The Aussie road trip
The Australian road trip is the dream of most gap year travellers. Bondi in a camper with a surfboard attached. Living it large in Byron. As the DH and I are not surfers, there had been shark attacks in Byron Bay, and we are ‘mature’ in years if not in our heads, we were looking for a different sort of road trip. One that involved food, good food. And we were not disappointed. And, again as happens to us frequently, almost all the best places we found were by happenstance rather than by planning.
It was my idea to road trip from NSW to Queensland. How to do it took up many days of research, where to stop and what to see.
I asked my Aussie friends whether camper or car would be best. The Phoebe hippy in me screamed camper. The organised Monica said calmly, car. The Australians all said, fly.
I looked at pre arranged tours. These seemed to fall into two categories, living it large at party locations or upmarket hotels and wine tasting. We have champagne tastes but beer budgets, and did not want to party in Byron.
The Pacific Highway
Also known as The Legendary Pacific Coast is a 1000 km drive (more if like us you wander off the main highway) that many an Aussie will do in a day or two. We had a week. I booked three two night stays at Port Stephens, Coffs Harbour and Byron Bay. This would give us time to see a bit more than just the tick list and well we are British, we measure distance in hours not miles or km. Just ask Bill Bryson.
“If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order,’
And lots of Australians do make this road trip. Not so many English 50 somethings, they mostly take a tour it seems. And it being late October we hit the school half term ‘spring break’ with Sydneysiders making the most of the warmer weather, hotel prices were increasing and camp sites were filling up. And the roads were busy.
Choose your car wisely
Choose big and powerful. We didn’t want a SUV so we got a Toyota Camry. If you have driven in Australia you know you don’t want anything they call small or compact. The highway is busy, the speed limit (target) is 100km/ph and it can be a free for all.
Take driving breaks
Our Aussie friends reminded us. Tiredness kills they said. We are English we said. No journey in the UK is longer than 3 hours unless you are on the M25 on a Friday night or the M5 to Cornwall on Bank Holiday weekend. We heeded their advice nonetheless. And those driving breaks paid off with us discovering some hidden gems just off the highway.
Sydney to Port Stephens
This is the first of my ‘just off the highway’ recommendations. We had navigated our way out of the city of Sydney and through the suburbs. Lunch was on our mind. How we stumbled upon this, I don’t recall. I saw a sign to the lake I think. It is based in a popular lakeside and low key resort where Sydneysiders have weekend homes. This is a perfect place to take a driving break – it is not far from the highway, 15 minutes tops, yet tranquil. After lunch we took a much needed lakeside walk. If you are doing this drive, add this stop to your itinerary. After shaking off Sydney it is ideally placed for a much needed ‘we survived Sydney traffic’ break.
I chose Port Stephens as destination as it had a reputation for great beaches. And Nelson Bay as it had dolphin watching tours. Tip one. Don’t stay in central Nelson Bay. Tip 2. Don’t stay in Marina Resort. Find out why, here in my review. Others said about it that you get what you pay for – so we were dreading the other hotels as we had paid about the same for all of them. Learning point here is no you don’t. Because the other two hotels we paid the same for were outstanding. More of them later.
Nelson Bay itself is a tired seaside town. Sometime in the 70’s someone thought they would modernise it. And spoil it. It has a marina, tick. For a small town it has a huge supermarket, pubs and drive in bottle shops. This is where families from Newcastle come for a cheap self catering holiday.
Drive a few kilometres either way out of Nelson Bay and everything improves. And you totally get why this is a holiday destination. The scenery, the food, the people. The beaches. I can only liken it to classic British resorts that have had their heyday and still think a pier and greasy chips with fairground attractions is all you need. It is the Newquay of Cornwall whose neighbours, St Ives, Padstow and Rock, offer so much more for the holiday maker. If I were an Australian I would be a Melburnian. And I expect coffee and craft beer and avo smash. Nelson Bay doesn’t do that.
Or rather it does. Except you need to drive out of town to find these amazing places.
The Nelson Bay Heritage Lighthouse and Reserve is a few minutes drive out of town. Go for the views, go for the museum.
Go for brunch at The Inner Light Tearooms. What a find. The staff were lovely as was the food. The coffee wouldn’t pass muster with a Melburnian but the views make up for it.
Drive the other direction out of town toward Soldiers Point and to the marina. Find The Boatshed cafe, on a pontoon, serving amazing food from a tiny kitchen. I can only vouch for the cakes. It was getting choppy so keeping the coffee in the cup was a challenge. But worth it.
Stockton Bay Sand Dunes
Wow. Just Wow. We spotted these from the road as we drove into Nelson Bay and had to visit. No wonder this is a film location – the sand hills are perfect desert locations. I regret now not taking one of the four wheel drive tours on offer. The wind was getting up, surfers were being directed to leave the sea and the tours were on hold for a while. Autumn in NSW. Find out more about the beach and tours here.
Port Stephens to Coffs Harbour
But first brunch.
We left early without breakfast. We negotiated our way back to The Pacific Highway with hopes of finding somewhere along the way – nowhere was open. Back on the highway I spotted a sign to a service station taking us back onto the original Pacific Highway at Karuah. As we pulled in we noticed a cafe opposite and made the best decision ever to have brunch at Four One Six Cafe.
