This southeastern region of Australia is as diverse as it is expansive. Discover world-class wines, protected botanic gardens, year-round surf and, in Sydney, a fast-growing bar culture.
Best for nightlife
Dusk comes slowly to Sydney Harbour. As the sun sinks towards the horizon, its
light reflects off the tiled white curves of the world’s most distinctive opera
house, giving it a pinkish glow. Sydney Harbour Bridge, known locally as The
Coathanger for its soaring steel shape, stretches across to the city’s North
Shore. Its lights flicker on, creating a zigzag of muted neon following a
graceful parabola across the sky, joining with lights from the shore opposite
to spill across the harbour in dancing pools of blue, pink and yellow.
Sydney Harbour is a magical place in the evening. It
attracts groups of friends to chatter and clatter plates at the waterfront
cafés, strolling couples, and even some more exotic visitors – dozens of
fruitbats, arriving to dine on the swarms of moths and other insects that are
drawn to the harbour lights.
It’s a dazzling setting – but until recently, the
question of where to go after dinner at the beautiful harbourfront had
relatively few answers. Restrictive laws meant that only large traditional pubs
and restaurants could serve alcohol. ‘If you wanted a night out, the options
were limited,’ says Martin O’Sullivan, a local Sydneysider. ‘There were clubs
or pubs where you could watch rugby on the television. For drinks, you could
have beer, chardonnay or perhaps a gin and tonic, and that was it.’
Martin pulls up a wooden chair in the intimate bar
The Grasshopper, tucked away in the ironically named Temperance Lane, just a
few minutes’ walk from the opera house. This is his creation – a small,
boutique wine and cocktail bar that was the first to be set up in Sydney after an
amendment to the licensing laws in 2007. Since then, a host of speakeasy-style
bars have popped up like mushrooms in the city’s narrow laneways.
There’s the Belle Époque style of the Absinthe
Salon, where the green stuff is served in decadent, antique-filled surrounds;
Shady Pines, a Wild West whisky bar just off Oxford Street; and Love, Tilly
Devine – a low-ceilinged, bare-brick bolthole celebrating the memory of the
eponymous Tilly, a legendary brothel madam who ran these streets in the 1930s.
At The Grasshopper, patrons chat over bright
cocktails served in jam jars and tuck into creative dishes like quail with
beetroot and marjoram. ‘There are cultural changes happening in this town,’
Martin says with a grin. ‘I don’t want to sit in a skanky pub and chug down
schooners of beer. Men can come in here and feel free to have a cocktail
without being made to feel like a weirdo – that’s a big change. We’ve always
had great variety in our restaurants in Sydney, and now that sort of
individuality is coming through in the bars as well. It’s inspiring.’
The Grasshopper is a trailblazer.
Settle downstairs for a marmalade, whisky and Italian vermouth cocktail or take
a table in its snug upstairs Eating House (mains from £16).
This relative newcomer to Sydney’s hotel scene is as slick and contemporary as
you’ll find in the city. The Diamant
Hotel is a high-rise hotel situated on a hilltop in the Kings Cross
district, within walking distance of some of Sydney’s best bars and nightspots.
Its 76 expansive rooms are kitted out with king-size beds and plasma screens,
and each affords views of the bridge, harbour or city (from £110).
National Park: Best for indigenous culture
Julie Freeman has luminous eyes and the captivating lilt of a natural
storyteller. A Koori Aboriginal elder from Wreck Bay – a community on the edge
of the sand-fringed green expanse of Booderee National Park – she is charming a
small audience around a crackling fire. Towering gum trees creak softly
overhead, and from a hundred metres away, the shushing of the ocean can be
Today, she tells the story of Didhol – the local
Aboriginal name for the verdant, tree-covered sandstone formation nearby, more
commonly known as Pigeon House Mountain. Aboriginal tradition has it that this
is the burial place of an eel and a lyre bird that, at the beginning of the
world, got into a fight and killed each other. ‘The old fellas [ancient
Aboriginals] put the eel and the lyre bird in that place,’ Julie explains.
‘They scooped the land up over them to form that mountain and called it a place
of behaviour – to remind people to behave properly and to warn them about the
consequences of bad behaviour.’
Booderee is an Aboriginal word for ‘bay of plenty’,
and it’s a significant place for the indigenous communities that have inhabited
and cared for this stretch of land for tens of thousands of years. It is rich
with their stories. ‘To come to Booderee is to learn and develop a relationship
with the place,’ she says. ‘Nothing here is just a “thing”, everything is
connected – the ocean, the wind, the trees, the landscape and the people.’
