NSW Sapphire Coast: oysters, cheese and star shooting
As the plane starts its descent just north of Short Point beach, I can make out the walking trails along the shore before we glide over the Back Lake and the oyster beds neatly aligned inside Boggy Creek. I am concentrating on filming the landing, while Terry is focusing on the actual landing, determined to make it perfect. Touchdown is a little too rough in his opinion ( it is all relative, perfection for him is when you can’t feel the ground…featherlike landing, he calls it!) but I am too distracted to notice. I can’t wait to gather our stuff and get out of the plane. Not because the flight was bad ( it wasn’t ) but because I am excited about the next 3days.
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Merimbula on the NSW Far South coast, otherwise known as the Sapphire Coast. Last year we visited the northern section, basing ourselves in Mollymook. We meant to explore further, but never found the time for the 5 1/2 hour drive from Sydney. This road trip is a little different. We decided to fly there on a light plane, then hire a car for a couple of days to tour around before flying back up again. The flying came about as part of a new project Terry and I embarked on. It is still in its infancy so I can’t say too much about it for now, but what it means is hours of studies and practise both on the ground and in the air.
Offloading and securing the plane only took a few minutes, as did collecting the car. Merimbula’s is one of these small airports, ideally located along the main road and 5 minutes drive either side from the towns of Merimbula and Pambula. These names never meant anything to me until a couple of years ago, on our return from overseas, I noticed oyster bars popping up everywhere around Sydney and menus made a point of stating the origin of the oysters, some even featured an oyster library! Far from being an oyster expert, I have nevertheless tasted my fair share of these bivalves during our travels. From the Belon in France, to the Pacific in the USA and the Bluff in New Zealand, we have loved them all and associate each variety to a particular region. Now back in Australia, I have fun doing the same thing and when Terry mentioned that Merimbula sits at the bottom of the the Oyster Coast Trail, I was sold!
Our first stop is in Pambula’s main street at Wild Rye’s Bakery. They are well known locally for their pastries and coffees, which they roast themselves. As we have a lot of eating planned for the day, Terry makes me promise to buy a light lunch, as he doesn’t want to fill up already. The choices are so tempting, it takes me 15 minutes to decide on the exotic cauliflower spinach and blue cheese pie, while he makes a beehive for the sausage roll. Order 2 cappuccinos to go and we’re off to the beach, enjoying our picnic. Terry offers to share his sausage roll which he finds filling ( what’s wrong with him? ) but I much prefer my pie, which oozes a rich blue cheesy sauce and there is no mistaking the cauliflower flavour. It is very satisfying, particularly on a cold and windy day like today.
We drive back to Merimbula and wander around the small town, there is a lot of road work happening, we are guessing the council is doing all the maintenance in the winter in anticipation of the spring holiday crowds. Being in August, we’re finding out that a few of the restaurants have either scaled down their opening hours or closed altogether for the season. So much for my planned tasting trail, but the ladies at the Visitors Information Centre are full of alternatives suggestions and we come up with a plan B in no time.
It is late afternoon when we check in at Beach Cabins Merimbula, our accomodation for 2 nights. Pete shows us to our beachfront studio which while not exactly facing the beach as we assumed, is fronting the Short Point Recreation Reserve and overlooking Backlake. The beach is not far however, we only need to step around the side of the cabin, cross the small road and be rewarded with a glorious view of Short Point Beach to the North. Position: check.
Inside the cabin is comfortable, with a queen size bed, small table and chairs, ensuite and a small kitchenette equipped with a full size fridge. I breath a sigh of relief, not because I plan to cook but because I intend to stock up on produce and though we came equipped with our esky, a fridge really is best to keep seafood fresh. Comfort: check.
Dinner is at Wheelers Seafood restaurant down the road in Pambula. It is conveniently located close to the airport, so we can check on the plane on the drive down. The restaurant is an extension of the Wheelers family business, which besides oyster farming, also includes oyster tours, a seafood and gift shop, and the restaurant serving local produce.
We arrive early, around 6pm, as I have dragged Terry out on the beach for sunset photos earlier and we’re both cold and famished. Looking at the menu, we agree NOT to order the seafood platter for 2 as we usually do when dining in a seafood restaurant. Not that we don’t like it, but we always end up eating too much and wishing we could taste what else in the menu. I see a few tables around us have ordered the 3 tier feast and it does look good…Tempting, but not tonight!
For entrees, I just can’t go past a plate of the local oysters, half served natural and the other half done in a Mornay sauce. Terry selects the tempura scallops nestled on a sesame wakame rice noodle salad and avocado. He is over the moon with this dish, and I must admit I am too: the seafood is cooked perfectly while the salad is tangy and crunchy. I try to convince him to share and swap plates, which he reluctantly agrees to!
