The landscape is ever-changing on the trip from Canberra to Merimbula, as we travel inland--first over undulating barren countryside on to native terrain, then past lush dairy farms dotted with fat cows, and beyond through densely wooded State forests. 'Are we there yet,' I asked with a giggle, three hours into the journey. It's a standing joke whenever we're travelling. 'Actually, we can't be too far away now,' Peter replied, pointing to the display on the GPS. And then, as the Jeep made its way over the bend, there it was in full splendour. Merimbula on the magnificent Sapphire Coast.
That first glimpse of deep blue lake and ocean takes my breath away. It's my first visit here, as my parents once lived at Malua Bay in the Eurobodalla Shire, and Narooma was as far south as I'd ventured. The scenery is different to that which I am more familiar with. The Sapphire Coast comprises coastal and country towns including Bega, Bemboka, Brogo, Cobargo, Candelo, Eden, Merimbula, Pambula, Tathra, Wolumla, Wonboyn and Wyndham—and stretches from Bermagui to just near the Victorian border. Merimbula, long recognised as the 'jewel' of the Sapphire Coast (for good reason), is hugely popular with folks from Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the surrounding areas—and many of the people we meet while we're here are either holidaying with family or tell us that they moved to the area for a sea change.
On arrival, we check in at Coast Resort and then hit the beach for an invigorating swim in the waves—just one of many things to do on our itinerary. Guided snorkelling is among the water activities available, together with sea kayak tours, canoeing and boating, scuba diving, wind-surfing, whale and dolphin watching, and fishing.
EAT Merimbula: a delicious day out...
We skip breakfast on the morning of EAT Merimbula, saving ourselves for a feast. The event brings together the best of the region's local chefs and food producers to showcase their goods along the lakeshore at Fishpen Road. Offerings from the twenty or so marquees include Eden mussels prepared by Merimbula Wharf Restaurant; paella, seafood chowder and bouillabaisse cooked by Patrick from Cranky Café; a selection of plump oysters and oyster soup from Bega Coast Oysters; home-grown pork and lamb dishes (the lamb cutlets were very popular) from Hardcore Carnivore; beef sliders with Disaster Bay chilli jam and chocolate hazelnut tart made by chef Natasha Slade from Merimbula Lakeview Hotel (watch this space for the tart recipe, coming soon); Kingfish Ceviche from Club Sapphire; salt and pepper squid from Cheeky Mango Café (which sold out very quickly!); and wine tastings from Rocky Hall Winery and Rusty Fig Wines. There was also a pontoon out on the Lake where you could learn how to shuck an oyster with an expert and enjoy a selection of oysters with locally produced wine or beer. Picnic rugs laid out on the grass by the organisers are an added bonus to this delicious day out, and thankfully the weather holds out beautifully. Add this annual event to your must-do list!
Put on some walking shoes and take some time to discover the area via its excellent short or long walking tracks, then take a seat on the jetty by the Lake or the hill overlooking Bar Beach, catch your breath and drink in the stunning views. Plan your visit from June through to November and you might just see Humpback and Southern Right Whales, with calves in tow, as they make their way up to Queensland waters or back to the Antarctic! I'm told it's a spectacular sight.
Eucalypts along the footpaths at Fishpen Road...
Enjoy the view...
Pelicans on the Lake at Merimbula...
Flocks of pelicans are a feature on the Lake at Merimbula and during an early morning photo walk I stopped to admire these interesting metallic sculptures by Richard Moffat, alongside their living companions. Look closely and you'll see that the sculptures are made from recycled junk metal. Remarkable!
Hungry? We discovered that there are some very fine restaurants, cafés, food producers, wineries and locavores in and around Merimbula, the Bega Valley and along the Sapphire Coast road. There's award-winning cheese, oysters, chillies, smoked goods, and hand-made chocolates and ice cream. Meet some of the wonderful people behind the food:
Wheelers Seafood Restaurant and Oyster Farm...
We're booked in for an 'Oyster Talk' and lunch at Wheelers Seafood Restaurant and Oyster Farm in Pambula, a short trip from Merimbula. Restaurant and seafood bar owner and manager, Jacqui Smith, who is all smiles, is very excited about her brand new venture of three months. She says she has called Merimbula 'home' for the last nine years, but grew up on a sheep farm in Gippsland, Victoria. 'What's your philosophy for the restaurant?,' I asked. 'My goodness, that's a great question,' Jacqui replied. 'All I can tell you is that my family and I have loved dining at Wheelers for many years and I think it's got a great energy and we have always really loved being here. In taking over, the appeal was that I have always had a love of this place. I'm a marine ecologist by trade and so I have a real connection with the sea. And have always had an affiliation with oysters throughout the years. But without any restaurant experience, my philosophy is simply to treat people beautifully and give them a wonderful experience when they dine here. I have a great team in the kitchen who create magic. It makes my job very easy. Our menu showcases the region's produce, with Eden mussels and local fish and fresh produce.' The lunch we sample is excellent and features oysters, and flathead fillets in a feather-light tempura batter with a lovely fresh salad. Desserts are offered, but after such a great meal, we simply cannot fit them in.
