Sunlight reflects off the gleaming white trunks of towering spotted gum trees, giving the littoral rainforest a mystic, muted green glow as you cruise down a modest paved road toward Pebbly Beach in southern New South Wales’ Murramarang National Park. Your neck is a touch sore, because more than once in the 10 kilometers since the main road, you’ve slammed on your brakes in an attempt to identify a mysterious marsupial glimpsed fleetingly as it hops, creeps or scampers across the road. You’ve watched enough Animal Planet to know that Australia is wild, but you didn’t know exactly how wild until you pull into the parking lot of Pebbly Beach and open your car door.
Above you echo the chirps, squawks and squeals of hundreds of birds. To one side, a throaty whistle sounds, and in the bush beyond the forest, tiny, electric blue avian fluff balls known as superb fairy wrens bounce like mad. The soft emerald canopy is punctuated with kaleidoscopic bursts of feathers as rainbow lorikeets zip between gum trees. Perched above the sidewalk that leads to Pebbly Beach is a 17-inch Australian king parrot. Resplendent with its bright red breast and massive green wings, he studies you, determining your worthiness to move forward.
Permission granted, you move from the parking lot to the beach. Murramarang boasts 27 miles of coastline and countless beaches, most of which are popular spots for swimming, surfing, camping and cookouts – but Pebbly Beach has a twist. As you make your way toward the scent of salty air and the cacophony of birds gives way to the sound of crashing waves, you reach a grassy expanse just short of the sand. Sprawled out in all directions are not human beachgoers, but eastern gray kangaroos. This beach belongs to them. A little joey makes his way toward you, curious and friendly. It’s one thing to spot a kangaroo in Australia; another thing entirely to encounter more than a dozen along one of the most beautiful stretches of beach you’ve ever seen. It’s a welcoming party, and it is mind-blowing.
Pebbly Beach and its ’roo posse is just one of the sites that make Australia’s New South Wales one of the world’s greatest beach destinations. There are dozens of beaches in the expanse between Seven Mile Beach National Park, near the town of Berry, and Murramarang, north of Bateman’s Bay – 100 of them, to be exact. Each stretch of sand comes with its own nuance or eccentricity, be it migrating penguins making landfall at dusk or simply peaceful respite, complete with catered picnic. Now beach enthusiasts can take part in the 100 beach challenge, which promotes tourism in the area by encouraging visitors to check off as many of these beaches as possible.
Murramarang is just one of the 35 national parks in southern New South Wales alone. Such a dense number of ecologically diverse National Parks and world-class beaches should be more than enough to rank highly in the echelon of desirable vacation spots, right? However, more often than not, when folks head to Sydney, where most “Journeys to Oz” begin (and rightly so; Sydney is amazing!), they head north to Byron’s Bay, Brisbane, the Gold Coast and beyond. Not to say that those aren’t amazing spots, but if you’re going down under, you might consider going a little bit farther south.
Huskisson is a bustling beach town on Jervis Bay and the perfect spot to base your south New South Wales adventure. The main drag, located just off the harbor, is peppered with surf shops and healthy eateries. Pilgrim’s is a perfect place to start the day – from its window, as you tuck into perfectly cooked free-range eggs over local greens and sourdough toast, you watch stand up paddleboarders ride long, easy waves to a beach (one of the 100) just across the harbor. During whale migration season, Jervis Bay is overflowing with playful humpbacks making their way to or from their breeding ground, and nobody gets you closer (but not too close) to these beautiful creatures than Dolphin Watch Cruises.
After a morning on the water, it’s time to check off a beach or two from the list. Blenheim Beach or Hyams Beach are perhaps the area’s most famous, and if there’s a checklist of clichés to describe the perfect beach, these two hit all the marks: crystal clear water, powdery sand … it’s paradise, but it’s crowded. Make your way a short drive past Blenheim Beach to Greenfield Beach. With far fewer people, particularly in the off season, you might be fortunate enough to have this slice of heaven to yourself. Call Hyams Beach Hampers beforehand and they will set up a beach tent complete with pillows, towels and an assortment of beverages, snacks and sandwiches.
A drive of half an hour or so farther south will put you on Bateman’s Bay, for an experience that combines exquisite food, sublime scenery, adventure and exercise. There, join adventure company Region X for a kayaking trek to an oyster farm, followed by lunch at The Oyster Shed on Wray Street. This fourth-generation family business farms its own oysters and serves them at a bohemian open-air riverfront eatery.
Such a grand journey requires grand lodging, and The Woods Farm – a 10-minute drive from Huskisson – meets that high bar. The magical 40-acre property is covered with fairy lights, is home to pygmy goats and alpacas and features eight three-bedroom cabins, 10 glamping tents and a garden and hen house where guests are encouraged to pick fresh produce and eggs for breakfast. There’s also a pool in case the water at the beach is a bit too cold, and wallabies, kangaroos and wombats roam the property morning and night.
