Travel

Cellar Doors, Country Stays, and Whales Await You in Shoalhaven

whale watching shoalhaven
Image: Jordan Robins

Escaping the city for a weekend is deeply embedded in Australian culture. We’re lucky here on the east coast because just a couple of hours in the car will take us far away from the busy day-to-day. For anyone living in Sydney and Canberra, Shoalhaven is one of the top spots to head for exactly that.

Shoalhaven has the advantage of offering the very best of New South Wales’ coastal lifestyle with lush regional towns that are as quaint as they are luxurious. This is the kind of spot where you can lay low for a week, soaking up the sunshine on the beach and doing little else, or hopping between wineries, and whale watching during the annual humpback migration. Wine and whales might be the unlikely combination we didn’t realise we needed but it sets the scene for the ideal country and coastal break.

If you’re feeling ready for a coastal (or country) stay, read on to find everywhere you should visit 

How to get to Shoalhaven

Its close proximity to Sydney and Canberra (roughly two hours in the car) makes Shoalhaven the ideal region for a weekend away from the city and you’ll launch straight into holiday mode, thanks to the beautiful vistas as you wind your way down (or up) the coast to your accommodation.

If you’re travelling to Shoalhaven from Sydney, your road trip will take you past the Royal National Park and down through Wollongong. For a scenic drive, we suggest taking Grand Pacific Drive, which will add a little bit of time to your trip but will afford you breathtaking views over the coastline and a trip over the idyllic Sea Cliff Bridge.

From Canberra, the drive is a similar length (two and a half hours), and you can either travel via Goulburn and through Kangaroo Valley, or take Main Road 92, which is the fastest route from Canberra to the Shoalhaven coast.

Things to do

Shoalhaven is where the country meets the sea, which means you’ll have plenty of options when choosing how to spend your time in the region. If you’re a stop-and-flop kind of traveller, choosing accommodation that offers views over the beach or the bush is a good idea. As for us, we’ll be spending time exploring the region and taking in the sites between trips to wineries and sampling the region’s best meals. 

vineyard shoalhaven NSW
Image: Destination NSW

In winter, Shoalhaven’s coastline has been dubbed the “Humpback Highway”, because of the annual whale migration that happens every year, between May and November. It’s not uncommon to spot whales from the beach but you can also book an eco-cruise from Huskisson in Jervis Bay to explore the surrounding marine park (there are 16 white-sand beaches here) and spot the northernmost fur seal colony in Australia. You can also opt to swim with whales here, which is extra special because there are only a few operators in NSW that have the licence to offer this special experience. There are four main operators that depart from Huskisson: Dolphin Watch Jervis Bay and Jervis Bay Wild (for boat tours) and Woeboegone Freedive and Dive Jervis Bay (for swim tours).

There are two special cultural experiences you can book in Shoalhaven to learn more about the traditional owners of the land. Gadhungal Murring in Huskisson runs a tour called Babaguli Murru, named after their grandfather, the late Laddie Timbery and is a two-hour walk-and-talk tour on country. The tour starts in the bush with a smoking ceremony and takes you through the mangrove boardwalk, to the crystal-clear creek of Huskisson. Along the way, you’ll learn about bush medicine and storytelling through dance.

It’s called the Babaguli Murru tour starts in the bush through the mangrove boardwalk to the crystal-clear creek of Huskisson – you start with a smoking ceremony to connect and release anything that no longer serves you, then walk through the bush and learn about bush medicine, storytelling through dance.

If you’re staying closer to Nowra, then Djiriba Waagura, run by Matthew Simms (a Wandi Wandian man who belongs to the Dhurga and Dharawal Language groups from the South Coast of NSW) is working to connect people from all walks of life to the region’s ancient Aboriginal culture. Specifically, his cultural tour takes you to sacred sites along the Shoalhaven River where the mullet runs, and it includes bush tucker and corroboree.

