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A Weekender's Guide to Patonga, Pearl Beach and Killcare

Eat oysters from the Hawkesbury, enjoy local gin, and explore the Central Coast.

Sydney's watery wonders don't just begin and end with the harbour. Or with Pittwater, for that matter. Head north on a ferry from Palm Beach and you'll soon be chugging past Lion Island, into the secret coves, rocky shorelines and tree-fringed bays of Brisbane Water. At some point, you're no longer in the city, but far away in the lower reaches of the Central Coast. Go west and you'll be travelling up the Hawkesbury River, where Kate Grenville set The Secret River.

Often overlooked by Sydneysiders heading further afield, this pristine expanse of beaches, national parks and picturesque villages can make for one excellent weekender. On top of all the nature, there's a growing food, coffee and craft beer scene, driven by down-to-earth experts wanting to do their thing without the burden of Sydney rent prices. Ever poured a Mr. Black, sampled a garden martini at Dead Ringer or sipped on a Six String brew? You've already begun your acquaintance with the Central Coast's creations. Now it's time to go deeper with a visit to Patonga, Pearl Beach and Killcare.

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Patonga Beach Hotel by Peter Saw

STAY

Patonga, a teeny-tiny, 200-person settlement, is the first stop on the Hawkesbury's north bank. Its name comes from the Guringai's people word for 'oyster'. Why? Work your way through a dozen shucked-on-the-spot Patonga Creek Oysters in the Patonga Beach Hotel's beer garden, and you'll soon find out. Their creaminess is thanks to the fact that travel hasn't worn them out — they grow right there in the creek separating Patonga's western edge and Little Wobby.

On the hotel's first floor, you can check into a summery, two-bedroom apartment. The building has an airy, colonial feel, despite having been built this millennium. The open plan living area, with its polished wooden floors and breezy windows, is light and spacious. Crisp white linen covers the queen-sized bed in the master bedroom, entered through concertina plantation shutters. The minute you walk in, you know you're on holiday. Still in doubt? Sink into a cane lounge on the long, shady verandah, and let the views work on you like on narcotic: upstream, downstream and across to West Head, foregrounded by Norfolk pines. Should you need to swim immediately, Patonga Beach is across the road.

The second bedroom means mates can join, or, if you're with a bigger crew, roll out the trundle beds provided. Doing the quiet romantic thing? Ask for the apartment with the spa bath. Plus, the hotel's kitchen also serves up much more than just the aforementioned oysters — they also have a stack of generous mains and a majestic beast of a bar (made of mahogany and jarrah and relocated from the Sydney Hilton) with a bunch of drops from the hotel's partner-in-wine, Robert Oatley and its many boutique brands, as well as beer, spirits and cocktails.

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The Boathouse

EAT

It might seem counterintuitive to head back towards Sydney just when you've managed to get away. But once you're sitting at The Boathouse at Palm Beach, everything will become clear. Besides, it's only a ferry ride from Patonga Wharf. Nab a seat at a marble-topped table among the oversized pot plants and bowls laden with fruit, and look out over Pittwater. If you have the celebratory inclination (and the cash!), start with a glass of Bollinger. Every dish from starter to dessert looks like an impeccably-designed mini garden, which is probably why The Boathouse Group — which has two other venues at Balmoral and Shelly Beach — are legends of Instagram.

But it's not all about looks. Perfectionism, too, rules in the tracking down of seasonal ingredients and the creation of intelligent, creative dishes. The seafood platter comes with not only tiger prawns and oysters, but also kingfish sashimi, tuna crackers, trout pate, sliced trout, seaweed and avocado. The veggie burger is a tower of avocado, zucchini, haloumi, salad and chilli jam, with potato crisps, aioli and a pickle. Coffee is single origin and teas are brewed at just the right temperature. Afterwards, walk up to Barranjoey Lighthouse for 360 degree views.

