I know it's a long flight from the U.S., but sometimes you just have to suck it up in order go to the opposite end of the world to experience all of the amazing features of the "Land Down Under."  It's hard to appreciate just how big the country/continent of Australia is until you start to plan out an itinerary and realize just how little you can cram into a 1-2 week period.  Originally, I knew I wanted to go to Sydney and to dive on the Great Barrier Reef, but I had also thought I could fit Ayers Rock and Melbourne in as well.  First, there's no way to realistically drive between the cities because the distance from Sydney to Cairns is greater than the entire stretch of Western U.S. coastline, and is approximately the same amount of time it would take to drive from San Francisco to Cabo San Lucas.  Who does that?  No one!  Add to that Ayers Rock, located in Uluru in the middle of the country, and Melbourne on the Southeastern coast, and the total driving time exceeds a roundtrip drive from LA to NYC.  So to do all 4 cities, I was looking at the tricky task of timing flights and layovers with things I wanted to accomplish.  When I had finished my draft itinerary, I asked an Australian friend to give me his opinion, and he was quick to say, "You're doing too much, mate!"  So, I heeded his advice and saved Ayers Rock and Melbourne for another trip/excuse to return.  In doing so, though, I will admit that I came back thinking that I should have compromised and done three stops during the time I was there because I did find myself struggling for things to do in Sydney, but I'm not sure if that's because of my normal rapid sightseeing pace or due to a lack of options.  Regardless, it was a great trip!
First piece of advice, if you have the miles or are able to spend the money, by all means do whatever you can to upgrade into business class.  When I went to Australia, United had just finished upgrading its fleet to include the lay-flat business class seating.  After such a long flight, getting a relatively restful six to eight hours or so of sleep makes a huge difference in what you're able to do once you land.  I'm also a big proponent of staying awake as long as you can after landing when jetlag is a concern in order to rapidly force your body to adjust to the new time schedule.  I landed in Sydney in the early morning, and fortunately my hotel was able to check me in early.  I opted to stay at the Menzies in the city, on Carrington Street just off Waynard Park, because it was located in a safe neighborhood within close walking distance to the Opera House, Royal Botanical Gardens, Harbour Bridge, and the Circular Quay (that's pronounced "key" for all people who don't know English nautical terms - dumb, I know!).  So basically I was going to be able to cover all of the major sightseeing with little effort.  The hotel wasn't anything fabulous, and you were paying mostly for the location.
The Rocks
Staying close, just in case I needed to crash, I wanted to hit up the major photographic subjects in the morning light.  First stop was the waterfront and Dawes Point Park to get good vantage points for the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.  In order to get down to the park, you have to pass through the oldest part of Sydney, called The Rocks, where I stumbled upon a weekend outdoor market and started my souvenir purchasing early - buying a working boomerang decorated with painted aboriginal patterns.  The history of this part of town is spectacular and there are a few remnants from its colorful past when the area was occupied by the first European settlers in 1788 - British convicts!  It still amazes me that a country could be in a position to ship a significant portion of its jail population to the other side of the world and create a giant penal colony.  Today, this part of town is an interesting dichotomy of the area's long history as, basically, a slum (now represented by public housing) and the very high property value of the land and buildings that have been sold for private use and historical renovation.  In the main, touristy part of the neighborhood, you will find small shops and some cute pubs, which are nice to visit if you're there when the open air market is closed.  If you follow the water to the left, you will eventually end up at the viewpoints for a photograph of the famous bridge span and an across-the-water shot of the Opera House.  This was as close I was going to get to the bridge because I have an issue with heights, so the option to do the Harbour Bridge Climb was not even considered!
When done with my photographs, I walked through the Circular Quay shopping area to the Opera House itself to see the intricate white tiling that is often not noticed in photos.  With time to kill in the afternoon trying to stay awake, and with kangaroos and koalas on the brain, I made my way over to the Darling Harbour area, with all its average shops and big restaurants, to go to the Wildlife Sydney Zoo and Aquarium.  I knew I was going to go to the big zoo across the bay in Taronga the next day, but I couldn't resist a sneak peek at the country's famous indigenous animals!  It was a really hot day, so I felt a little bad for the kangaroos who were doing whatever they could to keep cool.  The Sydney Zoo is not a big zoo, rather it's more a large building with several animal exhibits.  But it has the major things a tourist would want to see: wallaby, kangaroo, koala, wombat, tazmanian devil, kookaburra, etc.
