red sails in the sunset; and the mystery of the lost hotel

(a two-fer)

the view of “the rocks” from sydney’s barangaroo ferry wharf & promenade

our second visit to sydney was off to an inauspicious start. we had driven from canberra this time because flying in oz ain’t cheap. we booked a room at a hotel that was half the price of the fancy place we stayed at the first time with the great view of the sydney opera house. but we were still in the swank business district known as “the rocks”.

however, as can happen when you try to save a buck, when we got there the hotel was…gone! we drove up to the address, 26 clarence st. and found 36, and 16, but no 26. it was sunday evening and the street was quiet, but the spot where 26 should have been seemed to have been taken over by the wynyard metro station.

hotel masquerading as a metro station

we drove around the block a couple times, up a block, down a block, scoured the other side of the street. (probably broke a few traffic laws.)

pernille had been certain she’d made a reservation at a real hotel, but she began doubting herself.

then, just at the point of despair, we spotted a clue. a small sign bearing the letters “LN” above a nondescript metal door that read, “combined fire hydrant and sprinkler booster” on one side and “wynyard walk and fip mimic panel” on the other. a very clever disguise, lest anyone might suspect there was a hotel lurking there.

next to that door was a shadowy alcove with a tall metal panel that slid open as we approached to reveal a bare room with a modest desk adorned by a single bottle of hand sanitizer. behind the counter stood a bangladeshi immigrant named anwar.

welcome to the little national (LH) hotel. emphasis on the “little”.

anwar escorted us into the elevator up to the reception desk on the fourth floor, (called level one). After check-in, he took us up to our closet. (o.k., room). it was all of 8 feet (2.5 meters) wide. “but it’s a deluxe corner room with a panoramic view,” anwar pointed out. “and you can see the bay.”

sure enough, two of the room’s three walls were glass, and we could see ferry boats gliding by in the distance through the tiny slit between two massive skyscrapers staring back at us. fourteen floors below, we had a view of a city street, and above the street (if you look closely) an elevated highway.

room with a view

anwar gave us a two-minute tour of the room, which was a marvel of efficiency. as he left, i handed him a tip. “thank you,” he said, “that’s the first tip i’ve ever received”. the hotel, he said, had only been open four days. we were among the first guests.

this little gem of a hotel is exploring a new concept in urban accommodations, catering to business people on a budget who want to stay at a stylish place in the heart of the business district, but don’t want to pay exorbitant rates. it’s tucked almost invisibly into a corner of the metro station, providing instant access to the city’s mass transit system.

the standard LN room

most rooms are only about six feet (under two meters) wide, with a queen-sized bed up against the far wall, accessible from only one side. not great for two, but ideal for business people looking for an upscale, downtown crash site a short walk from a great restaurant and bar scene designed around an inviting waterfront promenade.

there’s a lot within walking distance in central sydney, and while pernille does what diplomats do, i’ve got a day to explore.

my first destination is the sydney tower, an observation deck that juts out from the downtown skyline. but when i get to the admission window, which is in the middle of an obscenely opulent shopping mall, i learn that the price for a ticket to go out on the observation deck is $82. no thanks. instead i walk another block to hyde park, where an iconic statue of captain cook still stands, 250 years after his historic arrival in sydney harbor, although there have been calls for its removal.

captain cook’s jekyll in hyde park

my intention was to get a picture of the tower, but my eye caught an interesting angle of the two landmarks together. what i didn’t notice til later was that i had inadvertently caught the good captain in a compromising pose.

moving on, it was a gorgeous spring day in the park. i stood for half an hour watching a group of eastern european men playing chess.

not a word of english was spoken, the matches were intense, with long periods of silence punctuated by fiercely competitive commentary; and finally, applause.

the park holds many attractions, but the art gallery of new south wales is beckoning. along the way, however, i’m drawn into the imposing roman catholic cathedral of st. mary. the afternoon sun streaming through the stained glass windows is heavenly.

st. mary’s cathedral

the museum did not disappoint. my favorites included this tribute to non-traditional aussies who made a significant contribution to the growth of the nation.

there’s a great story behind these stunning portraits. here’s the condensed version.

in 2016, artist peter drew inspired volunteers all over australia to paste screenprinted posters of long-dead aussies on public walls in their local communities. the ‘aussie’ posters became a familiar sight on city streets. these photos are of people who sought exemption from a dictation test required by the immigration restriction act of 1901. the test gave immigration officials wide discretion to refuse entry to non-europeans. it was repealed in 1958.

this arresting presentation also caught my fancy.

as the afternoon sun faded, i headed back to the LN to meet pernille to hunt for more adventure. this time i found the place first try.

hunger was setting in, so we decided to head out to the rocks to satisfy our hankering for mexican. we discovered, however, that because of the tourist shortage, most restaurants were shut. we were nearing exhaustion when we stumbled on a pub called the glenmore tucked away on a side street next to what our google map said was “el camino cantina”, which translated into english means “place to get a margarita”.

at the glenmore’s front desk, we confess that we don’t have a reservation (harrumph, harrumph) and beg for a table. we are escorted upstairs onto a sunny patio, and seated at a little table in the back. the first thing we notice is that the patio has an excellent view of, what else, the opera house. the second thing we notice is that a pitcher of beer is $29. the third thing we spot is a group of women standing up to leave a table right on the railing facing the harbor.

“of course,” the waiter says when we ask if we could be bumped up to first class. so as the evening shadows roll across the landscape toward the operatic sails in the harbor that captain cook traversed exactly 250 years earlier, we slide into place at the table of honor, order a pitcher of $29 beer and sit back to soak in the psychedelic symphony.

and as we ponder our second pitcher, (it’s like baseball; after a while the pirates need a relief pitcher), the sky erupts to a brilliant ochre, evoking images of the old classic song “red sails in the sunset”.

red sails in the sunset, original by the platters, 1935

after reaching peak brilliance, the ephemeral evening light and the memory of long-ago music dissolve together, as a blanket of darkness envelopes the bay.

with eyes half closed and brain half clouded with suds, i could almost see captain cook’s high masted ship, the endeavour, sailing into sydney harbor. i began to wonder if the designer of the opera house, the danish architect jorn utzon, had been conjuring sails in his mind’s eye as he imagined his grand creation jutting out into the bay.

HMS Endeavour off the coast of New Holland
by Samuel Atkins c. 1794

i checked the internet for confirmation of my theory, but it turned out to be a figment of an overactive imagination, or ‘fake news’. utzon apparently was imagining shells, not sails. perhaps we could rewrite history for the opera house’s 50th birthday. isn’t that what journalists do?

i discovered, however, that i wasn’t the first to imagine the red sails theme. in 1984, the sydney rock group midnight oil released a “red sails in the sunset” album, which according to widipedia:

…is significant for becoming their first No. 1 album in Australia – it also entered the United States Billboard 200. The album cover by Japanese artist Tsunehisa Kimura featured a photomontage of Sydney – both city and harbour – cratered and devastated after a hypothetical nuclear attack.

the classic ‘red sails in the sunset’ album cover by japanese artist tsunehisa kimura. opera house included

midnight oil’s music reflected their involvement in the anti-nuclear movement and other political and societal issues. not bad rock and roll, either.

oh, and one last thing. despite the photographic evidence presented above, cap’n cook is not a pervert. a “full frontal” photo shows him to be the picture of propriety. that’s a spyglass in his hand.

it’s not what you thought. it’s a spyglass.

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