The National - Sydney sands
October 19, 2012

There are few cities blessed with that heady combination of urban grit, cultural diversity and laidback beach life. When you find them you want to pack your bags and move there. Think Rio, Los Angeles and Cape Town - and Sydney, lucky enough to be built around one of the world's most spectacular natural harbours. The coastline here ranges from rugged wild beaches facing the open ocean to secluded coves where snorkellers can encounter Eastern blue grouper, cuttle fish and Bennett's nudibranch.

Sydney's best-known beach is Bondi, targetted by surfers, backpackers and boho locals, as well as expats who believe they have landed the good life. I adore a morning swim here, followed by coffee at Jeds at the Seven Ways crossroads in North Bondi. That sets me up for a favourite Sydney ritual: the Bondi to Bronte Ocean Walk sweeping around the stunning sandstone cliffs. Every springtime the trail hosts Sculptures by the Sea, a temporary outdoor art exhibition featuring more than 100 sculptures by artists from Australia and beyond.

North of Sydney is one of the city's favourite seaside spots: Manly Beach, which is reached by ferry across Sydney Harbour. I can spend long days here eating ice-cream on the boardwalk, swimming in front of the Manly Life Saving Club and skipping down Cabbage Tree Bay Coastal Walk to Shelly Beach to catch the last of the day's rays. At dusk chattering lorikeets come to roost among Manly's fringe of pine trees.

Of all Sydney's beaches the most beautiful may be the one farthest from downtown: Palm Beach at the northern end of a 30-kilometre-long peninsula. The beach backs on to dunes and classic Australian bush, and at the far tip stands the Barrenjoey Lighthouse dating back more than a hundred years and still warding off ships today. With this much variety within striking distance of downtown Sydney, clearly the wise - and not to mention the most fun - thing to do is grab your swimwear and hit the beach.

Bondi Beach
Located in the eastern suburbs of the city, this 1km stretch has become synonymous with the laidback Aussie lifestyle. Bondi's booming surfing breaks are legendary and its two lifesaving clubs are among the oldest in Australia. The northern end of the beach is usually the safest for swimming, and there are also the Children's Wading and Wally Weekes pools built into the rock here. Changing rooms can be found at the Bondi Pavilion, a community cultural centre with an art gallery, theatre and cafe. At the other end of Bondi is Icebergs Club, which is also open to day-paying visitors. The club has an oceanside Olympic-sized lap pool, kids' pool and a bistro overlooking Bondi's golden sands. Between May and early October, scan the sea for migrating whales. My favourite time at Bondi is weekday mornings when commuters slip down for a surf or swim before heading to the office. Personal trainers can be seen pushing their clients' limits at North Bondi's public outdoor jungle gym. At dusk, head to North Bondi Italian for the views, the fashion-forward crowd and the food: squid with chilli, barramundi with ginger and polenta with gorgonzola.

Manly Beach
Reached by ferry from the Circular Quay Wharf, the journey alone is worth the trip to Manly. The ferry chugs between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House, heading past the North and South Heads, before arriving 40 minutes later at Manly Wharf. A sign above the landing deck reads "Five miles from the city, a million miles from care". A short walk along the esplanade from here is Oceanworld Manly where there are touch pools and a daily seal show. The "Shark Dive Xtreme" adventure allows guests to dive in a tank with grey nurse sharks. There is also the Manly Art Gallery and Museum and a harbour beach with calm waters. For ocean surf, visitors must head down the pedestrianised Corso lined with surfing stores, seafood restaurants, pie shops and gelaterias. Manly Beach is one of Sydney's longest, a 3km-stretch popular with swimmers, surfers and kayakers. Dine immediately on the beach at The Pantry Manly which serves calamari tagliatelle, grilled sardines and pickled octopus. Manly Surf School offers private and group lessons (also at Collaroy Beach, Long Reef Beach & Palm Beach - farther north). Their Day Tour teaches guests about the history of surfing and the basics of getting on a board before finding the best waves that day - which might be at any of the Northern Beaches. The Australian Open of Surfing takes place every February here, showcasing the best in Australian surfing, skateboarding, music and fashion.

Bronte Beach
Hugged by headlands, "Bronte the Beautiful" is a quiet and unpretentious beach popular with families. The 30-metre-long ocean pool built into the rock at the south end of the beach is one of the best spots in Sydney for protected swimming. On the beach itself there can be a strong rip tide in a heavy swell; its name, the Bronte Express, reflects its high speed. Beach swimmers should be alert to the currents. Always swim between the flags, the area monitored by volunteers from the Bronte Surf Lifesaving Club. Back on the beach a natural sandstone cave provides shade during the hottest part of the day. Up the stairs from here is Bronte Park where there are barbecue hotplates and picnic cabanas. The park extends westwards to a gully and small creek. The 2012 Bondi to Bronte Ocean Swim, a 2km-long race starting at the Bondi Pavilion and following a southerly course around McKenzie's point to Bronte Beach, will take place on December 2 with 2,500 swimmers taking part.

Palm Beach
"Palmie", as locals call it, is a long wild stretch of golden sand along a peninsula with water on all sides: the Pittwater to the west, Tasman Sea to the east and Broken Bay to the north. As Sydney's most northerly coastal suburb it is also its most beautiful - hailing some of the city's most expensive properties. Arrive early in the day for brunch at the Boathouse Palm Beach, which serves French toast with berry coulis, poached eggs, and avocado on rye. The restaurant is on the Pittwater side of the peninsula and only a short walk from the beach itself. Otherwise bring a picnic and stake out the beach's southerly end near the Lifesavers Club. All-day river cruises operate from Palm Beach Wharf up to Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. Boats stop at Bobbin Head for lunch before cruising to Cottage Point and Patonga.

Tamarama Beach
One beach up from Bondi, this is the hotspot for the bright, young and body-beautiful set. Surrounded by high cliffs, the beach is deeper than it is long with less than 100m of shoreline. Because of its deep water, small size and easterly aspect, Tamarama is one of the most treacherous beaches on Australia's east coast, with more rescues per thousand bathers than any other of Sydney's beaches. Lifesavers closely patrol the beach posting different coloured flags to indicate current conditions. A small swell here can give rise to four-metre waves and bodysurfers should prepare themselves for a sharp, fast ride. At the back of the beach, Tamarama Park has a simple beach cafe serving smoothies and shakes. Yoga by the Sea runs sessions at Tamarama Surfclub's studio up on the cliffs; drop-in classes are open to visitors.

Shelly Beach
Backing on to Sydney Harbour National Park, this sheltered cove is protected from swell by a reef and is the only inland-facing ocean beach on the east coast of Australia. That makes for easy swimming, and the good visibility and diverse marine life also draws snorkellers and scuba divers. At the back of the beach among bushland are picnic areas; there is also a restaurant, Le Kiosk, serving mussels, fish 'n' chips and grilled snapper. From here a meandering path leads up to a lookout with breathtaking views of the scalloped bays of the Northern Beaches. Halfway between Shelly and Manly beaches is one of Sydney's best surf breaks, the Bower. Two other well-known breaks, the Winki and Deadman's, are also located nearby. Every January is the Cole Classic, Australia's biggest open-water ocean swim. It is a relatively short sprint from Shelly Beach to Manly Beach with 1km and 2km classes. Not only are the fastest swimmers rewarded; the Mr and Mrs Average Prize goes to the man and woman whose times are closest to the average.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Tselana Travel (