A flying visit to Coffs Harbour

Sometime last year, I mentioned a new project Mr T and I embarked on, involving flying a light airplane. There wasn’t much to report at the time, mostly because we were busy studying and bringing the qualifications up to speed ( that’s for him ) and getting familiar with the new jargon and skill sets ( that’s for me ). After a few practise day trips around country NSW, things came to a halt for a while ( like life…you know…) Until Mr T finally obtained his Instrument Rating which means we could fly in any conditions. So, on one of these rare free weekends ( he usually is busy skippering fishing boats ) , we grabbed the opportunity to dust the airplane out of the hangar and took off ( literally ).

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Destination was Coffs Harbour, on the NSW mid north coast. We know the town well, having stopped there several times during our cruising days, seeking shelter in the inner harbour. It is also an Australian port of entry, used by many yachts to clear into the country after a Pacific crossing. We were one of these, 10 years go, limping into the harbour’s marina after a harrowing 7 day passage from New Caledonia. The initial plan had been to proudly sail into Sydney Harbour after a 3 year navigation from Europe, as it was to be our last ocean crossing. However, 2 days out of Noumea we were hit by a massive storm cell and battered by 60 knots winds we ended up diverting to Coffs Harbour. The kids jumped and kissed the ground that day, greeted by Australian Customs and Quarantine officers, who shook their heads trying to figure out if we were either brave or stupid.

That was then. We have been back a few times since, visiting Mr T’s sister and her family or stopping overnight on the way to Queensland. Somehow though it’s alway felt like a passing visit through this wonderful holiday spot, tucked between mountain ranges and sandy beaches.

This time we are flying in, hoping to find time to explore the region a little while catching up with family. Anne is coming along, keen for a break though she is packing her school bag as she has assignments to work on.

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The flight from Bankstown Airport takes 90 minutes. It is a beautiful day and we are blessed with gorgeous uninterrupted views of the coast all the way. Mr T lands us perfectly at Coffs Harbour Regional Airport, parking in the General Aviation area, opposite the Aeroclub. A quick phone call to Geoff, from Avis, ensures we’re being picked up to collect our rental car and within 1/2 h from landing we’re settled at our accomodation, the Observatory Holiday Apartments.

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Looking up from the railway station, the Esplanade, the harbour. The view in the late afternoon light

Ours is a 2 bedroom apartment, with a spacious lounge and dining area, basic kitchen but since we don’t plan to cook much, it’s plenty adequate. There is a balcony overlooking the train station directly below, which concerns me initially but looking beyond is the harbour framed by the Esplanade, Mutton Island Nature Reserve and Corambirra Point. This view will turn out to be the reason for me to get up at 5am, not to miss the sunrise!! And the train noise I was fearing was inexistent ( maybe they didn’t run that weekend or I slept thru it, not sure )

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Same view from our balcony, in the morning

Emily, at reception is full of advice as to where to eat, what to do and mentions that we are within walking distance from the restaurant precinct. But whenever we holiday in small towns, we’re used to drive everywhere so we hop in the car anyway and find a dozen restaurants within one block! We decide to leave the car parked in the street and indeed walk the 3 minutes it took to reach Element Bar for dinner.

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Located on Harbour Drive, this place seems to be where Coffs people go on a friday night. It is 6.30pm, all tables are taken or booked and we end up sitting on a low lounge beside a coffee table.

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While not as comfortable as we’d like, we’re taken by the menu, full of our favourites:

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buffalo chicken wings, sweet potato fries,

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fried calamari,

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onion rings

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and bourbon braised beef ribs. Obviously we are ditching the paleo diet this weekend. Washed down with Coopers on tap, Mr T is happy! The food is super tasty, servings are so huge the 3 of us can’t possibly finish our meal and end up bringing leftover back to the apartment ( Anne can vouch for chicken wings and sweet potato fries for breakfast !)

