Leave the big smoke behind and head for the pelican coast

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 January, 2010, 12:00am

Holidaying in Sydney doesn't mean you have to be confined by the city scene.

On Ettalong Beach, a massive pelican seems unperturbed by the squeals of children running along the sand. Instead, it stands in the estuary's gently lapping waters, looking for dinner.

There are lots of pelicans on New South Wales' Central Coast, a stretch of idyllic beaches, national parks and tiny hamlets an hour's drive north of Sydney. The giant, docile birds congregate around ferry piers, sandy beaches and on the odd moored fishing boat.

They're the claim to fame for The Entrance, a favourite weekend destination for Sydneysiders, where, each afternoon, an eager flock jostles for a late lunch, courtesy of the local council.

The Central Coast runs from the Hawkesbury River north to the southern tip of Lake Macquarie, just shy of Newcastle. The Hawkesbury is a stunning river which spills into the Tasman Sea, flowing out through a scattering of tiny islands resembling jade stones on a blue velvet quilt. It's a favourite with yachties and anglers, and its banks are home to popular B&Bs and restaurants, including the water access-only Peat's Bite.

The complexity of the Hawkesbury and its tributaries can be seen from the Palm Beach ferry, which crosses the river mouth from the most northern of Sydney's beaches, past Barrenjoey Head, tiny Lion Island and Pearl Beach, before reaching the tiny town of Ettalong.

Like many Central Coast towns, Ettalong is built around its 'club' - charity-run, tax-exempt social centres servicing the local area. The Ettalong Beach War Memorial Club is anything but rustic; there are the ever-present 'pokies' gaming machines, buffet restaurants, cheap drinks and stunning beach views from the wide terrace. And if you feel like sticking around, there is also a Mantra hotel situated above, with modern resort-style rooms complete with kitchenettes and views of the river.

Alternatively, the Sydney-Newcastle highway breaks free from the city's northern suburbs and gallops along a ridgeline above the coast's townships and the roller-coaster road leading down to Ettalong offers fleeting glimpses of turquoise waterways through thickets of native Australian bush.

In Ettalong, nestled in the Art Deco-inspired Paradiso Cinema complex, weekend markets feature home-made fudge, preserves and local art as well as cheese and wine from the nearby Hunter Valley. The smell of charity sausage sizzles fills the air. If hunger does strike, do as the locals (and many Sydneysiders) do and head to the award-winning Cucina Cortesi, an institution on the Central Coast that serves traditional Italian fare and imported wine. On most mornings, the sun-drenched courtyard is packed with diners sampling a big breakfast complete with home-made sausages and tomato chutney; owners Marco and Erin Cortesi also make pesto, sausages and preserves for some of Sydney's top restaurants.

Ettalong also offers whale watching cruises in search of humpbacks and southern right whales returning from Antarctica to warmer waters from October to November.

The Central Coast is perfect for summer picnics and from Ettalong it's a five-minute drive to Pearl Beach and the Mt Ettalong Lookout above. Or head north, past the craggy cliffs of Daleys Point, to Bouddi National Park and Fletchers Glen, one of the last temperate rainforests in New South Wales. The park includes an area of the Tasman Sea, creating a marine sanctuary perfect for snorkelling, while the walk down to isolated Maitland Bay is a great way to spend an afternoon.

Another beautiful stretch of sand is located just 20 minutes' drive further north, along the park's Scenic Road. Copacabana is one of the most idyllic beaches along the Central Coast and a true Aussie icon; bronzed lifesavers in tiny red and yellow 'swimmers' patrol the beach while teens learn to surf in the coastal breaks and visitors eat late lunches in the unpretentious local restaurants.

Once you're beached out, take the winding road through Brisbane Waters National Park, another great spot for hiking, to the highway and the Australian Reptile Park - just look for the massive dinosaur. The park first opened in 1948 and, despite a fire which destroyed many exhibits in 2000, remains a key attraction, with its family of Tasmanian devils and Eric, the 4.7-metre crocodile, rarely leaving the limelight. A spider exhibit of local and international species is also worth a look.

Also nearby is the Australian Walkabout Park, which features about 180 indigenous Australian animals, including koalas, kangaroos and dingo puppies. Guided ranger talks offer insight into the various species and, if you're seeking adrenaline, TreeTop Adventure Park, located in the nearby Ourimbah State Forest, features 76 challenges, including suspension bridges, tree climbing and 12 flying foxes.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) has regular flights to Sydney. From there, hire a car to best explore the Central Coast, about an hour's drive from Sydney's CBD.