Alexia Santamaria takes a food-lover's road trip down the south coast of NSW.
Pulling out through Sydney's traffic, planes flying disturbingly low over my car, I am disproportionately excited about my trip down the New South Wales coast from Sydney to Eden. I'm on a trail of tastiness, and have heard the landscape will impress me as much as the food.
My first stop is Kiama, two hours from Sydney and after a quick bite at local favourite, Penny Whistler's, I'm off to see the famous blowhole. I see why it's a local attraction; wild blue waves crashing noisily on sheer dramatic cliffs, the coast is magnificent — and the jets of water shooting up metres into the sky through the hole itself, are mesmerising. As much as I want to stay, my culinary mission is dinner at Rick Stein's restaurant in Mollymook by evening, so I have to tear myself away from the frivolity.
A winery, and then some
I've been told there's a must-do winery on the way, but on arrival I realise Cupitt's is much more than that. The team there also brew cracking beer, make excellent cheese and grow herbs and vegetables for the restaurant. I can see why they've won numerous awards; it would be easy to while away a day here. I'm lucky enough to get a sneaky peek into the fromagerie; inhaling the heady aromas of their goat's milk tomme and oozy brie puts me into a blissful trance-like state. We finish with a cold glass of their Rosie's Rosé over a view of Burrill Lake and the Budawang Ranges and I wonder if I'll make it to Mollymook.
When I do get there, I'm caught off-guard by the beauty of the sunset-tinged sand and turquoise sea — Australians know how to do beaches, and I'm overjoyed to have this one almost to myself. The early evening light gives everything a magical glow and I allow myself half an hour to sit and absorb it. Renewed, I head to Rick Stein at Bannisters and enjoy a wonderful seafood dinner - plump prawns, fat scallops, juicy oysters, tasty mussels, blue swimmer crab and littleneck clams - wowed by the views over the mirror-like infinity pool and out to the wild Pacific. I can see why the pool bar has won awards; general manager, Rupert Sakora, tells me they get a lot of people popping in for a wood-fired pizza and cheeky cocktail at the bar just for "that view". I'm finding it hard to believe I'm somewhere so stunning, instead of cooking dinner after my son's cricket practise.
In the morning it's on to Narooma, but not without a stop at Batemans Bay, for oysters. Jim Yiannaros, who, with his twin brother owns one of the 12 farms in the area, takes me out on his boat, pointing out Pacific and Sydney rock varieties in all their growth stages — the largest requires two hands to display. Jim's been shucking oysters with his dad, who originally owned the business, since he was 6 and opens some up for me to eat on the spot. Their salty, glistening flesh pops in my mouth as we chat in the sun and life seems pretty much perfect.
Milk bar magic
I have a date with the wonderful Sandra McCuaig of Bodalla Dairy, 20 minutes down the coast. She shows me through her cheese factory, and we share a sensational creamy milkshake in her retro milk bar after bottle-feeding one of the big-eyed calves. Bodalla used to be a thriving milk-producing region and Sandra is trying to bring dairy back to the area. After a tasting, I can see why her cheese is now stocked widely, and why everyone stops for an icecream — the milk is pasteurised one batch at a time to the lowest legal temperature, leaving it as unadulterated as possible.
Seals and silliness
It's only 20 minutes to Narooma, but what a drive. I have to stop the car several times at lookouts to avoid causing an accident craning my neck at the magnificent coastline and sparkling sea. Narooma has a quirky charm and after some hide-and-seek with the seals around Mill Bay Boardwalk (they are a very similar colour to the rocks) I spend a cracking night over an abundance of local seafood, at Quarterdeck, right on the water. You don't expect to find a Tiki bar with killer cocktails run by a guy who owns more than 200 Hawaiian shirts and several stuffed animals in a tiny town like this — but New South Wales is full of surprises!
A whale of an ending
The next day I'm headed for Eden but not without stopping in Central Tilba. Visiting this Australian heritage village is like stepping back in time. The original buildings, constructed by European settlers in the 1800s, are now filled with artisan food producers, cafes, shops and galleries. I grow particularly attached to the dark hazelnut bark at Tilba Chocolates, the Vintage Blue at ABC Cheese Factory and the 200-plus types of tea and eclectic mishmash of teapots and cups at Eurum and can see why visitors spend long periods of time fossicking around this tiny town. But after a reluctant departure, it's on to Eden for a few days of whale-watching. I take a break from incessant eating to experience the joys of humpback whale season before finally heading home. I may need bigger pants, but it was worth it for the incredible food and beautiful scenery.
Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Qantas all fly direct from Auckland to Sydney.