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We wake up the next morning to a glorious sunrise, skip breakfast still full from dinner and leave Anne to her schoolwork while we visit Mr T’s sister, Judy, who leaves in Boambee, a few kilometres south of Coffs. Over coffee and fruit cake, we chat and organise to go to dinner later on. When Judy casually mentions that the Growers Market in Bellingen is on, I quickly check out the time and drag ourselves on the road before the markets close.

It is a 30 minutes drive to Bellingen, a town of 3000 people renown for its mix of hippies and farmers. It is said to attract these after an alternative lifestyle, a concept totally lost on Mr T whose interest I manage to pick by the mention of bountiful food to be found. Fertile soil and semi tropical climate combine to form the ideal environment for growing organic produce, and most are sold at the colourful market.
There are a few fresh produce stalls, but what draw our attention are the exotic teas and spices. Having suffered bouts of illness lately, we’re keen on restoring health thru food rather than medication so anything boasting antioxidants or anti-inflammatory properties catches our eye.

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Like this pre-mixed turmeric tea, made of a combination of turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper and shredded coconut.

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Photo credit: My Blue Tea

Or that Blue Tea made of butterfly pea flowers. Whether these work or not is up for debate, Mr T swears by the turmeric, I just love the colour of blue tea.

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Then we’re lured by the aromas of the curries prepared by the girls at Off The Rayles, offering pre-packed curry spice mixes ( of course, we could make our own, but these little pouches will come in handy when we want curry in a hurry!).

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What I brought home from Bellingen market

Likewise with the Bengal chutney and macadamia nut butter found at Jenny’s Kitchen.

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While I browse for a while, purchasing goat’s milk soap here, feeling silk dresses there, Mr T is busy on his phone trying to locate an old friend of his, Keith, he used to fly with. Both pilots, Keith and Mr T used to own and run an aerial promotions business in the mid 1960s, performing aerobatics shows, stunt flying and sky writing. One went on to become an acclaimed flying instructor, the other to run an aviation charter business, and the last time we saw Keith and his wife Dianne was 30 years ago while driving thru Coffs. We left messages at the Aeroclub if anyone knew of his whereabouts, honestly not holding much hope of finding him. Then, lo and behold, after much searching on the internet, Terry found his number in the White Pages ( remember these??), called and arranged for us to visit them at their house nearby.
That was quite an emotional visit, watching these 2 flying legends reminiscing about the antics they used to get up to. Time marches on all of us, and sadly Keith can no longer fly, but he can still instruct from the ground, he says. We part ways, Mr T promising to do a flyover on our way back and already planning a return visit hopefully sooner than in 30 years!

We make it back to the apartment, in time to get changed, enjoy a pre-dinner drink and pick up Anne who made most of the day studying. Dinner is at Latitude 30, joined by Judy, her daughter Kim and husband Derek. The restaurant is a local’s favourite, overlooking the harbour and features local seafood ( of course! ).

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While Kim and Derek ponder whether to order the seafood platter again ( they’re regulars here ), Mr T and I decide to order from the tapas/share plate/ entree menu rather than the mains. Too much snacking on fruit cakes and biscuits during the day, unfortunately mean a much reduced appetite. Darn!

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We order an oyster platter to share: fresh from Nambucca Head, they are a mix of natural with a shallots and sherry vinegar dressing, japanese topped with pickled ginger and mirin vinegar dressing, kilpatrick with streaky bacon, tamarind and black pepper caramel sauce and finally crumbed with wasabi aioli and fish roe.

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I can’t go past the soft shell baby mud crab. It comes crumbed and deep fried, with a thai chili cucumber salad. Unlike the oyster platter, I don’t have to share, as I am the only one partial to soft shell crab.

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Mr T loves his plate of seared scallops, topped with toasted almonds on a bed of romesco sauce.

