From the ocean to the hinterland, explore the intriguing villages of the Macleay Valley Coast.
Tucked in plum position between Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour on the NSW Mid North Coast, the Macleay Valley Coast is a stunning blend of coastline, national parks and hinterland that invites you to switch off from the hustle and bustle of modern life and reconnect with the things that matter.
And while the main town of Kempsey is steeped in Akubra hats and Slim Dusty legend, the intriguing coastal and hinterland villages that pepper the region each have their own unique personalities and range of experiences on offer – all the while connected by pristine nature and a strong sense of tranquillity.
So, which one is right for you?
Located on the southernmost stop on the Macleay Valley Coast, just 45 minutes’ north of Port Macquarie, Crescent Head is an idyllic coastal village that’s famed for having some of the best surf breaks in Australia.
The pulse of this rich surfing culture is found across its golden beaches and while it translates to a distinctly laid-back, sandy-toes vibe around town, a raft of contemporary culinary offerings has elevated ‘Creso’ to a coastal destination that foodies cannot resist.
Start the day with a nourishing breakfast at Green Room, where the emphasis is seasonal and local, and dishes include hazelnut and banana granola and nasi goreng. Or grab a seat outside on reclaimed furniture to sip your coffee while watching the waves roll in at Point Break Cafe.
Pandanus Garden Bar & Restaurant is a go-to for lunch and dinner with friends and family with its gorgeous leafy setting and share-plate focus, and you can’t go past Lumah for an elegant yet relaxed dinner that heroes native Australian flavours.
The place to be for a sundowner and a taco or two is brand-new Mexican restaurant and bar La Costa Cantina; this funky spot is based within the equally funky and recently renovated motel The Med Crescent Head, which has a range of accommodation options available and more than a few pops of Palm Springs about it.
Crescent Head has a great range of surf beaches to choose from whether you’re advanced or a beginner, including the famous Crescent Head Point where surf schools On Point Surf School, Crescent Head Learn to Surf and Surfaris Surf Camp cater to newbies.
The six-hole Crescent Head Country Club – overlooking Crescent Head Beach and offering spectacular Pacific Ocean views – is a must for social golfers and seasoned pros alike.
For a detour with a twist, head 30 minutes out of town to a new small-batch distillery based on an old dairy farm that grows its own juniper, coriander, citrus and Australian botanicals to create gin, limoncello and more. Maria River Distillery is open for tastings by appointment and plans are afoot to open a bar and small eatery in the near future. Watch this space.
Meander north from Crescent Head for 30 minutes to Gladstone to discover a different side of the Macleay Valley Coast. Sitting serenely on the banks of the Macleay River, this charming little village is considered the cultural heart of the region and travellers looking to immerse themselves in a spot of creativity, heritage and history should add it to their itinerary. Here, you’ll find 19 preserved historic buildings and a collection of art galleries, cafes and boutiques to explore.
Head to The Heritage Hotel of Gladstone for a long, lazy lunch on the upstairs balcony overlooking the Macleay River. Dishes range from Aussie pub classics to cheese platters and fresh and zingy vegan salads. With a generous beer garden and regular live music to boot, it’s a place you’ll want to linger.
The Gladstone Hub is the cultural heart of the village and its collaborative spirit is palpable. Wander the different rooms of this distinctive red house to discover a variety of makers, artists and practitioners that have set up shop within them. Get your caffeine fix at Steam & Cedar, which occupies a cute spot in the Hub’s garden and prides itself on its artisan coffee. You’ll find delicious fresh-baked treats and some of the best homemade ice-cream around here, too. It’s also worth mooching around the monthly Gladstone Quality Market, which is held along the banks of the Macleay River on the third Sunday of every month. Then visit Macleay Valley Art Gallery, two minutes’ walk down the road, with its rolling exhibitions showcasing the work of the local creative community.
