Brilliant coastal scenery, relaxing beaches and a mini-ark full of Australian wildlife-watching opportunities fill this meandering journey taking the scenic route south from the bright lights of Sydney to the Victorian border. Along the way, be nourished and refreshed by briny-fresh seafood, local artisan produce, and excellent beer and wine.
Sydney is such a exciting and vibrant city, with one of the world's greatest harbours, so we could easily spend a whole trip - just in Sydney. But as our purpose is to head south out of Sydney we thought there were several quick stops that will give the adventurer a small, but necessary bite of Sydney.
Firstly, you must whip across to Bondi and walk the dramatic coastal boardwalk from Bondi to Coogee.
Wander around the Sydney Opera House and Circular Quay, booking yourself a show if you’ve a few nights, or simply sip a glass of wine as the sun goes down and the lights of the Sydney Harbour Bridge come up.
If you are travelling with children - or even if you aren’t - take the ferry across to Taronga Zoo. With more than 4,000 animals living at the Zoo and strong educational messages about conservation, (as well as glorious harbour views) the Taronga Zoo is a great way to spend an afternoon.
Next up, a journey from Circular Quay to Manly Beach at the northern end of Sydney harbour. Only marginally less famous than the iconic stretch of sand at Bondi, Manly is a top place to go bodysurfing and eat at seafood cafes with views of towering Norfolk pines. Sydney's northern beaches are also a hoppy hotspot for craft beer, and excellent local breweries to check out include Modus Operandi, 4 Pines.
For such a sprawling city, departing Sydney's southern beach suburbs is surprisingly straightforward en route to Royal National Park. Sydney Airport rolls past on your left, bordered by sprawling Botany Bay on your right, and in no time, Sydney's best coastal park comes into view and you can get busy exploring remote beaches and coastal walking tracks. Even the car park at the information centre fast-tracks visitors away from Sydney's urban vibe as wallabies and squawking sulphur-crested cockatoos provide a local welcome. Note the unsealed roads to the park's beaches close at 8.30pm, so plan ahead.
Heading south from Royal National Park, you'll discover plenty of places to take in the coastal views, but our recommendation is to keep moving through pretty Coalcliff, across the spectacular Sea Cliff Bridge, and stop at quite possibly Australia's most stunning location for a pub. Built in 1886, the heritage facade at the Scarborough Hotel conceals the best beer garden in the land, with spacious, sunny seating and horizon-stretching views of the NSW coastline. Settle in for lunch of grilled barramundi on the lawn, and congratulate yourself for deciding to explore south from Sydney. Try and visit midweek as weekends are very popular.
Dubbed, the 'Gong' by proud locals, NSW's third biggest city – just pipped by Newcastle for second place if you're wondering - makes a good first night stop as you're driving south. Chill a while at laidback North Beach – if you're travelling in summer the local Pines Surfing Academy can get you up on a surfboard – before taking in Wollongong's surprising bar scene. OK, it's not quite the hip laneways of Melbourne, but the range of eateries and bars is huge, diverse and excellent. For a more raffish experience seek out the hard to find Howlin' Wolf bar - tip: it's concealed in a CBD shopping centre - for a rock and roll vibe fuelled by more than 200 different whiskies. Good live music too.
OK, it's not quite the hip laneways of Melbourne, but the range of eateries and bars is huge, diverse and excellent. For a more raffish experience seek out the hard to find Howlin' Wolf bar - tip: it's concealed in a CBD shopping centre - for a rock and roll vibe fuelled by more than 200 different whiskies. Good live music too.
Famous around Australia for more than a century, the spectacular blowhole at Kiama sees the waters of the Tasman Sea explode in a spectacular display through a narrow gap in the rocky headland. It's definitely at its best when there's a big swell, and it's even illuminated at night for your viewing pleasure.
From Berry, the main route south to Jervis Bay skips along the main highway via Nowra, but a recommended scenic detour usually overlooked by travellers is on forested roads to the historic hamlet of Kangaroo Valley. Around this village surrounded by rolling hills there's a good chance you will see the occasional marsupial local, but even if the wildlife remains shy, the cafes and arts and craft shops along the main drag are worth a look. The tourist office (see www.visitkangaroovalley.com.au) can arrange horse riding, mountain biking and canoeing for active travellers.
Join a cruise with Dolphin Watch Cruises or Jervis Bay Wild to see migrating humpback whales and resident bottlenose dolphins.
And to explore the bays of the nearby Booderee National Park hook up with Jervis Bay Kayaks on a guided trip. For experienced kayakers, advice on overnight self-guided camping expeditions is also on offer.
Popular with holidaying Sydney families on summer weekends, the arcing sheltered expanse of Jervis Bay attracts other much larger marine visitors from May to November.
