By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Visiting Australia has always been on my bucket list, but not its New Year’s fireworks. It’s a god-send that I witnessed the fireworks, it was most spectacular. It isn’t a secret that Sydney invests lots of effort and money on its annual show, yet outsiders are unaware of it. The price to see it up close could cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars. I almost missed it…
Frankly, I was more fascinated by New Zealand’s scenic beauty after watching the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. So we decided on a cruise to New Zealand with the side benefit of seeing Australia, since they are close to one another. The cruise’s last stop was in Sydney on Dec. 30.
Even after we booked the cruise a few months ago, we had no clue that we could see the New Year’s fireworks show. When my husband George told me that he had difficulty finding a hotel in Sydney and that rooms for Dec. 30 and 31 were sold out, a sudden revelation dawned on me.
“It must be the New Year’s Eve fireworks,” I beamed. We never planned to see it. Yet, we were at the right place at the right time! The challenge was, finding a hotel at a good location.
I emailed my former high school classmate in Sydney that I would be in town, to see if she would be interested in seeing the fireworks together, and perhaps, help me get a room.
“It’s crazy here on New Year’s Eve,” she responded. “How about we meet after Jan. 1?”
Clearly, we had to rely on ourselves. And we had no other strategies. So we improvised! Just how crazy is that? We soon found out.
Although our discovery about the possibility of enjoying the fireworks was exciting, the chances of seeing it was slim. We started too late in the game. Had we known earlier, we wouldn’t have had time to do it either, due to our demanding job, including organizing a 300-person event for the Northwest Asian Weekly prior to the trip.
However, that insight led my husband to zero in on hotels next to the fireworks, Sydney’s harbor. After many emails back and forth with the hotel manager, we got a room that was about a 10-minute walk from the Opera House. The only reason why we got a room was, we asked for four nights. The hotels turned away anyone who booked for only two nights. Unfortunately, our room wouldn’t be facing the fireworks, even though our hotel was in the heart of the celebration.
We had no choice but to wait until we arrived to navigate the situation. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do so if you intend to see the fireworks.
Yes, it was crazy!
The frenzy started early for some tourists who paid for their spot two years in advance, as well as restaurants on the harbor and the Sydney Opera House. Close to 2 million people watched the fireworks. An unusual rainstorm, which hasn’t happened in at least two decades, almost spoiled the event. You could imagine the chaos before and after the show with folks arriving and leaving, jamming every street for hours.
People from all over the world descended in Sydney just for the fireworks. We met couples from all over Europe, and many Aussies from other states.
Even on some public grounds, you had to pay. Those ideal spots included certain parts of the Sydney Botanical Garden for $335 per person. There was also the Opera House, from $795 (US $568) each to $2,200 (US $1,571), which also included the opera show, a 5-course dinner, and fireworks). There was a spot for $200 (US $143) each on a cruise, $753 (US $538) for a family of four (standing room) at the Wharf, and $89 (US $64) for a family of four on a lawn. Those queues began as early as the morning, even for paid spots. Every step outside and inside the Opera House cost you money.
All the hotels’ top floor view decks or skyline restaurants were booked months ago. Our hotel closed their doors as early as 4:30 p.m., blocking any walk-ins. Several roads were closed, blocked, or fenced hours before the event; ferries were shut down hours before; terms of agreement for good behavior for pedestrians were posted on the streets; and hundreds of public toilets and garbage bins were set up on every corner. Security was tight with guards everywhere.
The New Year’s holiday coincided with the Aussie students’ long summer break, lasting six weeks to two months. Remember, their school year is the reverse of ours since Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere. Their winter is our summer.
How we got front-row seats
When we arrived at the hotel, the concierge said nothing was available except the Opera House’s foyer, which cost $795 (US $568). For my husband and me, it would be $1,136 U.S. Ouch, that’s expensive! It included the fireworks, from 7 p.m. to midnight, and unlimited champagne, beer, and appetizers. As we don’t drink alcohol, we couldn’t maximize our benefits.
I knew if I walked away, I would regret it later. We flew more than 6,000 miles for this, and there won’t be a second chance to visit this part of the world again. Travel guru Rick Steve said, you shouldn’t sacrifice time for money, meaning you might lose out if you are looking for better deals. So we bought the tickets.
It turned out we made a good decision. On our way to the event, rain poured after 7 p.m. for more than half an hour, although it was sunny and hot in the daytime. Had we paid for less expensive tickets, like those standing at the Wharf, we would be completely wet standing for six hours, and we would probably get sick. While walking from our hotel, we had to stop at one point outside another hotel because the rain was so ferocious. Our coats, my Nike shoes, and socks were soaked, even though we had an umbrella. It was pitiful to watch women wearing heels and sequined gowns, roaming like ducks trying to speed up, but couldn’t. (I did bring a pair of heels along.) Everyone had to walk, you couldn’t drive there as the roads were closed to automobiles. The rain slowed down a little after 8 p.m., but we could still feel the drizzle from time to time.
