As we descend thru thick clouds from 9000 feet, we emerge in the foggiest and wettest weather I’ve flown in. “ Lucky, the instruments are working “ I say, “ since we can’t see where we are going “
We’re flying into Coffs Harbour in driving rain. Thankfully winds are light and Mr T manages one of his legendary smooth landings. It’s been 2 years since our last visit, but it feels like yesterday as we park the plane and make our way into town. Nothing has changed.
Last time we came here was to visit Judy, Mr T’s sister. We’re back for her 80th birthday, looking forward to catching up with her and the family the next day.
We’re staying near the Jetty, just like last time ( different accomodation though ). And being a Sunday, the markets are on. Our timing is off, however, as the stalls are packing up. My hopes of a food truck snack dashed, I follow Mr T’s lead and settle for a light lunch: burger and wine at Attitude Burger overlooking the marina. It is a good start!
We’re actually sharing the burger, because though we’re both peckish, it is too late for lunch but still early for dinner. I have my sights on Element Bar for dinner, where we really enjoyed our meals previously. We pass the afternoon wandering around the marina, checking in the Yacht Club which is surprisingly quiet for a Sunday afternoon ( or maybe it’s just me?) and generally trying to work an appetite for dinner.
Luckily, the weather has cleared by then but I err on the side of caution and select the couch inside, just in case.
I am happy to see that Element’s menu has not changed much and our favourites are still on offer: we order the crispy coconut chicken tacos to start with.
They’re chicken tenders, coated into coconut crumbs and served in soft taco shells with charred corn, mango and avocado salsa. You know how much I love my tacos!
Mr T goes for the salt and pepper fried calamari as well as the spring rolls, perfect pairing for his Stone and Wood beers ( it is Happy Hour, what can I say?)
Thinking of Anne who is not with us but wishes she was, we order the triple cheese mac bombs. They taste as good as they sound, and I can’t help but send her a picture! We also ask for a house salad, so we can have something healthy, but really that would be optional.
It’s w a waddle back to our quarters, the Pacific Marina Apartments, and not long before bed.
Torrential rain wakes us up in the morning. You know, the kind of downpour brought on by cyclones or tropical lows hovering at sea. So much for my plans to walk down the beach for a sunrise shot. We mull over the possibility of staying in for the day, but that’s boring and we still need to go out for breakfast anyway. A quick call to the rental car company later, I am at the wheel of a nice SUV ready to hit the road.
But first, breakfast. Just across from the apartments, there is this coffee van called Supply which is part of a cafe of the same name. I originally intended to grab some cappuccinos and head back to the appartment, but the space and menu look too inviting and I phone Mr T, asking him to join me instead. The decor inside is semi-industrial, with exposed beams and timber frames, white tiled walls and polished concrete floors. There is a mix of large communal tables, smaller settings and a lounge area adjoining the bar ( not an option at 9am! ). On both sides of our table for 2, are people taking pictures of their plates, which makes me feel right at home and has Mr T rolling his eyes as in “ not one of these places… “ I am quite smitten with the breakfast menu which features wholesome choices, just what we need this morning.
I start with a Bondi Juice, while I wait for Mr T. It is a zingy concoction of carrot, orange, lime and ginger. They take their coffee seriously here, showcasing 4 types from the Pacific, South America and Africa. They roast the beans themselves and you can buy a bag to take home. I wish I did, because Mr T’s cappuccino and my bulletproof coffee were really nice. I never had butter and MCT oil in my coffee, that was a first and it didn’t really tasted buttery as I feared. I think I might try it at home.
Another nice surprise, was the grilled asparagus on rye bread with pea puree, fresh ricotta, cherry tomatoes, a poached egg and salsa verde. As they say on Masterchef, there is a lot going on that plate, both in flavour and in quantity.
Mr T wanted an omelette, and was very pleased with his, coming with mushrooms, taleggio cheese, pepperonata and toast. Like I said, wholesome awesome food.
