There's no need to rush from Sydney to the vibrant regional city of Wollongong, 90 kilometres (56 miles) to the south. Especially when the route is packed with cute koalas, keen hang-gliders and a stunning bridge arcing out into the ocean.
By Katrina Lobley
Wollongong is a gorgeous regional city, squeezed between the sea and a steep escarpment, worthy of a day trip for many reasons. Its northern beaches, which channel a laid-back vibe, attract hang-gliding enthusiasts as well as those who want to admire the engineering marvel of an over-ocean bridge. The city also has a spiritual side – it's home to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest Buddhist temple – and a food scene that's a drawcard in itself.
The pretty sights of Wollongong
HANG-GLIDE AT STANWELL PARK
Stanwell Park, the first beachside community south of the Royal National Park, is Australia’s most famous hang-gliding and paragliding take-off point. This spot's geography and wind conditions attracted aeronautical pioneer Lawrence Hargrave, who famously lifted himself off the beach with a train of box kites in 1894. Hargrave's breakthroughs inspired Alexander Graham Bell to experiment with other kite designs. Today hang-gliders take a running jump from the adjacent clifftop spot, Bald Hill, to soar out over the Pacific Ocean. Try a tandem glide with an operator such as Sydney Hang Gliding Centre or HangglideOz.
PAT A KOALA
In New South Wales it's against the law to hold a koala, but you can pat one at Symbio Wildlife Park in Helensburgh, between the Royal National Park and Stanwell Park. The zoo's behind-the-scenes koala experience (9.30am daily, AUD$75) allows visitors to snuggle up to the cute marsupials and give them a pat. The family-owned zoo, which opened in 1975, is home to other Australian animals such as kangaroos and wombats, as well as Sumatran tigers, cheetahs, red pandas, meerkats and ring-tailed lemurs. In 2016 the zoo made headlines with a viral video of Willow the koal joey’s photoshoot getting photobombed by a butterfly. The cute video received over 38 millions combined views on Symbio and UNILAD's social media channels and won Best Overall in the G'Day USA social media competition.
SEE SEA CLIFF BRIDGE
If Sea Cliff Bridge looks familiar, it may be because the striking structure has starred in many TV car commercials. Who can blame location scouts for falling in love with this serpentine 665 metre (0.4 mile) long bridge that runs parallel to soaring cliffs and juts out over the ocean? It's possible to drive, walk or cycle over the bridge and enjoy stunning views of the Pacific Ocean (and perhaps a passing whale during their annual migration between May and November). If the view inspires you to go swimming, Wollongong's northern suburbs include a string of pretty beaches and ocean pools stretching from Thirroul to Stanwell Park. Grab some fish and chips, park at any one of the beaches and feel like you've stepped back to simpler times.
FEAST LIKE A LOCAL
Wollongong's dining scene continues to evolve in thrilling ways. Drop in to Bull & Bear in central Wollongong to sample chef David Juarez Vidal’s homage to his Spanish roots. The menu ranges from breakfasts starring grilled jamon serrano to chorizo-spiked lunches and an evening tapas menu offering saffron-scented mussels, scallops with black pudding crumbs and more. Sandygoodwich, a short walk from the city's main train station, takes the humble sandwich to another level: the My Beef with Korea combo features marinated brisket, kim chi, eggplant and miso mayo. For fine dining, try Rookie’s carnivorous delights, such as slow-roasted goat shoulder; Wagyu brisket with cinnamon and chilli; and duck with pickled nashi. Across the road, Keira Street's multi-award-winning Caveau channels French techniques in its stunning modern coastal cuisine.
VISIT THE NAN TIEN TEMPLE
In the southern Wollongong suburb of Berkeley, overlooking the Princes Motorway, is the Nan Tien Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere. Join a guided tour (Saturday and Sunday, 1pm, AUD$4) to learn more about Buddhist philosophy and the Chinese palace-style temple, including the symbols and statues around the grounds, the artworks in the museum and the architecture of the shrines. The temple offers a range of classes and meditation retreats, and hosts regular events.
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