The city of Wollongong (or "The Gong") is a 2.5 hour drive north east of Canberra. This busy city is also just over an hour south of Sydney's CBD, so it is a popular playground for Sydney-siders to visit on weekends to get out of the city. Visitors often travel below Wollongong to the small seaside town of Kiama for some countryside peace and quiet by the ocean, however our family also enjoys Wollongong's northern beaches for long stretches of empty beaches, cafes and views. The ideal time to visit is during the week for beaches all to yourself, however anytime is holidaytime on Wollongong's Northern Beaches.
Wollongong's North Beach is a scenic first stop when exploring the area, with a winding walkway along the coast and up to the two lighthouses on the peninsula - Wollongong Breakwater and Flagstaff Hill Lighthouse. Stop for awhile and enjoy a Paleo smoothie at North Kiosk or be tempted by the local produce next door at Diggies café with a view. Further around the walkway is Northbeach Pavilion for another scenic café option overlooking North Beach.
Why not take your shoes off and feel the sand between your toes and enjoy watching the skydivers parachute down out of the sky (with Skydive Sydney-Wollongong), landing at Stuart Park behind the beach. If you are interested in staying in this location, the Novotel Wollongong Northbeach is situated behind the beach and has 180 degree views of the North Beach coastline and is close to the city action.
From here, head north and follow the brown signs for the Grand Pacific Drive and enjoy the scenic route along the coastal villages and over headlands. This single lane road can get congested on weekends, however there are plenty of little places to stop off and have an explore. There are cabins and camping spots in ideal locations such as Bulli Beach and Corrimal Beach, run by the local Wollongong City council. As the norm with caravan parks, they have the best locations right behind the sand dunes and book up quickly. If you have kids, the playground at Bulli Beach is a large and colourful one and there is plenty of room for BBQs and games of cricket with new friends. On Sundays there is also the Bulli Foragers Markets and a variety of coffee shops all up and down the scenic route.
For trendy cafes and quaint shops to explore, ensure you stop off at suburbs Thirroul and Austinmer and track down some locals favourites. Why not try Bread, Expresso & and Bergies Fish Café, two popular eateries along the Grand Pacific Drive. If you have kids, the playground at Austinmer is also worth the stop, with a fenced area perfect for smaller children to run safely.
Bergies Fish Cafe, owned by TV personality Mark Berg. Source: Facebook
As you continue up the scenic route there is Little Austinmer Beach, another quiet beach for dog walkers and shell collecting. If you enjoy exploring the rock pools, each beach has a rock platform so you can spend hours peering into the pools looking for sea life, a fun pastime with kids. Sharkey's Beach around the headland is another popular spot to do the same and take in the views. Headlands Resort and Tavern is currently being built between the two beaches, which will create an ideal spot to enjoy a drink on its hilltop location with sweeping views.
Sharkey's Beach, with construction on the headland in the distance
For a scenic caravan or camping spot that is smaller and out of the way, keep driving north to Coledale Beach, popular with fishing enthusiasts. The Coledale Beach Camping Reserve is an ideal beachfront location, with campers going to sleep listening to the waves just metres from their tent. Although this beach doesn't have swimming flags up in the colder months, in Summer this is an ideal family beach with little waves protected by the rock platform. This coastal strip is looked over by the rainforest-covered Illawarra escarpment, a cliff between 150 and 750 metres high that runs behind Wollongong's Northern Beaches.
If you are after a longer stay and more comfortable accommodation, there are numerous hotels located along this part of the coastal drive, as well as private homes rented out through Stayz.com. In particular, The Shack at Coledale Beach is a 2 bedroom ex-miners cottage which has been renovated and is now a cosy home away from home, just walking distance to the beach. With a small playground in the back garden and a deck with views to the ocean, it is a peaceful retreat back from the main coastal route.
Nearing the end of the coastline is one of the most popular pubs in Wollongong, located less than five minutes further up the road from Coledale. The Scarborough Pub was originally built in 1886 and looks like a beautiful historical pub on the outside, however when you walk downstairs to the clifftop location it shows off its spectacular secret. It is easy to see why you need to book a table on weekends to enjoy the food and views from this stunning vantage point. Between May and November, sit back with a cold beer or wine and look for the spray of whales as they migrate by.
Literally just a few minutes north of the Scarborough Hotel, at the end of the stretch of beaches, is the Sea Cliff Bridge. This 665m bridge was built over the ocean and around the clifftops to connect the beaches of northern Wollongong to the towns along the coastline. It is worth taking the short drive along this bridge to experience the views and wonder at the engineering feat of creating it.
Our family enjoyed our trip to Wollongong's Northern Beaches. Although a lot busier than Batemans Bay and Merimbula (think Sydney traffic on the weekends), it has a lot to offer as a road trip from Canberra. Another advantage of this location is if it rains during your stay, there is a host of indoor activities, stadiums and cinemas to explore in Wollongong City.
While the sun is shining however, stay for as long as you can on the deserted beaches and arrive back to Canberra with some sand between your toes - a priceless souvenier to tide you over from The Gong.
Stunning scenery and reflections at Coledale Beach