The City by the Sea

Witness Sydney the way it's meant to be seen: From the sea and the air
Sydney seaplane
Sydney Harbour's peninsula-rich coastline (Leanne Mitchell)

If there's one thing I learned while Down Under, it's that seaplanes and rainstorms don't mix. But after traveling half the world for what felt like half a century, I remained determined to give it a go, despite the drizzle and the jetlag. How, you may ask, could I even contemplate getting on another plane after spending over 20 hours in transit the day before? One simple reason: This city is best appreciated by air.

Our seaplane ride was supposed to last half an hour, an airborne meander from the floating dock in Rose Bay along the southern coast of Sydney Harbour, over the Opera House, and across the stretch of the northern headlands. Before getting airborne, our pilot Gary had outlined the desired route on a three-dimensional topographic map hanging in the office of Sydney Harbour Seaplanes, the city's oldest seaplane operator. If anyone could successfully navigate through the storm, they were it.

The six-seater whitewashed plane we boarded dated back to the 1960s, its controls like something from a World War II fighter plane, but Gary—who'd flown seaplanes for ten years—swore it operated better than most modern crafts. He fired up the engine and the entire world started vibrating, the roaring motor subsiding to a numbing hum as we started to move away from the floating dock and into the choppy waters of Rose Bay. My knees bounced with anticipation as we gathered speed and the bobbing sensation transformed into a smooth, paper-thin skiff across the choppy water until we rose from the ocean and arched into the gray, cloud-covered sky.

Quickly, Sydney fell into three-dimensional relief: its expansive coastline dipping and weaving, yielding to the crashing surf; its eastern waterways alive with sailboats and ferries; its verdant parkland, dense urban sprawl, and suburban housing stretching infinitely to the west… It was anm intoxicating bird's-eye view of one of the most scenic cities in the world and just when I'd conquered my amazement and started to piece together the maze of coasts and bays and the pockets of village-like neighborhoods, the rain increased and Gary made the unfortunate, unavoidable announcement that we had to return a mere 15 minutes after we'd taken off.

Our full aerial exploration wasn't to be denied, however. So Leanne and I made plans to return to Sydney Harbour Seaplanes on the tail end of our whirlwind tour of Australia. And when that day came, the weather gods finally smiled upon us: temperatures in the mid-70s, a few cotton-ball cumulus clouds floating in an otherwise deep-blue sky, the sun bright and aglow, the water a series of shimmering blues and frothing whites. This time we'd be airborne for roughly an hour and a half, with nary a storm cloud or raindrop to get in our way.

Headphones were supplied to muffle the sound of the engine and as we soared into the air, the PA system was already full of chatter—other seaplane pilots sharing news about breaching whales off the South Head and a flotilla of sailboats racing out to sea. We arched over the Sydney Opera House, its white-sail roof shimmering like platinum, looped over the Harbour Bridge, hugged the northern stretches of Sydney Harbour, and cut over the green expanse sprouting from Clifton Gardens and Georges Heights toward our eventual destination, Sydney's famed, scenic and remote northern beaches.

As we hugged the wave-lashed coastline northwards toward famed Manly Beach, our pilot's voice filled our headsets, telling us to look down. We obliged and saw a massive school of dolphins cruising along the coastline, frolicking with a group of surfers and sea kayakers who'd paddled beyond the breaks.

The hour-and-a-half ride ended in the blink of an eye, and left every passenger in a giddy, childlike state of glee. After buzzing by a few of the beaches north of Manly—gorgeous stretches of sand and surf married to lush national parkland—we looped back, cut across Hunter's Bay and the Middle Harbour, and did two spectacular passes over Rose Bay (the first for enjoyment, the second to wait for clear passage on the water) before we touched down in what was easily the most gentle landing I've experienced. Back on solid ground, our sea legs wobbling, we were unable to reign in our enthusiasm. Grinning like idiots, we darted out, anxious to re-discover the city.

Access and Resources:
Rose Bay-based Sydney Harbour Seaplanes offers a wide variety of flight options, from a AUS$125 flight over Sydney Harbour and Bondi Beach to the AUS$195 flight from Rose Bay to the northern beaches to a flight-meal combo starting at AUS$395 that leaves Rose Bay and drops you on a northern beach for a three-course, à-la-carte gourmet lunch. Other options, including overnight stays, flight-and-hike, and flight-and-sail trips are also available.

Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for

Published: 12 Nov 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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