With glittering Sydney at one end and much-vaunted “north coast magic” at the other, the NSW central coast has struggled for its place in the sun. But that’s all changing. Your next first-class beach break just got a whole lot closer. By Dorian Mode
The New South Wales Central Coast is perceived to be the holiday equivalent of the fondue set. You often hear phrases such as “Parramatta By The Sea” or “God’s Waiting Room.” The ribbing is justified at times. But in the last few years the region has undergone a genuine facelift. Allow me to take you on a tour of the new and improved Central Coast, as it’s become a first-class holiday destination in its own right.
Consider this: with the newly improved F3, it’s only an hour from Sydney . . . so if you’re travelling from interstate to visit the Emerald City, you could do worse than to stay on the Coast and enjoy Sydney’s attractions from afar. And those who don’t want to rack up a dozen vehicle hours in their search for beachside tranquillity could find that a version of Nirvana resides almost under their noses.
JEWEL ON THE COAST
When you take the turnoff from the F3 and snake down the mountain at Kariong into Gosford, it’s just that: a turnoff. Gosford has that tired CBD-without-an-identity feel about it, with its myriad discount centres and seedy, half-lit shops. Don’t wheel the car around and head back to Sydney. Keep driving and think of England, at least until you hit East Gosford.
I always say you know a neighbourhood has gone upmarket when a gourmet cheese shop opens, and East Gosford has a touch of gourmet cheese shops about it. You can stop for coffee with a teaspoon of Zen at the tranquil Japanese Gardens. Gosford’s sister city is the Japanese city of Edogawa – taken from the Japanese word for Ugh boot – and the gardens are a manifestation of that relationship. A cosy art gallery, coffee shop and restaurant adjoin the gardens, so it’s a great pit stop.
Otherwise, keep driving through East Gosford and the “everything-is-at-crazy-warehouse-prices” panorama of Erina, follow the pelicans and head straight to Terrigal Beach. As you amble past still lagoons punctured by the ever-expanding rings generated by leaping mullet, you’ll happen upon a welcoming ribbon of sand. Terrigal is the jewel of the Central Coast. Aside from the stately Norfolk Pines lining its beachfront, Terrigal sports fashionable shops, cafes and restaurants. Dining here is first-class: equal to anything in Sydney.
Naturally you’ll be drawn to the brine. One of the pleasing things about Terrigal Beach is that it’s protected by the Haven (a headland at the southern end), so if you have a family you can recline, safe in the knowledge that the kids won’t be dragged to New Zealand. Me, I like to swim laps. Unfortunately, the council can’t see the wisdom in building a saltwater pool at Terrigal, and the nearest one is further north at The Entrance. However, if you too are a daily swimmer, grab the togs and head to Des John’s Aquatic And Fitness. This heated pool has to be the cleanest in the state and has a cute coffee bar within. So for less than ten bucks, treat yourself to a swim, spa and shower before slapping all those kilos straight back on with a coffee and a cake . . . you hopeless bon vivant!
For mine, the best place to stay for the five-star experience is the hotel that looms behind you: the Crowne Plaza. If you can live with the fact that it’s an eyesore and swallows the entire Terrigal landscape, you’ll fall in love with it. It’s right on the beach and has a fabulous 1930s Brighton Resort feel to it, with the east wing lodging itself smack bang in the sand. And the hotel has a very relaxed atmosphere because it’s staffed by locals. (“Coasties” are as laid-back as Mexicans.)
Another Terrigal fave is the Fragrant Garden. This smorgasbord of scents is a tropical fairyland; if you have little girls, they’ll be in heaven. It has a great cafe, and sure beats the bouquet of aromas in the Smoker’s Lounge at Erina Leagues Club. Another secret spot for juniors is the Terrigal BMX track in Duffy’s Rd (if you’re one to bring the bikes on hols). I love it because it’s free, and the track is great fun. Nicole Kidman would abandon Hollywood to reprise her stellar role in BMX Bandits just for the privilege of pedalling one circuit.
