Shout from the rooftop
I remember the last time I stayed in a hostel. It's hard to forget. It was in late January 2007 and I had spent the previous 29 nights in backpacker hostels from Bondi to Byron Bay, Hervey Bay, Airlie Beach and Cairns in order to write a book called The Secret Life of Backpackers. On that final night, there were five people in my room at a "flashpacker" hostel in Cairns and four of them were having sex. I was the other guy.
The following morning, I knew I had the (happy) ending to my book and, as I checked out, I promised myself that was the last time I would stay in a hostel ever again.
So, why am I checking into another one? Well, it's the Sydney Harbour YHA, which opened in August, offering million-dollar views of the harbour for as little as A$37.50 (NZ$48.11)a night. It sounded too good to be true, so I broke my promise.
Before I'm even inside the front door, I realise this is not a typical hostel. For a start, the 106-room, three-level, A$25-million building is constructed on pillars over an archaeological dig. Since the 1950s, this site had been a bus depot and then a car park. Then in 1994 it was earmarked for development by the state government but when the bitumen was lifted it revealed the foundations and footings of 46 buildings dating back to colonial times and more than a million artefacts. An educational facility called the Big Dig was established and the hostel was built to highlight what lies beneath - all the rooms face a central airshaft looking down on to the dig. The place is literally built on history.
Inside, there's a spacious lounge with couches and ottomans on reception level, a dozen big-screen computers with internet access and a kitchen with stainless-steel gas stoves, microwaves, toasters, cookware, crockery and cutlery. My double room on the second floor is simple but clean, with a steel-frame bed, desk and hanging space, a bathroom with large sink and shower, and a view of the rear of the Museum of Contemporary Art and glimpses of "the Toaster" (you can pay extra for a room with a harbour view).
It's all about the rooftop, so I make my way upstairs and there it is - a panoramic view of the bridge, the Opera House and the harbour.
At one table, a group of German girls studiously update their travel diaries and at the next, a clean-cut bunch of Scandinavians are preparing an early lunch; the girls making salads and doling out steamed potatoes and cobs of corn; the guys flipping steaks on the barbecue. These travellers appear to inhabit a different universe to those I met three years ago in hostel hell, who survived on two-minute noodles, cask wine, cigarettes and little sleep. I also notice there are people here older than 35 and even some parents with small children.
I'm not particularly interested in opal jewellery, Ken Done tea towels or stuffed toy kangaroos wearing boxing gloves and hats with corks dangling around the brim, so I've never felt the need to hang out in The Rocks. But there's plenty to do around here, even if you're a local.
The sandstone alleys are great to explore and when you get thirsty there's a classic old Sydney pub on nearly every corner.
I wander through the bustling markets along George and Playfair streets, see an exhibition of Sydney artist Nicholas Harding's work at the S.H. Ervin Gallery on Observatory Hill, catch up on reading the previous weekend's The New York Times at the Customs House Library and then meet my girlfriend for a drink at the Opera Bar as the sun starts to sink.
Flying foxes flap overhead in formation as we head back to the hostel and up to the rooftop to watch twilight fall. We get talking to a group of four women in their late 30s who are sharing a bottle of champagne. They're from the outer suburbs of Sydney and come to the city a couple of times a year for a girls' night out.
"Normally with the four of us we have to get two rooms in a hotel and it works out to be pretty expensive," one of them says. "Here we've got a four-share room for A$180. It's great. And look at this view." Yes, look at it. It's the same view that the people in the Shangri-La and the Park Hyatt are looking at. But we're paying a lot less for it.
That night we have a cheap and tasty dinner at the Lord Nelson Hotel, go for a walk under the bridge and sit on a bench watching the harbour lights and a colony of rabbits that has set up home on the grassy slopes. Then we stroll past the ritzy restaurants and bars of the passenger terminal.
From outside the MCA we hear a swing band in full flight inside and get closer to investigate. And then we dance, in the open air, on the footpath, on a balmy Saturday night. Your own city can be more romantic than you think.
IF YOU GO
There's a shuttle bus to the hostel from Sydney Airport. The hostel is at 110 Cumberland Street, The Rocks. The nearest train station is Circular Quay.
Sydney Harbour YHA has six-person mixed rooms from A$37.50 a person; four-person single-sex rooms from A$39.50 a person; double or twin rooms from A$128 a person; double rooms with harbour views from A$143 a person; four-person family rooms from A$160 a person. (Tariffs are low season.) All rooms have private bathrooms.
Sydney Morning Herald