All travellers know that the road northward holds high promises. No one escapes the stories about bustling cities and enticing beaches on the north coast. Learn why New South Wales is the premier state among tourists by embarking on a promising beautiful car journey with the Pacific Ocean as a fond along the way.
The heat rises the farther north you travel. And as the climate becomes more tropical, banana plantations and sugar cane plantations are glimpsed along the side of the road. You will see sheltered bays, crashing waves and certainly some wacky people on your trip. From Byron Bays’ hippie community and its ecological supporters to Newcastle where residents brush away the coal dust while the city slowly undergoes a transformation from a grey industrial town to a hip place. The transition is not particularly painful, with idyllic sandy beaches only a stone’s throw away.
The route between Byron and Newcastle is about 630 km long and covers most of the road known as The Legendary Pacific Coast Drive. With Sydney and the Gold Coast in each end, the road meanders frequently near the coast and offers a cavalcade of beautiful views that call to your attention. Expect a lot of rocky capes and lots of beautiful vantage points. And just as on the south coast, whales can be seen between May and November as they wander up and down the coast.
The northern east coast has become a great favourite among backpackers. A popular trip starts in Sydney and ends in Cairns. This means that some parts can feel a bit too tourist dense sometimes. The increased tourism has led cities such as Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour, Port Stephens and Byron Bay to flourish. Thus, resulting in a wide range of accommodation, restaurants and pubs. The proximity to the sea is key and there is a great focus on water activities such as surfing, scuba diving and kayaking. Several resorts have some of the world’s best surfing spots. Go inland where the Great Dividing Range and its bumpy peaks are peacefully resting, visit national parks and fresh waterfalls that feed the hungry rivers. Welcome to New South Wales north coast, a place where nature shows its best sides with wide beaches, lush rainforests and a glistening Pacific Ocean.
You will also encounter some Australian sculpture icons on the trip. For example, the large banana in Coffs Harbour and the giant shrimp in Ballina. This fascination over big things is a little special. There are differing opinions about what came first, but it is said that everything started with Coffs Harbour’s banana. Since then, things took speed and now there are over one hundred different artworks around the country. Everything on the theme equals big. A little strange. But very Australian.
Newcastle has gone from being an uninteresting industrial city to becoming an attractive stop (wotif.com/discover/australia/new-south-wales/newcastle.d6047788). More and more move into the city to discover the proximity to the sandy beaches. The coal and steel industry are still important, but tourism has begun to take off. Newcastle has long stood in Sydney’s shadow but in recent times started to flourish and has since been an attractive destination. The ANZAC Memorial Walk is a 450-meter-long promenade built over the coastal rocks to commemorate those who fought during the World Wars. A to say the least, stunning view is waiting along the road that runs between Strzelecki Lookout and Bar Beach. Surfing is great around Newcastle and every year a large surfing festival is organized. Beaches like Merewether, Nobbys and Susan Gilmore Beach attract visitors.
Port Stephens is suitable for those who love the sea (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Port Stephens), with good surfing, fishing and kayaking. Nelson Bay is the main township. The cutest inhabitants are for sure the dolphins that live just off the coast. Go on a day trip at sea. Watch the dolphins from the boat or jump into the water with a snorkel and wetsuit while holding on to the catamaran slowly moving forward. If you are lucky, the dolphins will come to play and follow the boat’s journey, swimming all around you. Out on the Cape Tomaree Head, you can work your sweat up going uphill on Mount Tomaree and get rewarded with a wonderful view. Woirimi Conservation Lands (worimiconservationlands.com) consists of high dunes near the coast and runs southwest of Port Stephens. Woirimi belongs to the Aboriginal people, so you need permission to visit. You also need a four-wheel drive, unless you choose to join in on a daytrip with some company.
Just north of Newcastle is Myall Lakes National Park (nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/myall-lakes-national-park). The Park has campsites, hiking trails and good fishing opportunities. Port Macquarie is located on the River Hastings estuary. Surrounded by rocky capes and several national parks within easy reach. Like most coastal resorts, the passion for water activities runs high. Port Macquarie has nice far-stretched beaches and a holiday feeling that appeals to families with children (wotif.com/discover/australia/new-south-wales/port-macquarie.d6140201). You can walk along the coast and enjoy the sea and its coastal cliffs. Koala Hospital (koalahospital.org.au) is well-worth a visit, where sick koalas are taken care of by volunteers. Free entrance.
