Halfway between Sydney and Brisbane and 45 minutes north of Port Macquarie, the Macleay Valley Coast combines a magnificence of beaches, headlands, national parks and slow-paced small towns of delightful character.
You won’t want to miss these two tourist drives through the region, one taking the see-and-do route, the other offering a compelling alternative for those who know that some of Australia’s best places are the least known.
Kempsey to South West Rocks – Tourist Drive 12
Running between Kempsey and South West Rocks, Tourist Drive 12 flits along the Belmore and Macleay rivers for much of the way. It takes in the best-known highlights of the Macleay Valley Coast, including not just scenery but a great food trail that will tempt the taste buds with the scrumptious regional produce of this rich agricultural region. Can you drive it in a day? Easily. But you might want to take a week, with a thousand reasons to linger.
Surf into Crescent Head
Turn off the Pacific Highway at Kempsey and a green and pleasant 20-minute drive later you’re sliding into Crescent Head. Nearby national parks are great for bushwalking and whales huff just offshore, but the laid-back coastal village is most famous for its top-notch surfing, especially at Killick Beach and Point Plomer. Watch the action from a cafe or hit the long slow right-hand break yourself.
Get arty in Gladstone
The river points you north on a slow meander through pleasant farmland to Gladstone; pick up fruit at roadside stalls for later. This village is surprisingly arty, with several galleries and chic fashion and design boutiques. The Macleay Valley Community Art Gallery showcases local art through regularly changing exhibitions.
Tuck into Frederickton
Although you can enjoy pub grub at the The Heritage Hotel of Gladstone, or high tea at The Old Bank Gladstone, you might want to save your appetite for nearby Frederickton. There you’ll find Fredo Pies & Cafe, whose pies include kangaroo with bush spice, and chunky lamb with mint. At the Garden Bar & Kitchen you can overlook the Macleay River as you tuck into local seasonal produce paired with wine or beer, while Macleay Valley Farm Store provides smoked fish, pates and deli meats for those keen to picnic.
Coast into Hat Head
Now head back towards the ocean. Hat Head has great surf beaches and excellent fishing, while its heath and wetlands are alive with honeyeaters, spoonbills, curlews and plovers. Scramble up sand dunes to gaze over wetlands and rainforest on one side, coast on the other. The Korogoro Walking Track up the headland is short but stunning.
Get wet at South West Rocks
Flanked by great beaches and surrounded by the many fingers of the Macleay River estuary, South West Rocks is a classic, low-key resort town where you could while away several days swimming, paddle boarding, fishing or diving amid rays, wobbegongs and cuttlefish at Fish Rock Cave. Or just laze on the beach or under the giant Norfolk pines.
Climb high on Smoky Cape
Visit the spectacularly sited ruins of colonial-era Trail Bay Gaol just out of town in Arakoon National Park. Then get the heart pumping further down the coast on a hike to Smoky Cape Lighthouse in Hat Head National Park; you can tour the lighthouse and clamber up to its huge 300-prism lens, which can project a beam 50 kilometres out to sea. The wind-battered, blue and white views are splendid as the ocean pounds the cliffs below.
Stuart Point to Scotts Head – Tourist Drive 14
Tourist Drive 14 links small communities on the Macleay Valley Coast just further north of South West Rocks, including Scotts Head and Stuart Point. It isn’t as well-known as Tourist Drive 12 and has no big tourist attractions. Good. Instead, it’s home to magnificent landscapes, barely trodden beaches and whispering forests. The drive is only 28 kilometres long, but don’t be fooled: it could take you a day or three to mosey between blue ocean and green hinterland.
Take the slow road
Why barrel along the Pacific Highway in a part of Australia this beautiful? Turn off at Stuart Point Road and sloooow down, soak up the scenery and blow away your urban bother. The road skirts Mt Yarrahapinni through rainforest and macadamia and avocado farms. Stop at Yarrahapinni Studio Gallery for lino prints inspired by local scenes and a chance to bring a little piece of the Macleay Valley Coast home with you.
Explore Stuarts Point
It’s only another four kilometres south to Stuarts Point, which sits on an arm of the Macleay River. Take the River Walk through stands of paperbark and mangroves, stopping for a swim. This is a place that makes you want to be a kid again: try your luck fishing, build a sandcastle on the beach, meander along the sand dunes or get out in a tinny among paddling pelicans.
Beach it at Grassy Head
Grassy Head is a distillation of all that’s wonderful about Australian beach towns – without the crowds. White-sand beaches have barely a footprint. Throw in a fishing line, scramble across rock pools, plunge into the waves or snorkel in waters clear as gin. Or you could simply flop on the sand, of course. All holidays should be this laid-back.
Lookout at Mt Yarrahapinni
Mt Yarrahapinni rises only 498 metres but provides a stunning panorama. This is a significant place to the Dunghutti and Gumbaynggirr people, and you’ll see why when you follow hiking trails past waterholes and burbling creeks and through the tranquil rainforest, where you’ll often spot glossy black cockatoos and busy lyrebirds.
Splash into Scotts Head
Feel any remnants of your stress ebb away as you arrive in Scotts Head, whose main beach stretches further than the eye can squint. A swim, surf or long solitary walk beckon. Hit the headland for whale watching. Soak up the lush farmland and forest as you follow Warrell Creek on Scotts Head Road to drive back to the Pacific Highway, refreshed and renewed in just 28 kilometres.