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Pearls on the Beach

Back on the Central Coast, make your next stop Pearl Beach. It's the first settlement east of Patonga — a swathe of national park cuts between the two — and Pearl faces Broken Bay. Protected by the National Trust, it's reached its maximum capacity, at 600 dwellings. So, while other parts of the Central Coast battle with sprawl, this village, with its sheltered beach and ocean pool, is sitting pretty.

Scott Fox is head chef at Pearl Beach's aptly-named Pearls on the Beach. He and partner, Melissa Fox, who's the manager, have been running the beachside restaurant for 13 years. Housed in a beach cottage just a few steps from the sand, the restaurant is clean and uncluttered, with pastel colours and white tablecloths. So your focus stays on what matters: the view and the food, which was given one hat in the 2016 Good Food Guide.

Scott is a clever and adventurous chef, keen on experimenting with unexpected combinations and international influences. If The Boathouse's dishes are mini gardens, his are mini artworks. Fennel fritters are served with walnut cream, pickled fennel, blood orange and parsley; carrots are spiced with Ethiopian berbere alongside date labne, cauliflower couscous, almonds, green harissa and herbs; seared sea scallops are topped with coconut and tamarind puree, peanut sambal, cauliflower, bean and cucumber; mango cheesecake comes deconstructed and sprinkled with macadamias. "We get produce delivered every morning," says Scott.

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The BOX on the Water by Peter Saw

Just across the road is the more casual Pearl Beach General Store and Cafe. Works by local artists cover the walls, from wooden carvings of whales to cartoon maps to photographs. Breakfasts are hearty and fun, with things like house-made Boston beans and cheesy toast, pumpkin, quinoa and ricotta pancakes and choc chip pancakes with Nutella-maple fudge sauce, sliced banana and candied bacon on the menu. There's lunch and dinner too, and on Sunday afternoons local musicians drop by for acoustic sessions.

Travelling north from Pearl Beach, the national park withdraws west to make room for the bigger, more connected towns of Umina, Ettalong and Woy Woy. In October 2014, Ettalong scored a $5 million revamp of its foreshore, which brought with it a cycle path and a sandstone seawall — and it made way for swish new restaurant, The BOX on the Water. This streamlined building capitalises on its absolute waterfront position, with floor-to-ceiling windows that disappear during warm weather. Young, energetic head chef David Peters has designed an assortment of share plates on the menu that emphasise seafood and sprightly flavours. Think natural kingfish sashimi with avocado, coriander and lime sorbet, zucchini flowers stuffed with a butternut pumpkin, goats' curd and pine nuts on purple cauliflower puree, and wild barramundi with puy lentil and pomegranate sauce verte and burnt lime.

Bells at Killcare

Bells at Killcare

Now, we're going to jump across Brisbane Water to Killcare, one of the southernmost villages on the Bouddi Peninsula. It's here that Bells at Killcare stretches across 8.5 acres of Jane Austen film-worthy gardens, housing luxury accommodation, a day spa and restaurant Manfredi. Words like 'authenticity' and 'simplicity' get bandied about often in the Australian dining scene, but this restaurant, opened under the expert eye of chef Stefano Manfredi, is the real deal. Just like an accomplished jazz singer handling a standard, there's no getting too fancy or over-reaching, but a calm, confident delivery of what really, really works. Dishes include the whole grilled fish of the day with grilled vegetables and salsa verde, tagliatelle with eggplant, zucchini, pine nuts and dry ricotta, and, for dessert, an amazing raspberry, pistachio and vanilla cassata. The key to success is fresh, quality produce. At least 15 percent comes from the 500-square-metre kitchen garden, while eggs are provided courtesy of the property's free-range hens, fish are caught at MacMasters Beach, oysters come from the Hawkesbury, and so on.

Drive over the hill and you're back beside still water in Hardy's Bay. Among the tiny collection of shops on Hardy's Bay Parade is The Fat Goose Bakery, Deli and Cafe. Grab a bacon and egg roll for just five bucks and head for a park or beach — or hang out in the leafy courtyard in front of a sit-down breakfast. All breads and pastries are made on the premises and turned into delicious dishes, adorably named after local landmarks and people, from the Half Tide Rocks — sautéed mushrooms, shallots, garlic and parsley on toast — to the Killcare Boaties, which is a dish of fennel rosti with premium smoked salmon and creamy scrambled eggs.

