Manly is an instant holiday. It's a 15-minute fast ferry ride from Sydney city. Yet ambling along the pedestrian walkway in the heart of this charming town, you'll feel thousands of kilometers away from urban mania. It feels sunny here no matter what the weather and the air tastes of ice-cream and sandy beaches. Whether you've lived in Sydney your whole life or just visiting for a few days, a weekend in Manly is a revitalising seaside tonic. Take a few days to explore the best of Manly:
1) Surf's Up
Learning to surf is an activity that always sneaks onto my New Year Resolution list. I watch those bronzed bodies whoosh over the water and wish it was me. It was time to stop being a virtual surfer and get into water. What better place to learn than on Manly Beach, home to world-class waves. The guys at Manly Surf School are pretty chilled. The headquarters on the sand may look somewhat disorganised but the instructors here are experts at their art each with a minimum of 15-years of experience. We were given a couple of pointers on the sand and then dived right into the water armed with a beginner's foam long-board.
I think it'll take more than an hour lesson to get the surfy stance right. But with a pack of ten sessions, I should be able to tick this off my list quite confidently. Keep in mind that surfing is a fantastic workout. Apparently many execs come by for a stress-busting surf lesson before facing the office.
The Manly Surf School, the largest school of its kind in Sydney, also welcomes children. During my lesson, there was a party of about 20 five-year-olds all looking like miniature pro's on their boards.
Group lessons are on offer at $55 each. However, the best value package is a series of ten classes for $330. Private tuition costs $80 per hour. Visit the Manly Surf School for more info.2) Kayak
On a glorious sunny day, there's nothing better than seeing the world from the waters of Sydney Harbour. It was a perfectly still afternoon when we took our bright yellow kayak for a spin. It's a great way to visit some difficult to reach spots - such as Quarantine Beach on North Head. You can pull up on the sand, have a bite to eat at the Boilerhouse restaurant and then work off the meal on your row back to shore. We gawped at the magnificent properties hugging the seaside and fantasised of being one of those Manly millionaires sunning our bronzed body next to an infinity pool.
The team at Manly Boat Hire have a full range of double and single kayaks available for hire, starting from $20 per hour. They also run fitness classes (kayakercise) on the eastern side of Manly wharf (near the ferry terminal).3) Dive with the Sharks
I dived with sharks. And no, there was no cage for protection. There was nothing but a thin wetsuit between my delicate skin and man's most feared sea carnivores. Oceanworld in Manly is one of the few aquariums that run a Shark Dive Extreme programme. This adrenaline-packed adventure kicks off with a visit through the viewing tunnel to get acquainted with our sharp-toothed tank buddies. Next up is a short intro video. The first scene is of a gynormous shark stealthing towards us to the tune of Jaws. I was ready to run. Thank goodness for the calming instruction from our dive masters, Rohan and Nemo, who convinced me that I wasn't on the shark's menu that day.
After getting suited up and a quick scuba skills lesson in the pool, we submerged into the tank. My breathing quickened as I came within poking distance of a giant stingray. Apparently the creature is very friendly but I couldn't help thinking of poor Steve Irwin as I kept my distance. As soon as my heartbeat drummed back to normal, I was able to enjoy the phenomenal underwater wonderland. Two large turtles (Dave and Chong) swam by to say Hi. Then a carpet shark resembling a dusty Persian throw sidled near. I think he took a liking to me as the friendly shark brushed against my body whenever he swam by. I was just starting to feel like one of the fish, when dive master Nemo signaled me to duck. I almost had a heart attack as I dropped my head just in time to miss a humongous Grey Nurse shark exposing his ominously sharp teeth as he circled above. It was all quite bizarre really. I couldn't believe that I was sharing the same pool of water with a school of chilled out sharks. Amazing!
After about thirty thrilling minutes in the water, we returned to the surface. What a rush!
If you're brave enough, you can join in on the feeding programme which runs three times a week. You don't need to have any diving experience at all to participate. Prices start from $180. Visit Oceanworld for more details.
4) Q Station
As recent as thirty-five years ago, ships arriving in Sydney carrying passengers with suspected disease would be diverted to North Head Quarantine Station. The station was first established in 1835 and helped to contain virulent epidemics such as smallpox in the 1880's and influenza in 1918. New arrivals would be allocated rooms according to their status on board the ship and despite the threat of disease, the residents had a merry old time waiting out the 40-day quarantine period.
