Harbour regeneration has been a key part of Sydney's enduring success and Darling Harbour has been an integral part of that story, having started out as a bicentennial project back in 1988.
The recent revamp has brought about a boulevard surrounded by artworks and water features and numerous high-end hotels.
None of the hotels have displayed as much audacious originality as Ovolo 1888, which has been converted from a former wool store and given the ultimate hipster makeover inside. Giant wooden beams and pillars match effortlessly with their chic, contemporary bar and reception area. This is a venue that is endlessly engaging visually; antique clocks blend seamlessly with post-modern art prints.
The rooms are adorably named – shoebox, loft, shaken and stirred suites for example. We stayed in a king deluxe room on the top floor that is lovingly named ‘the fishbowl' with plenty of glass windows and natural lighting.
One of the most forward-thinking hotels
If you are in any doubt, Ovolo is one of the most forward-thinking hotels in the world, that will be dispelled by the sight of an Amazon Echo in the room; Alexa was used endlessly to set the mood music in the room. Now only if they connected Alexa to the lighting as well. USB ports, international adaptors, Netflix… they offer the lot.
The room itself was about three times the size of the Ovolo hotel room I stayed at in Hong Kong. And the spacious, rainbow shower benefited from natural lighting having a glass window to the outside world (but not to preying eyes).
And it isn't an Ovolo experience without plenty of freebies and I mean A LOT of freebies: free minibar, a bag of sweeties, free drinks during happy hour, a tote bag, free WiFi and the list just goes on and on.
A plant-based coup
Dining options are plentiful in the area, there is Mister Percy in-house which offers Mediterranean sharing plates, but I would recommend venturing further afield to their sister hotel at Ovolo Woolloomooloo to sample the plant-based fare at Alibi. ‘Executive producer’ Matthew Kenney has plant-based restaurants in five continents around the world, so it was quite the coup for Ovolo to secure his services.
The menu is as sexy as they get and follows his philosophy that clean-eating doesn't have to compromise on taste. Kim Chi dumplings were served with a slick red cabbage puree and mystical ginger foam.
Cacio e Pepe was cleverly recreated using kelp noodles and butternut squash gnocchi was carefully constructed using three textures of pumpkin. My only constructive feedback was the portions were generally quite small (especially the kelp noodles), so if you are hungry, maybe opt for something like the Alibi ramen.
Don't leave the restaurant without trying their tremendous plant-based cocktails; I highly recommend their Cast Away, which has Hendrick's gin, St Germain elderflower, house-made rose and cucumber tincture, lime and grapefruit.
Take a stroll to Chinatown
If you want dining options slightly closer to Ovolo1888, then I would suggest a short stroll into Chinatown for some fantastic Asian cuisine. I would recommend heading down to Ho Jiak for an explosion of Malaysian flavours; there is a fantastic mix of stunning street food and sumptuous family-style Nyonya feasts.
Nyonya cooking is all about keeping your guests well-fed and looked after, thus asking for the chef's recommendation for a starter we were treated to a lavish abalone (the massive Australian variety), which is an Asian shellfish delicacy normally reserved for special occasions like weddings, etc. along with wind-dried meats and rice. We also sampled the explosively hot, Kapitan kay rice, which is a rich and dry Nyonya-inspired chicken curry.
We also sampled their signature street food dishes too: with their char koay teow, a stir-fried rice noodle being one of the most popular dishes on their menu. There are various toppings you can choose from and we naturally went with the local delicacy, the spanner crab. Service is faultless to a T; you are a vegetarian and have a nut allergy? No problems, they can make you a specially-prepared nasi goreng wrapped in an appealing yellow omelette.
Portion sizes are very generous here, just how your grandma would serve you. The design of the restaurant is extremely meaningful to head chef Khoo with the ground floor inspired by the street he grew up on in Penang and the decor on the first floor is styled like his grandma's house filled with joy and laughter.
January is the the best month to visit Sydney
Talking of merriment, January is possibly the best time to visit Sydney with their glorious summer weather, less crowded spaces as the locals leave town and the incredible Sydney Festival is on which runs for three weeks and has been doing so since 1977. If you think Sydney is lacking in cutting-edge culture, you just need to check the line-up every year at the Sydney Festival.
The 2018 edition brought us the ground-breaking show, Home from award-winning theatre maker, Geoff Sobelle. The show begins with an empty stage and a house literally rises in front of the audience's eyes and various key moments in the inhabitants' lives are played out like a graduation, wedding, New Year's Eve party and the audience is involved on stage. This was one of the most ingenious shows I've seen in recent times.
Sydney Festival is all about variety and this year's run had the world premiere of Pigalle, which was a fusion of burlesque, discotheque and circus. The audience constantly roared with approval at the belting soundtrack that was played out which was littered with 70s classics like Lost In Music and Disco Inferno.
You won't be in any doubt whether Sydney can attract the talent or not with a cast that included the legendary Marcia Hines, renowned cabaret performer iOTA and famous British burlesque star, Kitty Bang Bang. I would strongly recommend checking on their site for when information comes out for the 2019 edition and plan your holiday around the festival.
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