Central Coast is a stimulating and epicurean delight, if you know where to look.
The Central Coast of NSW has always been a mystery to me. All those convoluted waterways and hinterland thrown together on a map that could have been drawn by Frank Gehry. For this sandgroper, who grew up in WA where the coastline is linear as far as the car can drive, the region around the towns of Gosford, Wyong, Tuggerah, Terrigal, Bateau Bay and Woy Woy seems otherworldly.
And while this spring getaway did little to change my mind about the geography (without Google Maps I would have been jiggered), the diverse offerings are fascinating, gratifying and frequently delicious.
Tim is our guide for the Girri Girra Bouddi National Park Aboriginal Tour, and you wouldn't find a more interesting educator on a day's walkabout. Tim is a "bloodline custodian, qualified and honoured to be able to perform ceremony here".
At beginning of a songline on a rocky outcrop overlooking Tallow Beach, Tim claps two boomerangs together and sings us in, affording our small group a "passport to pass through this land". Carved into the rock on the ground behind us is a 12,000-year-old petroglyph of a wallaby. Tim interprets the carving - it's a young male that has just left the ocean, which is its (and all our) sacred womb. We push on and encounter more spectacular views and more carvings - of stingrays, eels, fish, whales and circles, indicating millennia-old meeting places.
A sea eagle circles above us and Tim explains the soaring bird is another bloodline. Everything is connected. Landscape is family. The entire presentation is spellbinding; as expansive and meandering as the songlines that crisscross the continent.
In a humour- and edification-packed 3.5-hour walk, Tim's inclusive style brings the bush to life in a context of connection. He points out large trees that delineate a "women's place". The trees have a peculiar circle high up in their trunks, created by the twist of a nascent limb when they were saplings hundreds of years ago.
He points out native bee hives full of bush honey, a hakea that treats warts, the sarsaparilla that cleans the gut and medicinal red gum sap. He finds some white ochre, adds water and paints it onto the arm of 12-year-old Ivy. We watch the colour brighten as it dries, to her immense delight.
With an appetite built from the long walk, lunch at the nearby BOX on the Water restaurant is an ideal next step. This classy yet casual diner at Ettalong Beach looks across Broken Bay and is, obviously, right on the water. The baked camembert with lavosh, Goan fish curry and potato rosti with wild mushrooms are outstanding.
We find another exceptional feed at Motel Mezza Social Bar in Wyong, not far from our home base at Mercure Kooindah Waters Resort. This art deco Middle-Eastern cuisine diner is inspired by the lobby of a 1930s motel but it's actually an old bank building, with high ceilings, minimalist decor, a very cool bar area and a dining vault for groups.
Over excellent cocktails selected from a wide-ranging drinks menu, our waiter Bri expounds on the Mezza Small and Mezza Big plate options. And let me tell you, the smalls are plenty big. My "small" chilli prawns has nine succulent crustaceans bathing in a very moreish (or should that be Moorish?) sauce, and the herb-crusted barramundi Sayadieh with tzatziki and roasted almonds is sensational.
The new day finds us exploring the providores at the old Wyong Milk Factory complex. The star here is the Little Creek Cheese, unassumingly situated in a pre-fab shed. Russell and Sue Parsons started the business 12 years ago and their son Alex, who is manning the pre-fab fort today, says the cheese-making started out as a secret hobby. "Eventually (mum and dad) shared their wares with the rest of the family, who didn't believe they had made it all themselves," says Alex. "Grandma searched through the bin looking for empty packets."
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Little Creek produces 30 flavours across eight varieties and has received 240 NSW National Dairy awards and favourable mentions. Nibble-sized sample bites are free and Alex proudly proffers hickory-smoked cheddar, marinated salad cheese (fetta with garlic and dill), labna with garlic and thyme, Sapphire (blue with a cheddar texture) and their much-lauded goats' fetta. Once a month Little Creek runs a 2.5-hour factory tour, plus ricotta and paneer cheese-making lessons and in-depth tastings for $220.
Those of us who indolently "pick" our fruit from supermarket aisles should get along to the twice-monthly pick-your-own experience at Meliora Farm in Peats Ridge. For $30 you can fill a 12 kilograms bag with limes, cumquats, bergamots, lemons, navel oranges, seedless lemons and Hass avocados, and enjoy a peaceful stroll through the orchards, accompanied by birdsong and Bandit, the rescue dog, who is still trying to work out what to do after he fetches the stick you throw for him. Little kids are loving it but are restricted to low-hanging fruit.
At the other end of the nutrition spectrum, check out Six String Brewing Co in Erina. Set among giant vats brewing the good stuff, this muso-themed factory pub is rocking and rolling at noon on the Saturday we visit. My sample paddle of five beers comes with tasting notes. All the brews are full-flavoured and go down a treat with the cleverly named burgers, which include Cheesy Nick's and INXS of Chicken, plus add-ons such as The Pretender (veggie pattie) and Food Fighters (gluten-free bun).
Dinner is a more traditional affair at Lago Cucina, which opened in March 2023. Decked out in Tuscan decor with a Central Coast twist, this Italian trattoria would hold its own in Barangaroo, let alone Budgewoi, where it resides above the local pub. It's part of the Sydney Restaurant Group (Aqua Dining, Ripples, Ormeggio at The Spit) and the whole encounter is first-rate, from cocktails and antipasti to dessert and Frangelico. The arancini are delicate and the affogato is a perfect conclusion.
Getting there: Central Coast is a 90-minute drive north of Sydney. Trains from Sydney service Wyong and Gosford on the Newcastle line.
Getting around: Self-drive is the best way to explore the region.
Staying there: Mercure Kooindah Waters rooms and apartments from $214 per night, see mercurekooindahwaters.com.au
Explore more: lovecentralcoast.com
Pictures: Destination NSW
The writer was a guest of Mercure Kooindah Waters and Destination Central Coast.