Ambling over to the breathtaking seascape that is The Haven, you will find Neil Gay’s Reef Restaurant. The food rivals anything in Sydney, and Reef was recently voted best formal/modern Australian restaurant. What appeals most is its location: right on the beach . . . and again, I don’t mean near the beach or across the road from the beach, I mean right in the sand. It’s an entirely different experience to any other beachside restaurant I know. A main will set you back around $35.
If you’re a starving writer like me and the restaurant is a little pricey for you, grab a coffee and focaccia below at the Dive-In coffee shop. Again, at high tide you’ll need your goggles to read the menu. You might say: “But I can get coffee on the beach at Bronte or Balmoral.” You’d be right (and please stop using that whining voice). But try getting a park! I have friends who left home in July ’97 and are still circling the block for a coffee at Bronte. There’s seldom a problem with parking on the Coast.
Further south is the charming beachside hamlet of Avoca. Take the aptly named Scenic Highway, then on to Avoca Drive to stop off for lunch at another fabulous restaurant: Lizotte’s. Chef/owner Brian Lizotte is to cooking what his brother (the artist formally known as Johnny Diesel) is to rock ’n’ roll. Each meal is a tasty hit. The restaurant is often booked out, so popular is the amalgam of modern Oz cuisine and live jazz.
After lunch, loosen the jeans and head for the historic Avoca Cinema, where they play independent and arthouse films that most of the bigger theatres overlook. Afterwards, indulge in a coffee and treat at Ludos. Coastal Frenchman Andre Chouvin is another first-class chef who owns the much-revered Feast restaurant in Avoca, and he’s since opened this little cake shop flanking the BP petrol station in Cape Three Points Road. Andre’s celestial French pastries will make you sing like Piaf and suddenly feel the urge to blow the Rainbow Warrior out of the water again.
West of Avoca and South of Gosford is Woy Woy – one of those places that could be charming but simply isn’t. It has retained none of the fishing village allure that no doubt made it an agreeable place to visit 30 years ago. Its most famous denizen, Spike Milligan, once noted: “Woy Woy is the world’s first above-ground cemetery.” I concur, as the last time I was there I popped into the local barber, asked for “a regular” and came out with a blue rinse.
Beyond Woy Woy is Ettalong, which likewise shoulders the burden of a council painfully trying to make the place charming after the horse has bolted. Floor it through Umina (which truly is Parramatta By The Sea) and scale the coastal mountain before descending into Pearl Beach. This is a breathtaking seaside village, but full of Sydney advertising executives inhabiting weekender McMansions with “toupee coupes” in the drive. It follows that everything is a little pricey in Pearl. But it’s not all bad news. Fortunately there’s a vigilant residents’ group which is fighting tooth-and-nail to retain the town’s soul, with a special focus on that much-neglected icon of the Coast: the humble fibro. Most of these wonderful fishing/holiday cottages have been levelled for the aforementioned McMansions, which are rapidly becoming a blight on the Coast. However, you find plenty of old fibros around the hill in little Patonga.
Patonga is a cosy spot which still has an adorable caravan park right on the beach. It’s the quintessential Central Coast experience, and it’s testimony that you don’t have to drive to Nelson Bay or Forster to find a beachside caravan park in the middle of nowhere. Patonga is unpretentious and underdeveloped, and you’ll still spy beer-gutted men shouldering the odd plump jewfish to cleaning tables at the algae-mottled boat ramp.
Across the water lie Sydney’s northern beaches, so let’s take the TARDIS back to Terrigal, which is our compass point. This time we drive north.
NORTH TO THE ENTRANCE
Not much happens in the flanking northern suburb of Wamberal, but if you’re lucky enough to secure a house via the internet, you won’t regret it. Wamberal is my favourite beach fishing spot. Why? Because rich fools built houses right on the dunes – marring the natural beauty of the place – and every 20 years or so one of these squillion-dollar monstrosities takes a little swim. These houses make great natural reefs . . . so burley up over the rumpus room.
Further north you’ll find some other pretty bays and beaches. There is a resort amongst them, but it doesn’t deserve a mention.
