Home to abundant national parks, pristine rivers and secluded beaches, Coffs Harbour has natural beauty by the bucketload.
Famous as a beachside family holiday destination (and the iconic Big Banana), this hub of the NSW Mid North Coast is undergoing a renaissance in drinking and dining. Known as the area ‘where the mountains meet the sea,’ the lush hinterland is scattered with stunning bushwalks, waterfalls and swimming holes spilling onto stunning coastline.
Sharing is caring
Coffs Harbour has always been an area of plenty. The traditional owners, the Gumbaynggirr people, were known as the ‘sharing people,’ as the surrounding forests and rivers were so abundant that they were able to share food and resources with neighbouring Indigenous nations. This mentality is still present today. One great way to learn and experience more of the area’s rich Indigenous history is by doing a stand-up paddleboard tour with Wajaana Yaam Adventure Tours. A local Gumbaynggirr guide will take you through the crystal clear Solitary Islands Marine Park at Moonee Beach, Red Rock and Coffs Creek. The guides are passionate about sharing the stories, language and history of the area.
Coffs has a plethora of beautiful beaches to explore, and one of the best places to start is at the marina. Follow the breakwall down to the friendly and popular Jetty Beach, or do the one-hour return walk out to Muttonbird Island, an important roosting and breeding site for the wedge-tailed shearwater. After a steep climb, you’ll have an unforgettable view of the sparkling turquoise waters of the coast, and it’s also the best place to spot a humpback whale during their migration from May to October. On Sundays, the jetty foreshore comes alive with the bustling Harbourside Markets, where you can check out local arts, crafts, clothes, produce and more.
There are many places around Coffs that vie for the title of ‘best fish and chips’ (White Salt in Woolgoolga and Rosie’s at Moonee Beach to name a couple), but at the jetty you’ll find another top contender: the Fisherman’s Co-op. It also sells freshly caught local seafood from the retail shop, including snapper, whiting, lobster, prawns and more.
Boambee Beach and Park Beach are popular spots for families, with swimming, kayaking and fishing. On the city’s northern end is Diggers Beach, a golden stretch of sand that’s a favourite with surfers. Nearby, you’ll find the breathtaking views of Niigi Niigi/Forest Sky Pier and the Gumgali Track, a 400-metre Dreaming story created in collaboration with local Gumbaynggirr artists. Travel even further north and you’ll find Emerald Beach, where you can meet some of the area’s hoppiest residents, who gather on the Look At Me Now Headland – kangaroos!
Coffs Harbour is well known for its banana plantations. In 1881, Fijian bananas were brought to the Coffs region, and in the early 1900s the banana industry was booming. Indeed, Coffs’ most famous attraction is the Big Banana, a popular and nostalgic stop-off on road trips. It was conceived by John Landi in 1964 and designed by architect Alan Chapman, who cut the best-looking banana he could find to use as a model. Nowadays, the Big Banana Fun Park is a theme park complete with laser tag, water park, tobogganing, giant slide, mini golf, ice skating, reptile display and more. There’s also a gift shop for all the banana-themed merchandise you can think of, and a cafe famous for its banana split! It’s a perfect family day out for kids (and kids at heart).
Fun fact: Walk inside the Big Banana itself to find historic photos and documents detailing its construction.
Swim with giants
Coffs Harbour is one of the only places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales. Jetty Dive offers whale watching tours between June and October, when these majestic creatures are migrating. The dive shop can provide wetsuits, masks, snorkels and fins, although you can bring your
own gear if you prefer. Participants must be over 12 and able to swim 200 metres. Once the whales have been spotted you can get into the water and wait for these naturally curious gentle giants to come to you. Humpback whales grow to between 15 and 19 metres long (about the size of a bus) and weigh approximately 40 tonnes – so this is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Into the hinterland
Coffs sits on the doorstep of spectacular rural hinterlands. Just a 20-minute drive into the rolling green hills of the Orara Valley you’ll find the historic town of Nana Glen. Nana Glen takes its name from the Gumbaynggirr word “ngarla”, meaning two-tailed lizard. Here you can grab a coffee at the Idle In, a much-frequented stop by bikers traveling the Orara Way scenic drive between Coramba and Grafton. It is also home to the celebrated winery Two Tails Wines, a boutique family-run food and wine experience. It’s the perfect place to relax for the afternoon, enjoying a wine tasting with a view of the vineyards while experiencing the best local produce from Velvets Restaurant.
Take a trip out of town on the Waterfall Way Scenic Drive, and you’ll head through the historic town of Bellingen (which locals call the Promised Land). You can find a freshwater swimming hole complete with rope swing on the Never Never Creek, and some lovely places in town to stop for a coffee. Keep driving and you’ll get to Dorrigo National Park and the Skywalk lookout, with a soaring bird’s-eye view of dense, ancient rainforest. Nearby Dangar Falls is a stunning 30-metre waterfall and swimming hole that’s definitely worth a visit!
Coff’s cool little sister
Just south of Coffs Harbour is Sawtell, a picturesque village that is a haven of golden beaches and swimming, surfing and fishing spots. Under the canopy of the fig tree-lined main street is a trendy mix of cafes, restaurants, boutique shops, spas, bars and hotels. Catch a film at the gorgeous Sawtell Cinema or grab a freshly baked pastry from French Basket, a Parisian-style cafe selling authentic French goods. And if you’re brave enough, stick around for the Sawtell Chilli Festival, held in July, featuring more than 100 stalls. The festival offers a variety of foods and flavours from some of Australia’s leading chilli product manufacturers, as well as local restaurants and cafes showcasing their own cuisine.
Wining and dining
Bar Que Sera is Sawtell’s newest wine bar. Started by a husband-and-wife team with 10 years of Melbourne bar experience between them, the name means ‘what will be’ – a nod to the tumultuous pandemic years. Here you’ll find a selection of classic and natural wines, alongside dishes such as spicy sliders with locally caught prawns or pan-fried sourdough flatbread with house-made labne. Slo Vino + is another new offering in Coffs Harbour: a hybrid bar and bottle shop that brings lovers of natural wine and craft beer together. For a fine dining option with a relaxed atmosphere, check out The Mermaid Beach House on Park Beach, an Italian-leaning restaurant that focuses on highlighting quality ingredients and delicious food, with pasta dishes and succulent steaks on offer. And for the locals’ favourite, head to the newly renovated Toormina Hotel for pub classics and gourmet pizzas, as well as great specials. Relax in The Palms, the alfresco bistro, while the kids run loose in the state-of-the-art play area.
Where to stay
With such an amazing coastline to explore in these parts, you don’t want to stay far from the beach. There are plenty of camping and caravan park options to choose from. Coffs Coast Holiday Parks has four sites near rivers and beaches: two in Woolgoolga, the BIG4 Park Beach and BIG4 Sawtell Beach. The Woolgoolga sites offer small, peaceful parks while the BIG4 sites have bushwalking trails and beaches within easy access. For a little more luxury, enjoy the ocean views of Opal Cove Resort by the pool with a cocktail in hand, or treat yourself to a stay at Sapphire Seas Beachhouse: an absolute waterfront beauty just metres from the sand.
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