Coffs Harbour is often associated with The Big Banana, a large yellow banana sculpture, one of Australia’s many Big Things (wotif.com/discover/australia/new-south-wales/coffs-harbour/big-banana-fun-park.d6193825). Coffs Harbour is perhaps not the most charming city, but there is much to see nearby (wotif.com/discover/australia/new-south-wales/coffs-harbour.d815). Within the city you can visit the Botanical garden and try the local cafés. A ten-minute drive outside the city will take you to Forest Sky Pier. Just as the name implies, it is a pier that stands out over the forests high up in the sky. On cloudless days you can see many miles away. There are also some hiking trails to choose from in the area. An hour from Coffs Harbour is Dorrigo National Park (nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/dorrigo-national-park). Inside lies a dense forest with nice trails to explore. Search for waterfalls or spot birds, about 120 different species have been seen around Dorrigo. For scuba diving, Solitary Islands Marine Park is just the right place. The waters surrounding the barren islands is teeming with life.
Lennox Head is the calm before the storm in the touristy town of Byron. With its nice beaches, lacking the usual tourist crowds, it is a good place to rest after a long journey. Here are some of the best surfing spots in the world. In addition, there is a good selection of unexpectedly high-class restaurants. Byron Bay has an eclectic mix of inhabitants. For a long time, the country’s most eastern stop has had a steady fanbase among batik-dressed backpackers, hearty hippies and alternative artists. The beaches are good for surfing, even for beginners. The town is extremely popular with Scandinavians. Practice morning yoga, go to the local market and visit the lighthouse at the tip of the headland. And visit a restaurant serving fresh seafood (wotif.com/discover/australia/new-south-wales/byron-bay.d6138873).
Planning and preparation
The northern part of New South Wales’ coast is considerably more popular than the southern part. Meaning, it is good to book accommodation in advance as many travels up and down this part of the country. Summer is peak season, and between May and November you can see humpback whales along the coast.
The Pacific Highway runs between Sydney and Byron Bay, continuing north. Parts of the route is called The Legendary Pacific Coast Drive. And the best way to see more of the coastal areas is by hiring your own car (wotif.com/Car-Hire). It is about 630 km between Newcastle and Byron Bay. So, it is quite possible to do the full stretch in one day, but instead, let it take you three to four days. If you are not able to rent a car, taking the bus up and down the coast also works well. For example, with Greyhound’s bus service. It is also possible to combine bus and train using Transport NSW (nswtrainlink.info).
Follow The Legendary Pacific Coast Drive, or in other words, the Pacific Highway. Coming from Sydney, you can start by stopping in Newcastle. Try the beaches and take photos along the ANZAC Memorial Walk. From Newcastle, make a detour to Hunter Valley’s wine regions (wotif.com/discover/australia/new-south-wales/hunter-valley.d6034269). It takes about an hour to drive there. Try some wine and stay overnight. Then head out on the roads again and stop in Port Stephens. Browse through Nelson Bay’s restaurants and join in on a boat trip. Swim with wild dolphins, and if it is the right season, you might spot some humpbacks in the coastal waters.
North of Port Stephens you will reach Bulahdelah. Just north of the city, leave the highway and take the car onto Lakes Way. It is a slightly more scenic alternative as the road follows the waterways that meander towards the sea. At Rainbow Flat, return to the highway. The next stop is Port Macquarie. Try your luck with fishing, or simply relax on the beach. Do not miss Koala Hospital where sick koalas are taken care of and rehabilitated by dedicated volunteers.
In Coffs Harbour, start by taking a selfie with The Big Banana as a backdrop. Dive around the waters of Solitary Islands and discover the life hidden beneath the surface. Go to Forest Sky Pier to gaze out over the canopy. From Coffs Harbour, continue driving north. The road soon deviates from the coast and leads you inland. Make a stop in Grafton where wide streets are lined with the Jacaranda trees’ purple flowers. Peek into antique stores or have a coffee. Then finish the car journey in Byron Bay. Stroll along Belongil Beach and try surfing or paddle boarding. Walk to Cape Byron Lighthouse, the mainland’s most easterly point (wotif.com/discover/australia/new-south-wales/byron-bay/cape-byron-lighthouse.d6086977). Go to the local market and visit the nice eateries and delightful pubs.