Love a good road trip by the water? Then Ultimate Coastal Road Trips: Australia by LEE ATKINSON will be an essential companion.
Jump on board as we take a tour of Laurieton to South West Rocks on the NSW coast.
Laurieton to South West Rocks
Small-town charm and beautiful uncrowded beaches with legendary surf and great camping.
Laurieton is roughly a 4hr drive north of Sydney/Warrang. From there it’s just a little more than a 1hr drive from Laurieton to South West Rocks if you stay on the Pacific Hwy, but that’s not the point. With beaches this good you can stretch it out over a long weekend. Or even make it a two-week holiday trip.
WHEN TO GO
Summer temperatures hover around 27°C, winter temperatures range from 8 to 18°C. Generally, the water in the ocean is warm enough for swimming between Sept and Apr. If you want to see whales, go in winter/spring between June and Nov.
NEED TO KNOW
The track through Limeburners Creek National Park between Port Macquarie and Crescent Head can be impassable after rain.
Aside from the beaches in the coastal towns, many of the beaches on this route are unpatrolled.
Trial Bay Kiosk in Arakoon National Park near South West Rocks is one of the coast’s best-kept secrets and a favourite eating place for locals. If you haven’t had the chance to try much of the local seafood, try the platter for two here. It’s best eaten on the deck while sipping a local white wine and staring out across the bay, usually showcases the best of whatever’s fresh. As a bonus, it’s one of the few spots on Australia’s east coast where you can watch the sunset over the sea. Book ahead at trialbaykiosk.com.au
Get off the highway and chill out on this family-friendly, back-to-nature coastal road trip through national parks and beguilingly low-key towns and villages on the NSW mid-north coast. Forget glitzy high-rise hotels – the camping grounds and caravan parks here have the best views. Fine dining is fresh fish and chips eaten with salty fingers while overlooking the sea.
Easy. Sealed roads with optional 4WD section.
Acknowledgement of Country
This is the Traditional Land of the Birpai, Dunghutti and Ngaku Peoples.
Laurieton to South West Rocks via Crescent Head: around 148km
- Laurieton to Port Macquarie, via the coast: 30km
- Port Macquarie to Crescent Head via Point Plomer (4WD): 46km (65km via the highway)
- Crescent Head to South West Rocks: 73km
- Port Macquarie Visitor Information Centre, cnr Clarence and Hay sts; 1300 303 155; portmacquarieinfo.com.au
- Macleay Valley Coast Visitor Information Centre, 490 Macleay Valley Way, South Kempsey; (02) 6566 6692; macleayvalleycoast.com.au
LAURIETON TO PORT MACQUARIE
The fun begins on this little coastal roadie when you turn off the Pacific Hwy at the Big Axe in Kew (361km north of Sydney/Warrang, around a 4hr drive or a half-hour drive south of Port Macquarie airport) and head east along Ocean Dr to Laurieton, one of three villages at the mouth of the Camden Haven River – the other two are Dunbogan on the south side of the inlet and North Haven on the north – collectively known as the Camden Haven.
The lookout at North Brother Mountain in Dooragan National Park on the road into Laurieton has good views over Camden Haven and its expanse of waterways and beaches and is worth the short detour. There’s a lovely little rainforest walk at the summit, as well as picnic tables, and it’s a great spot to watch the fearless hang gliders take off.
Back at sea level, follow the walking path along the Camden Haven River in either direction to Dunbogan or North Haven and watch the pelicans swoop down to steal scraps from the fisher folk cleaning their catches. On any given day you’ll usually find dozens of locals casting their lines along the breakwall, off the beaches and from tinnies. Hoping to reel in a monster-sized bream, blackfish, snapper or crab, or probing the sandbars during low tide for bait. You can hire fishing gear, boats and kayaks at the Dunbogan Boatshed. More often than not you’ll see a dolphin or two here as well.
