It’s quite a shock to discover that Palm Beach, NSW is not, in fact, simply a rolling montage of boat shoes, knitted sweaters and vintage champagne. This is, after all, the place where a million dollar house is considered a bargain; where Louis Vuitton’s infamous Barefoot and Black Tie balls were held until their end in 2006.
“Palmy”, as it’s referred to by friends and admirers, holds something of a mythical standing in Sydney lore; part exclusive hideaway, part real estate goldmine, it is the city’s northernmost suburb in more ways than one.
But despite its reputation – or perhaps, in part, because of it – this quiet, sandy peninsula remains as far from the heights of city glamour and society as it does attract them; a small, sandy village where handbags can be discarded and hedge funds forgotten.
“There’s nowhere else really like this in the world,” muses Di Edwards, a Palmy resident. “It’s just this pristine, natural environment – and only an hour from a major international metropolis. Normally in a holiday environment you’d have all the trappings – the high-rises, the chintzy souvenir stores, the fast food and fast cars, the people, the restaurants… But for some reason, Palm Beach has just stayed as it always has been.”
Now 54, Di is well-qualified to speak on the topic. Aside from co-owning the local real estate agency for the past 22 years, she spent an idyllic childhood here, growing up in a home neighbouring those of illustrious families the Packers and the Joyes.
“I can remember sitting at our house, looking up at Barrenjoey Lighthouse and wondering aloud if there would ever be a Sheraton put there,” she recalls. “My dad said, ‘not in your lifetime, darling.’ And you know, he was right.”
Inevitably, there has been some evolution along the way: vine-covered walls and sleek timber gates hide carefully-developed homes made of glass and sunlight; a handful of new cafes are housed in the clean lines of modern construction. “But the personality of the area remains the same,” she says.
Less than 1000 properties occupy the Palm Beach peninsula, a small finger of land ending in Barrenjoey Headland and its iconic lighthouse. Much of the suburb is a mix of bushland and sand; both sides of the peninsula are surrounded by national park and ocean.
Despite being part of Sydney’s northern beaches, the area is considered rural, with nearby Macquarie University offering teenage Palmy residents an extra five points on their final high school mark – to offset the “disadvantage” of their distance.
There are several bed and breakfasts and a vast number of holiday homes for rent, although residents have long opposed the development of any major hotels. And that’s the way they plan on keeping it.
“There’s just more space here,” says local designer Jessica Watson (the mind behind the blue Palm Beach wallpaper in this feature, see jessicabwatson.com). “And the fact that I can work here and hear the ocean” – she gestures to the laidback surrounds of Dunes Restaurant, where she also waitresses part time – “is just wonderful.”
Much like an island, the local lifestyle is largely centred in, and around the water.
On the eastern boundary of town, a voraciously golden surf beach runs from the tip of the headland to the sheltered end of ‘Kiddies’ Corner’, where an ocean pool and manageable waves are overlooked by local lifeguards. On the west, a sheltered inland harbour of Pittwater offers tranquil ocean, boat moorings and a small, shallow strip of sand, for lazy swimming.
It is not uncommon to see septuagenarians paddling alongside young surfer-dudes; nor a famous face taking some time out on the sand. “They’re just left alone,” says Di.
“A lot of big names own property up here, some of them rent places on big parcels of land. Either way, it’s easy to see the attraction – they can just be themselves here.”
There is an unspoken agreement amongst locals not to alert the media of visiting celebrities. “Once it gets out to the media that someone’s in town, it’s a nightmare up here,” she says. “So we never say a word.”
Aside from pulling duty as a private holiday destination, the sands here also masquerade as the exterior filming location for Home and Away, drawing determined tourists from more than 50 countries looking to live the Summer Bay fantasy for themselves.
Mark, a sturdy Irishman armed with a giant bottle of water and an oversized backpack, is one of them. “It was our daughters who wanted to come here,” he insists, with a sheepish grin that suggests otherwise. “Home and Away is huge back home.”
Along with wife Mary and his three teenage daughters, Mark has travelled here from the Irish town of Drogheda, in the hope Palm Beach would be an iconic summation of Australia’s laidback lifestyle. “It’s everything we thought it’d be,” he confirms, before tossing a final line over his shoulder as he walks away: “Except I can’t find a public bathroom!”
It’s a throwaway remark, and actually quite incorrect – there are several public bathrooms (next to the ocean pool, for example, or by Palm Beach Lifesaving Club…), but such complaints echo a common observation made by disgruntled tourists and online forums: Palm Beach plays hard to get.
Indeed, one does get the distinct impression that Palm Beach would rather sink into the ocean than become a McGetaway. There is no giant shopping mall here; no chain stores (incidentally, McDonald’s sole attempt to move here was flicked a good ten kilometres down the road). Shops, galleries and restaurants are scattered along the roads, hiding amongst trees; behind modest facades.
