This northern NSW road trip was actually not on my priorities list. Like, at all.
For longer trips I usually pick destinations that are a little further from my current home of Sydney, but with the pandemic closing Australia’s borders for international travel, that just wasn’t possible.
Instead, I was hoping to venture across the country to places that I hadn’t yet seen within Australia. Unfortunately our state borders are still on the fritz, and Rob and I had already dealt with two instances of cancelled interstate flights over the past few months. This meant that we had to look a bit closer to home for our latest travel destination.
Right before my first semester of university started for 2021, we did the only thing we could do with a safe-ish chance of it going ahead; we booked a road trip within New South Wales where there were no state borders to cross, no flights that could be cancelled, and no lockdowns that would keep us from driving out of town.
Northern NSW road trip itinerary:
We set off north along the coast from Sydney, heading all the way up to Byron Bay near the Queensland border before turning around and heading south via an inland route through Tamworth. The trip took us 10 days, though we could easily have extended it to 2 weeks for a more relaxed pace.
Our road trip began in Sydney, but if you’re planning on doing a similar trip, it would also be fairly easy to customise the itinerary to start from Brisbane, Newcastle, or Wollongong instead.
You can allocate the number of nights in each place as you please. We spent only one night in each major destination except for Byron Bay, where we stayed for four nights, but I do wish we’d spent an extra night in Tamworth. Coffs Harbour and the Hunter Valley could also have used an extra night in each.
Read on for my overview of each stop on the New South Wales road trip itinerary!
We were meant to meet up with my parents at The Entrance on the NSW Central Coast during their planned caravan trip in 2020, but of course that trip ended up being cancelled, so Rob and I were left with an accommodation voucher that needed to be used up. We had actually been here a few times before as Rob’s family live in the area, but it’s always nice to come back!
We stayed at Oaks Waterfront Suites in The Entrance, which I thought was a little overpriced considering our room had a very un-sexy view of the car park opposite the hotel (though you can upgrade to ocean view!), however it did have a comfortable and spacious room and the waterfront location makes it super easy to walk around town.
On this visit we spent time getting a deliciously healthy brunch at Modern Organic in Long Jetty, visiting the Norah Head Lighthouse, taking some walks along the foreshore, and swimming in The Entrance Ocean Baths. If you’re looking for a dinner suggestion, I’d highly recommend Los Dos Hombres Mexican restaurant. The tacos were to die for!
This seaside town is a place that we have visited a few times before. We only stopped in Port Macquarie for lunch this time around, but I would highly recommend staying for a day or two if you have the time.
Some of my fave attractions in Port Macquarie are the breakwall next to Town Beach which has fun painted rocks along the foreshore, and the cute lighthouse at Tacking Point with its killer views along Lighthouse Beach and the coast.
For something boozy, there’s the Bago Maze and Winery which has both a hedge maze and wine tastings (not sure if that’s a good combo!) and the Black Duck Brewery which has a beer garden and tasting bar for all you craft beer nerds (definitely try their Irish Red Ale!).
Urunga (quick stop)
On the drive north from Port Macquarie, it’s definitely worth stopping at Urunga to see the wetlands boardwalk. This spot was a surprisingly awesome find for us! I discovered it just by looking at Google Maps for places to visit along the coast.
The boardwalk starts at the town centre and covers an area that was once used a shipping port but is now reclaimed wetlands with a forest of mangrove trees. At the far end, it reaches the sand dunes and Pacific Ocean.
It started raining pretty heavily while we were here but luckily we’d packed our raincoats! Afterwards we dried off in the local pub, the Ocean View Hotel, ordering a well-deserved veggie nachos before continuing our drive to Coffs Harbour.
Coffs Harbour, known locally as just Coffs, is a laid-back seaside city surrounded by numerous banana plantations. I wasn’t expecting much from Coffs as it’s kind of known as a tacky tourist town where families with young kids go for a resort holiday, but I was pleasantly surprised–Coffs has some great attractions that are suitable for all ages.
We stopped in at The Big Banana (because it really wouldn’t be a trip to Coffs without visiting this spot!) and ordered one of their famous banana splits to share and walked it off around the jetty and foreshore. We also checked out Muttonbird Island which has a walking path leading to the far side where you can watch the ocean waves crash against the rocks, and the impressive Forest Sky Pier which is located just behind Coffs in the Orara East State Forest.
