Take a De­tour

Just south of Syd­ney, Wol­lon­gong is full of fresh sur­prises.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - CONTENTS -

Ask any lo­cal and they will tell you that Wol­lon­gong has been in a state of cul­tural re­birth for a num­ber of years. Although the city, an hour-and-a-half south of Syd­ney, owes its eco­nomic growth to the once-boom­ing steel and min­ing sec­tors — which trans­formed the area from a cat­tle com­mu­nity into an in­dus­trial city in the early 20th cen­tury — the town and its sur­rounds have found other rea­sons to flour­ish.

Driven by sea-change Syd­neysiders, more than 65 cafes and bars have opened here in the past three years. In fact, ex­plore any of the Illawarra’s beaches and you’ll find sim­i­lar fare, per­haps more ex­pected of Wol­lon­gong’s neigh­bours, Kiama, Berry and Shell­har­bour, which have long at­tracted city folk with their an­tiques em­po­ri­ums, vin­tage stores and cafes packed with latte-sip­ping lo­cals.

Small-busi­ness own­ers Bianca Po­scielero and Ciara Kul­mar took ad­van­tage of the re­gion’s evolv­ing land­scape, ren­o­vat­ing an old newsagency in the coastal town of Coledale, 18 kilo­me­tres north of Wol­lon­gong. They opened Earth Walker & Co store and cafe to a re­cep­tive crowd of res­i­dents and daytrip­pers.

“[It] was driven by our love and com­mit­ment to com­mu­nity, health and sus­tain­abil­ity,” says Kul­mar. “We work hard to be able to serve and sup­ply our cus­tomers with fresh, lo­cal pro­duce. We base our menu on what lo­cal farm­ers are pro­duc­ing, who also plant around what we want to serve.”

The pair try to source in­gre­di­ents from within 12 kilo­me­tres of their Coal Coast base. It’s not a new idea, but it has been in­cred­i­bly well re­ceived here.

A sim­i­lar phi­los­o­phy is in play at fine-diner Caveau in Wol­lon­gong’s cen­tre. Widely re­garded as the city’s best restau­rant, it has been driv­ing the re­gion’s food scene since 2004, mak­ing ice-cream, but­ter and bread in-house and butcher­ing and cur­ing meats on site. Beef and lamb are sourced from nearby Robert­son, and veg­eta­bles from the Dapto Com­mu­nity Farm. “Tom [and I] are both pro­duce-driven when it comes to cre­at­ing dishes, so the nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion was to see what we could get from the lo­cal area,” says Si­mon Evans, nod­ding to co-owner Tom Chi­u­mento. “Be­ing able to meet with, and talk to, the peo­ple who pro­duce the in­gre­di­ents we use is a huge bonus. We can have fruit and veg­eta­bles on the plate the same day they were picked.”

That pro­duce equates to dishes such as wal­laby with wat­tle­seed, egg yolk, pick­led muntries and coastal greens, or Wol­lon­gong mir­ror dory with fen­nel and fin­ger lime, com­ple­mented by or­ganic re­gional wines.

If cider is your thing, Darkes For­est is a 20-minute drive west of Wol­lon­gong and is home to the only re­main­ing ap­ple or­chard in the Illawarra re­gion — Glen­bernie Or­chard, a fourth-gen­er­a­tion fam­ily owned and op­er­ated busi­ness. Visit dur­ing har­vest (Novem­ber to April) and you can pick your own ap­ples, peaches, nec­tarines or rasp­ber­ries. Drop in to the Ap­ple Shack to try the crisp cider or in­dul­gent honey mead. Fin­ish the day with a ride through coun­try­side at nearby Darkes For­est Rid­ing Ranch.

On the Road

The most scenic route to­wards Wol­lon­gong is along the Grand Pa­cific Drive. Start­ing in the Royal Na­tional Park, an hour south of Syd­ney, it weaves 140 kilo­me­tres through rain­for­est and past coastal towns, be­fore con­tin­u­ing on to Kiama and Shoal­haven. Stop at Bald Hill to take in the ocean views, and then at Coal­cliff to gaze at the flame trees be­neath steep cliffs. The road then leads you to one of the re­gion’s most pho­to­genic spots, the 665-me­tre-long Sea Cliff Bridge. Park the car and cross the bridge on foot to catch glimpses of manta rays, water­birds and, if you’re here dur­ing mi­grat­ing sea­son (Oc­to­ber to Novem­ber), whales. If you’re feel­ing en­er­getic, you could also tackle one of the nearby hikes.

Make a pit stop at the hip­pie town­ship of Thirroul for surfer threads from Fin­box Board­store or one-off knick-knacks from Now and Then Col­lecta­bles. In sum­mer, pretty Austin­mer Beach is hard to beat.

For the re­gion’s most in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, how­ever, visit the Nan Tien Tem­ple, one of the largest Bud­dhist tem­ples in the South­ern Hemi­sphere. Stroll the grounds, book a med­i­ta­tion class or sip lo­tus tea and de­vour dumplings in the tem­ple’s Tea Room.

Beach Life

Bed down for the night in an ocean-view apart­ment (the Novo­tel Wol­lon­gong North­beach and the Head­lands Austin­mer Beach both boast sea views) or in one of the area’s B&Bs. Take time to stroll along the beach — there are more than 17 to choose from. You can also hire bikes from a kiosk at the Novo­tel and ex­plore Wol­lon­gong’s 42 kilo­me­tres of cy­cle­ways on two wheels. It might just be the in­spi­ra­tion you need to em­bark on a sea change of your own.

THIS PAGE, CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE The Head­land Ho­tel of­fers great sea views; find en­light­en­ment at Nan Tien Bud­dhist Tem­ple; a busy kitchen at Caveau; Austin­mer Beach. OP­PO­SITE, FROM TOP The ar­chi­tec­turally cel­e­brated Sea Cliff Bridge, half an hour north of Wol­lon­gong on the Grand Pa­cific Drive; an ex­quis­ite dish from Caveau.

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