The local deli and supermarket, somewhat confusingly named Palm Beach Wine Co (palmbeachwineco.com) is disguised as a humble corner store, but step inside and you’ll be greeted with a sultry New York brasserie cum English lolly shop; a sophisticated hybrid of all things lush and lavish.
Shop for artisan dark chocolate, giant freckles, espadrilles, meats and cheeses, French candles, cashmere scarves, gourmet jelly beans, bracelets from Spain, English ceramics, genuine Panama hats, peacock feathers… and a ‘bargain’ wine bin, with prices starting from $81.99. Mick Jagger once spent $250,000 on champagne here, according to several reports – not that the staff would ever confirm such a rumour. Nor deny it.
Similarly, Barrenjoey House – built in 1920 – hides not only a fabulously decadent restaurant within its conservative walls, but some remarkably sweet accommodation upstairs: where thick cream-and-white striped wallpaper lines the bathrooms; antique trunks sit on top of cross-hatched wardrobe doors and a shabby chic theme of white prevails over all.
“A friend of mine described this as ‘the local motel’ to me,” one astonished guest says, shortly after his arrival.
The restaurant too holds some pleasing distractions; step into the British-safari interiors and it’s easy to find yourself sinking into a sumptuous leather chair, ordering from the Grange-filled reserve list and calling for one of their hedonistic self-saucing chocolate puddings all at once.
Indeed, Palm Beach is more Hamptons than Gold Coast – but it’s precisely this that makes the area’s discoveries so charming.
“It’s sort of like a country beach town in Sydney,” admits Andrew Goldsmith. “‘Palm Beach time’ definitely goes a bit more slowly.” Co-owner of local institution The Boathouse, Andrew is only too aware of the area’s habit of squirreling away its best-kept secrets – his premises is tucked away on the water’s edge between a park and the local golf course; a lone structure at the end of a quiet road. “It’s very unusual to have a café like this, where there’s so much outdoor area,” he agrees. “For starters, normally cafes are on a footpath.” He pauses. “And on a street.”
All the same, the place is almost continuously heaving with a mix of champagne-swillers, chilled-out locals and the many fish-and-chip aficionados who come here for The Boathouse’s hand-crafted twist on the classic (featuring fresh local flathead, a specific fish-to-batter ratio and their own, homemade tartare). “I’ve never needed to spend money on advertising,” he concedes. “It’s all just word of mouth.”
Which seems to be the way around here. Even the last bed in town is a word-of-mouth operation.
“It can be extremely difficult to get a room around here if you don’t book early – it just gets so busy,” confirms Elaine de Jager, who owns Whale Beach Bed and Breakfast in neighbouring Whale Beach. “Obviously summer is the busiest time of year, but there are also a lot of weddings and parties up here.”
After 12 years of turning people away because of the B&B’s high occupancy rates, Elaine decided to try a new tack: she bought a Combi, had it repainted, polished and refurbished with fresh linen, curtains and a startlingly crisp white double bed, and put the word out amongst locals.
“It’s a cracker already,” she grins, gesturing towards the beach. “Who wouldn’t want to wake up to next to this? It’s paradise.”
Mark Knopfler, lead guitarist from Dire Straits, said much the same thing about the area, confirms Di. “Years ago, he came to stay for a week, just to write music,” she recalls. “He ended up staying for a couple of months. And you know what he said to me? ‘This is paradise found’.
I remember thinking, ‘where you go, who you meet, what you see… but you say that about here. And I so get it.’”
Pursuits of pleasure
The AT pick of things to eat, see and do in Palmy
Take a book to the Bible Garden
Nestled amongst gumtrees on top of the southern headland, this little treasure looks out over the beach, national parks and north to the Central Coast. The garden has a distinctly Christian theme – plants are labelled with mentioned references in the Bible, there is a copy of the Bible in a waterproof box – but anyone is welcome. 6a Mitchell Road, Palm Beach, 02 9974 2889, palmbeachbiblegarden.org
Sip a Palm Beach Tea
Sweet little cafe The Greedy Goat, is open six days, but on Thursdays and Saturdays owner Lesley Lamb cooks up something special for high tea. Sit out by the topiaried hedges, or inside on the worn wooden floorboards, and drool over the spoils of the cafe cake stand until your own treats appear. High tea on Thursdays from 1pm and Saturdays from 2pm, $37.50 per person, book 24 hours in advance.
1031 Barrenjoey Road, Palm Beach, 02 9974255.
Take the lighthouse walk
Access to the top of Barrenjoey Headland, the famous lighthouse and some serious views is granted via a fairly steep walk through national park bushland. There are three different tracks of varying difficulty levels, but all are under 700m and take less than 25 minutes. Enter the track at the north end of the beach on the Pittwater side – a walk on the sand past The Boathouse.
…then climb to the top of it
Guided tours of the lighthouse are a casual 30-minute affair undertaken by volunteers from the NSW Department of National Parks and Wildlife every Sunday between 11am and 3pm. No bookings required – simply turn up.
Tour $5 adults, $2 children; if the weather is questionable, phone 02 94729300.
