The thing I love about kids, is how you get to go and do fun stuff under the guise of "taking your kids out" - it's fabulous! Zoos, cartoons at the cinema, fair grounds - parenting is the best opportunity ever of having fun just for the heck of it - oh, and the kids enjoy it too! Anyhow, I digress; I'll get on with my review...
The last time I was at Darling Harbour must have been at least ten years ago, at a conference. I remembered it as a nice place for a coffee, with expensive parking and a good seafood restaurant. Well, okay, I got the parking ($32 max for the day) and restaurant (Jordan’s is still in operation) right, but there is heaps of fun to be had when you are with little kids and have an excuse to do something other than warm your hands on a latte and gaze out at the water.
There are impossibly long and climb-able water fountains, cute little pick-up, drop off trains ($4.50 adult/$3.50 child per ride) that encircle the area and carry a pram for sore-footed mums, a Ferris wheel, free playgrounds, the maritime museum (prepare to part with a fair wad of cash - around $50 for an all-boat Big Ticket - if you want to actually walk around on the ships parked there - we looked at them from the docks and then went shopping in the tourist mall instead) - and a truly amazing aquarium.
We walked right around the other side of Darling Harbour to the Sydney Aquarium, and stood in a long line to buy a ticket. At $23 an adult (single parent concession) and $18 per child with under 4s free (now you're talking!) it was a fair admission charge, but if you are clever enough to plan in advance you may get your tickets even cheaper online, with Centrepoint tower or Manly aquarium thrown in. But if you're anything like me, it's fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants holiday outing planning. This is because if I ever plan an outing in advance someone gets sick - or the car breaks down - or a typhoon occurs - you know the drill.
Anyhow, back to the aquarium...our first impression as we walked in was beaming young girls with very big cameras slung around their necks - "let’s take your photo to remember your day!”. Of course, any savvy parent worth their salt knows that they are going to try and sell you that emotive family pic at the end for 10 times what it's worth, so I made a mental note to organise our own family pic inside(and we did with the help of one of the cleaners)
*Warning - single mum mini-rant following...I no longer have any shame asking people to take a happy snap of us wherever - a single mum's got to think of these things, or we'd never get any photographs with the kids - does it even occur to other families that we are a family, and might like a happy snap together at events such as Christmas and Birthdays too? Sheesh!*
Now I like to think I'm a good judge of aquariums – sure, I'm no marine biologist, but I've travelled the world (pre kids of course - it all ends there!) and I think I know what an impressive glass bowl with Flipper inside of it looks like. But this group of walk-through glass displays was really, very impressive - and that's with them packed in wall-to-wall with kids going bananas over no school authority and their ever so slightly harassed parents trying to keep up with them (it was still morning - for truly cranky parents, try after 3pm). The clever aquarium director had incorporated a Lego exhibit - huge Lego statues studded along the way, and I think a lot of the kids enjoyed climbing over these even more than viewing the fish.
The walk through glass tunnels were a memorable experience - the huge sharks had everyone gasping in fear and wonder as they arrogantly drifted over our heads - they seemed a mere touch away. There were cute little penguins too (okay, so not in the same tanks), manta rays that seemed as big as cars, and apparently even dugongs - although I figured that they must have been having a quick fish lunch over at Jordan's, because we didn't see any of them. But by far the most attention getting exhibits were, funnily enough, the scuba-divers cleaning the glass inside the tanks - both kids and adults were entranced.
Half-way through our aquarium travels, a shop emerged, and I was talked in to buying pointless plastic souvenirs and cheap t-shirts by my (ever-enterprising) 5yo. She kept producing things with soulful eyes and a "pleeeeeease!" akin to Oliver Twist. I reasoned to myself that we didn't go to the aquarium every day, and promptly emptied my wallet into the cash register. My 3yo spotted a stuffed shark and with a glint in her eye she clamped onto it with the strength of a Rambo. More money - aaeeii, I hoped there was an Eftpos machine around somewhere soon...
We moved onward to amazingly huge tanks with coral walls that seemed as high as a house. Blissfully happy fish ignored annoying ankle biters rebelliously tapping the glass in front of them. As part of the coral tanks area, the kids got to play with a get-your-hands-wet coral exhibit that allowed them to feel the coral, shells and even the curious sea-weed-like sharks eggs, in a purpose-built tank that stretched long enough so that there was no waiting. The last exhibit was a Lego Moby Dick whale scene that had you scratching your head at the sheer scale of such a thing - who the heck had the patience to fit together all of those tiny little lego blocks so intricately to form such a masterpiece - and why?!
We emerged, to my horror, in another souvenir shop, but this one was ten times the size of its predecessor. Resignedly, I was further convinced to buy more souvenirs for Nana, Miss 5's school teacher and various other individuals nominated by my 5yo (and that I suspected were thinly veiled excuses to amass preferred toys for herself!).
We finally exited the shop, and found that the beaming photo girls had been replaced by a pushy salesman directing me to the "three people" photo stand - only to find a photo of my old Aunt Mildred standing with my children (I cursed that I could never quite find enough time to do my own hair and makeup to an acceptable level, rather than spending ten minutes checking that my daughters pig tail parts were straight). Thank God for our own free back-up photo - at $30 odd dollars, it was just too much to blow on a truly awful photograph framed in paper seaweed with some spares chucked in for good measure.
My feet finally objected to unnecessary wandering and we boarded a little train to the other side of the harbour where beckoning shops and food courts awaited. The kids, overtired and crazed with excitement by this time burst into an uncannily twang-y rendition of Dora and Diego singing "Chugga chugga choo - Gotta get bamboo!" complete with fist-like hand movements that nearly took my eye out.
My feet screamed, my wallet groaned and our plastic souvenirs rattled in their shark enviro bag - and I sat there grinning to myself from ear to ear, revelling in the pure joy of my kids, and wishing that there was a way to freeze this moment in time.
Darling Harbour is a tourist precinct in Sydney that stretches from the Sydney Harbour to Paddy's Market. Accessible by cars, buses and monorail, it is free to enter the public harbour area. Attractions include the Sydney Aquarium, Imax Theatre, Maritime Museum, moored museum ships, rides, restaurants and shops, open year-round.
Single Mum Fun Rating - 8 out of 10
Kid Fun Rating - 8 out of 10
Expensive or cheap? - It can be free to just hang out, but to enjoy the attractions, such as the Sydney Aquarium featured in this review, it is Moderate to Expensive
Easy to access and handle kids on your own? - Yes
This information is correct as of 8 July 2011 - prices and attractions are subject to change