Grand Pacific Drive, NSW

Expunging myself from the sprawling suburban straggle of south Sydney, Royal National Park’s verdant embrace of bushland soon beckoned. I was en-route to the South Coast on the Grand Pacific Drive, a 138km short-and-sweet touring route that winds you through the world’s second oldest national park, (established in 1879) before skirting the booming coastline of the Pacific, bursting with smashing ocean views. On entering the park, I stopped at Audley, where the boat shed on the Hacking River was doing a brisk trade, while hordes of families enjoyed a weekend riverside picnic under the leafy shade of specimen trees. It’s a storybook setting. The road through the park is a scenic medley, switching from exposed coastal heathland to dense upland forests of red gums and eucalyptus.

Walking trails abound, leading you out to sandstone cliffs, rocky ledges and striking formations like Eagle Rock. Listen carefully, and you’re bound to hear some laughing kookaburras in these parts. Emerging from the forest, an unmissable stop on the Grand Pacific Drive is Bald Hill Lookout. Globally acclaimed as a hang gliding mecca, my heart was in my mouth, watching in awe as gliders hurtled themselves off the cliffs. With my feet firmly staying on the ground, the sweeping views across the ocean and undulating South Coast terrain will soon fill your Instagram feed. Strictly speaking, this is Illawarra country, and I wended my way through a clutch of characterful coastal villages towards Wollongong, starting with Stanwell Park. Just out of Coalcliff, the great headliner of the drive shuffled into view: the Sea Cliff Bridge.

Hugging the coastline between Coalcliff and Clifton, this cantilevered offshore bridge spans 655 metres, mounted on pylons thrust deep into the seabed, away from the rockface. Opened in 2005, it’s a sterling piece of road engineering, best explored on foot. At the south end of the bridge, a roadside carpark enables you to park up and take a wander along the bridge’s pedestrian lane. It twists and turns, shadowing the contours of the towering rockface, while the ocean churns below.

After feeling positively uplifted by the bridge walk, I tootled my way through more picturesque coastal villages, like Wombarra, Austinmer and Bulli, before enjoying a spot of lunch in Wollongong. If you’re a fan of Spanish fare, I highly recommend Bull n Bear, a relaxed but sophisticated affair in Victoria Street. Their Churros are to die for! Wollongong was abuzz with sun-seekers and surfers, flocking to its golden fringes. After surveying the spectacular vistas from Flagstaff Hill, I was back in the car for my final hop south to Kiama.

Just 30 minutes south of Wollongong, Kiama is your classic coastal escape, a gentle little seaside siren that has beckoned travellers, since the first trains rolled into town in the 1880s. Norfolk Island Pines tower gracefully above its streets that are lined with a trove of fabulously preserved heritage buildings. A star specimen is The Terrace, a quaint collection of impeccably maintained terrace houses on Collins Street, that now host a clutch of boutique shops, craft studios and eateries. Originally built as housing for the local quarry workers in the 19th century, The Terrace is adjoined by the Sandstone Walk, where more heritage buildings have also been repurposed by independent traders. Another little treasure is the Pilot’s Cottage Museum, which provides great insights on Kiama’s back-story, where shipping, basalt quarries and the cedar industry powered the economy.

But the undisputed starring attraction is the Kiama Blowhole. This sprawling rock formation, just five minutes walk from the mainstreet, catapults surging ocean water 20 metres up in the air. If you strike it lucky and time your visit with a southeasterly swell, she sure blows. The land meets the sea in dramatic fashion at Kiama, where nine golden fringes of beach are sprinkled around the town’s edges. I adored traversing the waterfront paths that hug the shoreline, particularly from Blowhole Point, adorned with its creamy lighthouse, around the harbour and all the way north to Bombo Beach, where the headland is littered with a moonscape of basalt walls and columns.

More natural drama lurks around the corner at Jones Beach, where a cluster of delightfully sculpted volcanic formations have been dubbed Cathedral Rocks. Back in town, my roost for the night was a gorgeous little perch above the water, The Sebel Harbourside. This artfully designed resort-style hotel celebrates Kiama’s heritage bones and contemporary sparkle. The boutique resort has thoughtfully combined a radiantly restored 1871 bluestone school building into its hospitality mix. The old school building, which sits at the heart of the property, is now in high demand as a conference and events centre.

Offering 83 beautifully detailed guest rooms and apartments, with all the mod-cons, on-site dining features a delicious buffet breakfast at The Quarry Restaurant, while The Blue Diamond Bar & Bistro is feted for its contemporary Australian menu, whether you wish to enjoy lunch or dinner, indoors or al fresco. Visit NSW website

By Mike Yardley.

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