If your idea of a perfect day on holiday with the family begins under canvas with the dawn chorus, is spent long and leisurely on the water and in nature, and unspools in the evening with the sizzle of a barbecue, then look no further than Hat Head. This delightfully sleepy village is ensconced within Hat Head National Park, which comprises a medley of beaches, sand dunes, rainforest and wetlands that form the perfect backdrop for families looking to switch off their devices and truly reconnect with nature.
While there is a variety of short stay accommodation options available in town, many visitors opt for the halcyon pleasures of Hat Head Holiday Park, which overlooks 12 kilometres of beach and offers a choice of accommodation ranging from camping to two-bedroom bungalows. Here you’ll find a barbecue area, camp kitchen, on-site kiosk and a playground.
Directly behind the holiday park runs Korogoro Creek, with its crystal-clear waters that are safe for swimming and even better for snorkelling. Time it right before high tide when the creek is full and teeming with marine life; you’ll have fun spotting hermit crabs, flathead, mullet and even octopuses, which leave inky clues in the sand as to their whereabouts.
And don’t miss out on one of the Macleay Valley Coast’s best walks: the Korogoro Walking Track follows the Hat Head headland through heathland sprinkled with wildflowers, serving up stunning ocean vistas all the way. This 3.2-kilometre loop is easy for kids – especially if you pack a picnic to enjoy at one of the many scenic spots en route.
At the mouth of the Macleay River and with stunning beaches flanked by stands of Norfolk pines, South West Rocks is another idyllic pocket of the Macleay Valley Coast. It’s a place to relax in complete coastal tranquillity with a healthy dose of action thrown in for good measure.
You can’t go past the Seabreeze Beach Hotel, a relaxed and friendly local pub that does a good line in hearty food made from fresh local produce. Or follow the road along the Macleay River past farmgate stalls full of fresh produce and pick up just-caught seafood at the Macleay River District Fisherman’s Co-operative outlet in Jerseyville. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to watch fisherman unloading their morning haul.
Catch a stunning sunrise at Smoky Cape Lighthouse by staying in one of the self-contained keepers’ cottages. Or check out the newly opened SALT @ South West Rocks, a riverfront property with two- and three-bedroom villas available for families seeking light, bright and comfortable digs plus an outdoor swimming pool, barbecue facilities and bike hire.
The historic ruins of Trial Bay Gaol, a world-class attraction tucked within Arakoon National Park, will compel kids with its gruesome history. Step inside tiny cells and try to imagine what it would have been like as a prisoner here at the end of the 19th century. Follow the history lesson with a swim at nearby Trial Bay Beach – its calm and flat waters makes it popular with young families. Trial Bay is also where local Marrgaan Cultural Experience offers visitors, locals and groups the chance to approach wellness from a holistic perspective, something that is central to the local Dunghutti culture. Contact directly for private or bespoke cultural experiences.
Also nearby is the secluded beach of Little Bay, which makes for the perfect spot to play and picnic, and swim when the water’s calm, and to meet and greet the many kangaroos that call this spot home.
Other fun things to do in South West Rocks include a guided stand-up paddleboarding tour through the calm and crystal-clear waters of Back Creek with South West Rocks SUP, and the steep but short walk to Smoky Cape Lighthouse for sweeping views of the region’s whole coastline.
A 10-minute drive out of Gladstone in nearby Frederickton is The Garden Bar & Kitchen. Set plum on the river in the old cheese factory, it takes great care in sourcing local produce for its carefully crafted breakfast and tapas-style lunch menus – think everything from ricotta buttermilk pancakes with seasonal berries to house-made hummus to Australian king prawns served with creamy garlic, sweet chilli and jasmine rice. A worthy detour.
If time allows, drive west of Kempsey into the Macleay Valley Hinterland for a truly stunning road trip. Treat it as a scenic drive or – to totally disconnect from the hustle and bustle – stay overnight at Nulla Nulla Blacksmith’s Farm. This chemical-free farm and blacksmith studio in the hills of Bellbrook also offers boutique accommodation in its former horseman’s red-cedar cabin and creek-side camping surrounded by casuarina trees. Bliss.