Milson's Point, North Sydney.Photo Erle Levey / Sunshine Coast Daily
Milson's Point, North Sydney.Photo Erle Levey / Sunshine Coast Daily Erle Levey

Food, art and music come together on The Rocks

CCoffee, food, art and music come together on The Rocks

IT'S often the unexpected that catches your eye as much as the obvious.

A set of steps, worn down by the endless tramp of feet over many years, a reflection in a pool of water on the pavement, a faded photo on the wall of a pub or cafe.

That's the beauty of The Rocks - a reminder of Sydney's early convict days yet a vital part of life today.

Its history began shortly after the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove in 1788 to establish a settlement in what was known as New South Wales.

Where Circular Quay now stands was the original site of the colony's formation.

The Tank Stream provided the first consistent water supply.

From these first footsteps of European settlement has sprung an international city.

Yet the long and colourful history of The Rocks provides the perfect recipe for events such as the Aroma Festival: a delightful mix and an unforgettable experience at an envied heritage site on one of the world's great harbours.

The festival appreciates the art of coffee brewing and attracts 100,000 visitors in one day.

The 2016 festival saw the historic precinct's sandstone laneways filled with more than 60 coffee and gourmet food stallholders, food trucks, latte art competitions and demonstrations, pop-up bars, performers and coffee-inspired specials. This was a relaxed big day out, and I started it by enjoying breakfast - upstairs in a historic terrace. A delightful treat.

Adjoining our table sat the friendly founders of the SAM Project. This generous couple live in a self-contained truck posing as their home. The trailer is a coffee cart, self-contained with flap-up sides and servery. Cute and functional.

All funds raised from the sales of cups of coffee go to the Black Dog charity for anxiety and depression.

That was the start of the day ... meeting committed people who are focussed on helping others. Then, meandering into First Fleet Park, an overwhelming sense of place and belonging flooded over me.

The cultural mix was evident - people who have arrived in Sydney from elsewhere, just as they did in sailing ships all those years ago.

Today, luxury liners berth at Pier One where square-rigged sailing ships once anchored.

There were people of all ages, out for a day in the harbour city. Music rang out, enticing one to stand and listen.

Further along there was an artist decorating a coffee machine - the grand prize in a photo competition. Barista artists battled to win the $3000 cash on the stage that adjoins the international passenger terminal.

This place, the rocky outcropping peninsular that supports the southern pylons of the mighty Sydney Harbour Bridge, is one of my favourite places in Sydney.

The Rocks is a perfect blend of culture, cuisine and a myriad of experiences worth savouring. More than 14 million visitors are attracted to the area each year.

It's an extraordinary place in Sydney that the world talks about and the perfect place to explore on foot. Not only are there guided tours of buildings and early hotels but ghost walks, too.

Then there are self-guided tours and the simple delights of ambling along the flagstone streets, up and down stairs often cut into the sandstone rocks on which the area is built.

Its popularity comes from the close proximity to Circular Quay and the views of the iconic Harbour Bridge, as well as the historic nature of many of the buildings.

You only have to step off the harbour foreshore to find the sandstone terraces and cottages and some of Sydney's oldest pubs.

The Argyle Cut, constructed with convict labour, links underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Sydney Observatory, and the Dawes Point Battery as well as Walsh Bay, home to the Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Dance Company.

The site of the observatory evolved from a fort built on Windmill Hill in the early 19th century to an astronomical observatory.

It was also used as a signal station to announce the arrival of ships at South Head and is now a working museum where evening visitors can observe the stars and planets.

My first visit included climbing the Pylon Lookout, yet now there are organised walks in which you can climb the span of the bridge.

Otherwise walk across to North Sydney and explore the delights of Milsons Point, Lavender Bay and the Secret Garden created by Wendy Whiteley.

From Argyle St, steps go up to Cahill Expressway and walk across the Harbour Bridge for an unbelievable view of the harbour and Sydney Opera House.

Two separate pubs claim to be Sydney's oldest survivors - the Fortune of War and the Lord Nelson.

Colleagues at work who used to live in Sydney talk fondly about the Observer, the Orient, the Mercantile, the Palisade and the Hero of Waterloo.

Step through to Surgeons Crt, the site of the First Fleet's portable hospital.

The archway is a portal to an adventurous series of lanes and passageways that make up Nurses Walk.

The walkway was created in 1979 to honour the nurses who worked in the hospitals set up in The Rocks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Nurses Walk runs into "Suez Canal", a narrow passageway originally known as Cornwall Lane but which at one point was an open sewer. Understandably, it drew the nickname "Sewers Canal".

There are some delightful cafes in this vicinity - some of them with outdoor courtyards, accessed by openings off the passageways.

Playfair St is closed to cars and is now a mall comprising upmarket cafes and shops established in the area's old terrace houses and cottages, many of which have historical significance.

It's also where The Rocks Markets spills over from Argyle and George Sts.

Shopping options include galleries exhibiting Australian artists, such as Ken Done, yet it is also the site for the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia: a sandstone building that originally housed the Maritime Services Board. On the northern side is the $53million extension that blends well with its environment but looks contemporary and is extremely functional.

Right from inception, there have been various attempts by different levels of government to demolish houses at The Rocks.

In 1968, the NSW Government gave control of The Rocks to the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, with the intention of demolishing all the original buildings and re-developing them as high-density residential dwellings. Yet a group of local residents formed the Rocks Residents Group to oppose the plans.

They requested a green ban from the Builders' Labourers Federation, which had become increasingly active in preventing controversial developments over the years.

The Sirius building - a 12-storey apartment complex constructed to rehouse public tenants who had been displaced during the 1960s and '70s - has now been designated for redevelopment.

Only a handful of residents remain on site after the NSW Government's decision to sell the property to create other social housing for families in great need. The government has denied heritage listing for the building, opening the page on another chapter of life in The Rocks.

Accommodation in The Rocks ranges from bed-and-breakfasts to boutique hotels while any number of international hotels are nearby at Circular Quay and in the city.

One of the most interesting places to stay must be the Sydney Rocks YHA hostel in Cumberland St that is built above archaeological remnants of colonial Sydney.

Multi-share and double/twin accommodation, all with ensuites, is available from $58 per person to family/four-person suites from $202.

There is a fully-equipped kitchen as well as a rooftop dining and barbecue area that gives dress-circle views of the harbour, the bridge and opera house.

The Big Dig, on which the YHA is built, is a parcel of land containing remains from the time of Australia's first European settlement.

Excavations began in 1994, attracting enormous media and public attention.

Some 400 volunteers and a team of 20 archaeologists uncovered the foundations of more than 30 homes and shops, the earliest built in about 1795, and some 750,000 artefacts.

The Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre is the largest archaeological urban development ever completed in Australia. It is open to the public from dawn to dusk, when the gates to Cribbs and Carahers Lanes are open.

That's the thing about The Rocks: it's all about time. Make sure you make the time to investigate further.

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