In search of Australia. Newcomers sample Sydney and the outback. Sights around Sydney Harbour fit for romantic viewing

`PARIS of the South Pacific,'' one Sydney travel brochure brags. That may be stretching it a bit, though. We decided to see if we were getting a ``fair dinkum'' story or some swagman's tale. We queried concierges, flight attendants, business associates, and Sydney-siders at large, for the most romantic spots in town. Not too surprisingly, most advice to the amorous leads to the expansive Sydney Harbour and that bleached-white cluster of billowing ``sails'' known as the Opera House.

After a piecemeal sampling of some recommended sights, we've put together our own Sydney ``G'Date'' tour. It starts not at the Opera House itself, but with a hand-in-hand stroll leading up to Joern Utzon's architectural wonder.

Before you set out in the morning, ask at the restaurant at your hotel if they'll pack you and yours a lunch. For example, the Regent offers glorious gourmet picnics starting at $35 (US) and topping out at $185. For a less formal spread, you can always get some ``takeaway'' at a nearby deli.

Then, head for the Art Gallery of New South Wales. From any hotel in the city, it's probably less than a $5 taxi ride away. You could spend a day in the museum perusing the 19th- and 20th-century works by Australian artists. Don't miss the increasingly popular aboriginal art also here. That may or may not set the mood, so after a few hours, you might want to partake of the art just outside.

The museum is steps away from the Royal Botanic Gardens. Once the site of the convict colony's first veggie patch, the gardens now display 400 varieties of plants surrounded by spacious lawns. Within the gardens, a large glass pyramid houses a living collection of South Pacific flora.

Latter-day Romeos may be tempted to stop in the gardens for a picnic (or proposal, for that matter). But hold off a bit, mate. Wait until you've got your sweetheart out near Mrs. Macquarie's chair. This oversize divan hewn out of rock offers a spectacular harborside vantage point. To your left, across the aqua brilliance of Farm Cove, lies the resplendent Opera House. Off to the right, the ``sail-toothed'' mouth of the harbor.

After a picturesque picnic, it's an easy stroll along the harbor's edge to the Opera House. To properly appreciate this $102 million, 90-room complex of concert halls, restaurants, theaters, cinema, and opera hall requires a viewing from the inside. Tours run every half hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cap your day's outing with dinner in a dimly lit nook of the Bennelong Restaurant at the Opera House. Try the John Dory (a white-fleshed fish), Moreton Bay Bug (saltwater crayfish), or the esteemed fresh-caught barramunda. A pre-theater dinner for two can be had for about $45. Expect to pay about twice that for the full a la carte menu.

Advance booking is required if you want to take in a performance at the Opera House. A package tour, pre-theater dinner, and show for two costs $75 to $130, depending on the performance (opera, symphony, or play). In honor of the bicentennial, prices rise to $100 to $145 per couple in 1988.

On another evening you'll want to take the two- to three-hour dine-and-dance soiree cruise aboard the engine-driven John Cadman. At $33 per person, the meal is slightly above average and the band a notch or two below average, but the setting tends to compensate.

We disagree on this, but one of us advises holding off on the dinner cruise if you're going home via New Zealand. The Auckland Harbour Cruise Company serves a better meal, a better crew, and a side dish of adventure. The Kiwis take you on a moonlight supper and sail. It's more informal and lacks the dancing and spectacular views. But a soft breeze filling the sails overhead has a certain romantic quality that's incomparable to a chugging engine underfoot.

Several Sydney restaurants were recommended to us for their amorous appeal: the rotating Summit atop the Australia Square building, the Blue Water Grill overlooking the surfers at Bondi Beach, and Doyle's on the Beach at Watson's Bay.

After hearing Paul Hogan in ```Crocodile' Dundee'' touting the virtues of ``barbie'' cooking, we couldn't resist a meal at Phillip's Foote. From George Street (in the Rocks district) this ``informal eatery'' looks like any small English pub. Behind the pub lies a multilevel sandstone courtyard filled with ficus trees, huge staghorn ferns, umbrella-topped tables - and two barbecue pits only a tad smaller than Ayers Rock. You climb to the cookhouse, where a woman named George has prepared huge bowls of salad, fresh breads, and prime Australian steak. Select your favorite cut and toss it on the grill. Fetch a drink, get some salad, and come back to flip your steak. Australian steak is superb. And at Phillip's Foote it's cheap: $6.50 covers dinner.

Now, this isn't the place to impress your spouse with your culinary sophistication. But it does provide an evening of easy conversation and ``no worries,'' as they say here.

One last suggestion. Check into the Gazebo Ramada Hotel near Kings Cross and ask for a room with a harbor view. Breakfasting on the balcony is a must. But if you can't get such a room, just don a swimsuit and head for the roof. Midnight or morning dips in the heated pool offer a dazzling panorama.

Sydney isn't Paris. But it is romantic.

If you go

The Opera House dinner-performance package can be booked through Qantas, a travel agent, or by writing to the Sydney Opera House, GPO Box 4274, Sydney 2001.

For information on Gazebo Ramada Hotel, write the hotel at 2 Elizabeth Bay Rd., Elizabeth Bay, NSW 2011, or call 358-1999.

For a John Cadman Sydney Harbour cruise, call Sydney 922-1922.

Auckland Harbour Cruise Company is located at Downtown Airline Terminal, Quay St.,PO Box 3730, Auckland 1. Call 734-557.

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