Local's guide: Illawarra

North Beach Wollongong my nrma local guides
North Beach Wollongong my nrma local guides

Dramatic escarpments, giant temples, hidden beaches and local produce sourced from lush pastures combine to make Wollongong – and its near neighbours Shellharbour and Kiama – five star attractions.

  • Symbio Wildlife Park, Helensburgh
  • Nan Tien Temple
  • Killalea State Park
  • Motorlife Museum, Kembla Grang

An hour’s drive south of Sydney, Wollongong – and the neighbouring towns of Shellharbour and Kiama – is where you can first begin to unlock NSW’s unspoiled South Coast. And while the jaw dropping display of nature’s force at Kiama Blowhole draws the crowds, there are countless other reasons to head to this emerald green part of our coastline, from cool art bars and Sumatran tigers to Vampire jets and bratwurst. 

Where to eat

What better time and place to savour authentic Indian or Chinese food than during a visit to two of Australia’s most eye catching temples? The Nan Tien Temple at Berkeley, with its main shrine featuring five large and serene Buddhas, is home to the Dew Drop Inn Tea House, where you can enjoy dumplings or barbecued pork noodles. A visit to the Sri Venkateswara Temple (SVT) canteen at Helensburgh (open weekends and public holidays) is your chance to see why Indian tiffin (lunchbox) specialties like masala dosa, idly and poori are all the rage.

When you’ve earned 13 consecutive hats from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide, you know you’re doing something right. Described as serving “edible art”, Wollongong CBD’s Caveau specialises in adventurous white tablecloth dining, underpinned by an organic sustainability philosophy.

For a more casual dining experience, the Living Room offers a relaxed dining experience, doubling up as a cafe and bar, it offers a strong breakfast, lunch and dinner menu that caters for the fussiest of eaters. Or head to The Swallowed Anchor, the brainchild of two young veterans, whose penchant for unpretentious, quality fare is buoyed by the menu they've created. What's better, Members receive 20 percent off the total bill up to $25 at Living Room and The Swallowed Anchor

Tucked away in the backstreets of Kiama, the Little Blowhole Art Bar is the town’s coolest dining spot with its mix of tapas, art and music on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. A menu that includes freshly caught seafood, chemical free cured meats and free range Saltbush lamb and pork ensures you’ll never lack for choice.

If you’ve got a big appetite, the place to head is Kembla Grange’s German Club, where the restaurant (open Wednesday to Sunday) prepares home style meals of “generous proportions”. Look out for the Big Bavarian (“Big Bav”) tasting platter, washed down with a range of German beers, wines and schnapps.

Shellharbour Village’s Addison Street is the region’s best known “eat street” and true to its moniker, you’ll find no shortage of dining and coffee options. For a treat, locals head to Addy’s Café, with its souvlaki pizza and verandah views down to the harbour, or Relish on Addison, an upmarket cafe by day and a stylish contemporary Australian restaurant by night. Members receive 20 percent off the total bill up to $25 at Relish on Addison.

What to see

You wouldn’t ordinarily expect to find a Sumatran tiger in Helensburgh, but Symbio Wildlife Park is one of those surprising finds you occasionally unearth when you go off the beaten track. As well as tigers, the wildlife park gives you a chance to get a happy snap with a snake, koala or an alligator – or feed ring tailed lemurs and red pandas.

The view from Sublime Point is well worth the 30 to 45 minute climb from Austinmer. The Sublime Point walking track starts near the beach and cuts through rainforest on its way to the top of the escarpment, a giant staircase and steel ladders helping you to make the final ascent. Once there, wonder at the view (and catch your breath) before heading to nearby Sublime Point Cafe for a deserved treat.

A firm favourite with locals, The Blue Mile walk around Wollongong’s harbour foreshore stretches from Stuart Park in the north to Wollongong Golf Club in the south, taking you past historic North Beach Bathers Pavilion, beaches, parks and outdoor cafes.

At Shell Cove between Shellharbour and Kiama (turn towards the coast at Dunmore) you’ll find the 265ha Killalea State Park, a pristine coastal reserve with 8km of coastline, rainforest, wetlands, rolling hills, trails, seabird breeding areas – and two of the South Coast’s best surfing beaches, The Farm and Mystics. In 2009, Killalea was declared a National Surfing Reserve.

Looking for that Instaworthy shot? Look no further than Saddleback Mountain Lookout, 10 minutes west of Kiama, where the view extends 70km north to Royal National Park and south all the way to Jervis Bay.

What to learn

It seems all roads, tracks and flight paths lead to three world class museums dedicated to preserving our transport history. At the Australian Motorlife Museum in Kembla Grange, the focus is on pre 1940 motoring, with exhibits including a 1914 Australian built Victor motorcycle, a 1919 Republic truck, and the only surviving example of a 1904 “kit” car built in Sydney. Show your NRMA Member card for a discount off the entry price.

Steam fills the air at the Illawarra Light Railway Museum at Albion Park. Recalling a time when locomotives drove industry, travel and expansion, the museum’s lovingly restored collection of gleaming steam trains will delight visitors of every age, from young Thomas The Tank Engine fans to those whose memories are stirred by the sound of a steam whistle.

There are also memories aplenty at Wollongong Airport at Albion Park, home to the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society Museum. Housed in hangars and ready for take off are some of the most magnificent military and commercial flying machines of the past 80 years. Admission includes a guided tour and the museum is open daily from 9.30am to 3.30pm. Open days are held on the second Friday, Saturday and Sunday of each month.

Where to stay

Offering One and Two bedroom fully appointed apartment style accommodation in the heart of Wollongong is Mantra Wollongong. Relax and enjoy the panoramic coastal views from your balcony, before exploring everything Wollongong has to offer, including the nearby city beach and city centre, shopping malls and many local attractions. Members can save up to 20% on the best available room rate at Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge with late check out, as well as 10% off food and beverage*. Simply use the promo code: 'NRMA' when booking. *T&C's apply.

Within walking distance of the blowhole and historic Terrace shops, The Sebel Harbourside Kiama offers 80 luxurious rooms and apartments over three levels with a choice of ocean, garden or town views. Start your day with breakfast in The Quarry Room and enjoy lunch or dinner alfresco in the Blue Diamond Bar & Bistro’s garden courtyard. Blue Diamond’s gourmet pizzas are a highlight, or try the delicious tapas or contemporary Australian menu.

Save 20% on accommodation at Mantra Wollongong

NRMA Members can save up to 20% on the best available room rate with late check out, as well as 10% off food and beverage*.