Celebrate Sydney’s bar renaissance with a cocktail before visiting preserved Aboriginal gardens, boutique wineries, the Blue Mountains and Australia’s most incredible surfing beaches. Lonely Planet Magazine has all the tips for the perfect trip to New South Wales.
Sydney: best for nightlife
Sydney Harbour is a magical place in the evening. It attracts groups of friends to chatter and clatter plates at the waterfront cafés, strolling couples, and even some more exotic visitors - dozens of fruitbats, arriving to dine on the swarms of moths and other insects that are drawn to the harbour lights.
It’s a dazzling setting - but until recently, the question of where to go after dinner at the beautiful harbourfront had relatively few answers. Restrictive laws meant that only large traditional pubs and restaurants could serve alcohol. After an amendment to the licensing laws in 2007, a host of speakeasy-style bars have popped up like mushrooms in the city’s narrow laneways. There’s the Belle Époque style of the Absinthe Salon, where the green stuff is served in decadent, antique-filled surrounds; Shady Pines, a Wild West whisky bar just off Oxford Street; and Love, Tilly Devine - a low-ceilinged, bare-brick bolthole celebrating the memory of the eponymous Tilly, a legendary brothel madam who ran these streets in the 1930s.
Learn more: sydney.com
Dine out: The Grasshopper is a trailblazer. Settle downstairs for a marmalade, whisky and Italian vermouth cocktail or take a table in its snug upstairs Eating House (thegrasshopper.com.au).
Booderee National Park: best for indigenous culture
Julie Freeman has luminous eyes and the captivating lilt of a natural storyteller. A Koori Aboriginal elder from Wreck Bay - a community on the edge of the sand-fringed green expanse of Booderee National Park - she is charming a small audience around a crackling fire. Towering gum trees creak softly overhead, and from a hundred metres away, the shushing of the ocean can be heard. Today, she tells the story of Didhol - the local Aboriginal name for the verdant, tree-covered sandstone formation nearby, more commonly known as Pigeon House Mountain. Aboriginal tradition has it that this is the burial place of an eel and a lyre bird that, at the beginning of the world, got into a fight and killed each other.
‘The old fellas [ancient Aboriginals] put the eel and the lyre bird in that place,’ Julie explains. ‘They scooped the land up over them to form that mountain and called it a place of behaviour - to remind people to behave properly and to warn them about the consequences of bad behaviour.’
Booderee is an Aboriginal word for ‘bay of plenty’, and it’s a significant place for the indigenous communities that have inhabited and cared for this stretch of land for tens of thousands of years.
‘To come to Booderee is to learn and develop a relationship with the place,’ she says. ‘Nothing here is just a “thing”, everything is connected - the ocean, the wind, the trees, the landscape and the people.’
Read more: environment.gov.au/parks/booderee
Dine out: Seagrass Brasserie is a seafood restaurant in the town of Huskisson. It has a huge outdoor deck and seats 80 indoors - bookings are advised between November and February (seagrass.net.au).
Blue Mountains: best for nature
The haze may be blue, but the mountains themselves are decidedly green. The Blue Mountains are a languid work in progress that is, so far, 150 million years in the making. Through the ages, the constant movement of water rushing down into the valleys and gorges has carved this landscape from solid rock - a process that is still going on today. Here, ancient boulders spring leaks to release water that has been trapped within for tens of thousands of years.
Hunter Valley: best for food and wine
At daybreak, Hunter Valley sets a quintessentially Australian scene. Eucalyptus trees wave gently on hills overlooking rows of grapevines, with the low Brokenback Mountains as a backdrop. In the foreground, kangaroos emerge one by one from pools of mist. The air is cool and heavy with the scent of moisture and the Australian bush, and as the sun rises, ‘utes’ - or utility trucks - and other rugged vehicles begin to appear on the backroads, marking the start of another working day.
This place is considered the birthplace of Australian winemaking. Where once the land was taken up with small farms, this is now the domain of family-owned boutique wineries, and a number of world-class wines are produced here.
Read more: winecountry.com.au; margan.com.au; and smallwinemakerscentre.com.au.
Dine out: at Margan Restaurant in the village of Broke, couple a shiraz with braised Wagyu and pomegranate or a merlot with spiced duck breast and mustard cherries (margan.com.au).
Byron Bay: best for beaches
Originally a whaling town, Byron was largely unknown before surfers turned it into one of Australia’s most popular beach areas. Today, small groups begin to arrive soon after dawn. Experienced surfers bring wetsuits and short boards; the less dedicated wear bikinis and clutch ‘learner’ boards. They head into The Pass, a long surf break between the headland and the wooden platform of Fisherman’s Lookout. Veterans carve long paths through the surf while novices balance for a few seconds before falling off. Their shrieks of laughter drift to the shore on the sea air.
There is a natural lull in activity in the afternoon. People settle into reading and dozing on towels as the sun sinks behind the green headland. As the day draws to a close, beachgoers head to the small grid of streets that constitute the town’s heart to make the most of the lively beer gardens and candlelit restaurants.