The Australian East Coast is an iconic place and one that is on many travellers 'to-do list'. Some choose to do it as one big trip. We decided to do it smaller chunks that are more manageable when traveling with kids. It made more sense to us for a couple of reasons: we were staying in Australia for a year and only had smaller chunks of free time due to my husband working full time and daughter being at school. Hence we didn’t have to do it all at once and we only had shorter breaks to play with. We decided to leave visiting Queensland for the Australian winter as summer would simply be too hot for us. Our first trip took us from Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour.
Our journey started in Gosford with the first stop being Port Macquarie and wended in Coffs Harbour. All up it covered over 1000km and we had 4 days to complete it. Port Macquarie is nice enough and worth a quick visit. We stayed there one day and considered this sufficient time there. The highlight of the visit was the Koala Hospital. You need about 1 – 1.5 hrs for the attraction. Next door to it is Roto House. Roto House one of the very few remaining nineteenth century buildings in Port Macquarie. We visited both places but unlike Koala Hospital we would go out of our way to see it. Both attractions are free but accept donations to help with the maintenance and general running costs. Our kids loved Koala Hospital and so did we.
Port Macquarie offer a number of coastal walks and we decided to go for a short wander from Tacking Point Lighthouse towards Harry's Lookout. We have not reach the latter due to limited time at our disposal.
Tacking Point Lighthouse is the third oldest lighthouse in Australia. It is no longer in operation and you can’t go inside but it is a lovely coastal landmark. We all loved the views from there and its relaxed atmosphere. It is an easy walk and you can spend as much or as little time as you want on it. Our 3 year old didn’t have any troubles with walking and considered it 'an adventure'
There is a car park next to the lighthouse that makes it very convenient specially when travel with little people.
South West Rocks and Hat Head National Park
An hour drive from Port Macquarie there are the little coastal towns of South West Rocks and Hats Head. That was our next stop. Both places are beautiful though for swimming we definitely enjoyed Hat Head beach which is a beautiful 17 km stretch of sand.
An additional bonus is that the beach is patrolled and is generally more quiet then South West Rocks. Our visit took place on Boxing Day - the day of a famous cricket test match. We celebrate it watching the surf patrol guards playing beach cricket. We liked it there so much we stayed there for the better part of the day and paid a relatively short visit to South West Rocks.
What I really liked about South West Rocks though is the dramatic landscape. The town has a number of little beaches and a small headland. At the ends of the beaches are rocks going out into the sea that have been weathered and shaped over thousands of years by the constant roll of the sea. These are quite pretty and provide some good photo opportunities. A small tidal inlet provides a more sheltered spot to play for younger children who can have adventures in relatively shallow waters.
We found the sea more choppy that Hat Head hence the kids didn’t enjoy the sea as much here. However, the conditions in the water are dictated by the wind direction and so it can change day-by-day. What they did enjoy was the playground located just above the beach and next to the SLSC.
There are picnic benches near the club and so we popped in to the local Coles to get food and had a lovely picnic with relaxing views of the sea. We decided one day for Hat Head and South West
Rocks although you could easily spend more time in both if you felt like it. We felt a day was sufficient to give us a good feel for the area.
We continued our way up north and ended up in Bonville.
Bonville and Dorrigo National Park
Bonville is a small town just off the motorway about 45 minutes south of Coffs Harbour. We stayed there 2 days and loved its natural beauty. Surrounded by mountains and tropical rainforest and only a short drive (under 10 minutes) to Sawtell Beach. We considered Sawtell Beach one of our favourite in Australia so far. The waves were rolling beautifully making the beach a perfect place for surfers. Not far from the beach there is a lake perfect for kayaking. Directly above the beach there is a picnic area where you can relax and admire the beauty that surrounds you.
For us Bonville also had an additional bonus of being close enough to Dorrigo National Park and Coffs Harbour. So we could easily travel to both of those places and enjoy two days stay in one place rather than having to travel to a new place to sleep each day (which we found tiring when travelling with kids).
From Bonville to Dorrigo is about a 50 minute drive. We enjoyed the picturesque drive through the countryside very much. If time allows, you will not regret stopping by Bellingen.
Dorrigo National Park was beautiful and we have written a separate posit on it here. One thing we would stress if you travel with kids it may not be the place for you. We did the Crystal Falls walk but it took us the better part of the day and we ended up carrying our little boy so although the paths are good and the gradient not too steep, I would not recommend it for families with very young children. What is worth doing even with small children is the 75m sky walk. It is located very close to the visitors centre (entrance to Dorrigo National Park).
It is a 75m long platform that stretches into and above the lush tropical rainforest canopy. As the ground slopes away below you, you get to see different parts of the canopy until you are up and above it all and enjoying spectacular views of the valley stretching out before you.
Not far from Dorrigo National Park and just a few km away from Dorrigo village was the biggest surprise of the day for us - Dangar Falls. We had them recommended to us by the locals and it definitely made our day. Dangar Falls is a 25m waterfall cascading into a 100m pond below. On a hot summers day it is a wonderful oasis for the hot and tired traveller (and kids). We all had a swim in the waterhole at the bottom and I must say it was pretty amazing to swim to the end of the waterhole and have the waterfall crashing down above your head. To feel it, hear it, smell it and see it was an absolutely wonderful experience.
For our last day on the mid-north coast of NSW we headed to Coffs Harbour. Coffs Harbour was a big surprise for me. I read a few reviews which were not favourable so I didn’t have high expectations for it as a destination. However, for my kids it was a highlight of our trip and we really enjoyed it. There is enough attractions in Coffs Harbour to keep you occupied for a week or longer. We only had a day and decided to pay a quick visit to the Big Banana and see a show at Dolphin Marine Magic. I have put together a separate blog about our visit to Dolphin Marine Magic which you can read about here.
The Big Banana is an iconic tourist attraction and has developed into a real day out for the family (much more than my husband remembers it from his childhood). There is an ice skating ring, water complex, rides etc. We decided to leave this attraction for our future visits due to limited time.
Quick Review and Hot Tips
When you visit the mid-north coast of NSW and your time is limited, consider:
* Koala Hospital – requires about 1- 1.5 hours in Port Macquarie;
* Pay a quick visit to South West Rocks and have a picnic at there;
* Visit Dorrigo National Park and do the sky walk (if travelling with young children) or be more adventurous and do the Crystal Falls walk if travelling with older kids;
* Have a quick swim at the amazing Dangar Falls;
* Visit one of the many Coffs Harbour attractions. We chose to spend half a day at Dolphin Marine Magic;
* Have a swim and a picnic at Sawtell beach (half a day).