Feeling invigorated after breakfast, we jump in the car, hoping the rain will eventually stop. We head south to Urunga, which is where we met Mr T’s old friend, Keith, a couple of years ago. We promised to come back for another visit, but sadly, Keith passed away before we got a chance. So it is with a hint of nostalgia that we drive thru the town on our way to the boardwalk.
Starting from Urunga, the boardwalk passes along the banks of the Kalang River, to the junction with the Bellinger River and out to the ocean. It has stunning views inland past Urunga town and up the river valleys to the Great Dividing Range, north across the rivers to Mylestom Spit and south along the beach to Picket Hill and beyond to Nambucca Heads.
It’s a 2 klm return walk, and while lovely and peaceful in today’s overcast weather, I imagine it would be even more stunning on a warm sunny day. The area is renowned for its local bird life and wetlands.
We’re no experts but we manage to spot stingrays shuffling sand in the shallows, pelicans sitting on old poles,
a big lizard on rocks and
my favourite wildflowers, banksia in the wetlands. By a struck of luck, the rain has stopped just in time for our walk, and we are the only people around.
I glance at the map and suggest to Mr T that we drive inland to Never Never, attracted by the sound of it. Visions of remote and sparse areas of outback Australia dance in my head, remembering the lines of Australian poet Barcroft Boake :
“Out on the wastes of the Never Never
That’s where the dead men lie!”
While we are far away from dry and dusty Northern Territory or Western Queensland, this little corner of rural NSW has its fair share of charm and mystery. With a population of zero residents, near Bellingen, it is part of the Dorrigo National Park and a haven for bushwalks and picnics.
We love the drive thru Bellingen, last visited when the farmers markets were on, but today looking more like a ghost town.
The road known as Waterfall Way, climbs the escarpment of the Great Dividing Range, skirting the southern edge of the Dorrigo world heritage rainforest and crossing the Newell and Sherrard waterfalls for which the route is named. Winding up hill thru misty rainforest, we reach the green plateau where the small town of Dorrigo sits.
Only 2 klm out, is Dangar Falls, a 30 meters waterfall with a viewing platform easily accessible from the carpark. Thanks to recent rains, there is plenty of water running and should we continue another 120 klm west on that road, there is the promise of further waterfalls and gorges all the way to Armidale. That would mean we would not be back on time for Judy’s birthday dinner however.
We meet Judy at her favourite restaurant, Latitude 30 at the Jetty. She is joined by her daughters, Leanne, Kim and Vanessa who also turned up with husbands Kasten and Derek. Some of the grandchildren, Rhiannon, Tahnee and Ben are also here. Somehow our party of 12 manages to squeeze around the table and there is nothing like a round of cocktails and beers to start!
Some dishes are local’s favourites and I guess are not allowed off the menu: oysters are a must for Kim and Derek, as are paella and chowder for Tahnee and her partner, Jess.
Mr T plays it safe, ordering flat bread and taramasalata for starters, and the mahi mahi special which comes pan fried on a bed of confit potatoes and beurre blanc sauce.
Judy decides an Aperol Spritz is a perfectly adequate starter and goes for the mahi mahi main. Both her and Mr T like their fish, then again mahi is Mr T’s favourite’s fish. Personally I can’t go past the beetroot and vodka cured kingfish. It is a very pretty dish, with orange & saffron infused champagne gel, citrus salad, pomegranate & horseradish cream and wattleseed lavosh. And it tastes as amazing as it looks. I choose the other main special, the swordfish with a salad of jerusalem artichokes, beetroot, radishes, prosciutto wrapped figues and walnuts. It is a delicious combination of all my favourite foods.
Vanessa, Rhiannon and Ben, prefer the more “classic” option of fish and chips which looks very tempting indeed.
As for dessert, the restaurant allowed Judy to bring her own birthday cake. Everyone had a slice, albeit in my case, a thin one!
Neither Mr T or I felt like getting up the next morning, but since we woke up to a dry and sunny day we shook ourselves off and headed out for a sunrise hike up the Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve.
Also known as Giidany Miirlarl to the local Gumbaynggirr Aboriginal people, this seabird rookery in the heart of Coffs Harbour is surrounded by spectacular views from coast to islands and a must-do everytime we visit.
