Taking an unexpected drive through New South Wales.

By Bruce Schoenfeld
January 25, 2011
© Scott Riley Driving Australia’s New South Wales
| Credit: © 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.

Day 2, a loop from Mollymook to Huskisson (100 miles)

Up close, kangaroos are less the cuddly cartoon animals they’re made out to be than frighteningly large wild beasts with the scowl of a nightclub bouncer and the hindquarters of a mule. By up close, I mean from a distance of about five feet, which is where I found myself Monday morning in Murramarang National Park. I’d awakened to a symphony of birdcalls, breakfasted on passion fruit and sencha tea (I’m not nearly that abstemious; my bacon never arrived), and left Bannisters with the goal of reaching the park before the kangaroos vanished for the day. I needn’t have hurried. On Pebbly Beach, they linger under old-growth trees late into the afternoon. After my face-to-face encounter, I jumped into my rented Ford Falcon—remember those?—and headed back to Princes Highway on a dirt road where I spotted seven more kangaroos in the underbrush.

Batemans Bay sits on an estuary of the Clyde River. A cross between a tourist town and a working fisherman’s village, it seemed both relaxed and orderly, like Key West gone Canadian. At the Pearly Oyster Bar, a retail shop and restaurant that’s owned by an oyster farm, I ordered a dozen Sydney Rocks for $11 and checked them out with scientific detachment. They were larger than average, mildly briny, perfectly good but ultimately disappointing: no match, I thought, for American Chincoteagues or France’s Belons. Unsated, I crossed the road to the North St. Café and Bar, a tiny establishment of a few metal tables. Soon I was feasting on squid salad with dried cherries, followed by pan-fried John Dory and vanilla-bean panna cotta with poached fruit. The meal was satisfying, but the friendliness of the patrons is what I’ll remember. Without fail, everyone who stepped inside flashed me a smile. Either unfamiliar faces are an uncommon sight in this corner of Australia, or locals here are just wired that way.

Heading back north after lunch, I guided my Falcon into the wild. The inland loop roughly paralleled the highway over rutted dirt roads, and it featured a stream that needed fording. I took the risk, bumping along the Clyde through dense forest, then held my breath as I rumbled through foot-deep water. I emerged in an open pasture of vibrant green backed by the impossibly blue sea, colors I’d encountered only in a box of crayons. The detour had taken 90 minutes, but it felt like I’d visited another world, a primeval Australia that had hardly changed in millennia. Had I rudimentary knowledge and keener eyes, I’m sure I would have spotted one example after another of flora and fauna that don’t exist back home, and probably never did.

Twenty minutes up Princes Highway, Hyams Beach is reputed to have the world’s whitest sand. And it is white, platinum-blond white, bridal-gown white. I took a late-afternoon walk, the sand squeaking under my feet, and reveled in the wide-open arc of beach, the waves rolling in to shore, the gulls clattering.

Paperbark Camp, my hotel just north of Huskisson in nearby Woollamia, had an entirely different feel. Guests stay in luxury tents—some have king-size beds and soaking tubs, and all are powered by solar energy—and sleep zipped up tight against mosquitoes. Clutching my wind-up flashlight in the darkness, I walked beneath the pinpricks of unfamiliar stars to the Gunyah, an indoor-outdoor wood-and–corrugated-iron restaurant that serves as the hotel’s centerpiece. I ate a kangaroo starter (no, not a pang), followed by a curiously appealing mix of squid, beef, chilis, and seaweed. Only the spooky techno music undermined the eco-safari setting.

Day 3, Huskisson to Sydney (115 miles)

I skipped breakfast at Paperbark for my long-awaited bacon at Fresh at the Bay, served with a harbor view. North of there, the highway splits. I chose the inland route and followed it behind Cambewarra Mountain. Rounding a bend in bright sunshine, I saw clouds filling a valley hundreds of feet below, looking like a pile of cotton balls. And then I was in that mist, driving through the tidy town of Kangaroo Valley in a drizzle. It felt like England between the wars.

I passed a traditional candy shop, the Fudge House & Ice Creamery (I stopped, I sampled), and a row of finely detailed hobbyhorses outside a woodworker’s studio. A roadside meadow might have doubled for Hampstead Heath. It was still summer on the coast, but here it had turned to fall. Leaves had gone tan and brown, and the temperature felt like it had dropped 20 degrees. I drove over Hampden Bridge, a passable imitation of London’s Tower Bridge, and suddenly longed to be back in that sunny Australia I’d left behind.

If I made cursory work of nearby Fitzroy Falls and its glorious, 269-foot drop into the Kangaroo River, I knew I could reach the city by lunch. I opened the Good Food Guide, then called Iceberg’s Dining Room & Bar, which serves exquisite Italian food and overlooks Bondi Beach. Inspired, I pushed north with a purpose.

Bruce Schoenfeld is T+L’s wine and spirits editor.

Insider Tips

Australian summers start in November and last well into April, when many rates are reduced.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide, available at most bookstores there, is a necessity for dining well in the area.

Where to Stay

Bannisters Point Lodge

191 Mitchell Parade, Mollymook; 61-2/4455-3044; bannisters.com.au; doubles from $298.

Paperbark Camp

571 Woollamia Rd., Woollamia; 61-2/4441-6066; paperbarkcamp.com.au; luxury two-person tents from $313.

Where to Eat

Berry Sourdough Bakery & Café

23 Prince Alfred St., Berry; 61-2/4464-1617; lunch for two $40.

Fresh at the Bay

64 Owen St., Huskisson; 61-2/4441-5245; breakfast for two $30.

Iceberg’s Dining Room & Bar

1 Notts Ave., Bondi Beach; 61-2/9365-9000; idrb.com; lunch for two $130.

Kangaroo Valley Fudge House & Ice Creamery

Sixty flavors of fudge await. 158 Moss Vale Rd., Kangaroo Valley; 61-2/4465-1375.

North St. Café & Bar 5

North St., Batemans Bay; 61-2/4472-5710; lunch for two $35.

Pearly Oyster Bar and Farm

6 North St., Batemans Bay; 61-2/4472-4233; oysters for two from $19.

What to See and Do

Coolangatta Estate

Tastings and self-guided tours are free at this small winery. 1335 Bolong Rd., Shoalhaven Heads; 61-2/4448-7131.

Fo Guang Shan Nan Tien Temple

Berkeley Rd., Berkeley; 61-2/4272-0600. Closed Mondays.

Murramarang National Park

Off Princes Hwy. at East Lynne; 61-2/4478- 6582; vehicle entry fee $7.