South Coast Beaches

While most people we know are experiencing winter, summer is going strong here in the southern hemisphere. As I watch snowfall on my friends’ social media posts, Australians are looking to beat record heat, and with about 15,000 miles of coastline and a population of less than 25 million, Australians are spoilt for choice when it comes to beaches. And although Canberra is inland, as opposed to Australia’s other major cities found on the coast, it’s only a 2-3 hour drive from Canberra to most beaches of Australia’s famed south coast. Before Christmas, I started exploring south coast trips once I realized that beautiful beaches and inexpensive AirBnB options abound.

For our first trip, we went with four other embassy friends to Jervis Bay over a three day weekend. Since it was an American holiday rather than an Australian one, we didn’t expect crowds.

Two friends left on Friday, and on Saturday morning, the other four of us headed out. It was my first time taking my car that far out of town, and since the engine light continues to malfunction we were happy to caravan along behind our friends in their car; in the event something went wrong, we would at least be able to leave our car and continue on with them.

The drive itself was beautiful. We left the Australian Capital Territory through the north, continuing along the highway past Goulburn and a number of wineries, turning off onto country roads towards Kangaroo Valley and Nowra. Eventually we ascended from the valleys and meadows, twisting through a long and winding mountain pass that would have reminded me of northern California had it not more closely resembled a rainforest jungle, invisible parrots screeching from the trees. My ears popped a few times as we made our way back down, the ocean coming into view in the distance.

When we arrived, we met up with our AirBnB hostess and were pleasantly surprised with the little oasis we’d selected. There were roses and hydrangeas all the way around the wraparound porch, and our hostess had left us eggs, bacon, onions, tomatoes, portobello mushrooms, and freshly baked bread for the morning.

Our friends had an AirBnB reservation near ours (their arrangements predated ours, and their house only slept four), so while we were getting settled they grabbed everyone deli sandwiches and drinks for lunch, and headed to nearby Collingwood Beach where we met them shortly thereafter. The weather was overcast but warm, and there was almost no one around – perfect beach conditions! This beach was literally a 6 minute drive from our house, with parking and easy beach access.

As I put my toes into the warm Pacific, I imagined that the water swirling around my feet could somehow reach all the way to the distant shores of my childhood and family in California.

It was the first time I’d really submerged my foot in water since my foot surgery, and it felt good. It’s funny to feel lucky that you have ten toes to put in the water, but I do. We threw a boomerang around, drank wine, pretended to do water aerobics, and just generally enjoyed each other’s company. Given the makeup of the group, there was plenty of acerbic wit and hilarity to go around.

After several hours at the beach, we cleaned ourselves up, enjoyed our deck for a little while, and then met our friends for dinner at what has to be the best Japanese restaurant on the entire south coast, KanPai in nearby Huskisson. The rainbow maki was to die for! In fact, the service was outstanding and every dish and drink we ordered was delicious and beyond expectations. Highly recommended if you’re in Jervis Bay! (As the Aussies say, bookings are essential.)

We spent a lovely evening on the deck, drinking sparkling burgundy and listening to the kookaburras laugh like mad.

The following morning, our friends wanted to go out to breakfast, but we opted to cook at home and head out early to explore another beach near our house. Usually in our family my husband is the chef, but I do enjoy making breakfast, and as he was enjoying a rare instance of sleeping in, I set about scrambling eggs, making toast, bacon, cereal, and fruit salad. Again, our hostess had made everything extra nice with special touches like placemats, candles, and cloth napkins that went along with the color scheme of our little bungalow.

After breakfast, we headed across the street to the White Sands walking trail, which links a number of area beaches.

We were looking for Blenheim Beach, and when we found it, we were amazed.

The beach was totally deserted, and the soft sand and seascape colors were unlike anything I’d seen since we visited the Maldives in 2016.

We didn’t get into the water past our ankles, because although the water was warm, the chilly wind was so strong that it threw sand in our faces and blew away our hats repeatedly.

I walked along in the wind, enjoying the sights and thinking how lucky we were to have the whole place to ourselves. If only it would have not been so windy, it would have truly been paradise on earth. Another time we’ll give Blenheim Beach a try.

We showered and packed up the house, thanking our hostess and going back to Collingwood Beach with our friends for one last chance at a suntan. They planned to stay on for the holiday Monday, but we had long-standing doctor appointments in Canberra that we unfortunately needed to get back for. Before heading for home, we stopped back in Huskisson for a delicious Sunday lunch at The Quarters.

Jervis Bay was a great trip, and I’m sure we’ll do it again soon.

A couple weeks later towards the end of January, as my back surgery loomed and I felt mid-summer slipping away, I made the somewhat impulsive decision to do another south coast beach weekend with only a couple of days’ pre-planning. Since it was another three day weekend, this time for Australia Day, almost every accommodation along the entire coast was already booked up.