For the mains, I am talked into ordering tonight’s special: half a local crayfish boiled and served cold with avocado salsa, salad and sweet potato fries. I love crayfish and lobster, and my best memories are of the ones freshly caught off our boat and served simply warm with melted butter or cold in salad. Maybe my brain is tricking me, but tonight’s crayfish doesn’t live to my expectation and tastes a little bland. On the other hand, the salad and fries are really tasty. Terry is very happy with his choice of seafood laksa: a house made marinara mix of prawns, scallops, mussels, fish, Moreton bay bugs and squids served over egg noodles with a rich spicy coconut broth. In Singapore, a laksa is quite wet, like a soup. Tonight’s version is drier, with much less sauce and the addition of salad on top. The curry flavours are there though and the seafood is as fresh as you get.
We lingered a while, watching more people come in and seafood platters come out of the kitchen. For a Thursday night, the restaurant is quite full and while eavesdropping on conversations I gather the clientele is mostly local. Sadly, we ended up too full for dessert so left earlier than planned. One little girl sitting behind us made my night as I walked past, saying “ I like your earrings, they’re so pretty and so are you!” Awwww, I wanted to hug her!
Back at the cabin, it was still early and while Mr T settles in front of the football on TV ( he knew about it all along ) I decide to grab my camera and tripod and try my luck at star shooting, standing outside in the reserve. This is not as easy as I think, experimenting with camera settings in complete darkness, while shivering ( it must be 5C!) and hearing strange ruffling noises in the bush ( Pete tells me there are kangaroos roaming at night). At that moment, I really wonder why I am not at Wheeler’s enjoying their Bailey’s creme brulee!
Next day, is early morning rise stirred by Terry who I apparently asked to wake me up on time so I could photograph the sunrise. So, here I am in my PJs and winter coat, walking the 100 meters to the ocean shore, setting up in darkness and waiting for the dawn. It is freezing cold, but the seas are smooth, the air is still as the wind has not yet kicked in and I am all alone to enjoy the glorious sunrise ( Terry prefers to stay inside and go over flying manuals ! ) Daybreak sees a few dog walkers come out and that’s my cue to retreat inside for a warm cup of tea. That’s all I have time for before hitting the road on today’s food trail.
First stop is in Bega, where the SCPA markets are held every friday. It is not very big, I only count half a dozen stalls. But we’ve arrived early ( before 9am ) so maybe it gets busier later in the morning. There are 2 organic vegetables producers, both displays look fresh and vibrant and not knowing which one is best, I split my business and buy brussel sprouts and green leaves from one, potatoes and broccoli from the other. We’ll have a cook off once back home! A lady sells homemade apple pies and hand knitted teapot warmers, but it is the stall across from her that catches my attention: the table is covered with homebaked goodies like almond croissants, orange and pistachio friands, apple tarts, chocolate cherry cake…an older couple is running the stall, and the lady tells me how she bakes eveyrthing the day before, while her husband gets up early to fill in the croissants. Originally from Argentina, they retired from Canberra to the south coast in search of warmer weather and attend the markets to keep busy. I am glad they do, as by now, our tummies are rumbling and we can’t think of a better breakfast than a friand and a slice of apple tart, washed down by cappuccinos from the nearby Littleton Cafe.
Bega is synonymous with cheese of course, and we could not help but stop at the Bega Cheese Heritage Centre where a small museum features the history of dairy farming in the Bega Valley. There is also a gift shop, cafe and cheese tasting room. Unfortunately, so soon after breakfast we didn’t feel like cheese so we only looked at the displays and moved on.
An hour’s drive up the road, we arrived in Tilba. All I knew Tilba for was the cheese factory and the fact that the milk comes from pure bred jersey cows. I was not prepared for the 2 villages of Central Tilba and Tilba Tilba to be the quaint preserved heritage villages we came across. Should I watch River Cottage Australia I would know! While Tilba Tilba is the smaller village, neighboring Central Tilba is where most of the shops, galleries and cafes are located.
We start our tour at the ABC Cheese factory shop where you can watch milk bottling thru large glass windows, sample a range of cheese and olives and of course buy said cheeses as well as jams, honeys, gourmet chocolates and various kitchen utensils! Feeling like a late morning snack, we taste all the cheese on offer and decide they’re so nice we should buy them all. We settle on Vintage Blue, Black Garlic Cheddar, 3 Udder Brie, Creamy blue, goat’s yoghurt and some olives. I also buy a loaf of Honor sourdough bread, thinking it would be a great addition to a cheese platter.
