With a slightly cool edge to the air, impossibly clear waters and glassy, near-perfect waves, there’s nothing quite as remarkable as the South Coast in winter.
Encompassing the Shellharbour, Kiama and Shoalhaven regions, this pristine stretch of the New South Wales coast has been flying under the radar as a lesser-known winter playground for years. Characterised by dramatic scenery, untouched nature and some of the best surfing in the country, one visit to this beach-blessed haven in the cooler months is enough to melt the iciest of hearts.
Offering everything from pulse-racing adventure to gentle indulgence, and proving you don’t need snow to relish a winter break, this string of seaside sanctuaries is refreshingly unspoilt. Whether you come to shimmy into a steamer and paddle out to the surf reserve at Shellharbour’s Killalea State Park, lace up your walking boots to tread the track along the Kiama Coast Walk, or enjoy a more luxe escape with a stay at Shoalhaven’s much-lauded Bannisters Pavilion, there’s an experience to lure everyone out of their winter hibernation.
Come for a long weekend or spend a week or more chasing the waves between these three incredible regions. Spot whales as they playfully make their annual journey, enjoy the regional produce of the hinterland towns and immerse in nature without the crowds – before retiring by the comforting crackle of a fire with a glass of local wine.
Heading south from Sydney, Shellharbour is the first of the regions that make up the Unspoilt South Coast. From Killalea Reserve to Lake Illawarra, and up into Macquarie Pass, Shellharbour offers an easy escape from the nearby cities of Sydney and Wollongong. An open secret among the surfing community is The Farm, or what is now officially recognised as Killalea Beach National Surfing Reserve. This south-east facing beach that shimmers with the most brilliant palette of turquoise and green is a Mecca for local and visiting surfers alike. While it’s beautiful year-round, the waters are particularly crystal come winter, when the colder days keep the breaks pleasantly uncrowded. But you needn’t be a boardrider to appreciate this reserve in winter.
There’s something incredibly revitalising about a walk along a near-deserted beach in the cooler months, the sun warming your back and the fine salt mist settling on your woollen jumper. If walking is your thing, but you’d rather keep your feet free of sand, head to Shellharbour’s Macquarie Pass National Park. Pack a picnic lunch and head to the hills for a restorative hike through lush rainforest and towering eucalypts. The Cascades Walk is a gentle two-kilometre return walk that meanders beneath a dappled canopy to a hidden waterfall. Be on the hunt for shy platypuses, lizards and lyrebirds. Or take the slightly more adventurous six-kilometre Clover Hill Trail, which follows small streams to reveal the attention-seeking beauty of the Illawarra Escarpment.If your walk through Macquarie Pass has served only to ignite your appetite for nature, it’s time to swap your backpack for a scuba tank.
Sea life pays no attention to the temperature above the surface and winter provides the perfect opportunity to drop into their habitat below the waves. One of Shellharbour’s best dive and snorkel spots is nestled at the eastern end of Bass Point Reserve. The sheltered Bushrangers Bay Aquatic Reserve serves as a nursery for many species, including some tropical fish. Glide softly through this serene world as you observe the undersea cliffs and crevices that serve as apartment buildings for myriad creatures.
Where to stay
Starfish Beach House: Ideally located in the centre of Shellharbour Village, this architecturally designed three-bedroom home is the perfect place to cosy up in after a day’s adventure.
Reflections Killalea Reserve: If you’d like to remain as close to nature as possible, bed down in a bunkhouse or campsite at this pretty reserve. Perfect for surfers keen to catch the first wave of the day.
Escape778: With the Illawarra Escarpment providing a dramatic backdrop, this spacious home that overlooks the Calderwood Valley through to the ocean couldn’t tick any more boxes, yet it does, because there’s even an outdoor spa.
Perhaps best known for the eponymous charming seaside town of Kiama and its crowd-drawing blowhole, this stunning region actually includes Kiama Downs, Gerringong, Gerroa, Jamberoo, and Minnamurra. A retreat for surfers, beachcombers, and weekenders alike, this region is equally endowed with good waves, great walks and a vibrant hub. Lush, rolling hills that lead to plunging cliffs pummelled relentlessly by white, frothy waves is just a taste of the breath-taking landscapes you’ll find on the 22-kilometre Kiama Coast Walk. You needn’t tackle the full length in one go, simply walk a section at a time. Or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, take your time and detour from the path to explore inviting, near-empty beaches.