A thong skip past Wamberal is Forrester’s Beach. Check out Spoon Bay for beachfront sylvian beauty that rivals any national park. Or take the kids over to the giant waterslides and give yourself the ultimate wedgie on the Kamikaze Slide. Then drag them to The Swingers Club (not what you’re thinking, and frankly, you should be ashamed of yourself) for a game of Put Put. You can play the cute little par-three golf course just behind it while the juniors fight over whose shot it is next.
After Long Jetty (so named because it has a long jetty), we come to my childhood holiday retreat: The Entrance. The council here is hell-bent on turning the place into a high-rise horrorshow, and everywhere you look a crane is lifting something somewhere. Heartbreaking, as The Entrance has some of the most breathtaking topography in the state, with its curling sand banks and eddying pools. To see what the place once looked like, drive down Denning Street’s row of fabulous little hand-painted fibros sitting tremulous beneath the shadow of a wrecking ball. But there remains something of the Coastal soul in Dunleith Caravan Park. I recently stayed there with my son and had a blast. For a couple of bucks you can have a van sitting right on the lake.
Aside from the high-rise lunacy, The Entrance has been gentrified somewhat. When I was a kid it was full of bingo halls, seedy carnivals and pinball parlours run by slack-jawed yokels smoking Winnie Reds and calling you “matey.” Now it’s a great place for families. This is largely due to the vision of landscape/streetscape designer Paul Parker and some hipper elements of the local council. The Entrance is now replete with a fabulous boardwalk and manifold little nooks for toddlers to play in. One of the highlights is the pelican feeding. Toddlers love them and the feeding is always a hit with tourists. The pelican is the unofficial mascot of the Central Coast. I love watching them glide onto the lake like a squadron of B52 Bombers. They are remarkable birds: more like pterodactyls than anything.
The fishing at The Entrance is always excellent and at night, when the prawning season is on, you’ll find the lake dotted with holidaymakers and their lanterns. Each time I see this image it almost moves me to tears. You see, this is the Central Coast I love so passionately: the unpretentious holiday destination that’s always been at Sydney’s doorstep with a welcoming smile, a blackened snag and a fishing rod. Take the time to get to know it, and it will surprise you.
DETAILS & CONTACTS: NSW CENTRAL COAST
BEST MONTHS TO GO:
February to April, when the school holidays are over and it’s quiet.
MOST UNDER-RATED ASPECT:
Its emerging hipness.
MOST OVER-RATED ASPECT:
Its emerging hipness.
BE PREPARED FOR:
Restaurant prices that are a little expensive in general, and a dearth of places offering cheap eats.
WATCH OUT FOR:
Pelican feeding at 3.30pm at The Entrance; Long Jetty antique shops (only open later in the week).
BEST VALUE ENCOUNTERED:
The Entrance saltwater swimming pool complex – it’s free and like an aquatic theme park.
Japanese Gardens – Phone: (02) 4324 8099
Des Johns Aquatic And Fitness – Phone: (02) 4365 3748
Crowne Plaza, Terrigal Beach – Phone: (02) 4384 9111
The Fragrant Garden – Phone: (02) 4365 6155
Reef Restaurant, The Haven – Phone: (02) 4385 3222
Lizotte’s Restaurant – Phone: (02) 4368 2017
Ludos Gourmet Kitchen – Phone: (02) 4382 1926
Feast Restaurant – Phone: (02) 4381 0707
Patonga Caravan Park – Phone: (02) 4365 6709
Swingers Golf Club – Phone: (02) 4384 4230
Dunleith Caravan Park – Phone: (02) 4332 2172
Notes: The author has never stayed at the Crowne Plaza, but has put a glass of wine on lay-by and sat in the Crowne’s Lord Ashley Bar. Some years ago he ate at both Reef (tenth wedding anniversary) and Lizotte’s, each time leaving a handsome tip. He paid for his own accommodation at Dunleith Caravan Park but caught enough whiting to offset the modest expense. No children or horses were harmed in the writing of this story, and the whiting have forgiven him.