AUSTRALIA'S EPICUREAN EAST?
Good looks, good food, good living: that's the happy mix presented by New South Wales. And Australia's south-eastern state offers a pageant of landscapes: dramatic eucalyptus-clad hills and mountains, stunning beaches, bucolic winelands, lush rainforest and more. There's plenty of room for all this: NSW is more than three times the size of Britain. Yet the population is less than 7 million, about two-thirds of whom live in or near Sydney.
The people of the state capital are probably the most ethnically diverse in Australia, which partly accounts for the sheer vibrancy of the place - and the famously creative food factor: this is one of the best cities in the world in which to dine. The Olympics of 2000 (with an estimated [pound]100m pumped into the city) confirmed Sydney's status as a global leader of glamour and style. And the effect of this continues to ripple outwards.
STAR OF THE SHOW?
... is Sydney, of course. In 1788, when the first convicts arrived, they may not have appreciated the area's potential to become a glittering city with an iconic opera house and landmark bridge. But they would probably have been struck by the natural beauty of the anchorage: the quality of light; the dazzling bays and beaches. Today, the city spreads across some 60km of indented shoreline. The compact, historic heart and its breathtaking harbour remain the most obvious attractions but for sheer pizzazz make for the suburb of Paddington with its catwalk of fashion boutiques, galleries and cafes on Oxford Street, while Double Bay (also known as Double Pay) to the east offers - in both senses - richer retail therapy and buzzing cafe society.
The city contains some of Australia's tallest buildings, so there are plenty of places to find stunning views. Try the outlook from elegant French-Asian fusion restaurant Forty One (00 61 2 9221 2500; www.forty-one.com.au) at the top of the Chifley Tower in the Central Business District, or make for the bar at Cafe Sydney (00 61 2 9251 8683; www.cafesydney.com) on the top floor of the historic Customs House right on the harbour. But for a superlative, and serene, panorama, take to the skies. You can make a spectacular morning balloon ride over the city with Balloon Aloft Australia (00 61 2 4938 1955; www.balloonaloft.com; A$295/[pound]118). Departures are at sunrise from Sydney's Camden Airport, about an hour's drive from the centre (or be picked up). You spend about an hour floating over the city on thermals, and after landing the venture is rounded off by a barbecue Champagne breakfast.
WHERE CAN I SLEEP CHIC?
Sydney's swishest hotel is the Park Hyatt (00 61 2 9241 1234; www.sydney.park.hyatt.com; doubles from A$585/[pound]234 including breakfast). Set in the historic Rocks area just below Sydney Harbour Bridge, it is certainly the best-positioned place to stay - the views across to the Opera House are jaw-dropping. Despite the relatively hefty cost of a bed here, all the 158 chic rooms of this curving, three-storey building are frequently booked up well in advance.
Also by the harbour, The Four Seasons at 199 George Street (00 61 2 9238 0000; www.fourseasons. com; doubles from A$320/[pound]140 without breakfast) comes a fairly close second for outlook and elegance. It is large and lavish, with 531 bedrooms (some a little cramped), a well-regarded restaurant (Kable's), cafe, lounge bar and excellent spa. Smaller and more discreet is The Observatory (00 61 2 9256 2222; www.observatory.com.au; doubles from A$459/[pound]184 without breakfast) also in the central area and offering 99 bedrooms as well as an outstanding spa and swimming pool.
For urban edginess head over to Finger Wharf on the east of the harbour. Set on Woolloomooloo Bay, this pier was transformed a decade or so ago into a hip assemblage of restaurants and a supercool warehouse hotel. …