About six hours drive from Sydney and seven from Melbourne, on Thaua Country in Yuin nation, are the small towns of Pambula and Merimbula. This is not your stereotypical Australian coast of bold, gold beaches and “aparthotels” with salt-smeared glass balconies.
The far south coast of New South Wales has a gentle, hidden gem feel. Ringed by national parks and nature reserves, solitude is easy to find – yet so are some unexpectedly excellent spots to eat, drink and caffeinate.
The region is as leafy as it is sandy; as brackish as it is beachy. Just an hour from the Victorian border, the coastline is flecked by lagoons, lakes, estuaries and river mouths.
It has an abundance of crescent-shaped bush beaches, fringed by salt-pruned scrub and rustling tea tree tunnels that, on a big year for cicadas, can thrum with brain-rattling intensity.
Fifteen minutes south is windy, whale-y Eden and, a little further, the soon-to-be renamed Ben Boyd national park. The park is known for its Mars-coloured rocks, turquoise-coloured coves and expansive views of an ocean that, from May to September, is often ruptured by the breach of a passing humpback whale. Pulpit Rock at dawn is breathtaking – you can ramble easily around its sloping platform and discover rocky pockets and pools that, in some places, carve out an aperture to the sky similar to a James Turrell skyspace.
Inland are the national parks of South East Forests and Mount Imlay, while the coastal national parks of Bournda (20 minutes north) and Mimosa Rocks (40 minutes north) are worth the trip for the spotted gum forests alone. One hour north is Gulaga, a deeply sacred mountain to the Yuin people. If you climb it, you should “ascend respectfully, wearing a red wristband in deference to its sacredness, in bare feet if possible, and preferably in silence,” writes Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian man Bruce Pascoe in the guidebook Loving Country.
In a roadside paddock on Pambula’s outskirts, the barn-like Longstocking Brewery lures punters that co-owner Peter Caldwell says once spanned “two-months-old and 94-years-old on the same day”. While the weather can get chilly this far south, even in summer, Longstocking’s lush foliage lends it a tropical feel. In addition to craft beer it serves up local bands, local oysters and wood-fired pizza.
Opposite the brewery is the 82-hectare Panboola wetlands, once the region’s race track. For 100 years, punters came to this flood-prone zone to bet on horses but now it’s a rewilded sanctuary for swans, swamphen, egrets and cormorants to wade among the mangroves, saltmarsh and billabongs. The Latham’s Snipe migrates here each spring from Japan. With the bird’s status classed as vulnerable in Victoria, but secure in NSW, it shows how impactful a community-run conservation project such as Panboola can be.
Many Australian regions sing the superiority of their oysters but the “wilderness oysters” (the Sydney rock oysters grown in the estuaries between Wonboyn Lake and Bermagui) are crazily, creamily good. You can have them shucked and served with sparkling wine at a restaurant such as Wheeler’s or flip-flop down to an outlet such as Broadwater Oysters, Oyster Barn or McKay’s oyster shed to buy them fresh for a picnic. Eat them for breakfast! No one will care.
Don’t forget how badly this area was hit by the black summer bushfires. Respect the land, the waters and the reality that healing is continuing. Meanwhile, always check tides, practice safe swimming and wear lifejackets in boats and kayaks.
Serious hikers shouldn’t miss the multi-day Light to Light walk in Ben Boyd national park. In town, and more family friendly, is the 3km Merimbula boardwalk, which takes you through mangroves and past oyster farms.
The lyrically signposted Whale Dreaming Trail in Eden, meanwhile, is an intriguing fragment of the Bundian Way, of which the Eden Local Aboriginal Land Council says “is an ancient pathway for Aboriginal people from Yuin, Ngarigo, Jaitmathang, Bidawal Country that provided safe passage between the coast and the high country.” There are two Bundian Way walks in Eden – one in town and one from Cocora Beach to Quarantine Bay.
Where to sleep
Green Cape lightstation Keepers Cottage, or the cheaper Telegraph Station bunkhouse (up the hill), is a rugged and atmospheric national park experience. The newly renovated 1969 Hillcrest Motel in Merimbula throws it back to the 1970s with coastal views to boot. Choice holiday home spots are Long Point (Merimbula) or Pambula Beach. If you camp at Millingandi Station you can kayak to the beach and get oysters delivered to your tent.
Where to eat
Valentina does well-executed Oz-Med fusion with stunning lake views while Dulcie’s does good vibes, great burgers and oysters in a weatherboard cottage from 1925. For bread, pies and coffee head to Wild Rye’s bakery; for top-notch coffee and inventive breakfasts, try Toast. Sprout Eden is a cafe and a food co-op (across the road) and a blessing for self-caterers with its environmentally ethical system of using excess produce supplied by local green thumbs.
When to go
Any month from February onwards is considered “off peak”. Autumn works beautifully for nature adventures with its mild temperatures, bright and crisp days and still-warm water. Giiyong festival (April) celebrates Aboriginal arts, culture and resilience and Narooma Oyster festival (May) is dedicated to the region’s distinct merroir. Meanwhile, music events include Four Winds festival (April), Cobargo Folk festival (May) and Merimbula Jazz festival (June).