The shining city of Sydney may get all the attention, but look further along the New South Wales coastline and there is a whole world of seafood, nature and stunning scenery to become immersed in.
And you don’t get much more immersed than literally up to your waist in the Hawkesbury estuary, where we were learning how to shell oysters, with bream circling around us waiting to snaffle up any leftovers.
Sydney Oyster Farm Tours shows guests how the region’s rock oysters are reared, as well as how to tell them apart from their Pacific rivals: rock oysters have ridges on the lip of the shell, and the “mantle” on the edge of the flesh is greenish brown, rather than black.
It turns out we were standing right where the oysters are caught, and we were shown baskets farther out where the young catch is taken to get its flavor, before being taken upstream to fatten up. There are several places to rear them, and like wine, the locality imbues each with a different flavor.
We got a further taste of the area’s seafood as we headed south, past Sydney and over the spectacular Sea Cliff Bridge, to the Imperial at Clifton. Once an inn and watering hole for the local coal mining community, it now provides for a more refined dining experience from its clifftop vantage point, drawing heavily on the region's seafood from prawns and octopus to sensational Jervis Bay mussels. Extensive efforts have been made to preserve the building’s history, and it’s worth nosing around before you head on.
We headed on to Mollymook, in the South Coast region. Situated between the fishing town of Ulladulla and the historic village of Milton, the town of 3,500 residents has attractive golf courses, surfing spots and beautiful family-friendly beaches.
One of its most famous visitors, English chef Rick Stein, liked the place -- and the local seafood -- so much he opened a restaurant here at Bannisters by the Sea, a boutique hotel with clifftop views that the restaurant makes full use of.
With its quiet beaches and village atmosphere, it might be hard to tear yourself away, but you don’t have to go far to find more on offer.
Cupitt’s Estate, a winery just 4 kilometers away, produces as many as 24 types of wine.
The estate started out in 2003 as a livestock farm -- it breeds Angus calves to supply other farms -- and the view from the main building stretches past a small vineyard across the cattle fields.
Since opening the winery in 2007, the estate has added a restaurant, a small brewery and small bungalows for people to stay. Its staff has grown from six to 110, but it retains the feel of a family business, with a traditional hands-on approach.
“We don’t have a lab. We just let the wine do its thing,” says head winemaker Wally Cupitt.
For the reds, that happens in the cellar, made in a European style from the Monzonite rock of the local volcanic soil. It’s too small for a forklift, so the barrels – of oak from France, the US and Hungary – need to be moved by hand.
“We’re very much about the boutique feel,” says Cupitt.
He explains that since they are not looking to compete with major players, they can continue making a variety of wines.
“And to be honest, we don’t want to be stuck drinking the same stuff.”
A short drive north, the Huskisson area is popular for water activities.
Jervis Bay Kayak and Paddlesports offered a beginner kayak tour of Currambene Creek. The water is calm and clear enough to see fish swimming around the roots of the mangrove trees. There are mullets and flatheads, but more exotically, stingrays -- most were the size of dinner plates, but one glided beneath our boats that was more than a meter across.
Moving back through the mangroves was a bigger challenge in terms of steering, but the dappled scenery, with red and green parrots flitting between the branches, was the highlight of the tour.
More adventurous kayakers can paddle out into Jervis Bay, a sheltered expanse with Booderee National Park on its south edge that is home to about 10,000 little penguins, as well as dolphins and other wildlife.
Those who want to catch sight of a dolphin without getting their feet wet can do so with Jervis Bay Wild, which runs boat tours of the bay. The crew has a good knowledge of where a pod might be, and by sending out more than one boat at a time, they have a better chance of finding them.
If you are lucky, you might spot some of the bay’s shyer sea life – we saw a seal before sailing across to where another boat had found some dolphins.
We stopped at Hyam’s Beach, a pristine stretch of what the Guinness World Records says is the whitest sand in the world. Our guide’s comment that it was quite busy thanks to the holiday was telling of the area -- just a short walk away huge stretches of sand were all but empty.
Amenities here are quite basic, but you can picnic in luxury with Picnic’s Naturally Jervis Bay, which sets out a spread to make you the envy of other beachgoers, and clears it away when you are finished.
Of course any trip to New South Wales includes Australia’s most famous city. Beside its Harbor Bridge and Opera House, Sydney is also the only Australian city with direct links to Korea, and Qantas recently resumed services on the route, with four flights a week
.you are impatient to see the city’s landmarks, you can get a bird’s-eye view just a stone’s throw from the airport with Sydney Helitours, which will whizz you over the coast and the harbor in minutes, or further afield if you like.
Or for more of a close-up look, BridgeClimb Sydney takes groups to the top of the famous arch.
Since last year, the Aboriginal Flag has flown alongside the Australian national flag at the top of the bridge, and just a year earlier, BridgeClimb started its Burrawa Indigenous Experience tours led by Aboriginal guides.
As you might expect, the subject matter can be sobering -- we’re told that three-quarters of the Indigenous people here were killed by smallpox or colonial slaughter -- but the main point is to use the vantage point the bridge offers to allow a picture of what the area was like before the British came.
What is now the botanic gardens was an important meeting place for Indigenous people, and the harbor was not always the expanse it is now. Indigenous history remembers the water encroaching a few kilometers each generation, and folklore has it that this was brought on by a great eel who thrashed at the ground in anger. To please him, we were encouraged to perform an eel dance at the top of the bridge.
BridgeClimb also offers more conventional tours of the bridge looking at its construction and history.
Just around the corner, a more luxurious way to see the city was waiting in Darling Harbor. Lifestyle Charters also offer boat tours of the city, and after passing under the bridge, we were whisked to a quiet swimming beach.
“What I really like about the harbor is it really wraps around the city, so we can pick people up from anywhere in the CBD (central business district), where there are great places to eat, and in 30 minutes you can be out in some lovely secluded spots,” says joint owner-operator David Higgins.
Peak time is summer, when he says there is a tremendous buzz around the harbor.
People still come for the weather in the spring and autumn, while winter offers the chance to go whale watching further out, with humpbacks as big as the boat. Higgins said he’s never taken a tour and not seen one.
“It’s like a highway of whales out there,” he says.
Just across from where Lifestyle Charters sets off, a collection of boats awaits exploration at the National Maritime Museum -- from a replica of an 18th-century ship to a late 20th-century submarine.
The museum also examines the city’s role in Australian migration, and a fishing boat that refugees used to flee Vietnam in the 1970s is among the boats in the harbor.
Back on dry land, the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney and surrounding Domain offer a more conventional view of the sights and some surprisingly friendly cockatoos. Bird lovers might also appreciate the white ibises here, though locals revile them as “bin chickens.”
If Sydney’s birds aren’t your thing, you can get up close to more charismatic fauna at Symbio Wildlife Park. As well as Australian favorites like koalas and kangaroos, there are others from further afield like red pandas, lemurs and cheetahs, with opportunities to feed many of them.
The park wraps around the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which has work by some big names, but more impressive is the overall quality of the collection, which takes a few hours to get around.
Nearby, the Australian Museum has dinosaurs and natural history on show, as well as sections on Indigenous history, while the Sydney Museum looks at the history of the city.