The Opera House had several parties going on. My estimate was there were over 5,000 people attending. The Opera House provided guests with ponchos for those watching the fireworks in the open space. There were rules in all those parties: you got in, you couldn’t get out. Once you got out, you couldn’t get back in. The Opera House even printed on the ticket that there would be no refunds if the event was cancelled.
Why Sydney fireworks are superior
On our flight back, one American guy said, no U.S. city can top Sydney’s New Year’s fireworks. Who can beat Sydney’s location — its 1.5-mile-long and 440-foot-tall Harbor Bridge? No words or photos could do justice to the dramatic synchronizing fireworks, lights, color, sound, and music effects from the bridge, Opera House, and several other points. You would agree if you watch my fireworks video.
The American said he watched it from his relatives’ home, so it was free and convenient. There was a disadvantage though. The British woman who sat next to me at the show mentioned that the sound effect made the whole show more interesting because the sound was in synch with the fireworks, like an orchestra. There was also the music, a tribute to Aretha Franklin. You just had to be there to appreciate the magnitude of those magical moments.
Most nations’ fireworks were held from much smaller spans and lower heights, such as Seattle’s Space Needle to Moscow’s Ferris Wheel, or New York’s Times Square at 49 feet. Those weak focal points produce not only a small but less exhilarating impact.
Mind you, Sydney’s bridge holds an 8-lane road, in addition to its capacity for trains, pedestrians, and bike lanes. The bridge was used as an anchor to produce the show, was out-of-this-world.
Over 2 billion people watched Sydney’s fireworks, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Those few seconds of the “blast” on television had made an impact on many, including me. Sydney is 19 hours ahead of Seattle, the third country to usher in the New Year with a bang, following Samoa and Auckland, New Zealand. Do we even care about those two countries’ fireworks?
One London couple said Sydney’s was so much better than London’s fireworks. For the show, 8.5 tonnes (equal to 9.37 tons) of fireworks were used. One Aussie at the show told me, it cost about $25 million (AUD). Seattle’s July 4 fireworks at Gas Works Park doesn’t even come close.
When the show was over, local and international guests I met at the party, raved about the show. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said one British woman.
Although the American had been to Australia 10 times to see relatives, this was the first time ever he saw the fireworks. Wow, it was our first time as well, and we got to see it in the front-row of the iconic Opera House. I felt invigorated and blessed with this incredible gift on the first day of 2019.
Sydney Opera House dinner
When we were in New Zealand, we met a Chinese family from Bellevue, who would be dining at the Sydney Opera House restaurant, Bennelong, on Dec. 30.
“It’s quite a famous restaurant,” he said.
“How can we get in?” I asked.
“Our friend made reservations for us,” he replied. “I think it’s a little late to do that now. It’s hard to get in.”
“Really?” I reacted with a tinge of skepticism, as well as defiance. In my head, defiance overruled.
Once we arrived in Sydney, I forgot my desire to dine at Bennelong. Our hotel concierge said we could book a concert (tribute to the Beatles), opera, and a tour. Surprisingly, the tour was quite full on Jan. 1, even though it was offered every 15 minutes in different languages, including Chinese and Korean. So we booked a tour on Jan. 2 at 5 p.m., the day before we left.
At 6 p.m., the tour was over. “Where are we going to eat (dinner)?” George asked.
Bennelong’s name reappeared in my consciousness. “Here,” I replied.
“We have no reservations?” George said.
“Just follow me,” I replied. We passed by the restaurant sign during the tour.
We wandered into the restaurant. “Do you have a reservation?” the manager asked.
“No,” I said.
“Are you going to see the opera?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “We just finished the tour.”
“You have two choices, the $145 (AUD) for three courses in the bigger section of the dining room or the casual dining (close to the bar),” he pointed to the menu. “You can watch how the chefs prepare the dishes for the casual dinner.” I didn’t like sitting at the bar. The manager pushed us to take the $145 meal. I insisted on the casual dining experience and he conceded. He told the hostess to sit us away from the bar, a nice upper section.
“You have to finish the dinner by 7:15.”
“I am sure we will be done by then,” I answered.
Our bill was less than $80 (AUD) for three courses. And we got to dine at one of the finest restaurants in Sydney at the spur of the moment, Who said it can’t be done?
Again, I wouldn’t advise you to do so. The lesson from my trip is that, forget assumptions, you have to try even when the door is closed. If you stay home, nothing will happen. If you are at the right place at the right time, things will happen, and luck will work its magic.
Sydney New Year’s fireworks 2019
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.