A foamy wash is pounding the ancient lavaflows of Bournda Island as it sits tethered to the mainland by a tentative spit of sand. To the north, the beach tapers to a misty infinity, totally deserted and as wild as the swooping sea eagles hunting along this heath-lined shore.
This is the New South Wales Sapphire Coast in winter – a far cry from your stereotypical Aussie beach destination. Instead of towels, boogie boards and the squeals of children, there is seclusion, silence and contemplation; nature, rather than bronzed bodies, is the defining element in this seasonal solitude.
Stretching from Bermagui in the north to the hamlet of Wonboyn near the Victorian border, the Sapphire Coast is one of NSW’s unsung treasures. The golden crescent beaches of the Far South are unpretentious and understated in their ridiculous beauty. If you love to embrace the chill of winter, there’s no more evocative place to unwind in this shaky inter-pandemic era.
The only NSW recipient of the government-subsidised half-price Qantas fares (ending July 31), Merimbula is the heart of the region, beloved by retirees for its ample facilities, buzzing dining scene and outdoorsy lifestyle. But beyond the ‘big smoke’, the region hums to a more languorous tune, with charming hamlets, emerald hills of dairy farms and bushland swathing 70 per cent of the region.
Just five minutes’ drive from Merimbula, Pambula is an anomalous pocket of cool, with hip cafes, fine dining and funky fashion boutiques. At Wild Rye’s Bakery, queues gather for freshly roasted coffee and crunchy sourdough; while across the road, Toast’s innovative produce-driven brunch menu and themed Trust the Chef dinners have cemented it as a locals’ favourite.
From a traditional weatherboard cottage Banksia serves three-course set dinners created by hatted chef Huw Jones; while Longstocking Brewery’s menu of oysters and woodfired pizza is the perfect accompaniment to its stable of 25 craft beers, served with rollicking local tunes on lively, family-friendly weekends.
The signature dish at Wheeler’s Seafood Restaurant is a platter of plump, creamy Sydney Rock oysters – served natural or with bush tomatoes and fingerlime – grown in its Merimbula Lake farm.
Meanwhile, on Pambula Lake, oyster farmer Brett Weingarth – known as Captain Sponge – leads tours of his oyster leases. On a glorious morning, we follow him around the mirrored lake, the stillness punctuated by the melodious chime of bellbirds. Mr Weingarth says: “Even if you don’t like oysters, this lake is a magical place to be.”
It was a somewhat larger creature that originally put the Sapphire Coast on the map, however. From the 1830s until 1929, Eden was the whaling capital of Australia. The colourful history of this industry is told in Eden’s Killer Whale Museum, where the skeleton of Old Tom – an orca who developed a symbiotic partnership with the whalers as he drove the whales towards the harpoons – symbolises a fascinating relationship between man and beast.
Meanwhile, across azure Twofold Bay on a lonely stretch of sand, another vestige of the whaling era illustrates an even more questionable history, one that is being challenged by locals and Indigenous owners seeking a more balanced retelling of the past. The gracious Seahorse Inn was built in 1843 by flamboyant Scottish entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd, who had grandiose plans not only to make Boydtown the centre of his whaling and pastoral enterprises but the capital of Australia.
Boyd was a notorious rogue, forging his fortune from shonky deals and the exploitation of convict and Aboriginal labour, as well as boatloads of Pacific Islanders kidnapped in a practice now known as “blackbirding”. In other words, he was a slave trader. Many locals are now calling for the renaming of Boydtown and the national park.
“National parks are, amongst other things, for the preservation of Aboriginal cultural heritage,” says BJ Cruse, chair of the Eden Aboriginal Land Council. “It’s a slap in the face for Aboriginal people to have a national park named after a slave driver.”
A historian has been called in to advise on the matter. In the meantime, the Seahorse Inn is not only a fascinating relic of this history but also the most stylish boutique accommodation on the Sapphire Coast. A recent renovation has enhanced the swoon-worthy waterview rooms.
Just south of Boydtown, I join Jenny Robb from Kiah Wilderness Tours on an early-morning paddle on the tranquil Towamba River. In January 2020, a raging bushfire swept along the riverbank. After the fire came flood, then the pandemic.
“If I hear the word ‘resilient’ one more time, I think I’ll scream,” says Ms Robb, as we pause to watch an azure kingfisher flit from branch to branch. The lure, however, of this pristine environment is irresistible; and like the eucalypts sprouting fluffy new growth after being scorched, the Sapphire Coast has bounced back.
Take me there
Fly: Rex Airlines and Qantas fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Merimbula.
Drive: Merimbula is a six-hour drive from Sydney via Canberra.
Stay: The Seahorse Inn at Boydtown starts from $215 per night.
Explore more: sapphirecoast.com.au