Swim with sharks, traipse through untouched rainforest and sleep in a 19th century manor – all with no crowds to speak of. Shellharbour, a boutique seaside town just 90 minutes from Sydney, NSW, is an adventure lover’s hidden gem.
Swimming with the sharks in Shellharbour NSW
“Okay, ready to dive?” Diving master Mick Harris grins as I take a few deep breaths in anticipation, gentle waves lapping at my chin. I grin back. “Ready.”
“On the count of three then,” he relays. One – a long deep breath. Two – a last glance toward the rocky open ocean. Three – one last lungful, and we plunge to the waters depths. Kicking heartily, we duck dive into a blue-green world. Almost instantly Mick squeezes my hand, pointing excitedly as three young grey nurse sharks swim up toward us. I reach my hand out, almost grazing the gentle creatures as they glide by.
The sharks are juveniles, Mick explained earlier that day, as we fitted out flippers and wetsuits in his local shop, Shellharbour Scuba Centre. Now, face-to-face with the metre-long swimmers, their knowing eyes peer curiously at us before meandering on, unperturbed. I hold the air in my lungs, wishing to stay in their hazy, calm presence as long as possible. Finally I give Mick the signal, and we ascend toward the filtered daylight above.
Breaking the surface, I take in the fresh air before absorbing my surreal surroundings. We are at the centre of Bushrangers Bay with dozens of young sharks circling below. We’ve ambled through Heritage-listed coastal rainforest to reach this secluded cove. A couple more dives and it’s time to head in. We pass schools of colourful fish and a few curious sting rays on the swim to the rocky shore.
High tea at Ravensthorpe Manor
As late afternoon sets in, we jump back in the car with Biserka, our lovely guide from Tourism Shellharbour. We head west to leafy Albion Park. A little knackered from the snorkelling adventure, we arrive upon dusk outside an elegant 19th century manor. Set upon three acres of heritage gardens, the brilliantly restored Ravensthorpe resembles something of a French chateau. Built in 1893 as a Georgian-style manor, the McCallum family took over the property in 2000. They have since transformed it into a luxurious escape. Today, Ravensthorpe plays host to elegant high tea afternoons, idyllic wedding celebrations and intimate fine dining.
Hamish McCallum greets us on arrival. He tells me that I’m in luck – my lodgings for the night will be the beautiful bridal cottage. Once I’m settled in, I take Hamish up on his offer to explore a little before dinner.
Ambling back to the main house, I see the manor is now splendidly lit from floor to ceiling. Red wine in hand, chosen specially by Hamish, I wander through elegant rooms, each high one ornate and filled with antiques. Long tables set for tomorrow’s high tea decorate one room, a wedding ballroom fills another.
In our private dining room, we pass on our dietary requirements and then the night is in the hands of the chef – Hamish’s mum, Deborah, who has trained with French chef school Le Cordon Bleu. What follows is nothing short of a feast. A smorgasbord of colourful, inventive and flavourful dishes – sweet figs, pumpkin-filled zucchini flowers, slow roasted fennel, prawns, fish pie. More than 10 individual courses are followed by extravagant desserts. At the end of the night, I make my way back through quiet grounds to the pretty cottage.
I wake well rested and smiling at my homely surroundings. Bounding outside I decide to get a good look around the manor gardens in the early morning light. After a delightful breakfast of fruit, yoghurts, muesli, pastries and café-style coffee, we hit the road for the next adventure.
Nature and hiking in Macquarie Pass National Park
We wind our way further inland through sprawling green countryside toward Macquarie Pass National Park. As we get closer, the road begins a steep descent before plunging into dense forest. Pulling over by an inconspicuous track entrance, we jump out to meet our exuberant walking guide, Paul Dickson. Driven by his passion for nature and ecology, Paul runs Nature Engagement Tours, leading guided treks and day tours throughout 10 national parks between Aspen and Narooma in New South Wales.
Today we’re taking part in Paul’s new Scones in the Forest Tour. It involves an exceptional traipse through fern-filled forest, followed by jam and scones, handmade by Paul’s mum. As we take to the trail, leafy gorges and towering gums dwarf us on either side. Paul shares his knowledge, pointing out scratched-up earth where lyrebirds have foraged for food and 300-year-old trees with hollow limbs where owls and possums may make a home.
At the end of the track we sit down to tuck into the scones. Paul reveals the variety of jam he’s brought along and explains his mum’s scone-making process. With all the scones devoured and well wishes sent to their maker, it’s all too soon that we’re back on the road, returning through the dense forest and out onto the rolling hills. As our car paces away from these enchanting forests, I find I’m already planning my return hike. I’ve also decided to take Mick up on an introductory scuba dive course, back into the underwater world of grey nurse sharks.
Shellharbour is a scenic two-hour drive from Sydney, making up part of the Grand Pacific Drive. It’s perfect for a day trip but you’ll probably want to stay longer. You’ll find plenty of accommodation in the area, as well as in the nearby towns of Wollongong and Kiama.
Looking for more adventures around the NSW South Coast? Try this day tour of Jervis Bay and surrounds.