Road trippers could easily drive straight from Sydney to Coffs Harbour, admiring the peaks of the Great Dividing Range in the distance, without ever leaving the Pacific Highway that bypasses more and more communities as the years go by.
Yet sticking to the efficient thoroughfare means missing out on some of the region’s most photogenic (and delicious) stops. With a little planning, you can sample Australia’s best pies, fish and oysters, canoe pristine rivers and lakes, track down the little cinema that inspired Baz Luhrmann to make movies, and spot kangaroos in the wild as you progress into country that’s ever more rugged, lantana scented and lush.
Image credit: Dallas Kilponen
Day 1: Sydney to Myall Lakes
4hr 14min | 270km
Even though you’ve only just hit the road for the journey north, it’s worth pulling off the M1 to tootle up the old Pacific Highway to the much loved refreshment stop Pie in the Sky. Take in sweeping views over the Hawkesbury River and surrounding bushland from this one time railway canteen before deciding between 22 pie flavours such as beef burgundy, lamb honey chilli garlic, and apple and rhubarb, all featuring pastry made on the premises.
Turn off the M1 at Gosford for the most scenic route to the photogenic Norah Head Lighthouse. Arrive between 10am and 1.30pm to join a 30 minute tour (operates daily except Anzac and Christmas days). Built in 1903 to prevent shipwrecks along this perilous stretch of coast, the tower boasts 96 stairs and panoramic views. Hear about the evolving duties of lighthouse keepers and the modernisation of operations.
After crossing the entrance to Lake Macquarie, one of the scenic saltwater lakes that punctuate the NSW coast, enjoy a $15 weekday lunch with sparkling water views on the side at Crusoe’s on the Lake within Lake Macquarie Yacht Club. Stay parked and explore the nearby Fernleigh Track – a former railway line that’s today a 15km shared pathway through stunning bushland and wetlands (if you’re really keen, strike out for the Fernleigh Tunnel towards the northern end of the trail).
Embrace nature at Myall Lakes National Park, which is on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. Keep your eyes peeled for birds, such as white bellied sea eagles, that glide through the park, as well as kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and long nosed bandicoots. Swim, kayak, cast a line for bream, mullet and flathead, or simply chill out and drink in all that nature has to offer. In spring, the park is renowned for its magnificent wildflower displays.
Day 2: Myall Lakes to Port Macquarie
3hr 13min | 214km
After a final leisurely swim at Myall Lakes, potter up the road to Great Lakes Paddocks – a laidback winery open six days a week (closed Tuesdays). Pick up a bottle of bubbles or a crisp white to go with the oysters you’ll enjoy later today.
Snap up a dozen or two plump Sydney rock oysters grown in Wallis Lake’s pristine waters. Graham Barclay Oysters is a third generation business overlooking the lake’s oyster beds. Enjoy your picnic on Forster Main Beach, also home to huge ocean baths that you can stroll into straight from the sand.
In Laurieton, an hour away, take in a movie at the old school cinema that inspired Baz Luhrmann to forge a career in the film industry. Luhrmann’s father was a projectionist at the Plaza Theatre in the early 1970s, and together the pair would watch the movies of the day.
Roll into Port Macquarie in time for a special dinner at The Stunned Mullet. Located opposite Town Beach, this hatted restaurant not only serves seafood but venison, wagyu and sirloin steaks. For something more casual, head to The Beach House – a pub overlooking the Hastings River – for a chicken parmy or fisherman’s basket.
As the name suggests, NRMA Port Macquarie Breakwall Holiday Park overlooks the breakwall near the mouth of the Hastings River. From here, it’s a short stroll to popular Town Beach and into town to eat, shop and play.
Ibis Styles Port Macquarie is located opposite Town Beach, offering unique, unrestricted beachfront views, and is also a stone's throw away from the buzz of cafes, restaurants, bars and family friendly attractions and wineries. Choose from a range of rooms, terraces and suites, unwind in one of two top floor lounges with 180 degree views, and outdoor swimming pool. Members can save up to 20% on the best available room rate with late check out, as well as 10% off food and beverage. Simply use the promo code: NRMA when booking at any of these hotels. *T&C's apply.
Day 3: Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour
2hr 55min | 213km
With a Koala Street in Port (as the locals call it), it should be no surprise there’s also a Koala Hospital that treats sick and injured koalas. Visitors are welcome to drop in between 8am and 4pm (free admission, open daily except Christmas Day) to see the koalas that are being nursed back to health. A guided tour and feeding takes place at 3pm.
Next, head 145km to beautiful Bellingen. Paddle the tranquil Bellingen River – and perhaps spot a water dragon, koala or even a herd of cows crossing the river – with Bellingen Canoe Adventures. The wildlife reserve of Bellingen Island is home to a colony of grey headed flying foxes that fill the sky upon dusk when they go in search of dinner.
Then it’s on to Coffs itself, about 30 minutes away. Pick up fish and chips from SeaSalt and stroll the jetty (keeping an eye out for hungry seagulls, frolicking dolphins and, in winter, migrating whales). From here, you can also head to Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve, which hosts thousands of breeding and nesting wedge tailed shearwaters (also known as muttonbirds) from August to April each year.
There’s plenty else to do at this picturesque coastal enclave. Take the fabulously named Look at Me Now Headland walk for great ocean views, explore the North Coast Regional Botanic Garden and its Japanese Friendship Garden, and if you’ve got kids in tow, Dolphin Marine Magic – the only zoological park in NSW featuring dolphins – should be on the itinerary.
At Arrawarra, 35km or 30 minutes’ drive north of Coffs Harbour’s banana tree clad hills, is the family friendly NRMA Darlington Beach Holiday Resort where kangaroos hop through the grounds.