Muttonbird Island is a great spot for watching birds up close; as one of the only easily-accessible places in NSW where the migratory wedge-tailed shearwater nests. The birds spend the Southern winter in Southeast Asia and are said to return to the same burrow in August each year in Australia. They keep one single egg warm and raise their chick, then leave in April the following year. While I spotted a few burrows, there were no signs of birds that morning. It is also an important Aboriginal place, harbouring stories of the Dreaming and a wealth of traditional resources are available at the Outdoor Learning Space located at the base of the island.
It is a short but steep walk to the eastern side lookout, and while Mr T and I are happy to hike at a leisurely pace, we are overtaken by a few joggers who clearly like the early morning challenge as they pass us multiple times. The 360deg views over the Solitary islands are well worth the effort though, as we gaze at the ocean on one side then the hinterland and the marina.
While fishing boats are returning and offloading their catch at the co-op, charter boats are heading out and the marina businesses are waking up. We stop by at the Galley, a small cafe tucked away in the marina precinct, and on recommendation from Derek the night before, order the Egg and Bacon Roll. It comes with a thin beef patty, as well as very crispy bacon and a runny egg, tasting more like a burger than a traditional egg and bacon roll. But I am not complaining. Coupled with a fresh juice and a creamy cappucino, it’s a pretty nice start to the day.
Later on, we quickly catch up with Judy and family for a morning tea of leftover birthday cake and some freshly home baked apple pie, making me feel like I am about to burst!!
As we bid our farewell, there is a vibe of excitement in the house and indeed all around Coffs Harbour today, because Elton John is performing tonight. It sounds like half of the town is getting ready for the concert and certainly appreciating the media attention.
At the airport, we can’t help being caught up in the buzz: as we taxi off, the tower warns us to be on the lookout for the star’s jet flying in! Who would have thought this regional town of NSW would make its mark on the map!
As you know I have a weakness for octopus. It is my favourite seafood, on par with prawns and dare I say, I love it more than lobsters! There, I said it.
Ii was lucky enough, last weekend, to land a beautiful large specimen from Mrs Fish, my local fishmonger. Tony ( Mr Fish ) had trimmed and cleaned it all for me so that all I had to do was give it a quick rinse, and put it in the pot. I managed to make 3 different dishes out of it, not wanting to let any of it go to waste, and served them at a family lunch. The guests liked it and some asked for the recipes. These could not be easier!
Basic Boiled Octopus
1 large octopus, approx 2 kg
bay leaves, to taste ( I use a lot )
1 onion, peeled ( optional )
2 tbsp red wine vinegar ( optional )
- In a large cast iron or heavy pot, place the cleaned and rinsed octopus in one piece
- Add the bay leaves , onion and red wine vinegar, if using
- Cover with water and bring to the boil on high heat. The octopus will begin to curl and turn pink.
- Lower the heat, cover the pot with a lid and let the octopus simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.
- Allow the octopus to cool, then drain. Keep the cooking liquid for another use ( see below )
- Your octopus is ready to eat as is, or use for the following recipes.
Serves 12, as a snack
1 kg cooked octopus ( see basic recipe above )
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
- Cut the octopus into bite sized pieces using scissors or kitchen shears.
- Combine the octopus pieces, olive oil, smoked paprika and parsley in a bowl.
- Season well with sea salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Just before serving, drizzle some extra olive oil. Serve with toothpicks.
1 kg cooked octopus ( see basic recipe above )
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp garlic, crushed
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
- Preheat a grill or bbq plate. Rub the octopus with olive oil and place on an oven tray or hot plate if using the bbq ( no need to cut it into pieces at that stage )
- Grill or bbq on high for 10-15 minutes until the octopus is slightly charred on the outside
- Remove and let cool for a few minutes. Cut into bite sized pieces, using scissors or kitchen shears.
- Combine octopus pieces with crushed garlic in a bowl.
- Season with sea salt and pepper and serve with lemon wedges.