Newly opened and owned by a husband and wife team, the eggs served here are free range and from their own chickens. These are foodies, they know food, they love people to love their food and they know where to eat. After brunch, we decided to order something for lunch on the road. Just a sandwich. Ha! it came wrapped in a box with wild flowers to decorate it. And, knowing where we were headed, plenty of advice of where to eat in Byron Bay.
This is no ordinary roadside cafe. This is the foodies roadside cafe. Go. Visit Port Stephens beaches, avoid the highway and take the old road.
From Port Stephens to Coffs Harbour
The drive was a pleasure. It was like taking the B road that no one knows of in Cornwall. With wooden bridges over rivers reminiscent of Madison County. In my mind at least. To be away from the manic drivers, the trucks and the mayhem made this one of my favourite drives of the trip.
Seal Rocks Lighthouse
The official name for this lighthouse is Sugarloaf Point Light. We made a big detour to visit this lighthouse. It was worth it. The drive takes you through lush green woodland and then along narrow roads to the car park below the lighthouse. A ten to figteen minute walk through woodland and you reach the lighthouse. As you walk through the trees you can hear the sea, but not see it.
And then, this.
I was particularly delighted to see that the original lamp which is still there was made by Chance Brothers, in Smethwick, where I live. Near Birmingham.
There is also accommodation here – noted for our next visit to Australia. Imagine waking up to this every day.
Reluctantly we had to press on, as we had accommodation booked in Coffs Harbour.
But first lunch.
We stopped off at one of the many beaches in this seaside town to eat the packed lunch made by Four One Six.
Port Macquarie reminded me of an English seaside town built in the Victorian era. But with sunshine. We found a spot to eat our lunch, on Flynns Beach and, if it hadn’t been for the sun, we could have been in St Ives. Surfers, sea, a cafe. And an amazing lunch.
I can’t tell you much more about the town as we only stopped for lunch. I liked it better than Nelson Bay – a lot more. All too soon it was back on the road to get to our accommodation on Day three of the road trip.
It was approaching dusk when we arrived. Fortunately we had good directions for our hotel – as it would have been difficult to find. It was just off the main and very busy highway heading out of the town and after our last hotel, I did not have high hopes. We had paid the same room rate, it was out of town, I was prepared for the worst.
I had to check we were at the right place. Opal Cove Resort, yup right place. Swanky reception area, efficient and helpful staff, such a contrast to the last place. Which absolutely goes against the ‘you get what you pay for ‘ rule of thumb. It had mixed review on Booking.com – but after the last dump this was swanky. Yes it was showing its age a bit – we were still low season, so the pool area was not really in use, but the rooms were comfortable and clean. The bed had a proper mattress, without lumps, this was an upgrade I was happy with.
I am guessing our room was cheap because our view was the car park and not the sea. We sneaked a peak at a sea view room – same lay out but with a view. The chambermaid (who let us take the peak) said that although the views were great, the room gets very warm so people close the curtains. Chatting to her, she told us how much she loved her job and said ‘look at my office’. I was to hear that phrase often on this trip.
Same went for the waitress in the restaurant. Loved her job. Reception staff said the same. The hotel had recently been taken over and I don’t know what the management were doing, but they were getting it right. Happy staff = happy customers.
With the hotel being so far out of town, and no other restaurants or hotels near by you are kind of forced to eat in. The cynical me thought that would mean inflated prices and mediocre food. I was wrong on both counts.
The Big Banana
Australia has big things. Big prawns, Big Apples, Coffs Harbour has The Big Banana. So we had to go visit and have a photo taken there. On site there is also an Opal Museum and a toboggan run, this is one big holiday town. There is also a tourist information office, and if there is only one reason other than that photo to visit The Big Banana, the tourist office is it. We had one day in Coffs Harbour so we wanted to see as much as possible and this is the place to start.
Turns out there is a lot to do here, which is why it is a popular holiday resort. The town itself was very ordinary, modern shops, lots of traffic, not a charming town – but practical- providing accommodation and services for people visiting the area. From the Big Banana to National Parks to a cartoon gallery in a bunker, Coffs Harbour has it all.
The Forest Sky Pier
The Forest Sky Pier was where the tourist office suggested we go as we only had a short time in Coffs Harbour. A ten minute drive off The Pacific Highway above Coffs Harbour through banana plantations, and it is free. If you have more time, there is a circular drive and a number of hikes. Magnificent views of Coffs Harbour.
We also went for a walk along the huge concrete breakers, protecting Coffs Harbour and to watch the surfers.
Coffs Harbour offers lots to do for the holidaymaker – definitely a lot to do and see for all ages. The town itself has no ‘heart’ it is purely functional. That doesn’t make it a place not to visit though. It is just not what I imagined it would be like.
Coffs Harbour to Byron Bay
Ulmarra – stepping back in time
Driving northwards, over wooden bridges astrid the Clarence River and the strong sweet smell of sugar production was unmissable. We stopped off at Ulmarra. No reason why we chose to stop here – a sign for a pub, the river? I don’t recall. It seems we have an instinct to find the gems just off the highway.