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Distillery Botanica

DRINK

Few people know that in a lush, aromatherapeutic garden on the Central Coast, a master distiller called Philip Moore (aka Distillery Botanica) spends hours and hours each day creating some of the best spirits in the world. Literally. In 2012, his cold drip coffee liqueur Mr Black won gold in the International Wine & Spirits Competition in London. And in 2013 his lemon myrtle liqueur did the same, while his aniseed myrtle liqueur topped the International Spirits Competition in Germany.  In December, we introduced you to his new garden-grown gin. To see where Moore grows his murraya, jasmine, orange blossom, coriander and other botanicals — and sample some of his other magic — drop by Distillery Botanica HQ at 25 Portsmouth Road. Erina.

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Six String Brewing Company by Peter Saw

Just down the road, old mates Chris Benson and Adam Klasterka are revolutionising the Central Coast's beer scene with their Six String Brewing Company. According to the guys, when they first started back in 2010, people on the Central Coast only wanted to drink Carlton Dry. And that wasn't the only challenge — the duo grappled with three years worth of red tape before setting up for good at the current site. Fast forward to 2016 and, in many a local pub, Six String lager is in more demand than Carlton. Plus, they're brewing some mighty pale ales, summer ales and IPAs. Meanwhile, the venue's little kitchen is whipping up an array of multicultural snacks, including pizza, rice paper rolls and Sicilian-style meatballs, and putting on live music shindigs on the weekends.

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Peter Saw

DO

Between all that feasting and carousing, you might want to consider doing some moving. If you caught our run-down of Sydney's best beaches for surfing newbies, you'll recall that Umina was a top recommendation. Ready to give it a go? Book a lesson with the Central Coast Surf Academy. While dragging your board through the whitewash, instructor Peter Hayes may even fill you in on what he gets up to when not teaching: professionally chasing waves all over the world for documentaries like The Barrel. So he's got plenty of tips for novices and intermediate surfers alike.

On land, there are walks and bike rides aplenty. For the best trails in Bouddi National Park, visit our day tripper's guide over here. Meanwhile, Ettalong's shared path gives you 7.5-kilometres of waterfront bike riding, walking or running. Or, if you don't mind sharing the road with traffic (and tackling a few hills), the epic, 14-kilometre Putt Putt to Putty ride carries you from Wagstaffe's Mulhall Street Wharf to Ettalong Wharf.

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Central Coast Day Spa at Bells at Killcare

Alternatively, should your ultimate weekender mean lying horizontal and doing absolutely nothing, check into the Central Coast Day Spa at Bells. Don a bathrobe and sip on complimentary tea before being led into a candle-lit room. There's a range of spa treatments on the menu, but the cracker is the signature Kodo massage, which comes with Australian essential oils and a smoking ceremony. It's inspired by indigenous techniques and based on rhythms aimed at balancing the body and the mind, too.

If you can muster enough energy for a post-massage wander in Killcare, the handful of shops near The Fat Goose are worth exploring. Among them are the Central Coast's only Aboriginal art gallery, Bouddi Gallery. Most of the paintings, jewellery, carvings, ceramics, weaving and glassware you see come from non-profit, Aboriginal-owned art centres in the Kimberley, Central and Western deserts, Tiwi Islands and Arnhem Land.

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The Fat Goose by Peter Saw

LET'S DO THIS; GIVE ME THE DETAILS

By car: Patonga is 90 minutes' drive north of Sydney, along the Pacific Motorway.

By public transport: Ferries travel between Palm Beach and Patonga, Ettalong and Wagstaffe. Once you're on the Central Coast, public transport can be patchy, so if you're car-less, plan your itinerary carefully. Many venues, including Patonga Beach Hotel, Pearls on the Beach and Bells at Killcare, offer complimentary transfers.

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Jasmine travelled as a guest of Destination NSW.

Published on January 22, 2016 by Jasmine Crittenden

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