Welcoming in the New Year in Sydney

by Steve Zadra, Director of Hotel Operations, Princess Tours

Sydney Bridge, where the fireworks were displayed
Sydney Bridge, where the fireworks were displayed

On the last day of 2002, I awoke in Sydney, Australia.  My wife and I had been hiking and snorkeling during our travels “Down Under,” and now we would cap off our Australian cruise  by attending one of the most famous parties in the world – the New Year’s Eve fireworks display in Sydney Harbor.  At the stroke of midnight during this iconic celebration, we would be among the earliest to ring in the New Year as it gradually rolled across all 24 time zones.

Before Tracy and I got married we compared travel bucket lists. Being in Sydney for New Year’s Eve was on both of our lists, so we decided to make the experience part of our honeymoon.  We booked a cruise vacation from Sydney to Auckland and spent ten days exploring the east coast of Australia prior to the cruise. We capped off our land journey in Sydney for the main event – New Year’s Eve.

We had the day to explore the city before the evening celebration, and we started with a tour of the Opera House, followed by a walk through the famed Royal Botanical Gardens. We were delighted to find such remarkable landmarks in such close proximity to Sydney Harbor, where the fireworks would go off that night. We could see so much without ever getting behind the wheel of a car.

At the Opera House I was surprised to discover that its multi-tiered shell was not one piece – it’s actually made up of hundreds of interlocking tiles.  Examining it close up, a clear pattern emerged in the tiles, something that was never apparent to me in all the photos I’d seen.

From the Opera House, we headed to the Royal Botanical Gardens, as we were curious about the resident “flying foxes” — the biggest bats in the world.  At moments, it felt like we could have been strolling Central Park, only with Australian foliage.   But then, a branch would move in a strange way.  A wave would sweep across, and suddenly we’d realize that the motion wasn’t from the tree at all but from great clusters of bats hanging from it.  At some three feet across, they were the size of small dogs, and they hung in the thousands from nearly every branch.  It was an entire forest of bats!

By noon we had already seen incredible sights, but the greatest spectacle was yet to come.  It was time to make our way to the fireworks viewing area and set up camp, lest we be crowded out.

The city of Sydney takes its New Year’s celebration seriously.   All around the harbor there are various viewing areas, and the zones are mapped out and well organized – we decided to go to the area around the historic site called Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, which was close enough to the water that we knew it would afford an ideal view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Our usual New Years celebrations in Alaska are frosty affairs, but here in the Southern Hemisphere it was summer, giving a distinctly different flavor to the festivities.  In fact, the temperature was perfect for an al fresco picnic.  We went to a deli and bought the fixings for a New Year’s feast.   Using my wife’s sarong as a picnic blanket, we staked a claim to our spot as the crowds accumulated. Though we took our time, savoring each bite and chasing it with some of the local beer, by the time our lunch was through we still had some ten hours to kill before the great celebration.

Fortunately, the people-watching was hard to beat. Folks had gathered from all over the world for the massive fireworks display, and we had a patchwork quilt of neighbors, from local Aussies to a family from Scotland.  Everyone was in their little square. Being from Alaska proved a good conversation starter as we chatted with those around us. Locals and other vacationers alike had great tips to share about Sydney’s outstanding points of interest.

We enjoyed the increasing revelry in those last hours of the old year.  People sang songs and formed human pyramids, some 15 to 20 people high.  Street performers added to the festive ambiance. Face painters painted, jugglers juggled, and dancers danced. Mimes moved silently through the fray, while musicians of all kinds filled the air with their cacophony.

The many revelers gathered around Sydney Harbor in anticipation of the fireworks. Approximately 800,000 people watched the fireworks from various vantage points around the harbor in 2002.

As night fell, our sweeping views of the harbor became that much more spectacular. As sparkles of light burst through the night sky, illuminating the bridge and the Opera House, suddenly I was looking right at the exact view I’d seen so often on TV. I felt so fortunate to be seeing it firsthand – it was even better than I imagined.

The fireworks seemed to come from everywhere – from ships in the harbour, the bridge and nearby buildings. The display was huge, so huge that the Harbour Bridge itself seemed small by comparison. The energy of the crowd exploded as well, with collective “oooooh” and “aaaaaah” exclamations punctuating each shower of shimmering explosions.  The theme of the year’s event was “Peace,” and the climax of the show featured a gigantic, lighted animated dove with an olive branch in its beak that flapped its wings and actually traveled across the bridge.  The grand finale was spectacular – fireworks  lit up the night sky and obscured the darkness while  I got goose bumps as “Peace” was spelled out in sparkling lights on the bridge.

And there we were, among the first in the world to reach midnight and celebrate the New Year.  It was an unforgettable way to start our new life together……and to begin crossing off our now combined travel bucket list.