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Driving Australia's New South Wales

© Scott Riley Driving Australia’s New South Wales

Photo: Scott Riley

Thinking back on it, I’m surprised that I was persuaded to leave Sydney. I’d barely arrived in one of the world’s great food cities before I found myself edging south through its suburbs toward a Sunday lunch two hours away.

I suppose part of the explanation is that planning lunch is one of my great passions, coming hard on the heels of actually eating it. And when an Aussie sommelier I knew recommended a restaurant in Kiama and proposed to drive us there past a stretch of stunningly scenic coastline, I was tempted. That may sound silly to you, reading this in your Connecticut living room or poolside in Culver City, but I live in one of those big, rectangular states in America’s heartland, a plane flight away from any beach worthy of its name.

I knew that the coastal route north from Sydney is as well-traveled as the Long Island Expressway on a Hamptons weekend and is a standard-issue part of the New South Wales experience. But a seaside jaunt in the other direction sounded adventuresome, off the beaten track. I made inquiries and learned about a vast Buddhist temple near Wollongong, and a beach full of kangaroos. And I checked out the restaurant in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide, the single most helpful dining handbook for a metropolitan area I’ve ever encountered. “Beautifully cooked Burrawang lamb loin on a bed of lemon mint risotto,” it teased. I was in before I had finished the review.

The sommelier wasn’t, though. He canceled last-minute, citing work demands, and so that afternoon drive turned into a three-day, two-night solo road trip down to Batemans Bay. If I was going to leave the city for a lunch, I figured, I might as well have several. And that’s how I came to see Sydney in my rearview mirror after only just saying hello. But it was morning, the sun was shining, I had Men at Work on the car radio (which seemed almost too clichéd to be real), a sparkling ocean out my left window. And reservations.

Day 1, Sydney to Mollymook (140 miles)

There’s a name for this stretch along the Tasman Sea, it turned out: the Grand Pacific Drive. Officially christened in 2005, it’s part of a government effort to redirect leisure travelers south of Sydney onto a coastal highway. The route starts just outside the city, but only breaks free of congestion an hour on, when Lawrence Hargrave Drive spurs off the Southern Freeway and winds to the water. That brought me through a run of old coal-mining towns that now exist as a kind of delightfully gentrified exurbia. Houses are handsome but not overly grand; restaurants seem reliant on local custom.

Just beyond the roundabouts of Wollongong I found the Nan Tien Temple, which belongs to the Taiwanese Fo Guang Shan sect. It was an enormous, perfectly rendered, archetypal Chinese temple, the kind I’d always assumed I’d need to visit China to see. Said to be the Southern Hemisphere’s largest Buddhist shrine, it’s billed as an international tourist attraction; busloads of Asian visitors were scattered about the grounds. Yet I was surprised to feel an overwhelming sense of serenity, almost solitude, as I wandered around. I gaped at the eight-story pagoda and the 10,000 images of Buddha, silently considered the lotus pond, then repaired to the tearoom for osmanthus oolong and dumplings stuffed with bitter greens.

Fifteen minutes south is Kiama, a town of pine trees and crafts shops. I found my restaurant along the main street, but from the moment I arrived it felt wrong. The clientele consisted of three beer drinkers and two schoolgirls nibbling what looked like frozen pizza. I saw no Burrawang lamb, no mint risotto. “It’s Sunday,” the disengaged server shrugged.

“Lunch on Sunday should be something special,” writes Keith Waterhouse in his now out-of-print The Theory and Practice of Lunch, a book that I live by. This one wasn’t going to be. Fortunately, I had a backup. About 15 miles southwest is the pleasantly kitschy town of Berry and its Berry Sourdough Bakery & Café. The menu was small but ambitious—saltimbocca, duck rillettes, complicated pizzas. I chose bouillabaisse, Marseilles-style, with mussels, scallops, prawns, potatoes, fennel, and cayenne pepper. All I lacked was wine, but the restaurant is BYOB, alas. I struggled not to notice the two bottles emptying at the next table.

Late that afternoon, I checked in to Bannisters Point Lodge, a motel recast as a stylish resort. The 31 rooms are all white and wicker, and their double-size wooden decks overlook the Pacific. Down a flight of stairs is a saltwater infinity pool, where I swam and watched the waves through a tangle of banksia trees. Later, I dined there on yellowfin with papaya slaw and drank steely Clare Valley Riesling from Skillogalee while considering the magnitude of this vast and multifarious country. How many wonderfully pleasurable experiences were hidden, like this one, in plain sight: an easy drive from a major city, with scant mention in the guidebooks and no PR campaign, just word-of-mouth to keep the business coming?I raised a glass to my sommelier friend who’d sent me south.

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