Getting to Australia Like a Champ
Australia is far away. So far, in fact, that if you are in Sydney and you look at the moon, it looks completely upside-down to American eyes. A 15-hour flight to the other side of the world should not, however, deter an ambitious traveler from making the trip down under. After all, the aforementioned New South Wales is but a small part of an entire continent teeming with travel opportunities.
Flying to Australia in Air New Zealand’s business premier class takes that 15 hours and turns it into an experience akin to a five-star hotel. The crafty layout ensures that your roomy seating area feels extremely private, and features include a fully reclining seat, adjustable lower lumbar support and an ottoman. The flight starts with wine pairings that accompany an innovative three-course meal, and then you can drift off to sleep watching one of hundreds of movies and television shows offered via their in-flight entertainment. Air New Zealand’s lie-flat beds come with memory foam mattress, duvet and pillows. You wake up rested after eight hours of sleep and enjoy an omelet, fresh fruit and a craft coffee. By the time you catch another movie, you’re on the ground and your adventure down under can begin.
MORE SANDY GETAWAYS
Clearwater Beach, Florida
Clearwater is truly the people’s beach – two and a half miles of public access with plenty of beach chairs and umbrellas available, ample public restrooms and outdoor showers topped with happy turtle sculptures.
The white, sugar-fine sand is a big attraction celebrated with the Sugar Sand Festival every April, a blowout featuring professional sand sculptors, entertainment and more. Speaking of festivities, there’s a big Chalk Art Festival (October 19-21 this year) and locals wait eagerly for stone crab season to open in mid-October. Several local restaurants celebrate with street parties.
The Sunset Festival at Pier 60 happens every night – depending on the weather. From two hours before to two hours after sunset, this part of the beach rocks with live entertainment, crafters, street performers and, on Friday and Saturday nights, the Sunset Cinema.
Clearwater Beach takes its main attraction seriously. The beach is groomed 365 days a year and life guards are on duty year-round, while vendors provide equipment and services to enjoy every aspect of water fun. Clearwater Beach is consistently listed as one of the nation’s best beaches, and there’s plenty of off-the-beach activity.
Rosemary Beach, Florida
The ultimate in upscale, this planned community is the destination for those who love luxury and seek privacy. Everything in the community is a quick bike ride away – except, currently, a grocery store. Rentals include full-scale houses or carriage houses, or stay in the boutique hotel. Town Center has a cool collection of shops and a variety of restaurants from super casual to sophisticated. And there are four pools on the property plus a racquet club, fitness center, spa and salon.
Beachfront properties are the most expensive, but all properties are handy to the shore. This part of Florida is called “The Emerald Coast” for the gorgeous blue, turquoise and greens of the waters – the contrast even more striking against the powdery, white sand.
Rosemary Beach was designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company, the same designers responsible for Oklahoma’s luxury lake community, Carlton Landing.
South Padre Island, Texas
South Padre is a beach with benefits. Start with 34 miles of beach and an average 253 days of sunshine per year. Water activities abound – fishing, boating, swimming, sea kayaking, wave-running, wind-surfing, parasailing … the list goes on. As a barrier island, guests get two types of water, from the Gulf and the Laguna Madre.
This is a crowded beach with ample high-rises, but lots of other choices for accommodation from luxury properties, retro motels, modern chains and housing rentals. For romantics, a sunset dinner cruise on the Southern Wave sailing catamaran is a real treat. Families will enjoy a Breakaway Dolphin Watch Eco Cruise. Thrill-seekers head for Schlitterbahn Water Park. For nature lovers, Sea Turtle, Inc., a rescue and rehab facility, and the SPI Birding and Nature Center are musts.
At 748 miles away, South Padre is one of the closest popular beach spots for Oklahomans seeking sea and sun.
Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Alabama
If variety is the spice of life, this stretch of Alabama coast is full of palatable pleasures. Water activities are prime, but there are attractions for history buffs and nature lovers, too.
The main parts of the beach are lined with all sorts of accommodations. If your trip is later this year, check out the soon-to-open Lodge at Gulf Shores State Park – a much more secluded setting.
Seafood is big here, naturally, with a number of new restaurants featuring innovative chefs. Festivals such as the National Shrimp Festival (October 11-14) and Hangout Oyster Cook-off and Craft Beer Weekend (November 2-3) highlight local favorite foods.
For sight-seeing, check out Fort Morgan, then take a ferry to Fort Gaines. They’re home to lots of history, but are most associated with the Battle of Mobile Bay and Admiral Farragut’s command, “Damn the torpedos! Full speed ahead!”
Check out the 28 miles of trails and nine ecosystems at Gulf State Park. Then, for real relaxation, head back to the beach and the lullaby of lapping waves.