Could it be that after a ten-year hiatus Sydney is rediscovering its mojo? Definitely there is a charge in the air, like Flemington on Derby Day, as the revamped Museum of Contemporary Art Australia slides open its doors for a celebratory bash. Searchlights cut through the sky. A yacht covered in 60,000 tiny mirrored tiles bobs and shimmers on the harbour. And everyone is chattering about Christian Marclay’s monumental cinematic timepiece, The Clock, making its debut south of the equator. A rumour even spreads through the new gallery space that Duran Duran will be performing, adding a peroxide dash of New Romanticism to all the other modern art forms on display. Alas, they don’t show, but even in their absence, the guestlist is far more interesting than the usual ‘dial-a-celeb’ crowd. Eclectic, too. John Pilger rubs shoulders with Glenn McGrath, who could almost be an installation: the great Australian deconstructionist of the English middle order.

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Our hostess is my favourite Scot, Liz Ann Macgregor, daintily brandishing a tartan handbag rather than her signature Dr Martens. A few weeks earlier, I heard her reminisce about thumbing through the news cuttings on her arrival almost 13 years ago. ‘Money for wankers’ was how the Daily Telegraph described a new grant for the gallery. Now, the paper is spruiking its 3D interactive guide to the new MCA – proof that it long ago passed what tabloid-minded politicians call ‘the Tele test’. What with the funky Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania and the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia’s artistic infrastructure is starting to rival its sporting infrastructure. Has the country’s cultural stock ever been higher?

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The arancini balls at the opening party are the best I’ve tasted south of Naples – another reminder that if I ever get to write a memoir of my time in Sydney it will be entitled ‘The Bingeing Pom’ (with a forward, naturally, from Matt Preston). Autumn, when thoughts turn from the beach to the kitchen, is always a good food season. Recent culinary highlights have included dinner in the revolving restaurant atop Harry Seidler’s fabulous Australia Square skyscraper, and the leg of lamb at Matt Moran’s hugely popular new Sydney eatery, Chiswick – a shared dish that I could have happily polished off all on my own. Then there was the English breakfast at Cumulus in Melbourne, which rivals anything on The Strand, not to mention the hot cross buns from the organic bakery in Bondi that are surely the finest in the whole of Christendom. In the space of five decades, your polyglot population has vested Australia with the kind of culinary heritage that other countries have taken centuries to build up. If you’ll forgive the dreadful pun, you’ve become a fast foodie nation.

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More gastronomic delights surely await us at Kangaroo Island, my favourite Australian escape. With the bitumen heading westward from the airport at Kingscote soon giving way to the crunch of gravel, this feels like an antipodean safari, and within minutes I spot our first wallaby bounding, effortlessly, across the paddocks. Is this something of which Australians ever tire? I hope not. The beach house where we are staying is patrolled by a languid goanna and also plays nightly host to a rooftop disco seemingly attracting possums from all over the island. Koalas chew on gum leaves in the creek, while the occasional field mouse scurries across the kitchen floor, chased by our host wielding his Havaianas like a hammer.

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Normally we fish for our supper, but the seas are too choppy. So the feast of the weekend comes at a bush barbecue, at which the backs of a couple of utes serve as an open-air kitchen. Grilled snags washed down with some big Barossa reds. Yum. I spend the final day of the holiday violently ill, or ‘driving the porcelain bus,’ as Kevin Rudd might say. I interpret this as punishment for my gluttony. The Bingeing Pom is no more. I never again want to see another arancini ball.

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Nothing would keep me from Italian opera, however, especially when performed on a floating stage with the Sydney skyline as backdrop. ‘Mount Olympus, meet Sydney Harbour,’ wrote Clive James in the official programme for the 2000 Olympics. ‘You belong together.’ The same is true of Giuseppe Verdi and Lady Macquarie’s Chair. The production of La Traviata is staggeringly good, the staging lavish. Overhanging the stage is a giant crystal chandelier, the like of which Australia has not seen since Rose Porteous decorated Prix D’Amour, Lang Hancock’s pile in Perth. The chorus arrives on water-taxis bedecked with beautiful lights, and apparently there is a rescue boat just in case a diva takes a dive. The stage is also vast, a delight for Sydney opera-goers used to seeing productions performed in the pinched confines of the opera theatre on the other side of Farm Cove.  Oh to have heard Dame Joan in such a glorious open-air setting – her coloratura would surely have carried all the way to Watson’s Bay. Inevitably, there are fireworks, which I saw one humourless reviewer describe as the most tired of Sydney clichés. But as Samuel Johnson would doubtless have observed had he ever made it as far as the Emerald City, if you tire of harbour pyrotechnics then your problem probably lies elsewhere.

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During the interval, I grab a quick word with Lyndon Terracini, the artistic director of Opera Australia. He’s been talking about how Australia needs to get away from its Anglo-centric meat and three veg culture and to compliment it with something approaching Asian-fusion. The more flavours the better, I say. High on the romance of the evening, I suggest that Sydney will become the New World’s Verona, an aqua version of the Roman amphitheatre in Piazza Bra. But doubtless he is thinking along those lines already, having already made this an annual event. Bravi Lyndon Terracini. Bravi Opera Australia. Bravi Sydney. It’s good to have you back.

Nick Bryant is the author of Adventures in Correspondentland.