Locals Hugh Wheeler and his wife, Debbie, owned the restaurant and seafood bar from 1982 until recently, but they're now focusing on oyster farming. During a fascinating and detailed Oyster Talk, Hugh, who has been farming oysters for 30 years, explained the life cycle of Sydney Rock oysters and how they're farmed. 'The animal we farm is a wild critter,' he began. 'You've probably seen oysters growing on rocks. That's what the first white settlers that came to Australia saw as well and they recorded it in their journals as something they could eat. We as farmers take advantage of the fact that wild oysters catch onto rocks. Sydney Rock oysters spawn into the water and tiny baby oysters begin as a critter that can swim with a pulsing action. It's really at the whim of the tides and currents, and if they get carried out to see they travel for hundreds of kilometres. But at the end of twenty days, they completely change, similar to how a tadpole changes to a frog. They're like a tiny swimming snail, with a sucker foot that grabs onto things like rocks, mangroves, bottoms of boats or anything that's in the right place at the right time,' he said. 'As oyster farmers, we want to catch those oysters. So we build structures that resemble the oyster's natural habitat, then take them to the lake and if we put them out there at the right time of the year, we'll catch the oysters as they hook on. Once we've caught them there's a whole range of steps in growing them. The oysters reach maturity in three to five years, and being wild there are constraints that affect the way that they grow. They go through the rhythm of the tide rising and falling every day twice a day. We note that the oysters that grow best are in the mid-level of the structures in tidal zone in the estuary. Oyster farming is about just that: the simple steps of observing and adapting a system to suit,' he added.
Oysters are no longer grown on stick and rack structures, which were far more labour intensive, as the sticks had to be tarred (to prepare them for a life in salt water) and then dipped into a concrete slurry to create a rock-like surface. Hugh explained that this was because the preferred habitat for oysters is on rough surfaces such as sandstone with 'shady spots' in which they can hide. The problem was that too many oysters would gather, so you might end up with a hundred dozen oysters on one stick! The oyster farmer then had to break the clusters of oysters into individuals and then the oysters had to be graded because they were all different sizes. 'If you have 15,000 cement sticks with 1,000 oysters on each one, that's a huge job, I tell you,' Hugh explained. 'We would have a team of people sitting there grading oysters day after day after day.'
Hugh demonstrated the new 'mesh system' used for oyster farming. 'We don't allow the oysters to grow on the thing they've caught on for any great length of time. First of all we need something that the baby oysters can catch on, that we can then remove them from very easily. So we put down concave plastic strips. Months later we collect the strips, break the bundles apart and peel off the little oysters in their complete shell. Then we put them into a mesh cylinder with flotation devices on either end, and the container goes back into the lake. As the tide moves in and out, the container floats up and down, and the oysters grow as they feed off plankton in the water. Once the oysters are larger they go into a wider mesh container, and later into pillow-like growing bags and back into the lake. With the new growing technique, the oysters are similar shapes and sizes and no longer need to be manually 'spaced' and graded when harvested. Machines handle that job now. In fact, one machine can grade 350 oysters per minute,' Hugh concluded. Our tour with Hugh included a demonstration on opening, cutting and turning oysters for sale to restaurants. We asked for advice on keeping time. 'My recommendation is to keep the unopened oysters in the shell for one week without refrigeration, and opened oysters for only four days in the refrigerator, as once opened they will lose moisture and deteriorate with time.' This was an interesting, eye-opening tour that was finished off with a tasting platter of deliciously fresh oysters.
Merimbula Wharf Aquarium and Restaurant...
Hosts Anthony and Sally Daly (pictured below) welcome us to the Merimbula Wharf Aquarium and Restaurant for dinner on Sunday evening and we're looking forward to watching the sunset from the deck as we dine. Chatting with this delightful couple, we learn that they too moved to Merimbula for a sea change. Anthony explains, 'We saw the opportunity to come here and didn't think about it too much. Sally's parents have lived here for 25 years and it's been the best thing we've ever done.'
Sally previously worked as a nurse and looks after front of house at the restaurant. Anthony, a former banker, is now a qualified chef. He trained at Bega TAFE. 'I've always enjoyed cooking, but never imagined that I'd be working in the hospitality industry,' he says. 'This was previously a Thai Restaurant before we took it over and it was completely gutted by fire in 1998. In the early 1900s, it was a cargo shed for the ships that used to dock here—the SS Merimbula among them. Depending on where the weather came from the ships would either come here or go north to Tathra.'
