your ultimate guide to the

NSW North Coast

From history to epic headlands, sand dunes to surfing, rainforests to multi-awarded restaurants, the New South Wales North Coast specialises in serving up something for everyone.

 

Starting from the Central Coast and a long and windy road trip towards the Gold Coast, there are ocean adventures to be found, vibrant culture to experience and stunning memorials from the Second World War to see.

 

So buckle up and get set to see it all in a single drive or simply pick a spot and soak up the scene.

Getting there

The former industrial-turned-surfy town of Newcastle is about 2 hours 20 minutes from the bustle of Sydney and is easily accessible by train from Central Station or Greyhound bus leaving 3 times daily.

 

The rest of the major stops along the North Coast, such as Port Stephens, Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour, Clarence Valley and Byron Bay are also accessible via bus service, however for the sake of convenience a car is going to provide you with the most freedom and accessibility to some of the coast’s most memorable experiences. We recommend a solid seven days road trip to stop in and enjoy some of the highlights.

Top Things to do on the North Coast

Bushwalking and wildlife

One of the most awe-inspiring hikes on the North Coast is found in Dorrigo, close to Coffs Harbour and past the charming artist hub of Bellingen. The drive to the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre is an experience in itself, cutting a steep path beneath mysterious shade-covered roads, finally opening up to hyper-green pastures at the peak of the climb. Once at the centre, sign up for a guided walk through the lush ancient forest towards the impressive Crystal Shower Falls. Or if you’re time-poor simply step out onto the Skywalk, which offers uninterrupted views down across the rainforest towards the sea and an excellent opportunity to spot birdlife.

Kayaking and snorkelling

There are never-ending opportunities to stop and swim on route along the North Coast, however, those keen to stretch their kayak skills should make a stop of Lake Macquarie, a natural saltwater reserve and perfect calm waters to row upon. Lake Mac Kayak and Bike Hire are a completely mobile hire company that delivers kayaks and stand up paddleboards wherever they’re needed in the local area.

 

If you prefer to delve a little deeper then Solitary Islands Marine Park in Coffs Harbour is a haven for avid scuba divers and snorkelers. However, this is just one of the many beautiful and largely untouched nature reserves along the North Coast. Be sure to also put Julian Rocks in Byron Bay, Cook Island Aquatic Reserve near Tweed Heads, and Fly Point-Halifax Aquatic Reserve in Port Stephens on your radar.

Beach

First things first, pack your sunscreen because you’re going to be spending some serious time on the sand. Mereweather Beach near Newcastle is an early highlight thanks to its bluer-than-blue ocean baths. Here swimmers calmly swim laps as ways crash and spray dramatically along the adjacent rocks.

 

Once you arrive in Port Stephens though you’ll have some 26 stunning beaches to choose from. Shoal Bay is famous with holidaymakers for its white sands, abundant koalas and regular whale watching sights. The calm waters also make it a favourite with kayakers and paddle-boarders. Romance lovers will adore the azure blues of Bennetts Beach in Hawks Nest, a secluded 14km stretch of sand between Seal Rocks and Yacaaba Headland.

Best places to visit on the mid North Coast

Coffs Harbour

Sealy Lookout provides a perfect perch to get your bearings, with the Forest Sky Pier offering staggering coastal views over the city.

 

Just 30-minutes drive from Coffs Harbour is the artistic town of Bellingen. It’s often touted as a hinterland alternative to Byron Bay but Bellingen has its own special energy thanks to the inspiring rolling hills of nearby Promised Land and quaint coffee shops and galleries.

 

And what self-respected road tripper can resist the kitschy charms of The Big Banana Fun Park. One part a museum dedicated to the wonder of (yes, you guessed it) the banana. The other, a full-blown theme park ideal for little travellers needing to stretch their legs and let off some steam. It’s weird and completely wonderful.

Port Macquarie

Boat ghosts AND the great outdoors, Port Macquarie blends a whole lot of history with heavenly scenery. The town was initially founded as a convict settlement, known for housing “the worst of the worst”, and there are a number of federation buildings and cemeteries from this era dotted around town waiting to be explored. All this flies in the face of Port Macquarie’s natural beauty, which is best enjoyed on one of the town’s many seaside strolls, such as the nine-kilometre hike between Lighthouse Beach and the Town Green.

Newcastle

Newcastle is a must-visit simply to experience the melange of cultures that fuse together in this coastal city. Here, straight-laced Victorian terrace houses rub shoulders with vibrant cosmopolitan cafes and buzzing energy of the artistic community. And then you’ve got the laid-back surfers strolling past businessmen and women in suits. It can be discombobulating but in the best way possible. Stop for lunch on the deck at the famous Honeysuckle Hotel, looking out onto the Newcastle Harbour. Then sink your teeth into some history at Fort Scratchley, a former 1880 coastal defence station turned history museum dedicated to the city’s involvement in World Wars I and II.

Planning your stay on the North Coast

Luxury accommodation

Halcyon House on Cabarita Beach can’t be beaten for views both outdoors AND indoors, where the inspiring coast-luxe interiors take centre stage in this five-star take on a typical Aussie beach resort. Those hunting for a more Hamptons-esque escape will love The Anchorage in Port Stephens, a venue that finds the balance between the streamlined beauty of the local marina and the rugged bushland surrounding the town.

Hotels

From Newcastle to Cabarita, there are hotels to suit any style and budget but a few highlights include the familiar reliability of Rydges Newscastle , which is conveniently located along historic Honeysuckle Parade. In Port Macquarie, The Mantra Observatory offers the flexibility of apartment-style accommodations and the amenities of the luxury resort. In Coffs Harbour the Break Free Anuka Beach is a hit with families that require a few extra entertainment facilities without the stuffiness of a full-blown hotel.

Caravans and camping

Stockton Beach is one of Australia’s most loved destinations and the NRMA Stockton Beach Holiday Park is a crowd pleaser for its well-catered amenities, accommodations styles ranging from tent sites, caravan hook ups, all the way to beachside villas.

Where to eat on the North Coast

As well as being a bohemian haven, Byron Bay is also a Mecca for foodies with some of the regions best dining found dotted between buskers. Fleet in Brunswick Heads is a small eatery with a big reputation, serving up an ever-changing menu of smaller dishes priced her head rather than per dish. Sidle into a seat and let the superb service of co-owner Astrid McCormack and savoury flavours by her partner and chef Josh Lewis satiate your hunger.

 

Cabarita Beach is renowned for its surfing and friendly small-town atmosphere. With the launch of Halcyon House in 2015, it’s now on the map for dreamy Instagram-friendly interiors and tastebud tingling food at the hotel’s restaurant, Paper Daisy. Headed up by executive chef Jason Barratt (formerly of the iconic Rae’s On Wategoes in Byron Bay), the venue has garnered multiple awards including two chefs hats in the Australian Good Food Guide 2019.

 

If you’re looking for a change of scene from the sea then make a stop in Mount Warning on the Tweed Range. The volcanic-formed mountain ranges here offer enough wow-factor for a stop but Mavis’s Kitchen is the icing on top. Located in an old ‘Queenslander’ at the base of the majestic Wollumbin-Mount Warning, Mavis’s menu takes full advantage of the fresh seasonal produce found in the local area (thanks to that red volcanic soil) and grown in their own kitchen garden.