A sleepy seaside break in Sydney is as coveted as the million-dollar properties on its glorious shores. Megan Arkinstall finds that Palm Beach has perfected the balance of cool, casual and confidential.
A fine precedence was set for Sydney’s most northerly stretch of sand and sea in 1788. When Governor Phillip visited the area, he bestowed upon it a sterling declaration – “The finest piece of water I ever saw” – and named it Pitt Water in honour of William Pitt the Younger, then Prime Minister of England.
Though isolated and relatively inaccessible, settlers began to arrive to the area in the early 19th century to establish farmland and orchards.
Two wooden towers were erected at Barrenjoey Headland in 1868 to guide ships safely in; they were later replaced in 1881 by a single sandstone lighthouse that still stands proud today.
In 1912, Palm Beach Estate, named so after the endemic cabbage tree palms, was subdivided into residential blocks and put up for sale promising a lifestyle of fishing, sailing, golf and rowing; they sold quickly to wealthy Sydneysiders who made it their private holiday paradise.
In the 1920s, the popularity of the area among the elite boomed. A bitumen road was constructed from Newport; the exclusive Palm Beach Surf Life Saving Club was established in 1921 (to this day entry is by invitation only); and new guesthouses attracted visitors including the likes of Prime Minister Robert Hughes, who would pay six shillings and sixpence for room and board at the still operating Barrenjoey House.
Almost 100 years on, Palm Beach is still regarded as one of Sydney’s most affluent suburbs, with much of the real estate owned by those with bottom lines most of us can only dream of.
But over weekends, particularly during summer, the area is a seaside playground for visitors from Sydney and abroad, many of whom come here for a ‘Summer Bay’ fix, thanks to Home and Away, which has been shooting here since 1988.
But despite its magnetism, the noticeable absence of high-rises, shopping centres, and a lack of transport infrastructure in the area (if you don’t have a car you’ll need to rely on the local bus or your two feet to get around) means Palm Beach has gloriously remained a sleepy, quiet suburb with a decidedly un-Sydney feel.
Here, we uncover the must-visit spots when you make the pilgrimage to this sweet little pocket of Sydney.
In a cluster of unassuming shops on Barrenjoey Road, just minutes’ walk from the wharf, is this gorgeous studio by jewellery designer Kristina Brenke.
Each piece is handmade by the German-born, London-trained designer from sustainable gold and silver; she also stocks beautiful homewares and art.
2. Bow Wow
This is not a pet store, nor a merchandise store for the rapper of the same name. This little gem actually stocks an eclectic range of pieces from vintage clothing and new styles to beautifully restored furniture.
We spotted a pair of 1940s brass lamps with Bruce Goold Banana Grove lampshades and some cool vintage maps. Swoon.
Start from the beach carpark near The Boathouse; walk north along the narrow stretch of sand for about 200 metres and turn right when you see a sign to the lighthouse.
Another 100 metres will bring you to another sign with two trail options: Smugglers Track, which is a steep 10-minute climb via steps, or the Access Trail, a 15-minute gradual incline. Either way, you’ll get your heart rate going.
At the top the views of the isthmus between the ocean and the bay are spectacular. Turn the other way and you have panoramic views all the way to the Central Coast; from May to August keep an eye out for whales.
There are guided tours of the historic lighthouse every Sunday between 11am and 3pm; $5 per adult, $3 per child.
Perched on the edge of Pittwater, this rustic boathouse cafe serves up a bistro-style menu (think burgers, salads, buckets of prawns) in a buzzy setting, with the mouth- watering smell of salty fish and chips in the air.
If the tables on the deck by the wharf are all taken (hedge your bets they are), you can sit inside on a host of share tables or out the front in the lantern-filled garden on Adirondack chairs.
But if you’re lucky enough to score the best seats in the house, consider a late lunch to catch the last rays of the day while you enjoy a frosty beer under festoon lighting. (Tip: Yogis can get their fix at ‘Yoga For All’ above the cafe with views of Pittwater.)
5. Palm Beach Wine Co
Most of the 14,000 wine labels here have been reviewed by the Palm Beach Wine Co tasting panel themselves. Tough job, eh?
Doubling as Palm Beach’s (very chic) supermarket, you can also pick up beer, spirits and other provisions including a huge selection of cheeses and deli meat.
Pre-order a DIY picnic hamper and find a sweet spot to while away an afternoon. We recommend heading to North Palm Beach to nab a picnic table, or roll out a rug on the grass and watch the surfers as you sip on a Hunter Valley sémillon.
6. Pronto Creative
Start your day with a hearty breakfast and caffeine fix at Pronto Creative. Located on Barrenjoey Road, this casual cafe has been a locals’ favourite for 35 years, serving up a mean coffee and a healthy menu of freshly squeezed juices, sandwiches and daily baked muffins. 02 9974 5695
This iconic guesthouse, located near Palm Beach wharf, has seven guest rooms above the public restaurant, all painted a fresh white with relaxed coastal styling.
A light breakfast of fresh sourdough and preserves, yoghurt, muesli and fruit is served in the guest dining room, but if you stay in the gorgeous Loft – and we recommend you do – you can enjoy breakfast privately in your own cosy dining nook that looks out to Pittwater.
Choose an accommodation package that includes a three-course meal in the restaurant, a beautiful space with a subtle colonial-Africa ambiance: exposed beams, rustic woods, rattan chairs, and palm-frond prints.
Though the menu certainly lends itself to fine dining, service is sophisticated yet relaxed; dine on the candlelit terrace during summer, or by the fireplace in winter.