When you live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, the possibilities for a stay-at-home holiday are pretty awesome.
Whether you prefer to hang by the harbour or retreat to the bush, perch high above the city or plunge into its heart, there’s a Sydney staycation option for you. Here are five fabulous ways to enjoy nature, culture, history and amazing cuisine on a short break in Sydney.
1. Be at one with nature at Billabong Retreat
Sometimes you just need to come home to yourself, and for that you need peace, nurturing and an inspiring change of scene. Set in stunning bushland less than an hour’s drive from the Sydney CBD, Billabong Retreat is a wellness resort that provides all those things and more. There are hints of Bali in the high-ceilinged yoga hall and outdoor lounges, but Billabong’s natural environment is all-Australian and includes an iconic geographical feature we city-dwellers have heard of but rarely see.
There really is a billabong here, and it’s a beauty — large, deep, tree-fringed, whisper-quiet and completely magical. You’ll find your steps turn again and again towards this natural centerpiece of the retreat. It’s the perfect place to wander, muse and perhaps — accompanied by a friend for safety — to swim.
Less adventurous but deeply satisfying is a dip in the magnesium aquatherapy pool after a calming yoga or meditation session. Uplifting mindfulness and nutrition programs are included in retreat packages, while spa treatments are a luxurious add-on. The organic vegetarian meals are a delight, and cooking demonstrations let you take home new skills such as fermenting and pickling.
Accommodation choices at Billabong Retreat range from dorm-style rooms or standard yurts with basic en-suite facilities, to deluxe cabins with queen-sized beds, spacious lounge areas, rainforest showers and decadent balcony baths. Go on. You’re worth it.
2. Go deluxe camping on Cockatoo Island
Camping in the heart of the city? Yes, it’s possible — legally, comfortably and very scenically! Situated at the confluence of the Lane Cove and Parramatta Rivers, Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour, and is reached by an easy 15-minute ferry ride westward from Circular Quay. It’s hard to believe that such a short journey can bring so striking a change of environment. Although the high-rise city skyline is always visible, this UNESCO World Heritage-listed outpost seems to belong to another world, combining rugged natural beauty with a rich history.
Once a fearsome prison, Cockatoo Island carries the evidence of its convict past in the sandstone buildings of the upper island. At sea level, its later industrial history is displayed in the iron remnants of shipyards, cranes and railways. All this can be seen on a day visit, but an overnight stay with a Deluxe Camping Package takes the experience to a different level.
Relax on a comfortable camp chair outside your fully prepared two-bedded safari tent and watch the ferries and water taxis go by. Dusk brings a slow drift of yachts heading out for an evening sail, followed by a spectacular sunset over the inner harbour. It’s a short walk to the camp kitchen to make your dinner (bring provisions!), before falling asleep in your tent, lulled by the rhythmic wash of passing boats.
A night under canvas can be just what’s needed to interrupt routines and reset your thinking. Grab the family and make a weekend of it, or plan a sneaky midweek escape just for you.
3. Quarantine your cares at Q Station
In our grandparents’ time, city-dwellers would pack up for their annual seaside holiday ‘seven miles from Sydney, a thousand miles from care’. Downtown Manly might have outgrown its old marketing slogan, but there’s a place nearby that fits it to a tee.
Like Cockatoo Island, Q Station is an urban heritage site that has been reconceived as holiday accommodation. The secluded natural setting and charming vintage buildings of Sydney’s old quarantine station make this a staycation experience that’s both idyllic and quirky.
Surrounded by 30 hectares of national park, Q Station is the ideal place to get away from everything without going far at all. The repurposed quarantine quarters with their long verandahs (perfect for enjoying a glass of wine before dinner) overlook green lawns and the sapphire-blue waters of the North Harbour. Stroll around the site to discover the best vantage points, or venture further afield to embark on renowned Sydney bush walks like the Fairfax Walk.
The surrounding sandy coves are lovely and you can hire snorkels to explore the marine reserve. The daytime history tours and nighttime ghost tours bring the stories and characters of the old quarantine station to life (so to speak!). Book a ‘Ghostly Getaway’ and combine a ghost tour with deluxe accommodation and a late checkout.
The onsite meal options are exceptional. Enjoy fine dining at the Boilerhouse Restaurant or choose the more casual ambience of the adjoining Engine Room Bar — which serves some of the same outstanding dishes, plus a selection of pub favourites.
4. Enjoy some cutting edge urban cool at The Old Clare Hotel
Why should out-of-town visitors have all the fun when it comes to city hotels? The Old Clare Hotel in Chippendale is one of a new generation of hip, design-based boutique hotels springing up in the inner city, and it’s one that locals will love. Full of colour and character, The Old Clare offers doorstep access to the best of Sydney’s modern urban lifestyle.
Two Chippendale landmarks — the former Carlton United Brewery and the County Clare Inn — were combined to form the physical structure of the hotel, which opened in 2015. Inside, The Old Clare Bar pays tribute to its student-pub heritage, with original tiled walls, band posters from gigs in the 1970s and 80s, and even a specially designed carpet printed with ‘spilled beer’ splodges. Upstairs, the old Carlton United Boardroom has been transformed into a unique luxury bedroom suite with super-high ceilings and original wood panelling and parquetry.
Mid 20th century design reigns throughout the hotel, as do the random vintage touches. Watch out for the dentist’s chair in the front lobby and the unusual bedroom lamps and light fittings made from upcycled industrial apparatus.
Foodies are in for a treat here, as the hotel opens straight onto Chippendale’s pedestrianised Kensington Street restaurant precinct. Breakfasts are served in the A1 Canteen, while Automata combines fine dining with an edgy steampunk aesthetic. There’s also a charming rooftop bar (open to the public) and pool (reserved for hotel guests) with city views.
5. Live it up at the Intercontinental Sydney
With its stunning harbourside location and classic five-star amenities, the Intercontinental Sydney is the perfect venue for a sophisticated city staycation.
There are two ways you can play this. Book an accommodation package with Club Intercontinental access and you may decide never to leave the hotel, spending all your time in the award-winning Club Lounge instead. A sumptuous breakfast, all-day snacks, elegant afternoon tea and generous twilight drinks and canapés are provided here, all with 270° harbour views. Chat with your companion, browse the newspapers, pick out city landmarks from the wrap-around balcony or simply watch the changing colours of the harbour and landscape, before retreating to your luxury room for a sweet night’s sleep.
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph and The Australian. In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed Roslyn to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.