Some say the most exciting and exhilarating way to see Sydney is from above – cruising in a seaplane just 500m above sea level.
Not so long ago, I had the privilege to do just that, along with three couples –Malaysia Airlines Enrich Platinum members invited on an Enrich Luxe Retreat to Sydney as a reward for their loyalty to the national carrier.
The Sydney Seaplanes adventure was just one part of the well-organised itinerary, which included some of the best luxury experiences in Sydney and the surrounding regions, and also great restaurants and cafes.
From up above in the classic single-engine Beaver aircraft, the private yachts dotting the ocean seemed tiny, but it was a sight to behold.
Seaplanes, interestingly, were actually flying boats that carried first-class air mail back in the 1930s. The seaplane was then a symbol of luxury, and catered to carrying passengers, cabin crew as well as mail and cargo from Sydney Harbour to various parts of the world, during the dawn of international aviation.
Fast forward to 2005. Sydney Seaplanes is a company which has grown from having just one De Havilland Beaver to the largest seaplane operator in Australia, with refurbished Beavers and a 13-seat turbo prop amphibious Cessna Caravan.
The seaplanes depart from the base in Rose Bay, on the eastern side of Sydney, and you can plan your luxury getaway to include the flight, dining and accommodation at Sydney’s top-notch hotels and even get a tailor-made itinerary with chartered flights.
It was my first time flying in a seaplane and the short flight was seamless – from the graceful take-off on the calm waters of Rose Bay to the smooth landing at Palm Beach (a popular TV and movie location), located at the tip of the northern beaches.
During the flight, one got to savour Sydney’s famous skyline with highlights such as Bondi Beach, the Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, as well as Macquarie Lighthouse and Manly Beach.
After disembarking at the Palm Beach marina, flanked by beautiful holiday resort homes, it seemed only fitting that we spend the balmy afternoon enjoying an exquisite lunch at Jonah’s overlooking Whale Beach.
You will see why they call it that by the shape of the coastline. The view alone will take your breath away and you can smell the sweetness of the fresh sea breeze while standing on the alfresco area at Jonah’s, which is often booked for events and weddings.
A bridge to climb
While on the subject of living the high life, that same morning saw us climbing 1,390 stairs, built with 52,800 tonnes of steel to get to the height of 134m above sea level.
Where were we? On the the world’s largest steel arch bridge, of course.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge spans 1,149m and this is where you get to unleash the thrill seeker in you.
Safety was not an issue at all because climbers have to go through a stringent pre-climb prep session where the designated climb leader will take you through the steps from start to finish. You are also attached to a secure harness throughout the climb so there is zero chance of you falling over.
It didn’t even matter that I was a bit breathless when we reached the top, because the 360° view of the opera house and harbour was priceless.
Even Enrich member Aileen Tan, who was a bit nervous about trekking up this gargantuan structure, managed to put her fear of heights aside.
“The steel mesh stairway was a bit scary but once I reached the top, I was fine. My inspiration came from looking at a photo of a 100-year-old bridge climber. I thought if she could do it, I could do it, too.”
Tan’s husband, Phillip Lee, found the climb exhilarating, what with the great weather and amazing views.
“It is definitely something worthwhile to do,” said Lee.
Stephen Blackburn described the climb as “a fantastic experience”.
“It is nice to see that the bridge is still in good condition even though it was constructed years ago, back in the 1800s,” he said.
Brian Khor and his wife, Hua Yin, said the bridge climb is a once-in-a-lifetime must-do event. “Bring your camera because the view is amazing,” said Khor.
Revving up for the opera
The first thing on the itinerary was a Harley Davidson tour by Troll Tours. Despite the heavy rain, we donned ponchos and enjoyed the ride on trikes, which took us through Woolloomooloo, Kings Cross and Watsons Bay, ending at Bondi Beach.
That evening saw the couples being chauffeured to a welcome dinner at the internationally-acclaimed Quay restaurant, helmed by chef Peter Gilmore.
