Sydney’s deeper dimensions

Beyond a common language and a shared colonial history, it’s an abiding sense of humanity that makes this American feel at home Down Under.

Park Hyatt Sydney sits right at the base of the Harbour Bridge, inviting easy walkabouts along the waterfront all year round.
Photograph by Andy Mann

A native New Yorker now based in California, Robert McNeil is a lifelong traveler whose work has brought him to Sydney on a regular basis for over 20 years. He’s happy to call Park Hyatt Sydney his home away from home in one of his favorite cities in the world. Located in the heart of the coveted Rocks district, directly on the Harbour with the city’s most stunning views of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, the hotel would be easy enough to love only for its ideal situation. To Robert, the country, city, and hotel are all truly exceptional for the same reason: the people. No surprise that the artifacts he values most from his travels there are handmade by friends.

Here, in his own words, is Robert’s Sydney.

My Home Away From Home

As soon as I arrive in Sydney I feel relaxed and embraced by the familiar. This is something I felt immediately, on my first visit, in the mid-1990s. Park Hyatt Sydney was new then (it was renovated in 2012; I always loved it, even more so now). And since I was new to the city, I relied on the hotel staff for recommendations on where to go and what to see. But my sense of being cared for there went beyond concierge services. It was really about humanity and warmth. This is about who these people are: Australians! I feel this kind of warmth everywhere I go.

When you consider that Australia and the mainland of United States are about the same geographic size, yet Australia’s population is less than the state of California, you get some sense of the personal space they enjoy. Ironically, this may inspire a greater desire to connect, to be welcoming and inclusive. I usually go to Australia for a few weeks and I enjoy it most around our summer, their winter. It's dark at 5:00 in the evening and it's cool. But it’s usually warm enough for me to hang out on the terrace in the morning with my New York Times and bagels. In the evening, I’m back on the terrace with a glass of wine, taking in the view of the Harbour, the Harbour Bridge, and the Opera House.

As soon as you leave Park Hyatt Sydney, The Harbour Bridge is right over you. So making the climb to the summit has been a goal for all the years I’ve been staying at the hotel. In late 2016, I was hit by a car while out running near my home in California and just getting out of a car and walking was a huge challenge. About a year and half after the accident, this past June, I did it. It’s a pretty steep climb but well worth the effort, needless to say. It’s a breathtaking view. For me, it was a milestone in my recovery, so a summit in more ways than one.

As if the architecture itself were not impressive enough, the Sydney Opera House always has something going on and usually multiple performances of live theater, opera, music, or something totally unheard of before. Beyond the Opera House, there are a number of smaller theaters and venues throughout the city. To me, Sydney is very much like New York in that way. It's a slower pace than New York, of course, but there aren't many places that could keep up with New York, and that’s a good thing.

My Favorite Sydney Discovery

The Rocks is the oldest neighborhood in Sydney, originally where the British exiled a good number of their criminals. They sent them off to The Rocks and that was their staging point. They were exiled to a place they'd never get back from. Today, it’s the premium place to be, the center of Sydney. Isn't that ironic? A place of exile is now one of the world’s most desirable destinations. For the first Europeans brought over here, it was Hell and now it feels like Heaven.

A delightful seven- or eight-minute walk from Park Hyatt Sydney, The Rocks Markets cover a few city blocks and offer some of the most interesting high-end arts and crafts I’ve seen anywhere in the world. As I wandered around the market for the first time, maybe 20 years ago, I met Lilly and Mick and we just started talking. I had never seen anything like their toles before.

The Whole World in My Hands

The art of paper tole is basically a layering of the same paper images one on top of the other to create a 3D effect. My sense is that most toles are postcard size. Lilly and Mick make their toles from stamps, so what’s amazing is how tiny and finely detailed the images are. It’s such a precise skill. They use a surgeon’s scalpel to make them. They’ve won a number of awards for these toles and it’s no wonder.

The first tole I bought was a beautiful image of the Opera House. Then Lilly and Mick custom-made a framed panel of three toles depicting some of my favorite spots and experiences in the country: the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, and the Blue Mountains National Park, where I’d enjoyed hiking. So that really embodied my experience in the country.

The custom tole Robert commissioned to remember friends lost on 9/11 is among his favorites.
The custom tole Robert commissioned to remember friends lost on 9/11 is among his favorites.
Photograph by Ian Glass

Then I began commissioning toles to be made as gifts for family and friends for holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. Very few people in the U.S. have ever seen anything like them.

A few friends from New York were killed on 9/11, so when I first saw the commemorative stamp, it felt very poignant to me. I knew I wanted a tole made from that stamp. I sent six of those stamps to Lilly and she carved the firemen out, carved the flagpole out, carved everything out of that image. Then she layered them to create that 3D effect. It is so moving, in more ways than one. The image actually becomes dimensional as the eye moves around it.

I really do consider Mick and Lilly my friends. I try to see them whenever I’m in Sydney but, in a way, through email and creating these customized toles, they’ve become part of all of my travels. I was recently in Thailand and emailed Lilly to see if she could create some toles from Buddha stamps. She’s working with her stamp dealers now to find them. Hopefully I will get those on my next trip home to Sydney.