Lighting up a vivid Sydney

MEGAN NICOL REID
Last updated 05:00 16/02/2014
Sydney Vivid festival
CAMERON SPENCER/ Getty

SPARKLING: The Sydney Opera House is a glorious centrepiece for the annual Vivid light festival.

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By now half of Sydney may well have seen me naked.

It's not that I'm trying to be an exhibitionist. Nor that I'm deliberately parading in front of my hotel window (which FYI is the swanky Four Seasons, conveniently located a stone's throw from Circular Quay with a deliciously fresh take on the standard hotel breakfast buffet).

No, I am merely getting ready for bed. It's just that I can't bear to draw the curtains.

Sydney Harbour is a beautiful sight on any old day. Or night. But during Vivid, the lighting festival that overtakes the city every year, it is quite astonishing.

The Harbour Bridge is lit up (this time by spectators themselves, who can choose the scene and the colour of the projection from an interactive touch screen on the Luna Park boardwalk).

The Opera House is lit up (I'm not so sure that the combination of "light projection, video mapping and motion graphics" takes me on "a playful journey through time, exploring technological milestones" as the programme promises, but it sure is pretty). Heck, virtually every solid surface (and some not so solid surfaces) is lit up.

And so it is that for the three nights I'm there, I go to sleep every night in a strobe-lit nightclub.

Vivid started in 2009 as a light festival, and has now branched out into music and ideas. The 18-day programme is so jam-packed with events, activities, exhibitions and performances it can be tricky to get your head around it all.

Hardened festival goers could happily fill their itinerary from morning to night with cultural enrichment. Me, I'm happier mixing it up with a healthy dose of shopping and eating out.

Within an hour of checking in, I am enjoying smooth grilled eggplant with light and dark miso pastes and crispy salt & pepper tofu at contemporary Japanese restaurant Sake. The food is lovely. I am distracted, though, by the girls working front of house. They wear the highest heels and the skimpiest clothes and are so very Sydney.

I toss up whether to while away the afternoon at Zara or the Museum of Contemporary Art. Against instinct I choose culture over retail. I particularly enjoy an exhibition of the Canadian Jeff Wall's oversized photographs.

Sydney's horrendous traffic makes Auckland's seem positively benign. Jumping into a cab, for what I have been told is a short ride to Darling Harbour, I am sweating and cursing when, 20 minutes later, we've scarcely moved more than a block.

I finally arrive at the appointed Citibank pop-up bar to find I have entirely missed Aquatique, the light show on water which was the reason for my outing. Luckily it's on the hour, every hour, every night, and so I promise to return. But for now there is another appointment to keep.

If we had more time it would have been pleasant to travel by water taxi around the bays to the beginning of the light walk, but, despite the unabated traffic, land is deemed quicker.

Depending on your start point the walk either begins or ends at Walsh Bay. If you have ever done a sculpture walk the format will be familiar to you. Extraordinary artistic installations dotted amongst extraordinary outdoor settings every 10 metres or so.

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I am most struck by a 3m square cube by Australian artists Priscilla Bracks and Gavin Sade made from landfill material. Entitled, Every one, Every day, it is simple and painfully beautiful.

I also love Garden of Eden by the Steensen Varming Lighting Team. Hundreds of red, glowing apples hang deliciously from a real tree. I do not love Rats, an exploration of Sydney's 1990 rat infestation by an international design studio which involves hundreds of balls with shining eyes bobbing in the water.

I expect the English editor of an architectural lighting magazine doing the walk with me to be most taken with one of the more esoteric installations. But he surprises me.

"My favourite's the disco balls," he says, pointing to Glitz by Mark Hammer and Andre Kecskes. Really?

"I'm from Manchester," he says by way of explanation.

A point he further drives home when we walk past a collection of food trucks selling everything from pulled pork tacos to perogies, and he selects a sausage in white bread with tomato sauce.

Me, I save myself for dinner later that night at Cafe Sydney. An exquisite meal only heightened by the fact that while from the outside the Customs House in which the restaurant is located pulsates with the dancing crowds - whose movements conduct the light show on the building's facade - from our table we are none the wiser to the commotion below us.

The Four Seasons is mere blocks from the Pitt St Mall and the next day consumerism gets the better of me. I vow only to shop in shops we don't have in New Zealand, a promise I immediately break by hitting up Topshop.

Admittedly we only have a tiny selection here in Auckland, but I soon understand why. Most of it is crap. It's cheap and on-trend but plain ugly.

Zara is more exciting, yet even there I am underwhelmed. Chain stores just can't pull off ethnic beadwork convincingly. The menswear is particularly odd. There's so much braid and gold buttons it's practically fancy dress.

More satisfying is lunch at Movida. The Melbourne institution has only recently opened in Sydney at the time of my visit, and I'm pleased to see the standards have been maintained with the shift. Every single thing we eat - from the goat's curd and quince cigar to the salt cod fritters with Basque pil pil sauce - is faultless.

I consider culture after lunch but I am a slave to retail. The Swedish homewares depot Ikea has long lured New Zealanders across the Tasman and now there's another international interior design brand to tempt. Pottery Barn (plus three sister brands) has opened at Westfield Bondi Junction. Think throws and table lamps, basically the set off any North American romcom you've ever seen.

Dinner is at Mr Wong, a splendid, massive, modern Cantonese restaurant with a sort of colonial French fit out. It spills over two floors and has the most perfect dumplings I've ever eaten.

My last day, I vow, will not involve a solitary shop. En route to the Art Gallery of New South Wales I wind my way around Circular Quay. Through the gruelling outdoor exhibition of photos documenting global conflict, past the other end of the light walk (which is nothing to look at by day) and up through the lovely Royal Botanic Gardens.

The gallery is one of the best I have ever been to. I love the collection of 19th century paintings. This is, I realise, far better for my soul than a mall.

Lunch is again excellent. I adore Greek food and have been looking forward to this meal at the Apollo, Sydney's first contemporary Greek restaurant, for ages. If you go, get the wild weed and cheese pie.

That night I make my way back to Darling Harbour for Aquatique. Through the crowds I just manage to make out the fountains of light inspired by Versailles. In the distance I spot what I assume is another avant garde light installation, but as I get closer I realise it's just some kids waving around a bunch of light sabres.

This year's Vivid Sydney will run over 18 days throughout May to June.

- Sunday Star Times

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