Venture beyond landmarks like the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach, and you’ll be rewarded with world-class wineries, stunning white-sand beaches, and once-in-a-lifetime animal encounters.
By Alissa Jenkins
What to expect
- Swim with wild dolphins in beautiful Port Stephens
- Sample world-class wines from New South Wales’ most renowned wineries
- Explore the Blue Mountain’s dramatic canyons and Jurassic rainforest
- Time: 12 days
- Distance: 1,800 kilometres (1,118 miles)
- Transport: car
- Nearest major city: Sydney
- Price: $$$$
Its icons are incredible, but New South Wales offers much more than the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Driving north from Sydney, this 12-day circuit takes you to some of Australia’s most beloved beach destinations, across to vibrant wine-producing regions, into ancient forests and south to dazzling white-sand beaches before looping back up to Sydney, the Harbour City.
Day 1: Sydney to Newcastle
Depart Sydney early and drive for an hour northeast to Palm Beach, situated at the top of a long peninsula and surrounded by clear waters and leafy, mansion-studded streets. At the far end of the beach, take the 800-metre (0.5-mile) walking trail to Barrenjoey Lighthouse and lightkeeper’s cottages for panoramic views over Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, before lunch at local favourite, The Boathouse Palm Beach.
Once you’ve eaten, set the GPS for the 2.5-hour drive via the M1 to Newcastle, Australia’s second-oldest city. See why it’s a world-famous surfing destination with a swim at Merewether Beach, or skip the waves at heritage-listed ocean pool, Bogey Hole, before a Mediterranean-inspired dinner at popular seaside restaurant Rustica. Stay overnight at Newcastle’s award-winning The Lucky Hotel, a historic, renovated pub home to 30 boutique rooms with modern furnishings and luxury bedding.
Day 2: Newcastle to Port Stephens
Kick-start the day with family-friendly fun at TreeTop Adventure Park, set among the Australian bush about 30 minutes west of Newcastle. Here, you can climb, weave and fly through the tree tops on self-guided rope courses and zip lines.
After your feet are back in solid ground, continue to drive an hour northeast to the stunning seaside destination of Port Stephens, renowned for its long sandy beaches and the vast Stockton Sand Dunes — the largest moving dunes in the southern hemisphere. Spend the afternoon on a sand dune safari, which you can experience via 4WD or quad bike tour, or try sand boarding as you surf down the massive 40-metre (130-feet) high dunes.
At night, stay at The Anchorage Hotel & Spa in Port Stephens, with a range of luxurious, nautical-inspired suites, as well as two waterfront restaurants that showcase locally-sourced produce.
Day 3: Port Stephens to Hunter Valley
Begin the day with a once-in-a-lifetime adventure — swimming with wild dolphins in the beautiful Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park. With wetsuits, masks and snorkels provided, as well as a light breakfast, guests also have the option to stay dry and watch these magical creatures from the boat or climb into the water for a profound yet playful wildlife encounter.
Back on land, drive 90 minutes west to one of Australia’s leading wine regions, the Hunter Valley. Renowned for producing excellent semillon and chardonnay, spend the afternoon driving or cycling between the valley’s prominent cellar doors, taste testing the talents of winemaking heavyweights like Audrey Wilkinson, Harkham Wines, and Krinklewood Biodynamic Vineyard. For those who prefer beer or spirits, Ironbark Hill Brewhouse and Hunter Distillery are also worth a visit. You can also enjoy fine dining and boutique accommodation at many of the Hunter’s wineries, such as Bimbadgden, Tinonee Vineyard Estate and Whispering Brook.
Day 4: Hunter Valley to Mudgee
Pack your binoculars and a picnic of Hunter Valley produce to drive 2.5 hours west to Lees Pinch lookout in the picturesque Goulburn River National Park. Accessible via an easy one-kilometre (0.6-mile) walking track, there are viewing areas that take in the lush forest, flowing river and sandstone gorge below. Keep watch for native wildlife such as wallabies, wombats, and birds of prey soaring above.
After lunch, continue driving one hour southwest to the charming colonial township of Mudgee, another one of New South Wales’ great winemaking regions. Here, summer is prime time for cherry picking at Mudgee’s delightful Roth Family Orchard, where you can spend the afternoon picking your own fruit.
In the evening, reserve a table at the award-winning Zin House restaurant, and enjoy a memorable dinner overlooking vineyards and the restaurant’s organic garden, where much of the produce is grown. Sample more of the region’s best wines from the cobblestone courtyard of Alby & Esthers wine bar, then walk just ten minutes to Mudgee’s stylish Perry Street Hotel, with 13 modern suites available.
Day 5: Mudgee to Orange
Start the morning with a 2.5-hour drive south to Orange, also popular among travellers for its impressive wine industry and abundance of food producers – don’t miss Patina, Philip Shaw and Swinging Bridge wineries.
If you’d rather spend your day outdoors, explore the mysterious Borenore Caves, 20 minutes west of Orange. There are easy walking trails around the Tunnel Cave and Arch Cave, just a short walk from the Borenore picnic area, where you can take in these unusual rock formations and their black, orange, and yellow striped markings.
Next, sample Orange’s delicious dining scene with a special dinner at the eminent Lolli Redini restaurant, famed for its Italian and French-influenced menu, or opt for a more casual setting at Percy’s Bar & Kitchen. Afterwards, relax at de Russie Boutique Hotel, with beautifully-appointed suites promising plush bedding and modern amenities.