Apart from during peak holiday time, the beaches in and around Laurieton are almost always deserted: for surf head to North Haven; for sheltered swimming, rockpools and shade Pilot Beach on the Dunbogan side is the spot. The local fish co-op down on the river, Laurieton Seafoods invariably has a line of hungry locals out the front, and Armstrong Oysters sells fat, creamy oysters from its riverside shed. The Art Deco Plaza Theatre shows good art house movies – Baz Luhrmann’s father was a projectionist here and this is where Baz was first smitten by the motion picture industry.
From Laurieton, the coast road north to Port Macquarie cuts through heath-covered sand dunes, over headlands with views along endless stretches of beach, and skirts the shores of Lake Cathie (pronounced ‘cat-eye’). In spring, the bushland beside the road is carpeted with Christmas bells and flannel flowers.
In Port Macquarie, stretch your legs along the boardwalk at Sea Acres Rainforest Centre, the second largest coastal rainforest reserve in NSW, or on the 3hr coastal walk, where five beaches are linked by wooden walkways over rocky headlands. The pathway starts at Lighthouse Beach and finishes at Town Beach. Where you can walk along the breakwall to the grassy park at the mouth of the Hastings River known as the Town Green. Do it in the afternoon so you can time your arrival at the Beach House Hotel to enjoy a cold beer or cocktail at an outdoor table on the edge of the green as you watch the sun sink into the river while surveying the passing parade of people and pelicans.
The Town Green is Port’s heart and soul. It’s where everyone takes their takeaway fish and chips, kids ride scooters and tricycles and chase seagulls, families dangle fishing lines from the wharf and it’s practically mandatory to lick an ice-cream while reading the graffiti along the breakwall.
Two attractions at Wauchope will appeal especially to children. Timbertown is a re-creation of a 19th-century timber-getting village, complete with steam train rides, horse and carriage rides, and whip and timber-cutting displays.
Bago Maze and Winery has the largest hedge maze in NSW, and kids love discovering the giant musical chimes, recycled bells (made from gas cylinders) and marimba (a cross between a piano and a xylophone) along the way.
Billabong Zoo Koala and Wildlife Park between Port Macquarie and Wauchope is a popular family attraction. But ask a local and they’ll point you to the Koala Hospital in the grounds of Roto House in Lord St in Port. It’s the only one of its kind in the country that is open to the public every day and its cheerful band of volunteers care for up 250 sick and injured koalas each year. There’s a free tour daily at 3pm.
Head into the hills
The other ‘back way’ to Port (locals always drop the ‘Macquarie’) is via Tourist Drive 8 (which has some unsealed sections), from Taree via Wingham and Wauchope. Take a walk through Wingham Brush with its resident flying foxes and visit Ellenborough Falls, one of the largest single-drop waterfalls in the Southern Hemisphere. The village of Comboyne is perched high on an open plateau and from there the road winds its way back down the mountain rainforest towards Wauchope.
PORT MACQUARIE TO CRESCENT HEAD
If you have a 4WD you can take the Settlement Point ferry from Port Macquarie to North Shore to rock and roll your way across the sand ridges and through the banksia forests and heathlands of Limeburners Creek National Park and on to Crescent Head on the sandy Plomer Rd (expect some very big, rather deep puddles after rain). If you don’t have a 4WD, take the same ferry and follow the Maria River Rd. It’s unsealed, but as long as there hasn’t been too much bad weather lately it’s usually okay. If in doubt, stick to the Pacific Hwy and take the turn-off to Crescent Head just south of Kempsey.
Keen surfers will probably already know that Crescent Head is home to one of the best right-hand surf breaks in the country (Killick Beach is a National Surfing Reserve) and a favourite with longboard riders around the world. But it’s not just about the surf. Here, life is just like it used to be before fishing villages became seaside resorts: just one long beach and a casual, laid-back attitude where shoes are definitely optional and everyone has salt-stiffened hair.
