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Darling of a place
Mark Stephenson Darling of a place

After taking the red-eye from Perth to Sydney we were delighted to find we could check straight into our hotel room at the Novotel Rockford on Darling Harbour.

Naively, we had planned to whizz straight out and explore - we were staying one night before joining the Royal Caribbean ship Radiance of the Seas for a 16-night cruise around the Top End, finishing in Fremantle. Three wasted sightseeing hours of snooze later we felt human enough to venture out. Walking in the general direction of the harbour, we asked a gardener the way. "Follow the water feature and it will open itself up to you," he said.

Well, we were in the Emerald City.

The water feature was much more than a couple of fountains. Stretching beside the Sydney convention and exhibition centre, which dwarfs Perth's, it had streams, stepped features, elaborate stone and metalwork and a museum's worth of public art.

And everywhere, scruffy-looking ibis scavenging the landscaped gardens and intricately paved paths.

Darling Harbour did open up to us, and what a lovely sight, even on a cold, grey day. It looked like a film set, and was - Hugh Jackman's latest Wolverine was being filmed. But Hugh wasn't there today, members of the crew told us. Cafes, bars, restaurants, the world's biggest IMAX theatre, the Australian National Maritime Museum marked by a moored destroyer, a sinister black submarine and an old wooden ship were on one side. Opposite, more shops, bars, eateries, each with distinctive designs and artworks. The water lapped green against the old stone harbour works and little trams of several cars carried tourists around the pedestrian precinct and beyond.

We took the monorail, expecting a Star Trek experience and discovering a clanking tram on high. And someone had decided it would be a good idea to half-obscure the windows with advertising film. But it was a fun way to see the city centre and peer into the mysterious life of buildings above street level.

Halfway around the circular route is the World Tower, a huge multi-storey with a thriving mall and food stalls, all buzzing with crowds. We hopped off there and walked back to Darling Harbour, a 10-minute trip through busy city streets and Chinatown.

We had dinner at one of the harbourside restaurants. The Novotel Rockford has its own microbrewery, the Pumphouse. A nightcap of Mad Abbot Ale, named for the Opposition Leader, and our swift day in Sydney was over.

FACT FILE

Taxis are plentiful compared with Perth. Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House are a 10-minute taxi ride away, or use the efficient public transport system.

Take advantage of Darling Harbour's restaurant happy hours for great food and drink deals - we had lunch and a drink for $14 each.