But I did manage to find a place at Congo Beach that was available, a little closer to home plus allowing a swing through Bateman’s Bay. Despite again only having an overnight to spend, and my husband working until midnight the day before, we made our way there. We were anxious to get into the the water once more after a long hot week in Canberra that was only exacerbated by the government shutdown.

The drive was a little easier, the road a little wider, although still with steep ascents and descents through a mountain pass. This time our accommodation was through a forest park and right across the street (about 100 meters) from the water. It was a simple place, kind of in the middle of nowhere, but it was clean, cheap, and had air conditioning, and that was fine with us.

Leave your horsies at home!

We spent all afternoon enjoying the white hot sun and warm water. The temperature was surprisingly humid and in the low 80s. The one thing I hadn’t realized about Congo Beach is that it’s really more for surfers and boogie boarders than swimmers. The surf was rough, and although shallow, with only about five seconds between wave breaks, there wasn’t an easy place to tread water. I did sit for quite some time at the water’s edge, and I could feel the tide’s strength as the receding waves sucked the sand out from around and underneath me, over and over again.

At a certain point swimming, I was really getting my ass kicked by the continuous surf and riptide. After diving under the third wave in quick succession, I came up to realize the force of the water had knocked off my sunglasses. I was surprised, because I always swim with sunglasses on (to protect my contact lenses, and to protect my eyes from the sun’s glare), and had never lost a pair.

Unfortunately for me, these weren’t just any pair of sunglasses – they were my Prada sunglasses that I bought in 2011. I actually don’t even own a second pair of sunglasses – I just have those. And I literally wear them every day. I tend to buy high quality items that I really like, and then I keep them for years (and years, and years). To lose something like those sunglasses seemed like such a waste, even though by most of my contemporaries’ standards the glasses would be considered ancient.

My husband was swimming nearby, and helped me search for them. But after several minutes it seemed hopeless – the waves were crashing too quickly, the water was deep and murky with churned-up sand, and I was sure they had been sucked out a dozen yards already. I mentally said goodbye to my sunglasses and felt so pissed off with myself for letting that happen.

I got out of the water and stood on the beach, feeling defeated but not totally ready to give up. Perhaps they would rush in somehow with the rough tide. I felt sad watching my husband cast about in the deep rough water, in what seemed like a pointless effort, trying to rescue what I’d lost.

He stayed there for several minutes, and I watched, not expecting anything. Suddenly he went under water, and three seconds later he came up holding my sunglasses in the air. I could hardly believe it. Astonished, I started jumping up and down. The lenses weren’t even scratched. It was a great second chance moment – lesson learned.

Since Congo Beach is about 12 minutes away from the closest town to the north, Moruya, my husband brought home Vietnamese takeout that evening, and we sat watching TV, enjoying the bird calls and retiring early.

The next morning it was raining so hard, for so many hours, it seemed like the end of days. We scrapped our plans for an early morning beach walk, put together a breakfast from groceries we’d brought, and headed back towards Canberra.

On the way north along the coast before heading inland, we passed through Bateman’s Bay, stopping for lunch at J.J.’s on the Marina. The food was great, the service just OK. The waitresses were disorganized, four of them approaching us in the first ten minutes to take our order. But the boats bobbing in the marina, the cleared-up brilliant blue sky, and my grilled swordfish did a lot to make me feel the visit had been worthwhile.

Afterwards, on the way back to the car, we saw a little gelato pop-up around the corner and decided to take some to go. There was a long line and seemingly no one working.

When a guy finally came from around the corner and started tending to the grill for several minutes without acknowledging anyone in the line, my husband asked him if he was the only one manning the counter, or if someone else was coming to help. The guy impatiently told my husband that he would just have to wait.

We exchanged a look like, “Actually, we don’t just have to do anything,” and voted with our feet by walking away. All the guy would have had to do was say, “Sorry folks, there’s only one of me so I’ll be with you as soon as I can,” and we would have been sympathetic and happy to wait. But after that rudeness, I sure wasn’t about to give the place any of my hard-earned money!

So I haven’t seen much of Bateman’s Bay, but trust that our next visit will be a lot more positive. I have heard there are lots of nice beaches there, and it is a favored weekend destination for Canberrans.

About halfway between the coast and Canberra, we rolled through a little town called Braidwood. Dotted with antique shops, galleries, and restaurants, the little town was a great place to stop and gas up the car, and finally get that ice cream we were craving!

We even found a shop selling Iskra brand telephones, made four decades ago in Yugoslavia. The proprietor was excited to talk to us about them, and had Cold War-era models from Poland, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia too.

The south coast beaches of New South Wales number more than 100, so there are a multitude that we haven’t seen. We would love to return to Jervis Bay and see Hyam’s Beach, evidently boasting some of the whitest sand in the world.

We got a late start this summer, and recovery from my back surgery will take up most of the rest. But hopefully we have at least one more summer 2017-2018 beach weekend left in us!

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