Taking to the road on the NSW South Coast

The Far South Coast of NSW is my happy place, and it has been far too long since I drove down the Princes Highway, usually choosing to fly because life was busy. As soon as I hit 110 on the freeway, I know that was a mistake. I love everything about a road trip. The road signs signalling how far to the next toilet break or coffee stop or food stop or stare at the ocean stop. I love the unplanned stops because the scenery demands that I get the camera out, or there is a local selling fresh fruit and vegies and home-made honey in a roadside stall. Or because there is an ocean pool that I haven’t visited in years, or a particular view I love. Road tripping is freedom to stop when you want to stop. Take the scenic route. Or not. Stay overnight. Or do it in one go and stay the whole time in one place. The choice is yours. Jump in the car with me and let’s go!

The view over Tathra Beach Dilkera Road
The view over Tathra Beach from Dilkera Road © Helen Hayes

Sultry Shoalhaven

I am driving from Sydney to Bega for a few days catching up with friends and family. I feel excited to be leaving the bright lights of the city behind after being cooped up for months and can’t wait to breathe that fresh country air with the slight waft of cow or horse.

I drive past Wollongong and Albion Park and have an unscheduled stop at Kiama, choosing to turn off the new freeway that bypasses this gorgeous spot. I love the old mining cottages that host quirky shops and get out to watch the famous blowhole do its thing. I have heard about a great little café called Penny Whistlers, so stop in there for coffee and a late breakfast – such a great find – the food is delicious and they have actual malt in milkshakes if you want it.

From Kiama, it’s back onto the freeway and then you can either take the coast road through Gerringong, Gerroa and Shoalhaven Heads before re-joining the highway at Bomaderry. This road is so pretty with wild coastal views. I make a snap decision to turn off to Gerringong’s Boat Harbour, expecting, well, a harbour, but instead it is a boat ramp with incredible views. I follow the sign to the ocean pool within Cooke Park, coming upon a man doing laps in what is very chilly water. His wife and dog wait patiently, looking at the sea creatures being revealed in the rock platform as the tide falls. The dog’s tail is wagging and if I had one, mine would be wagging too.

At Shoalhaven Heads I go wine tasting, stroll up Seven Mile Beach, feel the squeaky white sand of Hyams Beach between my toes and contemplate going for a snorkel with seals at Huskisson. But the swell is not my friend so that experience is definitely on the books for next time. If you decide to stay over at Shoalhaven Heads, stay at Bangalay Luxury Villas, beautifully appointed villas right by the beach. Make sure you book the six-course degustation dinner which showcases the talents of Chef Brent Strong.

Banglay Luxury Villas
Bangalay Luxury Villas © Phil Winterton

Into the Eurobodalla

The views on the drive down to Milton, then Mollymook and Ulladulla, are some of the prettiest of the whole route. Mollymook is home to the delightful Bannisters by the Sea and Bannisters Pavilion which are both exceptional places to stay should you wish to explore this part of the coast a little more. You could dine at Rick Stein by Bannisters if you book ahead or do as I do and grab fish and chips from Fishermens Wharf Seafood and sit by the beach taking in the view and watching the seagulls waiting patiently for a casually tossed chip.

Heading south, over Burrill Lake and Lake Tabourie, I pass the turnoff to Bawley Point and contemplate ducking up the next one to Pebbly Beach. This place is an Australian gem as you can usually see kangaroos by or on the beach. I resist the temptation, moving on to Batemans Bay, and then Mogo.

One thing that you cannot miss all the way down, is the damage caused by the devastating bushfires that tore through the tinder-dry bush taking homes, lives and livelihoods with it. Lake Conjola, Malua Bay and Mogo were all hit hard, which is why I stop at this gorgeous little town to spend some money in the shops. I shop at the nursery, The Middle of Mogo gift shop – it also has home-made fudge and ice cream – the Bowerbird Garage and the book shop. Mogo Zoo is the big drawcard here, saved from the fire by the sheer will of the manager and some of the staff. Inspirational stuff.

Local fishing boats docked at Bermagui Fishermens Wharf, Bermagui
Local fishing boats docked at Bermagui Fishermens Wharf, Bermagui © Destination NSW

Money spent and fudge eaten, it is on towards Bega, driving through Moruya to Bodalla, where I grab some more treats at the Bodalla Dairy, and Narooma. One of the most popular things to do in this pretty as a picture place is to jump on a tour to Montague Island to snorkel with the resident fur seal colony, fall in love with the penguins, check out the lighthouse and depending on the time of year, marvel at all the birdlife and the migrating whales.

But as time is tight, I do what I normally do and take the short cut via Wagonga Inlet. Not because it is shorter and avoid the sometimes slower main street, but because it is so pretty, with cafes and seafood shacks on the water. Today is no different, and I am rewarded with a flock of pelicans adding their beauty to the scene, doing various gymnastic poses on top of wooden posts.

The Sapphire Coast shines

South of Narooma, there are two ways to Tathra, one via Bermagui and the other is via Bega. If you take the Bega option please stop at Cobargo and nearby Quaama. These tiny towns were thrust into the spotlight through the horrors of the fires. While most of the tangled ruins of homes and shops have been cleared away, evidence of the fire damage is still visible. If you stop here, and I hope you do, any money you spend will be a huge help to the locals.