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Anne completely eschews her low carb diet and orders the spanish seafood paella. It is a signature dish and comes piled with prawns, mussels, salmon, scallops, octopus and chorizo atop safron rice. She loves it and tries her hardest to eat it all, but admits defeat and offers the mussels and some rice for Mr T and I to finish. We graciously accept, as we’re somehow still peckish and realise we could have at least ordered a side dish to share.

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Both Anne and Mr T fix this conundrum later on by stopping for ice cream at the Cold Rock Ice Creamery on the way back to the apartment. Not the gourmet ending to the day I was hoping for, a happy one nevertheless.

I set up our alarm early enough to wake up way before sunrise the next day, as I plan to take a walk down the jetty and hopefully take decent photos of the sun rising. It’s a slow and painful start out of bed but once out the door we’re glad to be walking off last night’s libations. The walk to the Esplanade and jetty only takes 10 minutes and I notice half a dozen people also setting up with tripods on the beach waiting for the sunrise like me.

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It is a popular spot for photos, and while we wait for the light, we watch trawlers motor out of the harbour, people climbing up Muttonbird island for early exercise, cruising yachts bobbing on their moorings waking up to the day,…It brings back memories of cruising friends tying to these same moorings years ago, waiting for clearance and Coffs Harbour becoming their first taste of Australia. If they read this post, they will know who they are.
By 7am, the sun is well and truly up and you’ll never guess what is setting up on our way back to the apartment. Another growers market at the Jetty!

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This time I do buy fresh produce to take home on the plane, mostly avocados and bananas. And because we’re quite hungry this morning and don’t feel like cereals ( we always bring them as emergency rations ), we order a thai breakfast at a little stall who is just unpacking but somehow manages to cook samosas, fried rice and omelette in no time for us to take back.

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The rest of the morning is spent leisurely packing ( it is Sunday after all ), and with a few hours up our sleeve before the flight home, we decide to be real tourists and drive inland to the Forest Sky Pier lookout, then become hopelessly lost in the rainforest trying to find a way north other than on the highway. I must say being lost here isn’t that unpleasant and it is quite a scenic drive thru green meadows, under tree canopies and past road signs to wineries or honey farms.

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We drive as far as Woolgoolga, recognisable by its large Indian temple on the side of the road. Sikhs from north west india are said to have settled here in the early 1900’s, after arriving in Australia to work in the Queensland cane fields. The milder climate in Coffs Harbour was apparently more attractive and they found work banana farming. Today’s indian population is descendants from these early settlers and reported to make up 25% of the local population. This would explain the unusually high number of indian restaurants all over town. Not that we are in for an indian lunch. After driving to the headland and taking in the fabulous view over the golden beaches, I manage to convince Mr T to make one last lunch stop on the promise it will be a light one.

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Quickly thinking on my feet, I spot what look a popular choice, Blue Bottles Brasserie, across from the caravan park. We quickly grab the one remaining table available and glance at the menu, looking for the lightest item we can find. Mr T orders the Lost Little Piggy, a version of bacon and egg roll which is anything but light as it comes with 2 fried eggs, a pile of bacon and house tomato relish on turkish bread. “Beside a bowl of fries, it was the cheapest meal on the menu, I thought it would be small “ he said.

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Anne, still on a carb roll orders the Tipsy Fish Flathead, beer battered fish with a substantial amount of chips. There is salad too, but that does not compare with the chips and the mango smoothie.

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As for me, I feel virtuous and choose the Seared Scallop salad with greens, seaweed, pickled ginger, beansprouts in japanese dressing. At least one of us stuck to the brief!

I think one of the things I love the most about these country road trips, is the lack of traffic and the ease it takes to drive from one location to another. The mid north coast is no exception, as the 30 kilometers drive back to the airport was a breeze on the highway. Dropping off Mr T and Anne at the plane first ( no formalities ), I returned the rental car at the main airport dropping the keys in a box, getting a lift back from the lovely lady ( whose name escapes me ) and voila. By 3pm, we were back in the air, Sydney bound.

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