Rice in octopus stock
This is NOT a paella dish, nor a risotto. It is my version of boiled rice flavoured with octopus juice, that I didn’t want to waste.
Reserved cooking stock from Basic Boiled Octopus, including the bay leaves ( you should have at least 4 cups )
2 cups medium grain rice ( or any rice good for paella, not long grain rice)
Cooked chorizo slices, for garnish
- Bring the octopus stock to the boil
- Add the rice and stir well to combine. Bring back to the boil, then turn the heat right down to a simmer and cover with a lid, as you would for ordinary rice.
- Cook the rice for 20 minutes or until all the stock is absorbed and the rice is cooked.
- In the meantime, fry chorizo slices in a frypan until just cooked. When ready, transfer the chorizo to the pot along with any juices from the frypan. Cover with the lid for 10 minutes to allow the flavours to mix a little.
- Serve warm.
What to do in 36 hours in Port Macquarie?
Earlier this month, we were meant to fly our friends, Dave and Denise, down to Merimbula for an overnight stay. However the NSW South Coast bushfire crisis forced us to change plans and head north instead. Ironically, the North Coast had been battling its own bushfires a couple of months prior and was only just recovering from massive destruction around the Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie area. So, in a way, we were doing our bit to support the local economy and though we didn’t bring an empty esky, we indeed had plans to visit as many places as we could.
We flew into Port Macquarie airport in this hot January morning, witnessing the blackened landscape along the way but mercifully, no active fires near the town ( though we were told by a local “ there is a pit fire near the runway, that is virtually impossible to put out. It just keeps burning underground ! “) The first thing we noticed is how clear the air is compared to Sydney.
We picked up our hired car and drove across the Hasting River, to check out North Shore beach which is only accessible by ferry.
The beach is gorgeous, long and empty, perfect to kite surf on this windy day or ride a horse along. Our crew was peckish however, so we returned to Settlement Point where Denise had spotted a cafe restaurant earlier.
Overlooking the Hasting river and a few meters away from the car ferry, The Point is a quaint cafe serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Customers appeared to be locals and holiday makers alike, service was friendly and accomodating as some of us have very specific requests like a burger without certain trimmings ( that’s Denise ) or long black on ice ( that’s me ). We started sipping beers, latte and iced coffee ( otherwise known as long black on ice, not to be confused with the concoction with cream piled on top! ) while waiting. The food took a little while as it is freshly made, but when it arrived serves were quite generous.
Mr T ordered a Homemade Chunky Steak, Red Wine & Mushroom Pie which came with a side salad. He could only manage half of it, it was that filling.
David and Denise went for traditional Aussie Hamburgers while I opted for the vegetarian delight, thinking it was a lighter option as it read “ Oven roasted field mushroom, roasted pumpkin, baked capsicum, spanish onion, zucchini, grilled halloumi stacked on baby spinach, sliced avocado & toasted turkish bread with a balsamic reduction & cashews”.
As delicious as it was, it was anything but light, even when leaving the bread on the side ( and god knows how much I love Turkish bread !)
Our belly full, we headed south for a drive along the Coastal Drive to Camden Haven. It is only 49 klm, but it took us 2 hours as we stopped along the way at Lighthouse Beach, Shelley Beach, Lake Cathie, Bonnie Hills…
There is no shortage of pristine, long, sandy beaches but sadly, areas like Lake Cathie, an intermittently closed lake, is out of bound as it suffers from poor quality water, largely due to drought conditions in the past few years.
Finally back in Port, we checked into the El Paso Motor Inn, our home for the night. It is in the centre of town, a perfect spot just across from the coastal walk and the river.
There are tons of dining options within walking distance, but we couldn’t go past the Beach House, one block down from the hotel.
It was a very busy, noisy place on this Friday night, popular with sunset watchers, so once we managed to nab a table, we didn’t move!
Menu is typical pub food, nice and generous:
chicken schnitzel for David,Hummus dip with pulled lamb and bread for Denise,
caesar salad and slow cooked lamb to share for Mr T and I. And copious beers and wine! Great ambience.
