From the busy city of Sydney in New South Wales to the busy city of Brisbane in Queensland, the Pacific Coastal Highway is a 960km stretch from leafy suburbs, rising high through rocky mountains, weaving through dense rainforests, gliding beside golden sands and sidling along blue seas and white surf.
Its reputation stretches further than its distance, with hundreds of thousands of backpackers travelling from the world over to make the run up the coast. Who can blame them? There’s sparkling sea, luxuriant greenery, and soft sand so alien to many who have spent their formative years cooped up in a grey school building in rainy northern England.
But what if you’re not a gap year student, and the age of eighteen is far behind you – are the gems of this destination forever closed, or is there more to it than meets that young eye? Whether you’ve done it once at a younger age and now feel you can’t go back, or have never done it and now feel it’s a backpacker cliche, it turns out that you’re wrong – as I set out to discover.
Just because you’ve started to appreciate the joys of afternoon tea and biscuits, you enjoy going to bars where you can hear yourself speak, and are prepared to shell out more than $5 for a bottle of wine, doesn’t mean that you’ve completely lost touch, and so the social media savvy will want to check themselves in and check themselves out at 1888, the latest addition to the 8 group’s portfolio. It’s billed as the world’s first Instagram hotel – anyone with over 100k followers who posts a snap gets to stay for free.
Aside from the playful nature, it’s a quirky aesthete’s dream, all sepia prints, sleek chrome, renovated wood, 50s chaise lounges along side 60s era mirrors, with sleek and minimal bedrooms. Situated on Darling Harbour it is an easy walk to any number of restuarants and bars, although you may want to get involved in Sydney’s small bar scene and investigate some of those more delicately sized watering holes with a tour with Two Feet – and then keep investigating afterwards. Whatever age, however many sights you may have seen, and no matter how many times you have seen this particular one, Sydney Harbour Bridge never fails to stun. You might as well do the tourist thing, especially now that you can afford its rather high price tag, and climb that Coathanger. Since 1998 people have been (legally) able to climb the widest bridge of this kind. It doesn’t matter what time of day you choose to make your ascent – watching sunlight by day and city lights by night flickering across the sea that spans the 18 different bays of Sydney Harbour, you will marvel at the arched tent of the Opera House, leap at the views of Manly, and look back longingly at the sandy-coloured streets of the city.
Image credit: pacificcoast.com.au
The Hunter Valley:
Out of the city, the rolling hills laced in hazy sunshine and the scent of baked grass make the Hunter Valley an alluring spot to drive through. Add to this over 120 wineries, and well, you’ve won me over. The Valley is the oldest wine making region in New South Wales, its history dating back to the 1820s when medicinal cuttings from Europe and South Africa found their way into the soils. These days the effects are no less restorative, so rather than head straight for tourist hotspot Pokolbin, where all the formerly-mentioned buses of backpackers will be, venture out a little further to the small village of Broke Fordwich , where boutique wineries such as Stomping Ground, biodynamic Krinklewood or the larger but family owned Margans are not only beautiful but welcoming. Top tips at the Stomp – give the Limited Release 2011 Shiraz, all mulberry and mocha, and the Margans 2013 White Label Semillon a go – I was lucky enough to be the first non-Margans employee to try. It was good.
Newcastle was once a mining town. Nearby are the areas of Seaham, Wallsend, and Jesmond. So far, so familiar, for any Geordie at least. But there the similarities end, and Newcastle is perfect place to stop and appreciate the Art Deco architecture, sip coffee and cocktails whilst people watching along Darby street, and catch what is known by insiders as some of the best surf along the NSW coast. It’s got a more relaxed and almost contented feel than some other surf spots, and the town seems to be comfortable in itself. Walk to Nobby’s Point (and yes you are allowed a childish giggle at that), investigate the Botanic Gardens, and relax.
Coffs Habour is a nice place to visit. It’s clean, shiny, full of ambient rather than aggressive activity. Just nice. Full of caravan parks, if you are after somewhere more sophisticated but with the independence of your own space and self-catering options, try The Observatory Apartments, where the views and pretty vast living area make it a great place to base yourself. It’s only a few hundred yards to ‘The Strip’ as Harbour Drive is affectionately known, where an abundance of coffee shops, wine bars and restaurants cater for the customers spilling out onto the pavements, a happy hum of conversation taking you right down to the marina and famous jetty. A leg stretch may well be in order after the last stretch of the journey, so hit up the 60km Solitary Islands Coastal Walk – or at least part of it.
