at Balmoral, a wealthy suburb with some good cafes and restaurants. Reach Balmoral on the ferry to Taronga Zoo and then a 10-minute ride on a connecting bus from the ferry wharf, or catch the bus from the stop outside the zoo’s top entrance.
Bondi Beach and Tamarama are the best surf beaches on the south side of Sydney Harbour. Manly, Narrabeen, Bilgola, Collaroy, Long Reef, and Palm beaches are the most popular on the north side. Most beach suburbs have surf shops where you can rent a board. At Bondi Beach, Lets Go Surfing, 128 Ramsgate Ave. (tel. 02/9365 1800; www.letsgosurfing.com.au), rents surfboards for A$20 for 1 hour or A$40 all day. There are discounts for all-week hires, and you can also hire wet suits for A$5 to A$10. Let’s Go also offer surfing lessons, both group and individual. A 2-hour session in a small group costs between A$89 and A$99; 1-hour private lessons cost A$140.
In Manly, Manly Surf Guide (tel. 0412/417 431 mobile phone; www.manlysurfguide.com) rents (and delivers) surfboards. Manly Surf School (tel. 02/9977 6977; www.manlysurfschool.com) offers 2-hour small-group surf classes for A$70 adults, A$55 kids. The more lessons you take, the cheaper it is. For A$99 you get a full day’s outing that includes pickup from the city, lessons, and surfing at various places on the northern beaches. If you’re already proficient, you might want to consider a 1-day trip with Waves Surf School (tel. 1800/616 667 in Australia or 02/9641 2358; www.wavessurfschool.com.au) to the Royal National Park. Trips cost A$95, including lunch. Waves Surf School also offers a 2-day surfing trip to Seal Rocks, north of Sydney, for A$239, as well as 4- and 5-day trips farther afield.