Save some money and buy a combo pass for the Sydney Zoo, Aquarium, and the Tower Eye - the tallest building in Sydney with an observation deck for 360 degree views of Sydney.  I hadn't planned on doing the Tower, but I thought what the heck!  I needed to stay up anyway, and this was a great way to get some bearings on where things were located in the city.  Needless to say, after all the walking to get my photographs of landmarks and animals on Day 1, I was exhausted when I finally returned to the hotel for an early bedtime.  After all, I had a big day planned for Day 2 at the bigger zoo and touring the Royal Botanical Gardens!
When thinking of things to do in Australia, I knew there was one box that must be checked - hold a koala bear!  Unfortunately, I soon realized that most states banned the koala holding and limited you to only being able to "pat" the grey bears.  New South Wales is one of the "pat only" states unfortunately, but I wasn't going to pass up on any opportunity to get up close.  The way to do that in Sydney at the Taronga Zoo is to either pay to do a Koala Encounter experience for about $20AUS, where you can get up close to the Koala sitting in a tree and take a souvenir photo, or opt to upgrade your zoo experience and take a VIP tour.  Yes, it's about 4x more expensive, but you gain the advantages of a small group tour that sees a lot of the "backstage" action.
Because I was there during a less busy time of year (November), I actually ended up getting a private VIP tour where I not only "pat" a koala and got my photo, but fed giraffes and interacted with and fed a wallaby and other small Australian animals at the Education Centre, to name a few of the many stops on the tour.  The bonus feature of the Taronga Zoo is unrivaled views at certain points on the property of the city of Sydney, and all her famous landmarks!  Getting to the zoo is very easy - just a quick ferry ride from Circular Quay that docks right at the zoo entrance at the bottom of the hill.
Arriving back at Circular Quay, I took advantage of the proximity to explore the Royal Botanical Gardens.  Of course, I didn't appreciate how large the gardens and how long the footpath distances would be based on my map printouts until I started the walking tour.  My suggestion is to wear very comfortable shoes!  The main points of interest in this green space are the beautiful views of the Opera House, with the Harbour bridge in the background, near Mrs. Macquerie's Chair and the Governor's House and associated gardens.
For Day 3, I followed the suggestion of my Australian friend and went on a tour of the Blue Mountains that I had booked prior to my arrival in Sydney.  There are several tour companies that offer packages up to the Blue Mountains, but I opted for Activity Tours because they stopped at a wildlife conservation area (Featherdale Wildlife Park), several overlooks of the scenic mountains, and finished with a tour of the Sydney Olympics complex then a boat ride back to Circular Quay that traveled under the Harbour Bridge.  At the wildlife park, you were able to walk among groups of wallabies, pat another koala, and see many other extremely cute animals - my favorite of the visit was the wombat.
The Blue Mountains are the foothill region just outside of Sydney that have a lot of natural attractions, including rock formations and waterfalls.  There's also the popular attractions in Katoomba, including the scenic railway that is the steepest cable-operated funicular originally used for some of the coal mining done in the valley.  The day I went, our views and hikes were disrupted by a light, misty rain that just would not quit and a damp cold that no one in the tour was prepared for based on clothing choices.  The tourist shop in Katoomba had many sales of sweatshirts that day!
On my 4th day in Sydney, I realized that this probably should have been the day that I left the city because I was getting pretty restless.  I had seen all of the major sights in my first three days, so I had to scramble to figure out how to occupy my time. Traveling on your own, I have found it's always good to have a lot of things to do because you have no time to even recognize that you're doing everything solo, but once the dust starts to settle, the loneliness attempts to invade your fun vacation time!  As a seasoned solo traveler, to combat this, I decided to head back to Circular Quay and take a ferry out to Manly Beach.  The ferry ride was spectacular, with great views of the city.  Manly Beach is a common day trip for locals and tourists, alike, to just get away from the city for a time to relax and refresh.  The shops are commercial and touristy but small, and were located in restored buildings dating back to the late 1800s, painted in bright pastel, retro-looking colors.  And the beach was perfect for some light reading and some planning for the next day when I was flying up to Queensland to catch a boat to take me out to my diving live-aboard accommodations on the Great Barrier Reef!  That will be my next installment in my Australian adventure story coming soon!