While Terry puts it all away in our esky, I take a stroll up the street peeking into small stores with trendy homeware, candles, wooden craft. Tilba Chocolates is where he finds me, as I am trying to pick which of these gorgeous hand crafted chocolates to bring home: tahitian vanilla bean, dark spoons, salted caramel, hazelnut praline, cointreau or turkish delight? Oh, who cares…take the lot! Once out of the store, I ask Terry if he’d like to retire here. “ Not sure we can if you’re going to buy chocolates and cheese!” That’s his way of hinting it is time to move on somewhere not as touristy.
So we head towards the coast to Bermagui for lunch. This is a really gorgeous coastline, that looks just as nice from the ground as it did from the air while flying over. Bermagui is famous for its Blue Pool, a natural rock pool located at the base of a cliff face and washed with clean clear ocean water at high tide. I didn’t get to swim in it ( nor did anyone else ) as the weather was far too cold, but it was easy to imagine how nice it would be to lay there on a warm summer day.
Lunch is at Bermie’s Cafe, randomly selected because of its location across the park and facing north towards Horseshoe Bay. The place is popular with locals, a couple of tables are enjoying birthday celebrations, others seem to know each other and we feel like we’re the only tourists here. Terry orders a BLT sandwich and I try today’s special, a John Dory fillet with creamy sauce, salad and chips. The fish is lovely and moist served with a generous amount of chips, Terry’s BLT is quite filling and he claims his favourite part is the turkish bread. My favourite is actually the view, I could stay here for hours soaking the sun and facing the beach!
But we need to head back, and I want to check out the next town Tathra renown for its oyster farms and the Wharf Locavore cafe on the water. Well, the oyster producer has closed shop until December and the Wharf Locavore taken a winter break, reopening in September. Note to self: August is the time when southerners shut down and wait for spring to reopen. It means that the places that do remain open, end up quite busy.
Take the case of Dulcie’s Cottage, where we finish the day. With its unassuming look, this 1920’s weatherboard cottage has been turned into a bar/burger joint popular with locals and tourists alike. I am not a big burger fan but after a whole day of driving and eating I am happy to hang out at the bar and listen to live music. It is friday evening, the place is packed with young men in suits ( ! ) drinking organic steam ale, ladies in high heels ordering classic cocktails or couples like us sticking to pale ale and sauv blanc! There is a cosy feeling, with the walls covered by old photos of the previous owners and a roaring fireplace keeping us warm. There are no tables available inside though, so we sit and eat at the bar. Menu is delightfully uncomplicated: 5 types of burgers, a cheese board and a plate of local oysters. Feeling hungrier? Order fries for $3, they will feed at least 3 people.
We’ve saved Eden for our third and last day. It is only 20 klm south of Merimbula and used to be on our cruising bucket list, mostly because the port is known as the best shelter on that stretch of the coast. On the edge of Twofold Bay it is also one of the best locations for whale watching. Late August marks the start of the mammals southerly migration, and having failed to see any from Short Point at sunrise the day before, we thought we might get lucky today. We’re not. Still, the scenery is stunning with sparkling blue waters, deserted beaches and fantastic wilderness. I really don’t want to go home.
Foodwise, we looked forward to having breakfast in the harbour, but being August we are greeted by the now familiar sight of closed cafes. The only one open didn’t look inviting as its terrace was on the shaded side and who wants to eat in a cold, shady spot. Even the boats were sitting idle at the wharf. So we drove back to the main street and walked into Sprouts Eden cafe, which had been recommended by Pete. What a neat little gem of a cafe! Terry asks for the 3 egg omelette and I chose the pea and ricotta frittata. As usual we order cappuccinos, but I also feel like a cold drink so let myself be tempted by a fresh orange and beetroot juice. Terry must have felt the same and he grabs the glass proceeding to sip half of it before handing it back to me. At the bottom, sits a deep red blob which turns out to be a beetroot ice cube. What a nifty trick!
All the food is cooked onsite, using a lot of the produce brought in daily by the local farmers. There is a small section set up as a market where fruits and vegetables are for sale, as well as a range of organic meat, jams, pickles and smoked seafood from Eden Smokehouse. Needless to say that we stock up as I am quite partial to their smoked mussels and ocean trout. By then it is nearly noon, time to take off but not before one ultimate stop at Wheelers take away shop to load on a few oysters for home.
Of course, I get in trouble with Terry who is mindful of weight on the plane and shakes his head at the amount of luggage we’re carting along “ And there are only two of us! ” I can see how perfecting this provisioning run will take some practise. Just like the landing!