Ah, Byron Bay. The promised land for so many, the loved up and lovable beach paradise where all things creative and hippy congregate. What the slightly spiritual vibe does invoke is a relaxed pace of life, where people are warm and welcoming, appreciative of their environment, with a lazy and attractive feel weaving its way around the town. Head east a little, and base yourself at Julians Apartments, where Byron Bay Coffee, stitched surfer cushions, day beds and luxury night beds, raffia shutters and enclosed courtyard terraces all make for a sophisticated place to return to post surf.
Near Cape Byron, the most easterly point in Australia, it’s a short round walk through sandy forest and past grey sheer cliffs to the lighthouse, from which you can see far into the horizon of the Pacific.
The dissipating speckles of the lighthouse beam make for great guidance when walking home post-drinks down at Main Beach, which is also the activity hub and where Let’s Go Surfing and Sea Kayak Byron Bay are also located, and offer patient and professional lessons and tours.
For something of a retreat, the deliciously-relaxing Shambhala is a haven, its hybrid of metal, stone and water structure being placed so delicately among the trees in which it inhabits that it does feel genuinely like being in a tropical paradise, especially when you can see the rolling waves from your window and must walk that white sand of Belongil Beach back into town.
Built and designed by an architect interested in feng shui and yoga, it merges the natural, the beautiful, the contemporary and the practical perfectly. A night here and it will be tough to get back on the road.
Surfer’s Paradise may not sound grown up, and indeed it’s not at all – all glitz, plastic glamour, and vapid entertainment. But it’s worth seeing, if only as a counterpart to the hippy trippy Byron. When in Surfer’s, stay at QT Gold Coast – its kitsch decoration, neon sweetie coloured furniture and retro seaside style pays a knowing nod and wink to all that Surfer’s is. It’s one of those places that doesn’t take itself too seriously, playful and full of the holiday mood – as you should be. The posing pictures raise a smile, the fun cocktails are delicious, and bountiful breakfast legitimising gluttony.
Get out and about into the Gold Coast Hinterland by scrambling up Tamborine Mountain. If you want to get off the tarmac and onto something a bit more rugged (as well as letting someone else do the driving), check out Southern Cross 4WD tours (yes, we did have to get out and push – and yes, it was hilarious, especially watching some of the more sedate and sedentary members of our group panic) who can take you on rides and rambles through the Gold Coast Hinterland and Scenic Rim.
Spend the night at Cedar Creek Lodges and Thunderbird Park. The relaxed forest setting of this national park and its candlelit restaurant, comfortable spa lodges, and activities including bushwalking, horse riding and high ropes courses makes it more idyllic than the name may suggest. Watching your mates dangle from a rope before shouting encouraging words and then making it through together is also a bonding experience for any holiday.
The last and final stop on the Pacific Coastal Highway, and one that will charm you. Everyone loves an underdog, and that is what Brisbane has been for so long. However, it has a thriving arts scene, boosted by GOMA on the Southbank and reflected by numerous independent galleries including Bird off Victoria Street and Cork & Chroma in the West End.
Drinking and dancing happens over in Fortitude Valley, although for something away from the hostels and a bit more high end you might want to check out the walk from Customs House to the City Gardens, which overlooks Kangaroo Point and is a wooden promenade full of seafood diners and wine bars. You started with one, so you may as well finish with one, and the Story Bridge Adventure Climb is also on offer. A more open structure, and much quieter climb, it is a totally different experience. The meandering river that knots its way through Brisbane, lit up at night by a flurry of tall buildings punctuating the night sky, is one of those mental photographs that you will take with you.
Stay at the chic and sleek Diamant Hotel for some stylish shut-eye in a quiet hotel filled with black and silver geometric patterns. If by that point you’ve run out of cash but still want to learn, tap up Brisbane Greeters who offer guided tours by passionate people around the city and its precincts, and will tailor a tour to suit your needs.And if after all of that you want to keep going, well, The Sunshine Coast awaits…
For more information on the Pacific Coastal Highway and all the towns mentioned, click here.