There’s a time of day when still water assumes the appearance of molten bronze. It’s the perfect excuse to stop in your tracks and take in the hypnotic shimmer of Smiths Lake.
Part of the sprawling coastal lake system which - along with adjoining Myall and Wallis Lakes - gives the Great Lakes region its name, tucked away ‘Smiths’ is a restful base for exploring this unsung region.
There’s an almost cinematic grandeur to the rearing headlands. After more than 20 years of relishing these chalky beaches, I’m still startled by the vividness of the turquoise water and I still coo loudly when I spot dolphins frolicking close to shore.
The soothing kicks in soon after dispersing with the Pacific Highway near historic Bulahdelah. At nearby Bombah Point, paper-barks lean into silky water and it makes perfect sense that the Myall Lakes system is home to more bird species than Kakadu. For rugged mountain scenery, take the Markwell -Wauk Ivory road.
Pockets of rainforest and cabbage tree palms signal the approach to Smiths Lake. In a region that’s all about the water, nothing beats having the tranquility of Smiths Lake unfurl at the edge of the lawn- which makes Ripples On Smiths a singular treat.
‘Ripples’ is a spacious and fresh beach-house focused on a large deck that boasts compelling views. With nearby beaches at their calmest in the morning, taking out the provided kayaks - or the tinnie - is a dreamy way to end the day here.
Just a short drive from Ripples is Cellito Beach, a dazzlingly white wilderness beach accessed by walking along a boardwalk through littoral rainforest.
At Pacific Palms, there’s a beach for every wind direction.
Cows graze on the southern headland of Blueys Beach and there’s not a house to be seen at Elizabeth Beach, where a trail though cabbage palms leads to sheltered Shelly Beach.
Seal Rocks conjures strong emotions amongst devotees of sensational surf. The fact that reaching this haven involves a dirt road tunneled by interlocked angophoras sets the tone for a deliciously escapist experience. The northerly beaches are typically glassy - perfect for carefree swims.
The lush Cabbage Palm Loop walk (accessed along Sugar Creak road) is a rewarding detour on the way back to Smiths Lake. Heading into ‘town’ for shopping, I can’t help stopping along unpeopled Seven Mile Beach or the she-oak fringed shores of Wallis Lake.
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The electric blue shallows of Wallis Lake entrance divide Forster-Tuncurry. To stake out your own sandbar island, rent a tinny and explore the patchwork of islets and oyster leases dotting the lake.
Following the Lakes Way north leads to the verdant Manning Valley, entree to the big rivers of northern New South Wales.
This area lends itself ideally to randomly following squiggly lines on the map and time-travelling to slumbering communities such as Nabiac, Bunyah, Dyers Crossing and Krambach, a back-route that can be extended to heritage hotspot Wingham.
The Manning River is unique in that it has two ocean entrances, webbed by a delta comprised of large islands. My favourite is the north-side, home to Harrington, a low-slung settlement of timber cottages and a historic pub and the sweeping vistas of Crowdy Head, which feels like an island, so pervasive is the sense of being surrounded by sea.
Driving towards Manning Point - and yet another endless beach - involves crossing Oxley Island then Mitchell Island, passing mangroves, oyster leases and lime green farmland dotted with cows. It’s a scenescape that reminds me of the Everglades - I half expect to spot a wizened bluesman.
In contrast to the dramatic landforms and jewel hues of Pacific Palms, the Manning region of New South Wales rolls out a painterly coastline of smudged pastels.
The constant, however, is tingling clear water which leaves me feeling like I’ve swum in champagne.