Ulmarra is steeped in history. A hotel, a river, antique shops and a cafe. According to the Clarence Tourism website:
A visit to Ulmarra is like stepping back in time as the village remains one of the finest examples of a 19th Century riverport in Australia. The entire village is classified by the National Trust.
And it has a book shop.
But no ordinary book shop, this was Ulmarra Books and Collectibles.
For those of you know of Hay on Wye, in the UK, and its book shops, this bookshop is reminiscent of what Booths Books was like before it got a make over. A health and safety nightmare and a book lovers dream. We were only there to browse. We did not have room for books. I was getting rid of books at home.
And then Mr Sleeve Notes found this.
A few days earlier we had had the perfect experience of a late Sunday lunch at Doyles, Sydney. Which is probably the best fish and chip shop in the world.
Reader, I bought the book.
And if anything can make a town even more perfect than a good book shop, it is a good cafe. And Ulmarra has one of those too.
Homemade, organic, home grown, vegan, vegetarian and bloody good coffee. Just heard it was for sale. If it is still there and you are passing, go visit. Food is good, lots of cool surfing photos and a garden.
Ulmarra is the perfect stop off. It is quiet, has historical significance and has coffee and books. And just off the Pacific Highway. No detour required. There was no tourists there. A few people waiting for the bus, and us. I guess most Aussies speed by intent on getting to Byron Bay and all its attractions, claim they have no history and remain oblivious to it as they pursue the sun and the surf. And that is a mistake.
Our last stop over on the road to Brisbane and we chose Byron Bay. A major holiday destination. The town centre is busy and full of tourist shops and people in swimwear. They are here for the sun and the surf. Scratch the surface of Byron and there is so much more than surf and sun. And I am not talking about the sharks.
And another great hotel – rooftop pool, good views, free parking and within walking distance of everything you needed, shops, cafes and restaurants. Comfortable rooms – you know you are in a chain. A laundry room neatly tucked in between every two rooms. This is a conference hotel, and it the sort of hotel that would make people want to attend your conference.
Ballina is a functional town, post office, pharmacy, supermarkets, K Mart selling Christmas trees in September. The Thursday Tea Tree Oil Plantation is just outside the town which the only place Idid some shopping. Loved it there – out of the bustle of Byron, yet 5 minutes away by car – if you don’t stop to take in the view and whale watch.
Where to start?
Probably the best food I have eaten in my life. Seriously good food.
Foraged and seasonal food. Pretty food. Tasty food. OMG food. Every mouthful was a delight. This is casual fine dining at its best. Go eat there. Just go.
We were lucky to get a table as we had not booked. When the server came over it was obvious he was from the West Midlands (where we live) by his accent – Dudley. He was a teacher on a sabbatical. I don’t think he wanted to go back. Waiter in one of the best places to eat in Byron/Australia or teacher at a secondary school in Dudley? I know what I would choose. Anyway, who would have thought, all the way to Byron and we meet someone from Dudley.
The proprietors of Four One Six told us to eat here. Thankyou. Thankyou. Thankyou.
Harvest have a deli next door, a bakery and fine food.
And when we were there they were hosting a wedding, which was fun to watch.
I did not want to leave. This is a place for a long lunch and a cab home.
Can you tell I loved it?
Yup. Best food ever. The bar was set very high.
The Farm was another recommendation from the people at Four One Six.
This is what their website says.
The Farm is principally a working farm, we house a collection of micro-businesses all sharing in a common goal. We invite you to come and visit us and see for yourself how a farm operates, supports the environment and contributes to a healthier lifestyle.
Our motto ‘Grow, Feed, Educate’ inspires all that we do, here and for the community at large. We believe that it is first hand experience of seeing how food is grown and produced that makes the eating of it so much more pleasurable. From this simple pleasure sprouts a curiosity and desire to learn more.
Three Blue Ducks on The Farm offers a different style of food from Harvest, more rustic, hearty. There is also a BBQ, a cafe, bakery, bar, shop and the farm. Due to another wedding (Spring Holiday weekend) service ended early that day. We were never rushed and enjoyed seeing them set up for the wedding and the arrival of the bride.
Food was outstanding. Another hit. Loved it.
Another stand out highlight was whale watching on the hill above the bay. We were joined on the bench by a guy in his late 70’s. He was originally from Yorkshire, still had the accent, had a great chat with him about how he had come out here and his life – a magic moment – and the whales gave us a great show.
It was tough leaving here. I could have stayed for longer. But we had hotel booked in Brisbane and had to leave.
The next part of the trip was manic – highways, roadworks and lots of traffic. This stretch of the highway is the gateway to The Gold Coast. And everybody was heading there for the holiday weekend. For about 3 seconds we considered heading there to see what was the big attraction. Beaches, sunshine and lots of people. We changed our mind and headed straight to Brisbane, negotiating complicated road systems to get to the airport to drop off the car and catch the shuttle bus to Brisbane.
Our road trip was over. time to kick back for a few days, take some trips and let someone else do the driving.