Good for a rainy day
Ricardoes farm, just a 10min drive from Port, is home to the best tasting tomatoes you’ll ever eat. Grab a bagful at the farm, or buy a batch ready-made into soup, sauce or relish in the shed-like Cafe Red, which also has a good range of strawberry treats; you can also pick strawberries here.
If you’re a country music fan, you’ll enjoy the Slim Dusty Centre and Museum in South Kempsey (the singer grew up in Kempsey).
CRESCENT HEAD TO SOUTH WEST ROCKS
From Crescent Head drive north along the banks of the Belmore River through lush dairy country studded with black and white cows. You’ll reach the tiny hamlet of Gladstone, where the Belmore River converges with the broad Macleay River and you’ll find several very good riverside cafes, galleries and boutiques. Follow the twists and turns of the Macleay River towards South West Rocks – if you’re self-catering pick up some fresh fruit and vegies at the many farm gate stalls that line the riverside along the way.
Strung out along the shores of Horseshoe Bay at the mouth of the Macleay River, South West Rocks is another idyllic place, where the waterfront caravan park has the best view in town, the Seabreeze Beach Hotel not only lives up to its name but does a great lunch, and if you time your stay to avoid the holidays and summer weekends the town can be blissfully crowd-free.
Drive up to Smoky Cape Lighthouse, built in 1891 (it’s good odds you’ll see whales between May and Nov) and Arakoon National Park to wander around the very photogenic sandstone ruins of historic Trial Bay Gaol. Built in 1877, closed in 1903, and reopened in 1915 to hold internees from Germany during World War I – who were allowed out onto the beaches during the day but locked up at night – this is a gaol with a view. It’s now a museum and you can walk through the old cells.
The surrounding beachside picnic and camping area is a popular spot during summer holidays and the Trial Bay Kiosk is a top spot for feasting with a view and just like the rest of this road trip, is proof that you don’t need to be glamorous to be good, because sometimes the simple things really are the best.
Of all the half-forgotten out-of-the-way villages studded along this section of the mid-north coast, Hat Head is one of my favourites. It’s just a clutch of holiday houses and a store where you can stock up on essentials like bait, burgers or beer. But it’s surrounded by national park and offers a range of camping options that are guaranteed to remind you that all you really need to be happy is some sun, sand, surf, grilled sausages and maybe some fish and chips. It’s also at the beginning of one of the best cliff-top walks in the region. The 3km Korogoro Walking Track that loops around the hat-shaped (if you squint) headland.
- From the outside the El Paso Motor Inn in the centre of Port Macquarie is your quintessential mid-20th century motel. Although a recent refurb has given the interiors a fresh start. elmotorinn.com.au
- Heritage Guest House Located in the heart of South West Rocks, this guesthouse has nine large ensuite rooms. See if you can nab rooms 5 or 6 as they open out onto the sun-soaked balcony. heritageguesthouse.com.au
There’s no shortage of great places to park a van or pitch a tent on this part of the coast. The NRMA Port Macquarie Breakwall Holiday Park between Town Beach and the river has one of the best views in town. The Crescent Head Holiday Park overlooks the beach, and the camping spots at nearby Point Plomer in Limeburners Creek National Park are popular with surfers. Horseshoe Bay Holiday Park in South West Rocks offers waterfront spots opposite the pub. Hat Head Holiday Park is delightfully old school, but it does have powered sites and hot showers, and is just a hop, skip and jump from the beach. For wow factor though, it’s hard to go past Trial Bay Campground in Arakoon National Park. Here you can set up camp overlooking the water in the shadow of the sandstone ruins of historic gaol. Bookings are essential for all campgrounds in NSW national parks, whatever the time of year. See NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (nationalparks.nsw.gov.au).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This is an edited extract from Ultimate Coastal Road Trips: Australia by Lee Atkinson. Published by Hardie Grant Explore, available in stores nationally from 1 November 2023. RRP$45.00. Photographs by Lee Atkinson.