I got up early the next morning for a hike along the Coastal Walk. Starting from the Town Green ( across from the hotel ), the walk is 9 klm long all the way to Tacking Point lighthouse. I only walked as far as the end of the breakwater wall and Town Beach however, along with a large number of people doing the same thing, dodging kids on bikes, guys fishing off the rocks and dogs, …
It is indeed a popular spot with boulders along the path, painted by people keen to leave their mark. Naive drawings immortalising family holidays, passionate declarations of love, sad RIP, cheeky celebration of boys pub crawls…a veritable gallery of human emotions stretches to the end of the break wall and leads to a large skatepark as well as picnic areas. I can’t imagine anywhere more kid and family friendly.
This short 30mn cardio workout done, it was time for breakfast back at the hotel. Continental breakfast is included in accomodation at El Paso, a basic but adequate offering of toasts, cereals and hot drinks. Any hot meals are extra, but we were still full from last night and I was saving myself for lunch.
Setting up for the day’s exploring, I wanted to visit the Port Macquarie koala hospital, a facility dedicated to the care and preservation of the marsupials. Totally self-funded and run by a few paid staff and a lot of volunteers, it is the first of its kind in the world. Their workload of late has dramatically increased with the impact of the bush fires on the koala population, and while interested to visit and see for myself ( visit is free ) the rest of our crew was wary of seeing animals in distress. Instead, we headed inland to visit Bago Maze and Winery.
Though only 30mn from town, it feels quite remote, nestled in the hills. The setup is lovely, but the weather was really hot ( 37C ) so we didn’t bother about the maze. We left it to the restless young kids whose only interest seem to want to get lost in a 2 meter tall hedge maze while their parents wished they were back in the coolness of the cellar door.
Which is where you find David and I, tasting lovely blueberry wines and liqueurs. In the meantime, Mr T found some locally made harissa and honey to take home while Denise sampled the local muffin and latte.
Then it was back on the highway, to Ricardoes’ Tomatoes and Strawberries Farm.
This is a working farm with two acres of greenhouses controlled by state of the art computerised technology, hydroponically growing tomatoes and strawberries. Visitors can pick their own strawberries in the shady enclosures where the berries grow on tall vertical vines: armed with a bucket, it is just a matter of plucking the berries, which are then weighed and bagged to take away ( no eating allowed while picking !)
Denise and I could not resist having fun picking strawberries while the boys patiently waited in the cafe checking out the menu. I bought a few tomatoes then we were off. We didn’t really spend much longer, as it was really hot in the greenhouses and the cafe area was too busy for our liking.
Lunch was by the river, at Whalebone Wharf. What a gem! From the moment we walked in, the velvet shell armchairs, bronze fittings and whitewashed walls make you feel special already. Mr T glanced at me with his “ where have you taken us” kind of look but relaxed as soon as we were seated.
Our table was overlooking the river, a nice breeze flowed thru, having us forgetting about the heatwave outside. The menu focuses on seafood and local produce, prepared by award winning chef, Peter Ridland, previously of Jonah’s in Whale Beach ( I mention this, as Jonah’s has been on my restaurant bucket list for decades, so I figured this would be near enough !) I loved the look of the sides and the fact that there are more side choices than entrees or mains. You could enjoy an entire vegetarian meal with these sides. But we’re omnivores and love our seafood. So…
Denise spotted the flash fried calamari dish at the table next to us, and literally said “ I’ll have what she’s having “.
After being told the fish of the day was not available, the boys chose the beer battered flat head fillets with chips for Mr T and roasted pumpkin for David.
As for me, the roasted king prawns had me intrigued so I ordered an entree size of these with grilled greens on the side. While the seafood was very good, cooked to perfection, the vegetables were sensational.
My greens ( broccolinis, broccoli and green beans ) were grilled and crispy with a crunchy topping of almond crumbs and refreshing sour cream and chive dressing. The roasted pumpkin melted in your mouth and tasted divine with whipped cashew cream, toasted seeds and mustard dressing. David couldn’t stop eating it, then he couldn’t stop talking about it! Mr T loved his beer battered chips, especially the garlic and pepper salt but couldn’t eat all of it so he shared with Denise whose dish was much lighter as it “only” came with a rocket and cucumber salad.