If watching the ocean has stirred a need for you to duck dive under the waves, head to one of the region’s enviable beaches for a surf. Kiama is blessed with excellent surf breaks, but arguably, the best is Werri Beach in Gerringong. If you’re travelling with kids in tow, head to Kiama’s main beach, Surf Beach, which offers both great waves, but also a parkland and playground to occupy little ones. True surfers love the south coast in winter for the clear water and less-populated breaks. There’s no better time of year to experience this love for yourself and learn the skill while there’s less people to witness your first attempt. Learn to surf with one of the area’s reputable schools and you’ll be an (almost) pro come summer.
If you’re not ready to venture off the shoreline, pop your beanie and some trail mix in your backpack and head to Minnamurra Rainforest Centre in Budderoo National Park. Learn about the wildlife that call the rainforest home in the award-winning visitor centre, follow the elevated walkways that wind through the deep-green foliage, and stop to inhale the earthy scent of the forest. Whether you’ve been surfing or walking, you’ll likely be ravenous.
Luckily, the Kiama region is a bountiful food bowl brimming with seafood, seasonal produce, craft beer and wine. Head to Black Beach’s growers market on the fourth Saturday of each month, or to Surf Beach each Wednesday for the farmers market. With a lively bar and dining scene and plenty of live music on offer, you’ll not be left wanting for entertainment.
Where to stay
Werri Wish Beach House: This three-bedroom house is just seconds from Werri Beach, making it perfect for observing the ocean. A full kitchen enables you to cook up the treats you collected at the farmers market.
Seacliff House: Looking for accommodation for a special event? This beautiful house and venue will more than fit the bill.
Kendell’s on the Beach Holiday Park: These six parks are the stuff of nostalgic childhood memories. Cabins and campsites make them an affordable place to bed down while you explore the region.
An easy two-hour drive from Sydney and Canberra, Shoalhaven stretches from Berry Downs to Durras North and inland to Kangaroo Valley and Milton. From 100 world-class surf beaches to storybook valleys, idyllic coast villages such as Jervis Bay and Mollymook, and a covetable food and wine scene, this region spoils the winter wanderer for choice.
If your idea of a winter escape centres round indulgence, the best place to start is with a sugar-dusted stop at the Famous Berry Donut Van. From there, make your way to Mountain Ridge Wines for a tasting, before ending your excursion with Milton’s hatted restaurant, St Isidore. Or get hands-on with your food at one of Kangaroo Valley’s cooking schools. Well-fed and watered, it might be time to find some waves.
Local surf legend Tyler Wright’s hometown of Culburra Beach won’t disappoint those looking for clean breaks. If you’d rather keep dry, leave your surfer here and head to nearby Jim Wilds Oyster Service to shuck a few while you wait for the waves to lose their appeal. Alternatively, if you can’t beat the lure of the breakers, join them by taking a surf lesson with Shoalhaven local and ex-World champion Pam Burridge. You may not be quite ready for the shallow barrelling waves of Guillotines at Bawley Point afterwards, but you may find you have a newfound appreciation for them.
Also worth appreciating is the majestic marine life that steals the show come winter. Take a whale and dolphin watching tour, like those offered from eco-certified Jervis Bay Wild, from Jervis Bay to witness the northward migration of the humpbacks and their babies as they venture to warmer waters. Or gear up to go below the surface with Dive Jervis Bay for face-to-face meetings with friendly seals and dolphins. If you’d prefer to keep dry, watch the magnetic shadowy-looking stingrays that come to feed by the boat ramps at Kioloa and Bendalong.
Where to stay
Bannisters Pavilion: Just 80 metres from gorgeous Mollymook Beach, the Pavilion is barefoot luxury come to life. The Rooftop Bar & Grill is a destination in itself, even if you’re not staying in one of the chic rooms.
Bawley Bush Retreat: This collection of charming cottages makes for a cosy stay in beautiful Bawley Point. visitnsw.com/stayinshoalhaven
Bangalay Luxury Villas at Shoalhaven Heads: These villas come with complete kitchens, laundry and private decks. But it’s the fireplace and underfloor bathroom heating that make them a winter oasis. visitnsw.com/stayinshoalhaven