The sights and the tastes of a place called Eden delight Alexia Santamaria.
Screaming through stands of rod straight eucalyptus trees that make up so much of Australia's forest while trying to make sure I don't break local speed limits, I finally arrive in Eden. Slightly late for my tour of the Eden Killer Whale Museum (ahead of the Whale Festival the next day) I'm hot, flustered and very apologetic to Bob, my guide. I soon realise that it's no big deal as no one is in a rush in this very relaxed harbour town.
Looking out, I can see why this beautiful part of the world is called the Sapphire Coast.
There's no other description for the deep dark blue of the ocean, and as opposed to New Zealand, where it would be complemented by hues of green, the red clay of the Australian coastline provides even more dramatic contrast.
But back to the whales. Because that's what Eden is all about; a somewhat evolved focus over the past couple of centuries. They used to slaughter them here, and barbaric as it was, it's part of the area's history. Fortunately now it's all about watching these gorgeous creatures at play, and being respectful of them in their natural habitat.
The tour of the museum is fascinating. We're greeted by the skeleton of Old Tom, a killer whale. They are not the first whale bones I've seen, but Tom's tale (all puns intended) is truly unique. This orca lived in Eden in the late 1800s and early 1900s and was thought to be the leader of a pod that used to actually help the whalers herd and kill baleen whales.
When they found a victim, one of them — often Tom — would head back to the whalers and beat his tail on the water to attract attention while the others kept the baleen whale prisoner by surrounding it.
Old Tom and his crew would be rewarded with the tongue and lips of the deceased, so continued to do it for years — so much for solidarity.
I'm here for the Eden Whale Festival, an annual celebration where visitors enjoy oysters (freshly shucked from the famous Batemans Bay farms), food stalls, games, arts and craft vendors, performers and general frivolity all around. It's a whole town (and beyond) affair and the Marine Discovery Centre has kids displays and plenty to look at. I head up the hill to watch the parade of classic cars, floats and whale-themed vehicles head down to the wharf, and reflect on how much nicer it is to celebrate whales rather than the historical alternative.
The festivities continue the next day. I love watching the locals ooh and ahh over the classic cars at the Hot Rod Show n Shine and a local photography exhibition gives me an insight into this small town and its intimate relationship with the world's biggest mammals.
On a tour with the lovely Tim Shepherd from Light 2 Light's Coastal Walks, I discover more about of the region's history. Tim is an ex National Parks Regional Manager and his knowledge on the area is exhaustive. He drives me through the historical highlights of the Killer Whale Trail including stops at the glorious — and very photogenic — Boyd Tower and a whalers' cottage, preserved largely as it was in those macabre days. The history of the area and its colourful colonisers is riveting, and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.
Preparing for an early start on the water, I have an early dinner at the Seahorse Inn, a magnificent boutique hotel in Twofold Bay. In its original form, this was the first building in Boydtown, named after Benjamin Boyd, a Scottish entrepreneur who purchased a large section of land in the area in the mid-1800s.
Twofold Bay is one of the deepest natural harbours in the world and it's just my luck that at this time of the year, many of the humpback mothers and their calves stop here for a rest. In the bracing morning air, I board the Cat Balou cruise and spend a magical morning watching them frolic and play in their natural environment. I'm lost for words observing the splendour of these gentle giants, under the guidance of the wonderful Ros and Gordon, who've been doing this for more than three decades.
My last evening on the Sapphire Coast ends with fabulous food (some of the best tempura oysters I've tasted) and a cocktail overlooking Eden Harbour at Drift Bar and Restaurant.
My table is right by the window and is the perfect vantage point for the end of festival fireworks — a stunning explosion of colour over the harbour.
It may not be big and bold like surrounding cities Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, but Eden is definitely a very special corner of New South Wales.
flies from Auckland to Sydney, with return Economy Class fares from $622.
Connections to Merimbula Airport, a 20-minute drive from Eden, are available with Regional Express Airlines.
The 2018 Eden Whale Festival takes place from November 2-4.