The germs are all long gone now and the station has been invigorated with a new lease on life. Q-station is now a hotel with comfortable accommodation, conference facilities and the best view in the city. For a place that must have held a fair bit of suffering in its chronicles, it's all very tranquil. I'm not usually a zen-like person but the moment I stepped foot onto Q-station territory within the North Head nature reserve, I was at peace. Perhaps it's the breathtaking scenery, the quiet, the sensation of space or something a little more ethereal. This site was used in the 18th-Century for healing and burial ceremonies by the local Aboriginal clan so it has a long history of spirituality.
Being a conservation area, only the interior of the structures can be altered. As a result, the venue looks like an upmarket hostel, with the long buildings compartmentalised into cosy rooms. The size of the original rooms haven't been changed (although en-suite bathrooms have been added) so there's only space to squeeze in a double bed and a TV. Don't expect too much privacy as there are no divisions on the outside terraces. However, the decor is stylish and the facilities are modern. Plus, the breakfast in the morning is heartily delicious. Make sure you try the bircher muesli - it's the best in Sydney.
5) Ghostly sightings
Even before Q-station was converted into a hotel, the area was well-known for its authentic ghost tours. Our guide has been leading flocks of spook enthusiasts for over 15 years. The tour, starting at 9pm (there's a more family oriented one at 6:30pm on the weekends), was packed with eager thrill-seekers all hoping for some paranormal action.
I guess the Quarantine Station is as good a place as any for a ghost hang-out. Our guide opened the door to the eerie shower chamber but refused to enter himself. He then lead us through the old kitchen, regaling us with tales of spiritual sightings and wild conspiracy theories. We visited the hospital complete with a gurney topped with a macabre bloodied mannequin, apparently a favourite haunting spot of the local poltergeists. Our guide did his best to coax the ghosts from within the walls but (un)fortunately they weren't that keen to come out and play. Take note that the tour is two-and-a-half hours long so make sure you wear comfy shoes.
6) Fun in the Sun
If you're a beach bum, then you'll love the long stretches of sand in Manly. There's the main beach popular with the surfers or the harbourside waters suitable for families. There's also a small beach on the Q-station shore which is practically deserted and perfect for a private sun-bake. A short walk away along a scenic promenade is the popular Shelly Beach which also has a grassed picnic area.7) Eat
Manly is a feast for foodies with restaurants to tempt all tastes. Just make sure you don't be silly (like I was) and attempt to step into an eatery without a reservation on a Saturday night. I had dinner at the restaurant at Q-Station. Aptly named Boilerhouse, this is housed in a converted warehouse on the shore. In keeping with Q-Station's mantra of retaining history, the interior has been restored with boiler pipes exposed on the walls. The atmosphere is upmarket but the menu is more cafe-chic. I found the carrot and ginger soup far too gingery but the chicken breast was tender and juicy. The star of the menu was the chocolate tart but please don't tease me with such a tiny slither.
If you're staying at the hotel, you can access the restaurant by climbing down the 400 stairs with an option of getting the friendly shuttle service back to your room after the meal. If you're not a guest, you can park your car at the entrance to Q-Station and you'll be picked up and returned after dinner.
8) Unique gift ideas
For a special occasion, why don't you treat a loved one to a memorable day-trip to Q-station. You can arrange to be collected by boat from Manly. Sail across to Q-station where you can join a guided tour and enjoy lunch at the Boilerhouse. Then relax on the beach or go for a walk before boarding the boat back to Manly.
Q-Station also has dinner and tour packages. For kids, you can't beat a Ghosty Birthday party. Find out more about the Q-Station Packages.9) Take a Walk
The North Head National Park offers a variety of scenic trails for all ranges of fitness. We took a lovely walk leaving from the North Head visitors centre to Shelly Beach. The trail is moderately easy with a clearly designated path.10) Parasail
While I had enough adrenaline for one weekend with the shark dive, next time I'm going to try out a parasail at Manly. While we were kayaking, we watched mesmerised as the parachute lifts its passenger into the air for an unforgettable aerial view.