From world-class wine to sparkling beaches and ancient rainforest walks, the New South Wales Legendary Pacific Coast is a drive to be savoured.
By Alissa Jenkins
Along this spectacular 1000 kilometre (621 mile) drive from Sydney to Brisbane, explore the famed wineries of the Hunter Valley, the vast sand dunes of Port Stephens and the sparkling beaches of Byron Bay, with memorable wildlife encounters in between.
After departing Sydney through the leafy northern suburbs, take the scenic route to the Central Coast via Umina for an indulgent lunch at Bells at Killcare. A five-star boutique hotel set in beautiful manicured gardens, Bells has an award-winning restaurant serving dishes that showcase local produce and wine, much of which is harvested straight from the estate. Continue north for 30 minutes to Bateau Bay, where you’ll find the popular Coast Walking Track through Wyrrabalong National Park. It's a leisurely six kilometre (3.7 mile) return walk across clifftops, with native wildflowers and ocean views. Keep a look out for migrating whales between May and August. Then drive the last leg to Newcastle, Australia's second oldest city. Refresh with a swim at Newcastle Merewether Ocean Baths. This city landmark opened in 1935 and is the largest ocean pool complex in the Southern Hemisphere. Stay close to the action at the nautical-inspired Novotel Newcastle Beach.
Start the day by indulging in Newcastle cafe culture in the up-and-coming East End. Try One Penny Black, where rustic decor meets local produce and locally roasted coffee. Bolton Street Pantry is another popular hangout for seasonal dishes, fresh farm produce and great coffee. For something sweet, don’t go past Doughheads to pick up some of the most extravagant handcrafted doughnuts around. After a swim at the city's famous Nobbys Beach, venture an hour inland to the premier wine region in New South Wales, the Hunter Valley. Renowned for semillon and shiraz, the Hunter has more than 120 wineries, including household names McGuigan and Tyrrell's. There’s also a new wave of impressive organic and biodynamic wineries to visit, such as Harkham Wines and Krinklewood. Check in to The Convent for the night. It's a gorgeously restored historic building with 17 elegant guest rooms. Just down the road is Circa 1876 restaurant, with an unparalleled wine list and artfully plated dishes.
Splash out with a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Hunter Valley's rolling vineyards before farewelling wine country for the sandy beaches of Port Stephens. Drive 100 kilometres (62 miles) east to Nelson Head Lighthouse, where you’ll be greeted with panoramic views over the bay. You can have brunch at the Inner Light Tea Rooms. Port Stephens is Australia’s dolphin watching capital, so join a morning cruising, swimming or sea kayaking tour. In the afternoon, explore the vast sand dunes of Stockton Beach in the nearby Worimi Conservation Lands. There were so many shipwrecks here during the 19th century that a number of tin sheds (collectively now known as Tin City) were built to hold provisions for sailors. See what remains of them plus much more with a high-energy tour of the dunes, on sand board, quad bike or 4WD. Finish the day with a late afternoon swim or snorkel at one of the 26 sandy beaches in the area. Stay at one of the peninsula’s many upscale oceanfront resorts, such as The Anchorage or Amarna.
Kick-start the day with an invigorating two hour walk to Tomaree Head Summit, which rises 160 metres (525 feet) above the entrance to Port Stephens. From the top you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views over the coastline, out to Boondelbah and Broughton islands. Then follow the coast north for about 2 1/2 hours to Port Macquarie, where you can refuel and refresh at one of its white sandy beaches. Alternatively, drop into the Koala Hospital, the first of its kind in the world, or the award-winning Billabong Zoo, where you can get close to Australian and exotic animals. Continue another 160 kilometres (100 miles) north to the holiday haven of Coffs Harbour, where no trip is complete without a photo at the Big Banana, a symbol of the region’s rich tropical fruit industry. The family-friendly activities continue at the Butterfly House, where visitors can walk around an indoor tropical habitat, home to 300 Australian butterflies. Then retire to BreakFree Aanuka Beach Resort for the night.
Spend the morning exploring the splendours of the Solitary Islands Marine Park, just off the Coffs Harbour coast. The third largest marine protected area in New South Wales, it spans 71,000 hectares (274 square miles) and attracts divers and snorkellers alike thanks to its diverse marine life, from coral and colourful fish to turtles and dolphins. Detour 40 minutes inland to the leafy hippie village of Bellingen for lunch. If it’s Saturday, make a beeline for the Bellingen Growers Market and sample lots of organic local fare in one place. Otherwise, 5 Church Street is a local favourite, famed for its seasonal menu and live music performances. Afterwards, buckle up for a scenic 3 1/2 hour drive north to the bohemian beach paradise of Byron Bay. Check in to The Byron at Byron resort, which captures the region’s characteristic laid-back luxury with spacious suites set among 45 acres of subtropical rainforest with direct access to Tallow Beach.
Start the day with one of the most stunning skydive experiences in Australia: a jump from 14,000 feet above the Byron Bay coastline. Then enjoy a post-skydive breakfast. There's a host of impressive cafes to choose from, many of which tap into Byron's abundance of organic, local ingredients. Folk is a weatherboard cafe with hipster appeal and a mostly vegetarian menu. The Farm Byron Bay is all things Byron: a 32 hectare (79 acre) sustainable farming property with a thriving restaurant, patisserie, flower shed and yoga studio. Spend the afternoon exploring the boutiques and eateries around nearby Bangalow in the Byron Hinterland, before returning to town for a sunset swim at popular Clarkes Beach.
At the easternmost point of mainland Australia, hike the Cape Byron Walking Track (two hours) and see the first rays of light turn the Byron Bay Lighthouse pink. Watch out for migrating whales between May and November. Then make like the locals and surf (or learn to surf) the trademark waves along Byron’s coastline. Classes range from 2 1/2 hour private lessons with Soul Surf School to multi day workshops with Byron Bay Surf School, among many other local operators. Salty and sun kissed, hit the road again for the 90 minute drive north over the Queensland border and into the lush Gold Coast hinterland, a green wedge of bushwalks, lookouts and mountain retreats. Spend the night at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat to restore body and mind with indulgent spa treatments, movement classes and an organic menu designed to improve stomach, digestive and liver health.
Spend the morning hiking a portion of the breathtaking Gold Coast Hinterland Walk, which stretches 54 kilometres (34 miles) in its entirety. Afterwards, trade bird song for buzzing beaches as you drive into the beating heart of the Gold Coast, Surfers Paradise. Here you’ll find the region’s famous theme park quartet — Wet'n'Wild, Sea World, Movie World and Dreamworld. Take your pick and enjoy a day of thrills, spills, amusement rides and shows. Afterwards, lively Cavill Avenue awaits, with its shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. Stay in one of the beachside high-rises that define the Gold Coast landscape, such as the Hilton Surfers Paradise Residence, with open-plan apartments that range from one to four bedroom designs, including floor-to-ceiling windows for taking in the glittering views.
Make the most of some of the calmer waters around Surfers Paradise with a morning stand-up paddleboard lesson. Depart the glitz and glamour of the Gold Coast for Queensland’s more relaxed yet sophisticated capital city, Brisbane. An easy 100 kilometre (62 mile) drive north, the city offers a wealth of activities to celebrate the end of your road trip. Make a detour out to Moreton Island, climb the Story Bridge for jaw-dropping views, or see an outdoor performance at Riverstage. The city is yours to explore.