Oliver Pelling finds five unmissable road trips to take in New South Wales once the borders reopen
Sydney might be the shiniest jewel in New South Wales' crown, but beyond the glitz and clamour of Australia's superstar city you'll find near endless kilometres of bitumen; most of it flanked by world-beating natural stuff, every inch of it screaming to be explored by four (or two) wheels.
And, as soon as the transtasman bubble is up and running, explore you should. With a havoc-wreaking 2019/20 bushfire season and the worst — touch wood — of a pandemic behind it, visiting rural New South Wales when we're able to safely means supporting local communities, businesses, families and individuals on the road to recovery.
From east to west (or right to left, if you like), the state transforms from sepia-soaked coastal haven into hinterland utopia into snowy mountains into untrammelled Australian outback; four distinct personalities of a state that's teeming with fresh local produce, Indigenous history, natural splendour and some of the chummiest locals you could ever hope to meet.
Day trips from Sydney and Newcastle are an option, sure. So are those big multi-day coach tours. But a traveller would do well to assert a little agency over their explorations, hire a vehicle, and allow the road to slide into the rear-view mirror at their own pace. For that traveller, here are some of the state's premier bitumen-based touring routes.
The Grand Pacific Drive
Hugging the coast, the Grand Pacific Drive is one of New South Wales' most popular driving routes. From Sydney you'll head south into Sutherland, through Royal National Park, then Wollongong (NSW's third-largest city), Shellharbour, Kiama, Shoalhaven, all the way down into Jervis Bay — if you feel so inclined (which you will). The route dishes up an unreasonable amount of eyeball-popping scenery in exchange for one of the easiest to navigate touring routes in the country. It almost doesn't seem fair.
Wollongong's Sea Cliff Bridge is worth the drive alone, not to mention the Kiama blowhole and rainforest trails, the endless walking routes of Royal National Park, more immaculate beaches than you'll know what to do with, and plenty of pubs, wineries, and restaurants to provide ample sustenance for the journey ahead.
Route: Sydney, Royal National Park, Wollongong, Kiama, Jervis Bay.
Length: 179km one-way
Don't miss: Sea Cliff Bridge and Nan Tien (the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere, located in Wollongong).
Eat and drink: Oysters — this is "Australia's Oyster Coast", after all. Drink at Silos Estate in Shoalhaven.
Greater Blue Mountains Drive
Heading inland now, make tracks for Katoomba: the jumping-off point for the camera-thirsty Blue Mountains and Wollemi National Parks. This World Heritage-listed chunk of the Great Dividing Range, rich in Aboriginal history and culture, can be navigated by around 18 individual routes, meaning you'll be able to find an itinerary that'll fit whatever timeframe you need to work to (as long as you're able to resist all those cellar doors).
Even a day trip from Sydney to Katoomba will afford you a brilliant snack-sized taster of the region; with plenty of walking tracks and photo opportunities — including the Leura Cascades and the famous Three Sisters rock formation — accessible from town.
Those who have time to press on through Lithgow and beyond (depending on which route you take) will be rewarded by the likes of the Capertree Valley (the world's second-largest canyon), the historic town of Mudgee, the Upper Hunter Wine Region, the Southern Highlands and more besides.
Route: Sydney, Blue Mountains, Greater Blue Mountains.
Length: 1065km loop
Don't miss: The multi-award-winning Aboriginal Blue Mountains Walkabout tour (departing from the Faulconbridge Railway Station), an Aboriginal-owned and guided educational adventure.
Eat and drink: Eat at The Zin House, an award-winning spot specialising in local produce, and sup a cold beer at Mudgee Brewing Co, the town's oldest brewery.
Legendary Pacific Coast
Time to cuddle the coast again, heading north through Newcastle all the way up into Coffs Harbour, Byron Bay and Tweed Heads. With the likes of Salamander Bay, the Great Lakes, Arakoon National Park, and Brunswick Heads all rolling up and scrolling past your window, it'll be hard to keep your eyes on the road.