In the midst of Booderee National Park is
Australia’s only Aboriginal-owned botanic gardens, with lawns, walkways and
swathes of regenerated rainforest. Once, this was clear-felled land, yet today,
with the help of the Aboriginal community over the course of three generations,
much of it has been returned to its natural state – a fragile tangle of ferns
and eucalypts. ‘The beauty of a native garden in a native setting is that it’s
undisturbed, so you get a lot of wildlife,’ explains Aboriginal garden curator,
Bernie McLeod. He has used his knowledge of the flora and fauna to assist in
its return, with wallabies, frogs and tortoises coming back to the forest and
lakes as they are restored to their natural state.
Bernie strolls along a wooden walkway and stops at a
spot where you can see down to the water’s edge. He points to a stretch of
ocean – a migratory resting point for whales. ‘We’re saltwater people,’ he
says, ‘and the tradition is that you always give back what you take from the ocean.
When our family is catching fish, the eagles herd the fish into the bay so that
the men can catch them, and they always chuck some fish back to them. To still
see that is fantastic.’
The dense interior forest and Booderee’s scalloped
bays help give the park its natural beauty, but it is the living Aboriginal
history and knowledge that makes it unique. As Julie the storyteller says: ‘To
absorb this country, you gotta stay for a while. We’ve been here for a long
time, and we never leave our traditions behind.’
Check out environment.gov.au/parks/booderee.
Seagrass Brasserie is a seafood
restaurant in the town of Huskisson. It has a huge outdoor deck and seats 80
indoors – bookings are advised between November and February (mains from £20).
This restored wooden b&b is tucked away in peaceful surrounds of gum trees
and gardens, overlooking the clear waters of Huskisson Beach. Each of the Jervis Bay Guest House’s four
rooms has double-French doors opening on to a veranda with views of the sea
below. Its sunny patio is a great spot for enjoying breakfast and complimentary
afternoon tea (from £130).
Mountains: Best for nature
A smoky blue haze rises above a broad canvas of gumtrees as the oil from a
billion eucalyptus leaves evaporates in the sun. These mountains were given the
official name of Carmarthen and Lansdowne Hills in 1788, but the farmers and
convicts who settled in the area soon gave them a different moniker, which remains.
The haze may be blue, but the mountains themselves
are decidedly green. From a high vantage point, there are infinite views of
treetops and thick bush stretching over deep valleys, intersected with sheer
slabs of flat-topped, saffron-coloured cliffs fringed with green. These
formations run in broad escarpments jutting above the landscape, creating solid
walls and occasionally breaking into tall sections, like stubby sandstone
fingers reaching towards the sky.
Tim Tranter is a local environmental scientist and
guide who leads walkers, ornithologists and visiting botanists through the
park. ‘These mountains are a Unesco World Heritage Site because they evolved
like nowhere else on the planet,’ he says. ‘They do things in an opposite way
to the rest of the world. For instance, in the autumn, leaves stay on the trees
and the bark falls off.’
The Blue Mountains are a languid work in progress
that is, so far, 150 million years in the making. Through the ages, the
constant movement of water rushing down into the valleys and gorges has carved
this landscape from solid rock – a process that is still going on today. Here,
ancient boulders spring leaks to release water that has been trapped within for
tens of thousands of years.
Tim’s sure feet navigate the park’s meandering
walking trails while his eyes focus upwards. He points to a flat, duncoloured
face of ironstone towering above. This kind of stone, he explains, is
particularly good at conducting lightning and often sparks tremendous bush
fires that feed on the flammable, oil-laden foliage of the eucalyptus trees and
roar through the landscape every few years.
It is far from a natural disaster, however. ‘Fire is
an essential part of this place,’ Tim says. ‘And the environment springs back
to life quickly. Elsewhere in the world, regions take 30 to 50 years to recover
from bush fires, but here they are the first stage of new life, with tree
fronds forming within a couple of weeks.’
He grins and continues down the trail into the thick
green heart of the Blue Mountains bushland, which continues to be shaped by the
endless ravages and renewal of the elements.
Check out visitbluemountains.com.au
for further details and treadlightly.com.au
for Tim Tranter’s eco-tours.
At Solitary Restaurant, opt for a table
on the lawn for views of the magnificent gorges below. Dine on delicately
flavoured spatchcock, organic pork and seafood dishes with greens grown in the
organic garden (mains from £18).
These indulgent cottages in the suburb of Leura are beacons of
eco-sustainability, built almost entirely from recycled materials and powered
with a zero-carbon footprint. The Old Leura Dairy’s beautiful,
warming stone and timber interiors are adorned with fine linens and unique
fittings (from £180).
