This year I have been exploring and having a few short breaks close to home. Driving down the South Coast is fun and familiar, but can be quiet off-season, and I had decided I wanted to go somewhere with a bit of a buzz. We live within 3 hours of one of the sexiest cities on earth and I wanted a short, low-season break which was not too expensive. I love the Northern Beaches, barely an hour north of the Sydney CBD but wondered how expensive it is these days. When I was growing up in the area, Palm Beach was known simply as “Millionaires’ Mile” because it has always been fashionable and real estate isn’t cheap. In more recent times it has become known to many as the mythical, always sunny “Summer Bay” of the “Home and Away” series, and, as ever, there is the possibility of a bit of celebrity spotting. I have often seen Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward and Wendy Sharpe on previous visits, but these days I am not so sure I would immediately recognize any young celebrities.
For years it has been difficult to holiday north of Newport on the true Pittwater Peninsula. There is a real shortage of hotels and motels, and, in the past, the real estate agents’ holiday letting system usually demanded an inflexible Saturday-to-Saturday letting period.
But Airbnb has changed all that and it is possible to secure reasonably priced accommodation and not pay a fortune. Now there are a whole lot of unique little rentals, and many are available for just two or three nights, and longer. A quick search will show that weekend tariffs are more expensive and as soon as you cross the threshold into summer holiday season, watch out! The Peninsula is extremely expensive in the summer season, with stories of houses with rentals of more than $20,000 a week; and most of these come with a strict ‘no party’ rule. I trawled Airbnb, took time to read all the reviews and checked all the locations. I ‘inspected’ cottages, granny flats, holidays flats, and finally selected a recently redecorated and rather glamorous looking apartment tucked in underneath a waterfront house with its own entrance. It looked spacious and comfortable, virtually no neighbours and amazing views over Pittwater to the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. The most important thing was that my accommodation was under my budget, which left me spare dollars for trying new restaurants, and a bit of retail therapy.
It was reasonably priced because it was early spring and still low season, but I was prepared to take the risk with the weather. The apartment turned out to be extremely comfortable, with underfloor heating, an open fire with wood supplied, off-street parking and on a city bus route. With a huge private deck overlooking a saltwater pool, and kayaks to muck around on Pittwater, it was just too good to be true. At just under $200 a night I started a conversation with my Airbnb host. I needn’t have worried about the weather as apart from a bit of wind on one day, it was perfect. In case of inclement weather, I did have the fallback option of the cinema in Avalon or getting on the bus to visit Sydney CBD and take in a show or visit some galleries. Luckily it was very sunny, and I discovered great places for lunch and planned excursions on the water: all with the freedom of my own car, my own apartment, and a million dollar address and view.
Once accommodation was secured, it was time to plan what I would do for four days. I was spoilt for choice.
Eating and spending time by, or even on the water, was high on my agenda! The downside to going anywhere near the beach by car is they are all subject to paid parking, and parking isn’t cheap. However, it is possible to get free parking near most desirable places with a bit of planning.
Eating out offers lots of options. The Boat House on the Pittwater side of Palm Beach is well-known to fans of “Home and Away” as one of the regular film sets. Built over the water, it is casual, has lots of outside seating, is busy from early morning and is very popular. It is a glamorous go-to destination, but I didn’t spot any celebrities. However, I did see someone wearing a brightly-colored silk Camilla and Marc silk kaftan before lunch as well as quite a few well-heeled tourists who may well have flown in from Rose Bay by seaplane for lunch.
The Boat House wasn’t overpriced for the location, but there are other places to visit that serve popular food at a reasonable price, including the rebranded Palm Beach RSL, now known as Club Palm Beach. It has a famous beer garden and weekday specials of steak, schnitzels, gourmet pies and fish and chips, welcomes interstate visitors, and is very popular with locals as it is right at a bus stop.
Another low-cost lunch alternative is takeaway fish and chips from the nearby world famous ‘Palm Beach Fish and Chip Shop’. It now has undercover seating and is BYO, or you can wander across Barrenjoey Road and sit in the park and watch the ferries and yachts. Not surprisingly, this fish and chip shop has the most incredible queues in summer.
I wanted to spend some time on the water and ferries are always an inexpensive option. With a number of ferry services operating from the Palm Beach Wharf, it is possible to take a short trip across Pittwater to Mackerel Beach; a full day trip up the Hawkesbury to Berowra Waters; or catch the commuter ferry across the mouth of the Hawkesbury to Patonga on the Central Coast. It is also possible to hire a variety of small pleasure craft nearby at Barrenjoey Boat Hire and explore the many hidden corners of Pittwater.
A big treat for the holiday was lunch at the pretty waterfront ‘Cottage Point Inn’ up the Hawkesbury River. I had a number of choices of getting there from Palm Beach: seaplane, car or dinky little ferry.
Cottage Point Inn is located within the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in a quirky and exclusive residential enclave. It is less than an hour’s drive from the CBD and has two very comfortable holiday apartments available. Before the road went in the early 1970s, the Inn was a boathouse, general store and post office for the various small river communities along this section of the Hawkesbury. Despite its remote location, lunchtime is busy with private yachts and the Palm Beach ferry dropping off passengers and the excitement of watching the seaplane land and takeoff.
There is also a general store selling bait, and delightful cafe serving lunch on the other side of the Cottage Point peninsula.
Central to life on the Peninsula is Avalon, one of my favourite shopping centres, and it is possible to shop there for no more than you would pay in Canberra. There is a popular French patisserie, excellent bottle shops, organic fruit and vegetables, wonderful well-stocked Boccochino Bookshop, lots of interesting clothing and tasteful beach-themed interior shops, as well as trendy cafes and inexpensive small restaurants. I enjoyed a quick lunch at Pineana, overlooking the bustling crossroad of Old Barrenjoey Road and Avalon Parade, which serves up a really delicious inexpensive vegan Laksa and fresh juices.
I found lots of spots to sit and look at the water and admire the surfers for braving the still fairly cool water. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants that have views of the water, whether it is the usually peaceful Pittwater or one of the surf beaches.
The biggest surprise was finding a restaurant on the first floor of the Avalon Surf Life Saving Club just across from the shopping centre. Simply named “Avalon” they serve a reasonably priced lunchtime special each day. With the windows wide open, I had the feeling of almost sitting right on the sand and loved listening to the small waves.
There are also endless opportunities for walks. Scaling the steep path to the historic Barrenjoey Lighthouse to enjoy the view didn’t make it to the top of my list this visit, but I walked the length and breadth of at least four beaches and a circular bush walk in the Ku-ring-gai Chase.
What did I love best about my budget holiday? I was able to drive in under 4 hours door to door, park and quickly unwind. Airbnb hosts pride themselves on making visitors feel welcome, which was exactly what happened for this visit, and there was a lovely selection of local goodies in the fridge and cupboard. I used the local bus service with my Opal card rather than pay for very expensive parking near any of the beaches.
Sadly the apartment I rented is only available very occasionally through Airbnb and is not currently on the website, but I found at least half a dozen places that would have done just as well for a couple, and there were lots of small cottages and comfy beachside houses for families. It is best to select your date and then go looking to see who has what available. The Peninsula is a beautiful semi-tropical part of Sydney and yes, it is home to more than its fair share of millionaires, but with a bit of careful planning, you could have a very reasonably priced beach holiday. I can recommend Palm Beach, Whale Beach, Clareville, Avalon and Bilgola as they are all just beyond the busy part of the Northern Beaches.
It’s almost summer and many Canberrans will be thinking about going coastal. Where will you be heading this summer? Let us know by commenting below.