As we cross the Never Never River into the Promised Land, the biblical reference isn’t lost on me. Here the land is so lush, the early settlers could not have conjured up a more appropriate name for this picture-perfect corner of the Gleniffer Valley. Fat contented cows shade under a sprawling paperbark in knee-high grass, a pristine river, (NSW’s cleanest, in fact) flows under the bridge near the historic Gleniffer Hall, birds flit through the trees and ahead is the rolling escarpment of the Great Dividing Range.
On the river’s north bank, families have spread picnic blankets. Kids float on tyre tubes down the gentle rapids, dogs chase sticks and we lay on our towels on the riverbank. It’s one of those places that pays homage to the old saying: “Life’s good!”
The Promised Land has Coffs Harbour at its focal point but it spreads out to encompass the rainforest escarpments of Dorrigo, the bohemian town of Bellingen, and the string of golden beaches from Urunga to Woolgoolga, stretching to the blue waters of the Solitary Islands Marine Park. It’s an easy day’s drive from either Sydney or Brisbane.
Our home for a few days is Bellingen and the Promised Land Cottages, 12km north of town and next-door to the property of pianist David Helfgott, which happens to be open that day for a jazz concert. As we sit on our cottage’s deck watching a wallaby graze below us, the cool sounds of a saxophone float across the landscape. Later that day we wander down to the Bellinger River and take a dip in the clear, green water, kicking back afterwards on the riverbank with the sun warming our skin.
Bellingen with its beautiful shopfronts and laidback atmosphere may have an “alternative” feel but it’s also got No2 Oak Street, a two-hatted restaurant that put the town on the foodie radar. The night is balmy and a waft of frangipani mixes with the alluring smell of freshly baked bread from the kitchen, whetting our appetite for the kingfish, barramundi and rabbit dishes we’ve ordered. It may be a sophisticated country restaurant, but No2 Oak Street also makes families feel incredibly welcome, perhaps given it’s very much a family run business too.
Later we take in live music at No. 5 Church Street. Encouraged by touring blues musician, Tom Richardson, my daughter Ella accompanies him on the tambourine while we sip strawberry daiquiris. Afterwards she receives a rousing reception from the diners, and pesters me so much I buy Richardson’s CD – his moody blues the perfect soundtrack for our visit to this wonderful corner of NSW.
The next morning we’re back in Bellingen for breakfast at the Hearth Fire Bakery, a squiz through the interesting Vintage Nest Espresso store, and a look around the monthly market. The market is a load of fun for kids with pony rides, jumping castles, rotating swings and live music under an enormous, shady tree.
It’s a sticky morning, so we take the spiralling drive up to the World Heritage-listed Dorrigo National Park, one of the 10 most visited parks in NSW and a highlight of the Waterfall Way, a scenic route that runs from Armidale down to Coffs Harbour. At 800m above sea level, the air is decidedly cooler under the magnificent rainforest canopy along the Dorrigo Rainforest Skywalk. We also stroll the Walk with the Birds boardwalk and from the lookout see two eagles soaring on the thermals high above the Bellinger Valley with the Pacific Ocean sparkling invitingly in the distance.
My memories of childhood holidays in Coffs Harbour itself aren’t glamorous; an uncomfortable overnight train trip from Sydney, serviceable motels and below-average food. But fast-forward 25 years and things have improved remarkably. From our apartment near the Coffs Harbour Jetty, we’re a short stroll from a bustling restaurant strip and good coffee at the Urban Espresso Lounge.
We take a spin with John Goodshaw on a Beach to Bush buggy tour, heading up to the rainforest-clad hills behind Coffs in a custom-made open-topped VW Bug. It’s here that Italian immigrants first cleared land and planted bananas (you get the full story at the iconic Big Banana, still one of Coffs’ biggest attractions where the chocolate coated bananas are legendary). We also drive through Bruxner Park, a dense rainforest and eucalypt reserve in the Orara East State Forest.
From there we head to Sealy Lookout with its sweeping panoramas north and south along the coast and out to the Solitary Islands. Here two great ocean currents meet: the colder north-flowing current bringing nutrient-rich waters from the Tasman Sea and the warmer south-flowing current from the tropics. That makes it a mecca for divers.
Over the next few days we take a dip in the shallows where Moonee Creek meets the sea, have fish and chips at the busy Fishermen’s Co-op, and excellent meals at both Y-Knot Bistro and Mangrove Jacks where Ella befriends a large water dragon.
A highlight of our stay in Coffs Habour is swimming with dolphins at Dolphin Marine Magic. The incredible Ultimate Dolphin Experience for adults and children 12 years – the only experience of its type in Australia - offers the chance to swim, ride and play with these beautiful, intelligent creatures. During the 20-minute session our dolphin Bella gave me a powerful foot push across the water on a body board, a magical belly ride and a hand push where she spun me in a circle. Ella meanwhile joined in a shallow dolphin experience for young children where she threw toys to the dolphin, fed it fish and had the opportunity for both a kiss and a hug. She still hasn’t stopped talking about it.
Another day we stroll the incredible 1km Urunga boardwalk, and at sunset join a bunch of local teenagers at the historic Coffs Harbour jetty where we jump into the sea. It’s an analogy of how best to experience the Coffs Coast – cast off your cares and jump on in.
See www.coffscoast.com.au for everything in the region including accommodation, restaurants, attractions and its 101 Things to Do list.
Promised Land Cottages
Ph: 02 6655 9578
No2 Oak Street
Ph: 02 6655 9000
Dolphin Marine Magic
Ph: 1300 547 737
Ph: 02 6652 4355
Beach to Buggy Tours
Ph: 0408 513 564
Canopy Cafe Dorrigo
Ph: 02 6657 2309
Discover what makes Bellingen special. Brought to you by IGA.
Sheriden Rhodes travelled as a guest of Coffs Coast Marketing.
Sheriden Rhodes is a travel writer and photographer who travels the globe with her ‘frequent small flyer’, Ella. You can follow their adventures and pick up family travel tips on the Frequent Small Flyer Facebook page.