Valley: Best for food
At daybreak, Hunter Valley sets a quintessentially
Australian scene. Eucalyptus trees wave gently on hills overlooking rows of
grapevines, with the low Brokenback Mountains as a backdrop. In the foreground,
kangaroos emerge one by one from pools of mist. The air is cool and heavy with
the scent of moisture and the Australian bush, and as the sun rises, ‘utes’ –
or utility trucks – and other rugged vehicles begin to appear on the backroads,
marking the start of another working day.
This place is considered the birthplace of
Australian winemaking. Where once the land was taken up with small farms, this
is now the domain of family-owned boutique wineries, and a number of
world-class wines are produced here.
Andrew Margan grew up in the area before heading to
France to sharpen his winemaking skills. Now, after 15 years of work, the fruit
of his labour and experience stands among his 300 sweeping acres of vines – the
Margan Restaurant, Hunter Valley Winery and Cellar Door. Margan is a
perfectionist and is committed to remaining true to the region’s strengths,
such as its sémillon – Australia’s unique dry white wine. ‘We have a special
climate in the Hunter Valley,’ Andrew explains. ‘This is what makes a Hunter
sémillon so individual. Attempts to replicate it elsewhere have never worked.’
Increasingly, the local emphasis has been on
creating high-quality food to go with the area’s excellent wines. Organically
grown produce is everywhere – from Valençay cheeses with a dash of ground vine
ash, to chicken and macadamia sausages made by the local charcutier.
This theme is abundantly clear at Margan Restaurant,
where the fresh herbs that coat a salmon carpaccio are sourced from the organic
vegetable garden just metres from the outdoor table. Their taste is as vivid as
‘The climate and soil don’t allow us to grow a
mass-market product in the Hunter Valley, so we don’t try,’ Margan says happily
over a glass of buttery sémillon. ‘I don’t know who invented the philosophy
that bigger is better, but a small, good-quality winery has always been my
vision. Now I’m living the life I wanted.’
Visit winecountry.com.au, margan.com.au, and smallwinemakerscentre.com.au.
At Margan Restaurant in the village of
Broke, couple a shiraz with braised wagyu and pomegranate or a merlot with
spiced duck breast and mustard cherries (mains from £13).
Eat breakfast on your private patio at this boutique winery, set in the
Lovedale area of the valley. Modern, purpose-built cabins are self-contained
and positioned perfectly to make the most of the sunrise views at Emma’s Cottage Vineyard (from £135).
Bay: Best for beaches
It’s early in the morning, and
surfboard maker Bob McTavish emerges from the waves at Byron Bay, board under
one arm, sun glinting off his silver hair and a boyish grin on his face. He’s a
legend here, having surfed for 52 years and made his McTavish boards for 46,
and he surfs daily. His skin has the soft, weathered look of a man who has
spent years in the sea.
Byron Bay is one of a great
string of headlands with white-sand bays stretching up the New South Wales
coast into Queensland. Here, a verdant cape of national park juts into the warm
Pacific like a pouting lower lip, creating beaches that face both north and
south. The result of this is unfailing surf almost year-round. ‘There are 15
surf breaks surrounding my home and they offer 300 days of good surf a year,’
Bob explains. ‘That’s a better hit rate than any other town I can think of.’
These beaches have changed since
Bob arrived in the 1960s – originally a whaling town, Byron was largely unknown
before surfers turned it into one of Australia’s most popular beach areas.
Today, small groups begin to arrive soon after dawn. Experienced surfers bring
wetsuits and short boards; the less dedicated wear bikinis and clutch ‘learner’
boards – many bearing the McTavish logo. They head into The Pass, a long surf
break between the headland and the wooden platform of Fisherman’s Lookout.
Veterans carve long paths through the surf while novices balance for a few
seconds before falling off. Their shrieks of laughter drift to the shore on the
There is a natural lull in
activity in the afternoon. People settle into reading and dozing on towels as
the sun sinks behind the green headland. As the day draws to a close,
beachgoers head to the small grid of streets that constitute the town’s heart
to make the most of the lively beer gardens and candlelit restaurants. Some
will stay out late into the night, but those who have come for the surf will
soon head home to make the most of Byron’s breaks in the new day.
Check out visitbyronbay.com and mctavish.com.au.
Fishheads restaurant, at the beach
end of Byron’s main street, has exceptional seafood and service (mains from £16).
Where to stay
Atlantic Guesthouse is actually a
collection of discrete properties and one chrome caravan, spread across grassy
lawns. The most expensive options are its plush premium suites, with
alabaster-white bedrooms with generous en-suite bathrooms and small verandahs
The article 'The perfect trip: New South Wales' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.