This trip, I save Cobargo, along with Tilba Tilba and Central Tilba for the trip home, and head to Tathra via Bermagui. This seaside hub has sensational seafood, as you would expect, with other great eateries including Eastwoods Deli and Cooking School, Camel Rock Brewery at Wallaga Lake, Honorbread – an artisan sourdough bakery – and Mimosa Winery. I do a lap of the main sites of the town, taking in the beautiful view to Gulaga over a sparkling sea, pelicans cruising on the bay and my favourite – the Blue Pool. Pack your swimming costume at any time of year as it is one of the most beautiful ocean pools around. Horse Head Rock up at Wallaga Lake is an Instagrammer’s dream. It is around 500 million years old and the 1.5-kilometre bushwalking track that links it with Camel Rock and Murunna Lake is spectacular.

Horse Head Rock, Wallaga Lake near Bermagui
Horse Head Rock, Wallaga Lake near Bermagui © Destination NSW

Further south and I itch to take one of the turn offs that lead down dirt roads to the beaches in Mimosa Rocks National Park. They are a surfer’s delight, with the distinct lack of crowds meaning you can surf as many waves as you want in what is a piece of paradise. Aragunnu is the pick with my surfing clan, but they also love Middle Beach and Nelsons. Non-surfers or families will love Bithry Inlet, Nelsons Lagoon and Moon Bay, as well as the flat and easy walking track to Mimosa Rocks at Aragunnu.

Tathra! Oh, I love this place, and it has really taken a hit in recent years. First with the fire of March 2018 that burned 65 houses and took out the all-important tourism sector for months. Then came the fires of this year, which although did not impact on Tathra, took away the tourists that flock here over the summer and autumn school holidays. And then, COVID-19 on top of that. But still the locals of Tathra, as well as neighbouring Bega and Merimbula, are still the friendly, big-hearted country people they have always been.

Visitors to Tathra have so many options of things to do, not least being the beautiful four-kilometre long beach with its view to the wharf. Tathra Wharf is top of the list to visit, not least because it is the only sea wharf left on the whole east coast of Australia. It has a museum, the wonderful Locavore gift shop and café, and it is still used for fishing. Pick up hire gear from Tathra Beach and Bike if you don’t have any. You can also hire bikes for the easy path down to the mouth of the Bega River, or grab a mountain bike to tackle one of the exceptional mountain bike tracks around the area. They range from beginner to advanced, with Trails of the Bundadung particularly scenic, with advanced riders sure to want to vanquish Evil Tom or Kingy’s Climb.

Sun rising over Tathra wharf and Tathra beach.
Sun rising over Tathra wharf and Tathra beach © Destination NSW

A great way to get to see the wharf is to take the new Tathra Headland Walk around the point from near the Tathra Hotel circa 1888. The pub was completely refurbed in 2017 and offers great food including Tathra Oysters, has its own brewery, and lovely hotel rooms with superb views. You can see whales from the pub’s deck on occasion, but the best views are from the viewing platforms on the boardwalk. Another great place to stay is Tathra Beach House Apartments set up on the hillside across the road from the beach. Depending on which one you choose, you can check the surf from the verandah.

Kianinny is a top spot – grab some photos of the view from the lookout before heading down to the cove with its swimming platform – see if you can see the stingrays that are frequent visitors – where the fishing boats put out to sea. Kianinny is the endpoint for the Kangarutha Walk from Wallagoot Lake, and the start point for the walk to the Wharf.

Tathra has some excellent eateries, with Fat Tony’s my favourite. Local Ant Little can give you great advice on where to surf, fish or stand up paddleboard, and he makes a mean cocktail as well. For coffee or breakfast, try Blend – their home-made muffins are divine – The Gap or Wild Orchid.

Bartender pouring a beer at Fat Tony's Restaurant in Tathra
Owner Ant Little pouring a beer at Fat Tony’s Restaurant in Tathra © Destination NSW

While staying in Tathra you absolutely must drive south to Merimbula, which is busier thanks to its airport. The panoramas over the lake and coast are always spellbinding, with the top spots being Bar Beach, Short Point (stop in at the Cheeky Mango for a snack) and Top Lake, where you can hire a boat or have lunch looking at the dreamy vistas. Mitchies Jetty at Fishpen is the gun spot for photographers – pick up some fish and chips from the Fishpen Café afterwards. A visit to Wheelers Oysters is a no brainer and in season, the whale watching tours are popular.

You can’t go to Tathra without visiting Bega – or vice versa. This beautiful town, in a misty green valley on the banks of the Bega River is the lifeblood of the area, thanks mainly to its historic dairy industry – Bega Cheese was the first dairy cooperative, established in 1899. Do visit the Bega Cheese Heritage Centre and taste some of the cheeses, the fudge and the milkshakes, while shopping for local art at the Spotted Cow Gallery upstairs.

Check out the Pioneer Museum, drive down by the river and do the River Walk enjoying the serenity under the canopy of trees and maybe tackle one of the bike tracks. Play golf on the beautiful Bega course, browse the local shops, pay your respects at the Memorial Gates and stroll around Kisses Lagoon. Take a seat on one of the benches there, and enjoy the sense of calm that this country break brings.

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Feature image: Sapphire Coast Tathra headland © David Rogers Photography


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