The bushfires came to the Sapphire Coast in peak tourist season, decimating the year’s income. But with the fires out, roads open and forests regenerating, this holiday paradise is already bouncing back.
On January 2, caravans were hitched, tents dismantled and units vacated. Kids were bundled into cars for the bumper-to-bumper journey, as all Merimbula’s tourists went home early. As they left, a sinister, uninvited visitor roared up from the south. Two days later, those of us who stayed understood the radical advice for tourists to leave.
In the late afternoon, the smoky air turned a terrifying red, and 10 minutes later, Merimbula was enveloped in blackness. Bowling and RSL clubs, normally filled with clinking glasses, now housed thousands of evacuees from Eden and neighbouring villages, many bracing to lose everything.
When the fires were finally extinguished, the Bega Valley Shire had lost more than 400 homes and tragically, lives. Somehow, the main Sapphire Coast tourist towns of Merimbula, Eden, Pambula, Tathra and Bermagui remained physically unscathed. But economically, the towns are in trouble.
Anthony Osborne, Managing Director of Sapphire Coast Destination Marketing, explains that the Christmas holidays are vital for tourism businesses on the Sapphire Coast. On average, these five weeks provide 30 per cent of yearly income, with some businesses down 90 per cent on their normal revenue for this period.
The Tathra Hotel is feeling the bushfire pain again, with the town still recovering from a 2018 blaze. Perched atop a headland, the renovated hotel should be heaving with sandy tourists enjoying a chicken parmigiana and house-brewed beer. But today, just a handful of guests enjoy the spectacular deck.
Duty Manager Mark Whitbread is concerned about the local economy. “There’s a flow-on effect,” he says. “Our casual staff don’t have jobs this year, our distributors and truck drivers are losing jobs. Everyone is hurting.”
Despite the fires, the things tourists love about the region are still here, and Osborne says autumn is a great time to visit: “The water is still relatively warm, and we still get those nice sunny days.”
If you’re booking a trip to assist this ravaged region on the south coast of New South Wales, there is much to look forward to.
Back to nature
The Sapphire Coast is all about world-class beaches with surf breaks and estuaries to choose from. Young kids splash around at Merimbula’s Spencer Park or Mitchies Jetty, while teenagers take the daredevil leap from Merimbula Wharf. For spectacular lap-swimming, try Bermagui’s Blue Pool, a semi-natural ocean pool.
If you prefer to stay dry, rent a boat for fishing in Merimbula Lake. At Top Lake Boat Hire, small runabout tinnies chug around the lake while cappuccinos are sipped on the jetty. If you like your fish big and your adrenaline pumping, deep-sea fishing could see you catch (and release) a marlin.
Beyond the beaches, most of the region’s land-based tourist sites remain untouched by fires. On the Merimbula Boardwalk, amble through mangroves and coastal forests ringing with tinkling bellbirds. Watch oyster farmers zip around in their punts as swans sashay by.
In Eden, the Bundian Way is an ancient songline path, followed by local Aboriginal tribes for generations. The Eden Local Aboriginal Land Council has formalised 1.8 km of the track called the Story Trail, with interpretive signage and vistas over Twofold Bay.
For fast-paced nature action, 23 kilometres of mountain bike trails starting from the Tathra Country Club should suffice. At Merimbula’s Magic Mountain, the Tree Climb Challenge has visitors yahooing through ziplines and rope bridges suspended in towering eucalypts above waterslides, toboggan rides and roller-coasters.
With estimates of a billion native animals killed nationwide during the bushfires, local organisations are helping. Not-for-profit Potoroo Palace Native Animal Educational Sanctuary near Merimbula assists injured wildlife and educates visitors. The rare potoroos themselves are reclusive, but koalas, dingoes, kangaroos and echidnas are more sociable.
For animals of the underwater kind, Merimbula Wharf Aquarium showcases the local seascape. In the deep, Merimbula Marina Ocean Adventure Tours and Cat Balou Cruises of Eden can introduce you to dolphins, seals, and sea birds. During the winter to spring migration, join a whale-watching tour to experience the might of a 30,000 kg humpback breaching.
Pristine nature creates delicious produce, none more famous than Sydney rock oysters. Jump aboard Captain Sponge’s Magical Oyster Tour on Pambula Lake with local legend, Brett Weingarth (AKA Sponge). On his camouflage-painted boat, Sponge explains all things shellfish. “Oysters take on the taste of their estuary, like wines take on characteristics from their place of origin,” he says. As he shucks some oysters for tasting, he goes on. “Clean and ancient Pambula Lake has given these oysters a sweet, well rounded flavour, not overpowering the palate with salt.”
Restaurants around the district specialise in local seafood – Merimbula Wharf Aquarium and Restaurant and Wheelers Seafood Restaurant are excellent choices. For a fine-dining experience, visit Banksia Restaurant in the historic old bank in Pambula, where the seasonal three-course menu is matched with fine wines.
For more hydration, Dulcie’s Cottage is a cheery 1920s weatherboard cottage serving specialty cocktails. Drop in to the cosy courtyard, twinkling with fairy lights, where the bar snacks are served from a vintage caravan.
For rural atmosphere, check out Longstocking Brewery and Oyster Bar in Pambula, where tasting paddles of beers and ciders are consumed overlooking paddocks of eclectic animals (isn’t that an ostrich?). The woodfired pizza oven is cranking on Fridays and Saturdays, and there’s often live music.
Accommodation owners have suffered the worst summer imaginable. Kristen and Michael Dixon of Seashells self-contained units in Merimbula say one positive is that the community has pulled together. “With no guests in town, we smashed our tariffs to house local evacuees,” Michael says. Kristen adds, “We were taking phone calls from people who needed somewhere to stay because their house might burn down in the next hour.”
Aside from units, caravan parks are a popular option and Pambula Beach Holiday and Caravan Park has direct beach access. For more luxury, try Coast Apartments in Merimbula, or private rentals such as the lakefront rooms at Reflections on Merimbula Lake.
Like everyone, the Dixons hope for autumn bookings. “We have a lot of repeat business,” Kristen says. “People will come back for the beaches, the national parks and the untouched nature they experienced here as kids.”
The Sapphire Coast is waiting, with all its unpretentious, natural charms firmly intact. Michael tells me the locals have never been more welcoming. He laughs as he throws open his arms: “If you want a great Aussie holiday – come to Merimbula!”
Lead image: © David Rogers Photography