Their philosophy with the restaurant is to serve fresh local produce prepared as simply as possible. 'Being so close to the water, fresh seafood screams out at you. But we also have options for non-seafood eaters. We don't serve fish from the aquarium,' Anthony assures. 'We order in fresh local oysters and mussels and they're also fed to the fish in the aquarium. If the fish won't eat them, we don't serve them in the restaurant.'
Our meal included a selection of oysters kilpatrick topped with cheese; a trio of duck dishes: spring rolls, terrine and pâté served with freshly baked bread rolls. For mains I chose the shellfish linguine, which was snapping fresh and absolutely delicious. It was the inspiration for my recipe for spaghettoni with seafood a la Lizzy. Anthony says it's one of the restaurant's best selling dishes and 'the secret is infusing the flavours and using the freshest seafood possible'. Our desserts included a trio of ice cream (mango and lime, white chocolate and basil, and mocha semi freddo) and a chocolate pudding that was so good that Peter almost licked the plate!
The freshness and quality of our meals—coupled with the aquarium tour and a magical view—made for a truly memorable evening.
The aquarium is amazing. There are 27 tanks, as well as an 'oceanarium' which is full of large ocean fish and sharks. The tanks are stocked mainly with local species of marine life, and just a few tropicals such as the Clown fish. 'We have an open system that pumps up salt water all the time and so we have happy fish,' Anthony says. 'Local fishermen sometimes bring unique species in to us, but we collect most of the others ourselves. This year we've had baby seahorses, baby sharks, baby cuttlefish born in the tanks too'. Anthony recommends that fish feeding is the best time to visit as the fish become very active (Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11.30am and Monday to Friday during School Holidays).
'I hope you're hungry because we've just cooked a huge pot of seafood chowder,' says Patrick James, owner of Cranky Pants Café when I call to confirm our booking. Seafood chowder is one of our favourites, so we're salivating before we arrive for dinner. Patrick and his wife Lee moved to Merimbula from Canberra (another sea change) and have owned the café for the past three years. 'We love good food, we're foodies,' Lee says. 'So it's not hard to do great food. We've got really good staff, we like to treat people nicely and just be happy. Patrick is English so he loves to have lots of traditional English foods, such as kippers and lamb's fry, on the menu.' Cranky Pants Café is opposite the main beach in Merimbula and offers casual dining, as well as breakfasts; together with take away fish and chips, and pizza.
Incidentally, the chowder was delicious!
Eden Smokehouse and Sprout local produce store and café...
We drive south of Merimbula, 26 kilometres to Eden—a historic whaling town, thriving working port and home to one of the largest fishing fleets in New South Wales. We make a quick pitstop for lunch at one of the cafes on the wharf and, naturally, we choose a salty but deliciously-fresh fisherman's basket.
At the Eden Smokehouse, Stan Soroka (pictured below) says his award-winning artisan smoked goods are for the gourmet. Soroka grew up on a farm in Victoria and his Polish immigrant parents would smoke food as a means of preserving it. 'We used to smoke everything: hams, chickens, sausages and eels. I remember going to primary school with smoked eel and a piece of bread in my lunchbox,' he laughs. Soroka was previously a food technologist with the Heinz company and moved to Eden in the late 70s with Greenseas Tuna. He took over the smokehouse from the previous owner two years ago. Leaning against a wall of ribbons and medals he is beaming with pride as he tells us, 'Last week we picked up Gold, three Silver and three Bronze awards at Sydney's Royal Fine Food Show. We have a wide range of products: atlantic salmon and ocean trout in portion or half side; smoked greenlip mussels which are sold plain, or with Italian, Mexican and Thai flavours. We also have smoked eel, warehou, whole rainbow trout and local sardines. We can't seem to make enough of our gravalax. We produce smoked garlic too, and we're trialling smoked tomatoes, which will be available soon.' I had the opportunity to taste test the tomatoes and they are very good! Eden Smokehouse supplies restaurants direct in the Southern Highlands and Sydney, and their products are sold through Thomas Dux and The Gourmet Grocer in Sydney, Supabarn in Canberra, and Seafresh in WA.'