When in Sydney, do as Sydneysiders do, and that is to catch the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.
For those who haven’t heard of it yet – Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour has become a huge part of the cultural landscape, combining world-class opera and fine dining.
It seemed only fitting that Verdi’s Aida was playing. There couldn’t have been a grander setting to watch this world famous opera – what with the backdrop of the brilliant city lights and the opera house silhouetted against the setting sun.
On stage, the feature piece of this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour was the monumental and decaying head of Queen Nefertiti.
The giant sculpture is 18m tall and weighs 15 tonnes. It was inspired by Aida’s original staging when it premiered in Egypt in 1871.
Hunter Valley and Port Stephens
We set off the next day for Hunter Valley and Port Stephens, considered the playgrounds for locals, a leisurely two to three hours’ drive north.
Port Stephens is a haven for people who love water activities and the harbour is actually three times larger than Sydney Harbour.
“It is where people can sail their boats, watch dolphins and whales, and go kayaking,” said our guide Duglass Hocking.
The water at the harbour is so calm and pristine that you can just sit there and enjoy the quiet tranquillity, which was a nice shift after our afternoon of quad biking in the 40m-high Worimi Sand Dunes, organised by Sand Dune Adventures in Williamtown, the filming location for the desert scenes in Lawrence Of Arabia and Mad Max (1979).
Riding in the vast desert, with nothing around you except sand, and being surrounded by a 33km-long beachfront is nothing short of amazing.
“The most beautiful aspect is the scenery. Just immerse yourself when you get out there,” said Hocking.
As you go inland from Port Stephens, Hunter Valley awaits with gourmet food and wine. You can see the vast beauty by road or high in the sky – we were in a hot air balloon this time!
Balloon Aloft Hunter Valley took us on an unforgettable ride, where we got to see the sunrise, no less, overlooking the well manicured vineyards and farms.
Our rumbling bellies were pacified with a sumptuous brunch at Peterson House, in Pokolbin.
We then adjourned to the Audrey Wilkinson vineyard, which has one of the best views of the valley, too. “It’s great for a leisurely picnic and to get good photography shots. It is one of the oldest wineries in the valley and in Australia,” said Hocking.
The main red wine produced here is the Shiraz. Semillon white grapes are also quite special to Australia.
“There aren’t many other countries that develop Semillon,” she said. According to him, it’s a very light wine “that can be enjoyed in the Australian heat.”
The best thing to do is stay overnight in Hunter Valley because one day is definitely not enough as you get a lot more unique high-end experiences here.
Go on weekdays as there are fewer people and prices are a little cheaper.
There was no better way to end the super luxurious tour than on the deck of a yacht for a sunset cruise from Rushcutters Bay to Sydney Harbour. The crew of Eastsail pulled out all the stops to show us just what luxury means.
For Enrich guest Liesbet Recter, it was the trip of a lifetime. “The attention to detail in the itinerary from start to finish was nothing short of amazing.”
The Sydney escape was the second instalment of Enrich’s Luxe Retreat programme; the first trip was to Paris during Fashion Week last year.
“It was a fantastic event and we wanted to replicate that experience here in Sydney,” said Malaysia Airlines (MAS) head of marketing and products (Commercial) Senior Vice President Dean Dacko.
The objective of this trip was to thank Enrich customers for their loyalty. “They continued to fly with MAS even during the most challenging of times any airline has ever seen in the history of aviation. Our approach is to regain people’s confidence in MAS,” he added.
Enrich Loyalty Frequent Flyer Programme vice president Khairul Nisa Ismail said the Enrich Luxe Retreat programme caters to top tier members (Platinum).
“However, we also want to reward Enrich Blue, Silver and Gold members who are also important to us,” she explained.
“We want everyone to see the value and totality of being an Enrich member.”
This trip was hosted by Tourism Australia and Enrich, Malaysia Airlines. Malaysia Airlines flies 21 times weekly from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney.