Sometimes it seems as though nothing changes in the idyllic NSW Central Coast and Hunter regions – but dig a little and you’ll find plenty to get excited about.
While there are spots that seem snap frozen in time, such as the picture theatre that began in a family’s front yard just after World War II, elsewhere things are moving quickly. Drop in to the Patonga Beach Hotel to see what the new owners are doing to the place, check out Ettalong Beach’s foreshore redevelopment, order a trendy cold brew coffee in Newcastle or see what’s on tap at a much loved micro brewery at Port Stephens.
Hero image credit: Destination Port Stephens
Fans of The Boathouse Group’s brand of beautiful beachside dining (the company operates highly Instagrammable venues at Manly’s Shelly Beach, Balmoral and Palm Beach) will be eager to inspect the Norfolk pines shaded Patonga Beach Hotel – a major drawcard in this pretty fishing settlement of just 200 residents. A small renovation and rebrand is scheduled for autumn 2018, but the owners say the hotel’s main themes – cafe, beer garden and beachside takeaway – will remain in place.
Zip through Brisbane Water National Park’s bushland along the road to Pearl Beach, a National Trust listed village that fronts the sparkling waters of Broken Bay. Despite its diminutive size (there are just 600 dwellings), the village boasts several attractive dining options.
The Pearl Beach Café and General Store has jumped on the bowl bandwagon, offering two types of healthy lunch bowls piled with beans, quinoa, roasted pumpkin, fetta and more. Ask for a coveted verandah table at Pearls on the Beach and order up KFC (Kentucky fried cauliflower), quail with roast fennel, purple yam custard or lemon posset.
At Ettalong Beach, paddle in the shallows or explore the playgrounds and pathways of the foreshore, which underwent a $5 million redevelopment in 2014. There’s also an excellent eatery – The Box on the Water offers lunch, dinner, weekend breakfasts and sunset sips while its Outside the Box beach kiosk dispatches prawns and oysters with lemon, as well as takeaway boxes packed with cheese, crackers, nuts and fig paste. The Box includes views to Box Head (which inspired the name) – home to an epic left hand surfing point break that can produce rides of up to 1.5km long.
Elsewhere in Ettalong Beach, Lords of Pour brews excellent coffee and supplements its everyday menu on weekends with nifty dishes such as mac and kimcheese – the classic spiked with kimchi. Movie buffs can catch a new release movie in the old school surrounds of Cinema Paradiso, which boasts six themed screens, including one outdoors.
Trace The Scenic Road through Bouddi National Park and wind your way around to another atmospheric Central Coast cinema. Avoca Beach Picture Theatre began in the Hunter family’s front garden in 1948. Four generations have run what’s billed as “the friendliest little theatre around”. After the credits roll, venture to the beach, which is bookended by imposing headlands. Check the surf (Avoca is renowned for consistent waves) or go for a paddle in the shallow rock pool.
The Scenic Highway leads you to The Skillion, a grassed, unusually narrow headland that gently rises as though it’s a giant ski jump. Stroll to the end for panoramic coastal views. What you can’t see is that just 1.4km offshore is HMAS Adelaide, deliberately scuttled in 2011 to create a dive site. Pro Dive Central Coast runs daily dive trips departing from Terrigal.
Leaving behind the Central Coast, head to Lake Macquarie, Australia’s largest coastal saltwater lake. At Swansea, pick up fresh prawns and other seafood from the Commercial Fishermen’s Co operative (open Tuesday to Saturday). At low tide, find the sea caves at Caves Beach or hit the coastal walking track that leads into Wallarah National Park, home to cabbage tree palms that soar 25m into the air. Pick up a kayak, stand up paddleboard, tinny, runabout or sports boat from Jet Buzz Water Sports at Cams Wharf, or get wet with a high speed jet boat ride.
Need a reason to venture to the lake’s western shore? Paddle across to Wangi Wangi or drive to Dobell House where the Archibald Prize winning artist, Sir William Dobell, lived and worked (open weekends and public holidays).
Newcastle is fast gaining a reputation as one of Australia’s most interesting regional cities with projects such as Renew Newcastle, which connects creative types with empty commercial spaces. It also features a burgeoning cafe culture. Top up your caffeine levels at Lords Coffee & Associates in Beaumont Street, Hamilton or at another sibling run coffee venture, HuBro. Follow your cuppa with a walk down hip Darby Street, which is lined with artisan and boutique ventures. For a salty dip, point yourself towards the Art Deco pavilion of the Newcastle Ocean Baths.
Stay: Travelodge Hotel Newcastleis a short stroll from the riverfront and other attractions such as Newcastle Museum (among its permanent exhibitions is coverage of the 1989 earthquake that devastated the city).
Side Trip: Explore Port Stephens
57min | 60km
Cross the Hunter River to Williamtown to find Sand Dune Adventures, which combines all the thrills of quad biking the Southern Hemisphere’s largest mobile sand dunes with an insight into local Indigenous culture (the business is run by the Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council). Further north in the Port Stephens area, Nelson Bay is known as Australia’s dolphin capital thanks to the 150 or so bottlenose dolphins that call this area home. Moonshadow TQC operates dolphin cruises, including options for thrilling boom net rides through the water, as well as whale watching cruises from May to November. Afterwards, relax over a craft brew at Murray’s Craft Brewing Co at Bobs Farm, where up to 10 beers are on tap at any one time (during Halloween season, try the famous pumpkin ale).