Far from his base in Cornwall in southwest England, Rick Stein has been travelling to Australia for several decades, and his restaurant at Bannisters overlooking nearby Mollymook Beach is popular with weekend visitors from Sydney and Melbourne. You'd be wise to book ahead, especially if you're keen on signature dishes like his Bombay-style seafood curry.
Now, here's a surprise. One of Australia's best zoos sits on the outskirts of the historic rural town of Mogo. After devouring Devonshire teas of fresh scones with jam and whipped cream at the Gold Rush-era cafes along the main street, detour to the open parklike surroundings of the Mogo Zoo. Surprising highlights include Sumatran tigers, snow leopards and very entertaining troops of tamarins and gibbons.
This part of NSW is dubbed the Eurobodalla Coast – translating to 'Land of Many Waters' from the local Yuin indigenous dialect – and the road south weaves in and out to the coast fringing natural harbours. Stop in Narooma for the combination of rugged surf beaches and a pretty inlet dotted with sailing boats, and then journey 9km out to Montague Island. Protected as a predator-free nature reserve, the island called 'Big Brother' by the Yuin people is crammed with seabirds including soaring sea eagles and is also home to fur seals and penguins. Visit from September to February for the most penguins, and book an afternoon tour for the best chance of seeing them. If you're keen for a few days off the road, book a two or three night stay as a volunteer on the island. Accommodation is in renovated lighthouse keepers' cottages, and you'll be expected to roll your sleeves up and help with meals and conservation activities on the island.
Pretty as a picture, the sleepy country town of Central Tilba, (or it's sister village Tilba Tilba) is a lovely flipside to the roll call of beaches and bays as you head south. Protected by the National Trust, the heritage-listed buildings of this 19th-century gold mining boomtown are now filled with quaint cafes and interesting arts and crafts shops. Wind your way downhill through one of Australia's best-preserved historic towns, and stop for cheese tasting at the Tilda Real Dairy, originally started in 1891, and now crafting excellent cheeses from the doe-eyed Jersey cows you'll see in the pastures around town as you drive in. The dairy's shop also sells local jams, pickles and sauces, and the creamy milkshakes are justifiably famous with travelling Aussie families.
Now it's time to head back towards the ocean, avoiding the main inland Princes Highway and continuing on to the Sapphire Coast. Bermagui is a laidback fishing port that's the kind of place you could retreat to for writing, painting or just taking it easy, and recently a few urban exiles from bigger cities have given sleepy 'Bermie' a more cosmopolitan edge. Ask at the visitor centre about local walks – the stroll to the oceanside Blue Pool is a good option – before a coffee amid the cafe/gallery vibe of Mr Jones, or tasty gelato ice-cream at the Bermagui Gelati Clinic. The surrounding region is packed with dairy farms and fruit orchards, so you know it's going to be good.
Despite the occasionally hip sheen being added to the southern coast of NSW, it's still an area with excellent heritage attractions. Around 50km south of Bermagui – you'll pass through the Mimosa Rocks National Park en route – Tathra is a sleepy beach town with a historic wooden wharf. Built in 1862, the wharf was the commercial lifeline for the region's first farmers with steamships transporting produce around the state, and in 1914, many local brothers, fathers, sons and uncles left from here to fight in WW1. On a windy day, the wharf is a spectacular sight as it's whipped by ocean breezes and big Tasman Sea swells, and you can see whales, dolphins and large stingrays who cruise by the wharf on their daily travels.
In a region packed with good beaches, the 5km stretch of sand at Merimbula is one of southern NSW's finest. Hire a mountain bike and bodyboard and go exploring, or negotiate the 3.4km-long Nature Boardwalk beginning near Merimbula's causeway and taking in a salty, mangrove seascape of oyster farms and seabirds.
And if you've ever wanted to see kangaroos and wallabies lounging on a golf course, and really, who hasn't, ask the locals for directions to nearby Pambula. Arrive around dusk at the Pambula-Merimbula Golf Course and there's bound to be a few marsupial locals on the fairways or relaxing on the adjacent beach.
Much larger wildlife is the attraction at Eden, a quiet heritage town just north of the NSW-Victoria border. Two significant ocean currents from the north and south also meet here, filling Eden's Two Fold Bay with ocean nutrients and attracting migrating humpback and southern right whales very close to the shore from mid-August to early-November. Local tour companies offer whale-spotting trips, but with a bit of luck – and some decent binoculars – it's often possible to see the whales from the shore. Ask at the local visitor centre for the best places to look from, and if you hear a siren sounding from Eden's interesting Killer Whale Museum, that's a sure sign whales have been spotted.