At Sprout local produce store and café we meet Karen Lott and Barbara Greenwood (pictured above), who have joined forces on the Grow for Eden campaign and together started the Nethercote seasonal markets. Karen, who was previously a flight attendant with Qantas, owns and operates Sprout, while Barbara takes care of the produce sold in the store. 'We tapped into all the local resources, got all the local growers to come and it's now hugely successful. We also have a campaign where we actually fund growers to help get their gardens going,' Barbara explains. 'Our growers are mostly within a 20 kilometre radius and the produce is grown free from chemicals. We have about 100 people who have grown for us over the year and at any given time we have 30 growers who deliver consistently. I make sure they get at least 50% of the price, if there's a glut we will reduce the price slightly. We try and keep it as fair as we can for our consumers and the growers, and also make sure that Karen can make a little profit too.' The philosophy behind the café and store is 'local and seasonal' as much as possible. Meat, poultry, eggs, cheese, milk and fresh produce are sourced from local growers and producers. The coffee is sourced from just south of Byron Bay. 'Everything is incredibly fresh,' says Barbara. 'There are no nasty carbon miles. The produce is picked just one or two days before sale and doesn't hang around on the shelves.'
Judging by the busy vibe in the café and store, business is certainly booming and the affogato is excellent too!
The Wharf Locavore, Tathra...
Emma Benton is the owner of the Wharf Locavore in Tathra. Her sister, Poppy (pictured), greeted us with a huge smile as we entered the coffee bar-come-gallery. The doors of this once historic cargo shed are wide open and reveal jaw dropping views to the old wharf outside and the headland across the sea. There are solid timber beams supporting the roof, and wooden floors and furniture. There's a different vista from every window. In one part of the gallery a handcrafted timber boat is on display. A wooden planter box is filled with various succulents, adding colour and interest to the eye. Local honey and preserves are for sale on a table, together with jars of pickled samphire from Snowy River Station. Poppy explains how much she loves the beautiful building and its location 'sitting on the water'. 'We try to source all the food served here locally, within 100 miles, although the coffee is from further afield. The artworks are all made locally too.'
As we enjoy coffee and a slice of orange syrup cake, a fisherman shows off some freshly caught squid. 'Imagine having this place as your local café,' says Peter. 'Mmmm,' I agree, a sea change certainly has its plusses.
Coast Resort, Merimbula...
Coast Resort is well situated, being close to both Merimbula Beach and the Lake, and just a short walk across the bridge and around the boardwalk to the town centre. There's a tennis court and two heated swimming pools, one of which is a lap pool. Both the pools are delicious and I must confess that apart from one really good swim in the surf, and an attempt to dip our toes into the icy lake one rainy afternoon, our water sports were confined to swimming in the resort's pools. This was because the seas had become quite and I'm a complete chicken when it comes to being hammered into the sand!
Our modern one bedroom apartment at Coast was self-contained with a full sized kitchen, internal laundry and secure underground parking. The kitchen was handy for breakfast-making, but during the rest of our stay we took the opportunity to investigate the local eateries. Australian natives are planted throughout the gardens in the quiet complex, attracting colourful birdlife. And so we awoke to the sound of whip birds and wattle birds, and enjoyed watching parrots feed on flowering eucalypts and grevilleas during our walks.
Note: if you plan to visit, there are plenty of options for accommodation in and around Merimbula, ranging from caravan parks to motels, holiday units, beach resorts and luxury apartments.
Enjoy the flora and fauna...
The area is surrounded by National Parks, unspoiled bushland and forests. Mimosa Rocks National Park is just a short drive from Merimbula and you can explore various walking tracks, beaches, lagoons, rain forests and historic sites. You can also camp in the park in one of the several camping grounds, or enjoy a picnic or barbecue.
In a nutshell...
Sapphire Coast Tourism: Bega, Bemboka, Brogo, Cobargo, Candelo, Eden, Merimbula, Pambula, Tathra, Wolumla, Wonboyn and Wyndham
EAT Merimbula annual event
Wheelers Oysters, 162 Arthur Kaine Drive, Pambula, NSW
Merimbula Wharf Aquarium and Restaurant, Lake Street, Merimbula, NSW
Coast Resort, 68/1 Elizabeth Street, Merimbula, NSW
Cranky Cafe, 33 Ocean Drive, Merimbula, NSW
Sprout local produce store and cafe, Eden
Eden Smokehouse, 20 Weecoon Street, Eden, NSW
The Wharf Locavore, Wharf Road, Tathra, NSW
Mimosa Rocks National Park, NSW
We also visited Australia's only certified organic oyster farm at Wapengo Rocks Oysters at Wapengo, NSW. Watch for my upcoming post for that story, coming soon to Good Things. I will also feature Merimbula Lakeview Hotel chef Natasha Slade's sublime chocolate hazelnut tart recipe in coming weeks (pictured above under EAT Merimbula).
We were guests of Sapphire Coast Tourism for part of our four-day visit to the Sapphire Coast. Our meals at Wheelers Oysters, Cranky Cafe and Merimbula Wharf Aquarium and Restaurant were generously sponsored, as were two nights of our accommodation at Coast Resort.
Tell me dear readers, have you ever considered a sea change? What's your favourite coastal region in your part of the world?
Cooking and writing have been a lifelong passion.
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- Liz Posmyk
NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.