Most visitors to Sydney make a beeline for Bondi Beach, including every backpacker who arrives in the city. There’s no denying Bondi boasts a beautiful stretch of sand, but Manly has more charm and a laidback local vibe we find more appealling.
Bondi Beach is gorgeous. I’ve always had a strong connection to the place and that spectacular sandy beach that skirts the bay, and the Bondi to Bronte coastal walk is one of the world’s most stunning strolls. But Manly is like a low-key seaside holiday town, and yet it’s in a metropolis like Sydney. What’s not to love about that?
Bondi was a favourite lunch destination with friends for many years — although the food was never the draw, it was the opportunity to sit in a restaurant and sip white wine while gazing out at those spectacular sea views.
Over the years, though, in its eagerness to appeal to budget travellers there to booze and families who seemed to drop in on weekends to feed their kids fast food, Bondi changed. And sadly it seemed to lose some of its identity.
Manly, on the other hand, while it still pulls tourists to its squeaky white sand and pine tree-lined promenade, and also has its fair share of fast food franchises, souvenir shops and mediocre eateries, has an authenticity about it, more of a community spirit, and has a kind of quirkiness reflected in its hippy backstreet cafés and idiosyncratic bars like Hemingway’s.
While it has its hipster spots, like kitschy Manly Wine bar and beachside café-deli The Pantry, as a destination Manly is not quite cool. In fact, its main pedestrian shopping area is what Australians like to call ‘daggy’ and could be in any old suburb. But that doesn’t really matter. In fact, that lack of pretension is partly Manly’s appeal.
But there’s something else that I love about the place even more than that. Manly may only be 30 minutes by ferry from Sydney’s city centre but it has a holiday town atmosphere that makes it feel like it’s three hundred kilometres away.
Manly reminds me of the small seaside communities on the east coast of New South Wales that my family used to take us to for the summer school holidays. They seemed to consist of little more than a main street, a caravan park, and a wharf with a fishing co-op where we’d buy kilos of cooked prawns. They probably don’t even exist anymore.
But there’s something about Manly that reminds me of those places. The barefoot locals, grandmotherly types with purple perms pushing shopping trolleys, kids with ice-cream smeared across their cheeks, and surfers with boards under their arms jogging across the burning bitumen road to the scorching sand.
In Manly, sunbathing, swimming, surfing, and perhaps a spot of fishing are the order of the day for locals and holidaymakers, punctuated of course by hamburgers or fish and chips at picnic tables by the beach, or counter meals and cold beers at a corner pub. Visitors will add surfing lessons, a bike ride, and — if travelling with kids — an aquarium visit to their to-do list.
Come late afternoon, it’s time for an amble under the pine-trees along the breezy seaside promenade with the dog-walkers and skate-boarders. Or a lazy stroll around the headland to Fairy Bower and Shelley Beach — a popular path that gets busy with locals pushing babies in buggies, jogging, power-walking, and, later, spreading out blankets to set up sunset picnics with friends.
For dinner, Manly’s residents and visitors will line up outside the most popular fish and chip joints, Thai restaurants, or the ever-popular pizza at buzzy Hugo’s on the harbourside at Manly Wharf. We would have added dining on creative Aussie cuisine at the light-filled Manly Pavilion as an option, but sadly it recently closed.
Dinner might be followed by more cold beers and perhaps a game of pool or darts at a local pub like the Hotel Steyne or a fancy cocktail in a tea cup at cosy Hemingway’s, with its bar lined with bookshelves and views of the beach.
Whatever you do, the night shouldn’t be allowed to end before you cross the road one more time to listen to the sound of the waves crashing against the shore so you can let that memory lull you to sleep. Just as it did on those childhood holidays.
Getting to Manly
Take the Manly Ferry (30 minutes) from Circular Quay. It’s a must-do experience in its own right. Timetables and fares on the Transport NSW website. At the time of research, adult single tickets cost $7 and returns double that.
Where to Stay in Manly
We checked into a stylish and very comfortable room for a couple of nights at Q Station, in the quaint, historic Quarantine Station. Set amongst native bushland on the headland above Manly, it would have been peaceful if it hadn’t have been wonderfully noisy with birdlife. The accommodation is in the original old weatherboard and brick buildings that ooze history — make sure you save some time to have a snoop around the buildings and stroll the grounds.
The buildings boast shady verandas overlooking the harbour where you can inhale the eucalyptus-scented air and sip a glass of something in the evening. A delicious breakfast is included but no matter how tempting it is to sit outside in the sunshine, don’t unless you want to lose your bacon to the laughing kookaburras. There’s a complimentary shuttle bus down to Manly Corso and you can easily find a taxi to take you back up if you timed things badly or miss the last bus.