I really would have loved to try the desserts but not only the heat was dampening our appetites but Mr T was now in a flight preparation mode, keen to fly back home before the cold front hit later in the evening.
The trip home was a very hot and smoky affair, as we were re-entering the fire zone. Even though we weren’t flying into any fire affected area, the winds from Victoria and the NSW South Coast were blowing the highly polluted air hundreds of kilometres up the coast. By the time we landed in Bankstown, in the late afternoon, the air was thick and a scorching 48C. We love our hot weather but that was getting extreme and we all made a collective wish for the cooler weather to hurry up!
As a final note: There is a Koalas Sculpture trail you can explore, with 16 koala sculptures scattered all over town. We managed to spot 2 of them ( actually, we ran into them by chance, as we weren’t really looking! ): Con at the Historic Courthouse ( pictured below ) , and Berry Beautiful at Ricardoes’.
Milton, Mollymook, Batemans Bay, Mogo, Moruya, Narooma, Tilba, Bermagui, Bega, Merimbula, Eden…these are some of the towns along the NSW South Coast we have visited in the past 3 years, either driving along the Princes Highway for a weekend getaway or flying down to the farthest reach close to the Victorian border for a longer break. Its beautiful coastline, green and lush pastures and unspoilt surfing beaches keep us coming down every year, as do many people during the holidays.
We had planned for a while to fly down to Merimbula for New Year and show the region around to visiting friends. The early onset of bushfires along the coast in August however had us keeping our plans in limbo and monitoring the conditions for months. Daily checks of the NSW Fires Near Me app, showed fires up the north coast and out west in the blue mountains during spring season, then with the arrival of summer mother nature turned its fury towards the south east of Australia, engulfing the whole region into a furnace.
Needless to say that we didn’t fly to the Sapphire coast as intended, and like most people we watched in horror as the bush fires wrecked so much devastation across the whole region. As I write, the loss of human lives, wildlife and stock is astronomical. So is the number of homes destroyed and businesses lost.
Close to my heart are Roman Leathergoods and Milstons Past and Presents, both shops in Mogo, near Batemans Bay. I remember leaving Mr T at our hotel downtown and driving to Mogo for a bit of “me” time, wandering around the quirky shops the village used to be famous for. There I purchased beautiful handmade leather belts and purses from Roman and chatted with his wife, Lorena, while finding a rare book at Leah Milstons bookstore next door. That was over a year ago. They, along with the entire town, have been reduced to ashes in the NYE blaze.
Unfortunately, they are two of hundreds, if not thousands of families and businesses, affected by the bush fires along the East coast of Australia in the last few weeks.
While the state of emergency/disaster both in NSW and Victoria is now lifted, thanks to easing weather conditions, the full extent of the devastation reveals itself daily on our screens. Not every properties were destroyed, some people were lucky and spared. I am relieved to see that some of the establishments we visited in the past came out unscathed, though the loss of income from the NYE “Tourist Ban” is a crucial blow to these businesses that rely on the summer holiday season to see them thru the rest of the year. With entire communities shaken to their core, the rebuilding becomes everyones’ focus.
The urge to help is compelling, either by donating or collecting and most of you would by now be aware of the many options available to help ( from globally known Red Cross, to government agencies such as NSW RFS, or grassroots organisations like Treading Lightly Inc…). Social media campaigns such as Instagram @emptyesky and @spendwiththem are another great way to contribute towards the recovery effort, encouraging city folks like us to take on a road trip to fire affected areas, once safe to do so, and buy from local business. Options range from services, to wine, fresh produce… I can personally relate to this kind of initiative, always keen on a road trip I don’t need much incentive to pack up and go, especially when it is for a good cause !
So as I happily add a South Coast getaway to this year’s travel plans, I thought I’d share with you some of our favourite spots, visited pre-fire season… Beautiful then, and always.