New South Wale’s Lake Macquarie proves the perfect place for a weekender with stunning beaches, hidden caves and decadent dining.
Words by Emma Ryan
For Sydney-siders, the scene is familiar. You’ve clocked off a bit early to beat the traffic and you’re cruising up the Pacific Motorway, the afternoon sun glittering on the Hawkesbury River as you navigate the road’s broad, sweeping bends. You’ve got that Friday feeling; no work for two days and a weekend away seems just the ticket.
But what you mightn’t realise is that you needn’t travel as far north as Port Stephens nor the Hunter Valley to find a peaceful, picturesque weekend escape, with a splash of understated luxury. The often-overlooked Lake Macquarie delivers just that.
Tucked against a vast stretch of pristine coastline between the Central Coast and Newcastle, Australia’s largest saltwater lagoon is twice the size of Sydney Harbour, but its 174km shoreline is fringed with bushland and dotted with sleepy bays and quiet towns. Life here ambles along slowly, punctuated by the sound of crimson rosellas, the scent of eucalypt and the sight of the shimmering blue lake seemingly ever-present. To the east, vast stretches of near-empty beaches hide secret caves and world-class surf breaks, while the Watagan Mountains to the west necessitate packing a decent set of hiking boots.
When you’ve only got two precious nights to enjoy, finding somewhere unique and beautiful to stay is a must. Lake Macquarie offers a decent selection of unique and luxurious holiday rentals, but when it comes to incredible places to sleep, atop a lagoon just metres from one of the prettiest beaches in NSW would have to be up there.
At Caves Coastal Bar and Bungalows there’s a range of accommodation options available on the extensive grounds, including double storey family units where you can spot migrating whales from the veranda at the right time of year.
But for luxury exclusively for two, you can’t go past the waterfront Beach Bungalows. Set atop a clear saltwater lagoon, the architecturally designed, split-level Beach Bungalows were created with romance in mind. Stacker glass doors seamlessly link the plush king-sized bed with the private waterfront deck, complete with comfy lounge chairs and a suspended egg seat – the perfect place for a private happy hour. Overlooking the bedroom area is an opulent freestanding bathtub that will seduce the most stoic of travellers, especially after a few pinots with dinner. The bungalows are open-plan, with no walls or doors to speak of, so although the shower and toilet are tucked out of sight behind respective walls, the goings on are public knowledge to anyone present in the bungalow.
A short meander along the boardwalk from your bungalow delivers you to the picturesque Caves Beach, a vast stretch of pristine sand fringed by gently undulating dunes carpeted in low-lying greenery. At the southern end of the beach you’ll discover an intricate network of caves from which the beach derives its name, where waves surge relentlessly into the crumbled cliffs. At low tide these caves can be explored on foot and are a photographer’s dream.
If you fancy a more extensive walk, Caves Beach Coastal Walk is a 5km return track that links Caves to Pinny Beach, offering spectacular views of the coastline and the ocean beyond. Nearby Catherine Hill Bay is a cute village filled with charming historic miners’ cottages, and the beach here is breathtakingly beautiful.
After that you’ll have surely earned a glass of wine or a cocktail, and the deck back at Caves Coastal is the perfect spot for it. Get cosy beside the fire pit in winter, or soak in the last of the afternoon’s rays in summer. If you fancy staying on for dinner, the menu offers a diverse range of gastro pub-style fare, including wood-fired pizza, burgers, seafood, steak and pub classics.
Bustling Warners Bay is the beating heart of Lake Macquarie and is the place to go for tasty food, offering no shortage of excellent cafes and restaurants with views across the lake.
To kick off the day, Little White Bull Espresso has a cosy, homely vibe with excellent coffee and some wickedly good breakfast options, including waffles served with strawberries and lashings of Nutella. You’re never too old to have icecream for breakfast, after all. And for a lazy Sunday brunch there’s no going past Q&Co, a bustling eatery with a menu full of creative and yummy options, including zucchini fritters with smoked salmon, beetroot relish and labneh.
For lunch or dinner, you can’t beat the cosmopolitan vibe at Brownsugar: a second-floor restaurant with a striking curved glass wall framing an incredible view of the lake.
It’s modern Australian cuisine here, the seasonal menu offering indulgent plates of rich food, including confit duck Maryland with sour cherry compote. Or if you prefer Mediterranean fare with an intimate vibe, Sephardim is a romantic space in which to enjoy mezze share plates and a bottle of tempranillo or two with your significant other.
If you’re lucky enough to be in town when the monthly Warners Bay Markets are on, you’ll see this little town at its bustling best, with market stores lining the foreshore selling local craft, clothing, curios and edible treats. The Warners Bay Foreshore Walk is a great way to enjoy the lake and walk off those waffles, too.
The Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery is a wonderful place to spend a couple of hours. The gallery itself is a stylish space that shows travelling exhibitions – visit the website to find out what’s currently on. But the jewel in the gallery is almost certainly the 15-acre lakefront grounds on which it sits. Lush lawns roll gently beneath mature fig trees and flowering gums where raucous rainbow lorikeets feast. Wander these peaceful grounds to take in the outdoor sculpture garden, or simply laze on a picnic blanket in a shady spot and gaze out to the sailing boats on the lakes.
If all of that art perusing and lazing about gets you hungry, you’re in luck. Awaba House is a wonderful little restaurant adjacent to the gallery, within a charming historic house. Built in 1927 and replacing two older homes on the same site – including one that tragically burnt down – Awaba House is a stately, ornate building that was once one of the largest estates in the area. Today, it’s a serene place to enjoy modern Australian cuisine with a beautiful view across the grounds to the lake.
Of course, the best way to enjoy the lake is to get on it. Visitors can hire kayaks, barbecue boats, fishing boats, waterskis and an eight-berth luxury cruiser from Jetbuzz Water Sports at Cams Wharf. The latter can be chartered overnight for reasonable rates, and you don’t need a boat licence to hire it.
By the time Sunday afternoon rolls around and you set out for home, you’ll be salty and satisfied. Your bellies will be full and the briny sea breeze will have cleared your mind of your city stresses.
Lake Macquarie is about a two-hour drive north of Sydney, via the Princess Motorway; or less than one hour by road from Newcastle Airport.
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