Have a beer at The Arms
Nearby Newport Beach is home to the Newport Arms Hotel, a 130-year-old pub (and local institution) with excellent food, laidback live music and a beer garden with water views from every seat. Each Sunday, an established act – either local (The Martini Club, Darren Percival) or international (Donavon Frankenreiter) puts on a relaxed performance from 4pm.
Newport Arms, 2 Kalinya Street Newport, 02 99974900, newportarms.com.au
…then eat upstairs
Above The Arms’ beer garden is an easy-to-miss restaurant, The Terrace on Pitterwater. It’s full of wine-coiffing yacht-owners, and the menu is traditional Australian –
so traditional that there are no vegetarian options. But the service is sublime, the food is great and the 180 degree views of Pittwater and Ku-ring-gai National Park are glorious on a sunny day. (They’ll cook vegetarian on request, too.)
Upstairs, Newport Arms, address as above, newportarms.com.au/terrace-on-pittwater
Hire a boat
There are plenty of different options available to hire for a day (or more) – ranging from small runabouts (4.5 metres long) for $245 a day, through to much larger boats (although you will require a boat licence for these). There are countless picnic areas, fishing spots and private beaches – Mick Cooper at Boab Boat Hire will personally deliver your rental selection, arm you with a GPS, a map and send you on your way.
0415 434 500, boabboathire.com.au
Breakfast at The Boathouse
With beautifully fresh food overflowing from heaped plates, giant vases full of fresh flowers and a continuous soundtrack of gentle jazz, this is the kind of place you’ll want to tell everyone about – but only under the condition that they all swear to secrecy. Arrive hungry.
Governor Phillip Park, Palm Beach, 02 9974 3868, theboathousepb.com.au
Lunch at Dunes
Restrained rustic touches and gentle beach breezes make this relaxed indoor-outdoor restaurant a popular spot for weddings… and lazy lunches. Sip a chilled glass of pinot gris, order a crisp salad and some crunchy bread, and don’t leave until you’ve finished with a cheese plate. Then slip into their cafe next door for a gourmet coconut
1193 Barrenjoey Road, Palm Beach, 02 99743332, dunespalmbeach.com.au
Dinner at Barrenjoey House
Locals will rave about this long-time favourite, which pairs contemporary Italian cuisine and stylish surrounds with water views that twinkle under the night sky. If you’re only visiting for a couple of nights, the upstairs accommodation is great, too – but book a suite, otherwise you’ll be sharing a bathroom.
1108 Barrenjoey Road, Palm Beach, 02 99744001, barrenjoeyhouse.com.au
Stop by Jonah’s
This cliff-top restaurant and hotel has seen many a surprise engagement and anniversary dinner – it’s almost 80 years old. But you don’t need a special occasion to come here; show up after 12pm and you’re free to enjoy a glass of wine at the bar or the spoils of an informal tapas-style menu out on the terrace balcony area with panoramic views of the Sydney coastline for company.
69 Bynya Road, Palm Beach, 02 99745599, jonahs.com.au
Check out the Combi
The gleaming orange-and-cream van can be spotted regularly down the south end of the surf beach. You can always give Elaine a call if it refuses to show its retro face – she might even convince you to sleep in it.
Whale Beach Bed and Breakfast, 02 9918 0268, whalebeachbandb.com.au
Take a hit
Play a spot of golf on the local course at Palm Beach Golf Club. It’s only a nine-hole course, but the scenery is 10 out of 10: right on the waterfront with Barrenjoey headland as a backdrop.
02 99744079, palmbeachgolf.com.au
Take a yoga class
Directly above The Boathouse is a Yoga For All, a little studio with big views of the water. There isn’t a huge selection of classes available – the timetable is mornings-only – but if you can get to one, they’ll provide all equipment including mats. Like any good yoga studio, classes here really do leave you feeling restored.
Above The Boathouse, Governor Phillip Park, Palm Beach, 02 99743868, yogaforallpalmbeach.com.au
Hire a paddle board
Manly Surf School has a hire service at Palmy for stand-up paddleboards and surf boards. Grab a paddle board (hire it down the southern end of the surf beach) and mosey over to the still waters of the harbour for a relaxed introduction to the sport. Or take a surf lesson.
02 99776977, www.manlysurfschool.com
Our number one tip: stop. Palm Beach is the place to get away from everything, including the to-do list.
It takes between one and two hours to get to Palm Beach from Sydney’s CBD, depending on traffic. Those coming from the NSW Central Coast can also catch a ferry from Ettalong (near Woy Woy).
Holiday houses range between $4,000 and $40,000per week.
An ensuite at Barrenjoey House will set you back $220 per night; children under 10 are not permitted.
Accommodation at Jonahs starts from $289 per person per night.
Need to know
1. Pay attention to the parking signs – the parking inspectors are brutal around here.
2. With the surf rolling, the fire roaring, a glass of champagne and a deep breath of oxygen from the national park, don’t underestimate a winter trip here – it’s a pretty special place.