Blending nature with more modern fixtures, a contemporary art museum named Bundanon, which means “deep valley” in Dharawal, has also recently re-opened in Shoalhaven, after a $30 million transformation. The museum has been built within the natural landscape, with a beautiful 160-metre-long bridge running straight through the middle that even has accommodation that you can register to stay in for the weekend. 

What to eat and drink

The food ethos in much of the Shoalhaven region is a blend of paddock-to-plate and slow food. There are nine cellar doors dotted around Shoalhaven, like the boutique red wine vineyard, Two Figs Winery in Berry, the dog- and Cupitt’s Estate, near Milton, which has an on-site restaurant, plus a fromagerie, luxury accommodation pods, and a brewery (they also host Sunday Sessions out on the lawn) and Lyrebird Ridge Organic Winery, set on 40 acres of bushland just 20 minutes from Kangaroo Valley. For the non-winos amongst us, there are just as many boutique distilleries and breweries, where you can fill up a growler to take back to your accommodation. 

dessert vineyard shoalhaven NSW
Image: Destination NSW

For a slower weekend, we suggest mapping out a casual food trail that ticks off local eateries that make the best of the region’s seasonal produce. In Kangaroo Valley, you’ll want to hit The General Café, where the focus is on healthy and delicious house-made meals and Hampden Deli — home to Hatted and Michelin-starred chef, Nick Gardner. In Berry, you’ll visit neighbourhood gems like South on Albany, which is set in a beautiful brick building just off the main street, as well as the all-day eatery, The Garden Berry, and Far Meadow Table. Each of these venues has been awarded the “Snail of Approval” from Slow Food South Coast, which guarantees low food miles and ethical practices.

If you’re sticking to the coast, heading to Milton and Ulladulla purely for the food is a plan we wholeheartedly endorse. Housed in an old cheese factory, Milk Haus deserves the extra shout-out, with a huge kitchen garden out the back, used to create an un-fussy and healthy menu. Honourable mentions go to Duke & Co cafe, GWYLO restaurant, neighbourhood bistro Small Town Milton, homewares and cafĂ© hybrid,  Saltwood CafĂ© and Lifestyle, and Treehouse CafĂ© in Ulladulla.

Where to stay in Shoalhaven

Shoalhaven’s coastal location means you’re spoiled for choice on accommodation that immediately puts you in holiday mode. Bangalay is one such example, with luxury villas set one street back from Seven Mile Beach and with a fine dining restaurant that peppers native Australian ingredients throughout its menu. 

bangalay pool shoalhaven
Image: Destination NSW

Another local favourite that’s more than earned its reputation as the spot for a weekend away from Sydney is Bannisters by the Sea in Mollymook, in part because of Rick Stein’s restaurant, which allow you to eat dinner with a view and roll straight into bed. The biggest drawcard for us, though, is the uninterrupted sea view, which is all the better for viewing it from your room’s balcony or the infinity pool on the deck. Its sister hotel, Bannisters Pavillion, has an equally lush pool and sunlounger offering and this is where you’ll find the Rooftop Bar and Grill, which is worth a visit if you’re staying in Mollymook.

If you’re heading down to Shoalhaven for a country escape, not a coastal one, stop in to stay at the newly-renovated, light and bright Palm Springs-inspired boutique hotel-motel, The Berry View Hotel, is a great shout. Just a short 10-minute walk from the national treasure, The Berry Donut Van, the rooms at this hotel motel are all about chic flowing sheer curtains, velvet sitting chairs, natural wood flooring, peach accents, and family-friendly vibes. 

Heading further inland for a more rural stay, one of New South Wales’ untouched gems is Kangaroo Valley, just two hours from Sydney and Canberra. Here, the (also brand new) Wildes Boutique Hotel whisks you into its gorgeous sandstone building for a relaxing and luxe stay amongst the rolling hills of the valley. It’s a one-stop for a weekend away, with an outdoor pool, fine-dining restaurant, and a central courtyard to relax in the sunshine. 

If you’re feeling ready to plan your trip to Shoalhaven (a move we very much support), head right here to start booking.