Day 6: Orange to Katoomba
Venture two hours east into the heart of Australia’s iconic Blue Mountains, arriving at Katoomba. Surrounded by plunging canyons and awe-inspiring rock formations, see this awesome landscape in all its glory at Scenic World. Board the Scenic Railway, the steepest passenger railway in the world, and descend into the spectacular Jamison Valley in a glass-bottomed carriage. At the bottom, stroll the 2.4-kilometre (1.5-mile) Scenic Walkway, taking you on an elevated boardwalk through Jurassic rainforest. On the return trip, glide between cliff tops, suspended 270 metres (885 feet) above ancient ravines, on the Scenic Skyway. With 360-degree views, see renowned local landmarks such as Katoomba Falls, the Three Sisters rock formation, and beyond.
For a more soothing afternoon, enjoy high tea at The Hydro Majestic Hotel — a revitalised historic property, boasting art deco architecture and magnificent views over the Megalong Valley. You can also stay overnight in one of 67 regal guest rooms that combine the hotel’s glamorous past with modern comforts.
Day 7: Katoomba to Bilpin
Follow the scenic roads that weave north from Katoomba to the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden. Take a free guided tour around the 28 hectares (69 acres) of breathtaking, cool-climate gardens, or explore on your own. Continue driving a further 20 minutes to the fruit-growing village of Bilpin, where you can stop at Bilpin Springs Orchard and pick your own assortment of fresh apples, oranges, pears, peaches and plums — juicy snacks for the day ahead. Don't miss a stop at Hillbilly Cider, which serves up simple ciders made with Bilpin apples in a quaint shed overlooking the orchards.
Next, drive an hour north into the inspiring wilderness of World Heritage-listed Wollemi National Park. Home to spectacular canyons, towering cliffs, wild rivers and tranquil forests, there are many bushwalks to explore, such as Bob Turners Track. This six-kilometre (3.7-mile) loop takes you along the beautiful Colo River, where you can cool off with a swim. Then finish the day with a rejuvenating stay in one of the cottages at Rustic Spirit in Kurrajong Heights, or treat the whole family to an elegant farmhouse getaway at Suzarosa in Berambing.
Day 8: Bilpin to Bowral
Farewell the majestic Blue Mountains and drive two hours south to the sophisticated centre of the Southern Highlands, Bowral. Home to picturesque gardens and popular wineries, Bowral was also the home of legendary Australian cricket batsman, Sir Donald Bradman. Visit the Bradman Museum & International Cricket Hall of Fame, which not only celebrates ‘The Don’, who is still widely regarded as the greatest batsman of all time, but also features interactive exhibits, significant memorabilia, the origins of cricket, and how the game has evolved over time.
Day 9: Bowral to Canberra
After a wholesome breakfast at Raw & Wild, drive two hours southwest to Australia’s innovative capital city, Canberra. A cosmopolitan mix of world-class museums, gourmet dining precincts and kangaroo-dotted reserves, there’s no shortage of attractions to visit. Among them is the vast Lake Burley Griffin in the city’s centre, with more than 40 kilometres (25 miles) of shoreline to walk or cycle around.
Spend the afternoon perusing your choice of incredible national landmarks overlooking the lake, including the home of Australian politics, Parliament House, and the National Gallery of Australia, with 150,000 artworks and counting. Families will especially love Questacon, housing more than 200 interactive exhibits relating to science and technology.
Day 10: Canberra to Jervis Bay
Depart the nation’s capital early for a 2.5-hour drive east to the stunning seaside wonderland of Jervis Bay. Stop in Huskisson for lunch at local institution, Pilgrims Vegetarian Café, serving generously-sized dishes that are equal parts healthy and tasty. Then visit Murrays Beach, known as the jewel in the Booderee National Park for good reason. The pure white sand and clear water are ideal for swimming and snorkelling. Arrange a gourmet picnic hamper and shady beach hut with Hyams Beach Hampers to enjoy a lunch along the beach.
Alternatively, join a dolphin or whale watching cruise with Jervis Bay Wild. The waters of the bay are abundant in sea life, so you're likely to spot pods of playful dolphins and humpback whales as they splash and breach. Whale migration season runs from mid-May to mid-November.
Day 11: Jervis Bay to Wollongong
Journey 50 minutes north through rolling green hills to the heritage town of Berry. Brunch on local, seasonal produce at the rustic Salmon and Co Eatery, and don’t leave town without collecting dessert from the famous Berry Donut Van. Next, follow the Princes Highway 20 minutes north to laidback Kiama, where you can take in the powerful Kiama Blowhole, a sea-cliff cavern that spouts seawater 20 metres (65 feet) into the air, or refresh with a swim in the nearby ocean pool.
Continuing north, drive a further 40 minutes to Wollongong, with an impressive array of stunning beaches, acclaimed restaurants, and chic city bars. From the laidback Illawarra Brewery and the intimate wine bar at The Throsby to the oceanfront views and exquisite cocktails at Pepe’s on the beach in North Wollongong, there’s no shortage of night-time entertainment. Stay close to the action at Novotel Wollongong Northbeach (right above Pepe’s), with spacious, light-filled rooms just steps from the beach.
Day 12: Wollongong to Sydney
Finish your road trip on a high (literally) with Skydive Sydney-Wollongong, where you'll enjoy a scenic plane ride before you make the leap from around 14,000 feet up, and serenely skydive over the coastal surrounds before landing on Wollongong’s beloved North Beach.
Afterwards, enjoy an impeccable breakfast and beach views at local favourite, Diggies café. Then begin the last leg back to Sydney, taking the spectacular Grand Pacific Drive route, which includes 140 kilometres (87 miles) of coastal scenery and snippets of the Royal National Park. The highlight is the incredible Sea Cliff Bridge, 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Wollongong, which curves around towering cliffs while suspended 665 metres (2181 feet) above the ocean.
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