In a perfect world, you'd be able to roll into each town and spend a week or two sampling the local fare, beaching yourself on the world-class beaches, and reading all those books you've been meaning to read. If that's the world you inhabit, great. If not, any amount of time spent trundling up and down this immaculate stretch of coast will yield an absolutely unnecessary volume of feel-good coastal vibes (especially when you hit the Northern Rivers).
Don't forget to pay your respects to the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, either, and grab a bag of macadamias from one of the many local macadamia farms while you're at it.
Route: Sydney, Newcastle, Port Stephens, South West Rocks, Coffs Harbour, Tweed Heads.
Length: 818km one-way
Don't miss: The view from your window, at any given moment.
Eat and drink: Eat the Blue Swimmer Crab Tagliolini at Park Street Pasta Bar in Brunswick heads, and drink whatever the chef recommends to go with it.
Kosciuszko Alpine Way
"Snowy Mountains" isn't the first image that comes to mind when you think of Australia, but the country has scores of rugged and seasonally snow-dusted mountainous lumps scattered across it. And there are few better places to see this side of Australia than from within Kosciuszko National Park — home of Mt Kosciuszko, the tallest peak Down Under.
Kick off in Canberra and head south to Cooma, gateway to the NSW Snowy Mountains and the region's largest town. Think fishing, skiing, snowboarding, hiking, horse riding and whitewater rafting — you can do it all here, whether it's snow season or not (Australian snow season typically runs from June to October).
Push on to Jindabyne, soaking up the gobsmacking alpine scenery as you go, and stop in for a day (or two, or six) at one of the many campgrounds, chalets, eco-resorts or motels. From here you'll take the Kosciuszko Alpine Way — a route historically used by the local Aboriginal people — en route to Khancoban, where outdoorsy (snow sports, hiking, etc) and indoorsy (eating, drinking, etc) pursuits provide ample opportunity for calorie offsetting.
Route: Canberra, Cooma, Jindabyne, Kosciuszko National Park.
Length: 171km one-way.
Don't miss: If you like your snow, don't skip Thredbo, one of Australia's premier snow resorts.
Eat and drink: CBD ("CoffeeBeatsDrinks") in Jindabyne brings a grungy big-city cafe aesthetic to the alpine region, dishing up delicious bagels for breakfast and more than 100 single malt whiskies for later.
Riverina to Snowy Valleys Way
This 400km route takes you from the brilliantly named Tumbarumba, a gold rush town southwest of Canberra, deep into the inner-reaches of Australia's "food bowl".
What is the food bowl? It's essentially the confluence of Australia's three longest rivers — the Darling, the Murrumbidgee and the Murray — from which roughly one-third of the country's entire food supply is produced. A good place to travel through if you're prone to peckishness.
Stunning alpine eye-candy will accompany you for the duration and, when that runs out, it'll be replaced by immaculate farmland, vineyards and riverine splendour. If you're looking for a trip that'll allow you to sample the flavours of rural New South Wales while basking in Mother Nature's abundance, this little touring route is sure to put a smile on your dial.
Route: Tumbarumba (via Canberra), Tumut, Wagga Wagga, Junee, Coolamon, Narranderra, Leeton, Griffith.
Length: 403.6km one-way.
Don't miss: If you're cave-inclined, you'd do well to see out the 440-million-year-old Yarrangobilly Caves near Tumbarumba.
Eat and drink: Raise your glass at Lillypilly Wines in Nanderra, and push your lactose threshold to the limits at Coolamon Cheese — specialists in handmade slabs of dairy.
Note: Large areas of New South Wales were affected by the 2019/20 bushfires. While tourism to the area is encouraged, the availability and access to certain experiences and locations may have altered. Additionally, certain Covid-19 restrictions may affect the opening hours and accessibility of some locations. Check before you travel to avoid disappointment.