Before this trip, Rob and I had spent exactly one day in Byron Bay on our Queensland road trip in 2018. It really wasn’t enough time to explore the town properly, so we intended to get to know Byron Bay and the area surrounding it.
Byron Bay is known for being a beachy destination, but wouldn’t you know it–it rained basically the entire three days that we were there! I really wanted to do a surf lesson, but instead we squeezed in a few lake and river swims at the nearby Lennox Head and Brunswick Heads, checked out some local breweries, and ate out at some of Byron’s amazing restaurants such as Light Years. The food here is seriously next-level.
We also managed to do a quick walk up to the Cape Byron Lighthouse on the only afternoon when the sun temporarily showed its face, and completed the trail that leads from the lighthouse out to Australia’s easternmost point.
Byron Bay Hinterland (day trip)
Byron Bay Hinterland is just inland from Byron Bay. The lush green hilly area has gorgeous small towns scattered in the valleys that are easily accessible in a day trip from Byron Bay, though it also makes a great destination to base your stay (which is what we did)! We stayed in an Airbnb vacation home that was on a macadamia farm just outside of Bangalow, and it was an absolute dream.
If you’re heading into the Hinterland, check out the town of Bangalow for some cute coffee shops and boutique stores, and visit Mullumbimby for some vintage shopping and lunch (we ordered the above buddha bowl and green juice from Paséyo). Afterwards, drive up to Minyon Falls Lookout to see gorgeous rainforest and waterfall scenery.
If you’d like to do a Byron Bay Hinterland day tour with a guide, that’s also an option. This will allow you to see the town of Bangalow as well as do a guided walk to the base of Minyon Falls!
Ebor + Armidale (quick stops)
It’s a long drive inland from Byron Bay to Tamworth, but it’s good to change up the return route to Sydney and see some of the New England region of NSW. If you’re not into long drives, you could split this one up by staying at either Grafton or Armidale along the way. Neither of those destinations really appealed to me so we hit the road early and did it all in one day.
On the way, we stopped at Ebor Falls for a leg-stretch. This spot has an easy walking trail between the two parking lots that allows you to see both the upper and lower falls. The valley scenery around here was really lovely, though the lookout points were both closed due to damage which was somewhat disappointing. Still, it was nothing a little bush-bashing couldn’t fix. Rob and I ventured off path to get a handful of good photos before heading back to the car.
For lunch, you can bring your own picnic along and eat it on the benches at Ebor, or if the weather is bad like it was for us, drive on to Armidale to have lunch at the Goldfish Bowl Bakery. This cafe was recommended to us by a friend who grew up in town. The coffee and food were both great, though in my opinion it was a tad pricey for the size (I’m just too accustomed to city prices!). Next time I’d get something pre-made from the counter to save money instead of ordering off the menu.
We only spent one night at the Quality Inn Ashby House in Tamworth, but I really wish we’d stayed for two as there is actually quite a lot to do in town. Tamworth is famous for being the location of the annual Tamworth Country Music Festival which celebrates the best country music from around Australia each summer. As a result, much of Tamworth’s tourism is based around this event.
The Big Golden Guitar, situated at the visitor centre, is a reference to the music awards and makes a great photo stop. Also, the Country Music Hall of Fame has an interesting collection of Australian country music memorabillia and is contained in a building shaped like a guitar (though it’s kind of hard to see the resemblance from the outside!).
Oxley Lookout is a must as it has a fab views of the town and surrounding hills. And for those of you who are history nerds like Rob, you’ll be interested to know that Tamworth was actually the first destination in Australia to get electric street lamps in 1888. Learn all about it with relics from the past in the Powerstation Museum.
Rob and I visited the Hunter Valley while attending a wedding a few years back, but we’d never properly explored it. This time, we stayed at the Leisure Inn Pokolbin Hill and put aside an afternoon to do some wine tastings at a few of the vineyards in the area around Pokolbin. My absolute favourite was Tamburlaine as I much prefer organic wines!
If you’ll be spending the day doing wine tastings, I would recommend finding a way to get around that doesn’t involve driving for safety reasons (unless you want to spit out the wine, but really, what a waste!). We walked from our hotel to a few nearby cellar doors, but there’s a hop-on hop-off bus that stops by many of the wineries and hotels in the area, or you can book a full day wine tour and have someone else take care of the transport.
That was the last stop on our trip! From the Hunter Valley, it’s about 2.5 hours drive back to Sydney.