Melbourne to Sydney on the Princes Highway
Ditch the Hume Highway dash for Gippsland and the Sapphire Coast.
It’s Friday night at the Marlo Hotel in East Gippsland and everyone, it seems, is in on the joke. The sprawling pub set on a small hill is chockers, pots bouncing across the bar, raffle tickets flying, a line jostling to the bistro counter and the whole joint alight with end-of-working-week cheer.
We wander onto the wide wooden deck laden with punters and find what they might be smiling about. Kids are rolling down the lawn out front, the sun is setting silver, orange, pink then purple over the dunes opposite. And between the two, the storied Snowy River is flowing backwards.
Slideshow images: Bermagui's Blue Pool, East Lynne Store steak and mushroom pie, Gippsland's Port Albert.
Marlo is where the Snowy meets the sea, and David from the anglers club explains that high tide has temporarily messed with the natural order of things, sending the river back towards the mountains from which it came.
“You were pretty lucky really,” he says. A month earlier the river mouth was almost closed but recent rain has gifted us this little quirk of time and tide.
Day one of our three-day road trip from Melbourne to Sydney via (mostly) the Princes Highway is in the bag. We’ve forgone the nine-hour dash up the Hume and taken the low road instead, setting out from St Kilda for the easy green folds of South Gippsland with its fat cows and glossy nags and postcard-prosperous towns. The arc of the South Gippsland Highway takes us up to Sale via Koonwarra and Port Albert, on to the Princes and through Lakes Entrance, paddocks yellowing with drought.
If a road trip is car plus road plus company I’m well provisioned. We’ve been loaned a smashing Mercedes convertible, my companion is a favourite colleague, and the road is rich and mostly new territory that we have to ourselves far more often than not. Except for wallabies, echidnas, a kookaburra, a hen near Sydney and the two tortoises that Lisa swears she sees while I’m looking the other way.
We also have a map, plastered with sticky-note pit-stop recommendations from anyone with something to say.
Egg and bacon rolls do the switcheroo to bacon and egg.
After a night at Marlo we carry on east, rock-hopping at Cape Conran’s Sailors Grave Beach then adding a 20-minute leg-stretch around the boardwalked and swing-bridged McKenzie River Rainforest Walk, a little loop of sultry air and screaming cicadas just off the highway.
It’s around here that Lisa spots her second ‘tortoise’ on the road so we stop for coffee at the Cann River Café, where they don’t do runny eggs in their egg and bacon roll, just how we like it. An hour later grey skies have drained the beach vibe at Mallacoota, and a pack of pelicans look with painted-on eyes towards Cape Howe 20 kilometres away, the literal turning point of our trip.
It’s here that the continent turns a corner due north and New South Wales begins. So does the ‘Sapphire Coast’, for reasons that become sparklingly clear all the way from the border to Bermagui. The sun comes out too, not far over the border in Eden, and egg and bacon rolls do the switcheroo to bacon and egg.
We linger a while in Eden, where a line of masts divides the main shopping street, and old sailors have a prime berth in the cemetery across from a perfect beach. This has long been whale-spotting territory and a museum here holds the legend and the bones of famed Old Tom, the killer whale that collaborated with whalers by herding baleen whales into Twofold Bay.
Sunset over the Snowy River.
Sailors Grave Beach, Cape Conran.
After turquoise water and creamy sand at Pambula, we leave the Princes for a stint on the ocean-side Sapphire Coast Drive. Oysters have been the bounty here for thousands of years – you can see the leftovers in metre-high Aboriginal middens around Pambula Lake.
The South Pacific reaches full sapphire at Tathra headland, then the road crosses inlets, estuaries and single-lane wooden bridges, and swoops through the ethereal Mimosa Rocks National Park, tall pale trees on both sides and at the crest of a hill they’re in front too, so we’re driving into the trees. A sticky note tells us to head for the ocean here, but beds and flathead fillets are beckoning from Bermagui and they join the list for next time.
We’re at Bermagui’s Blue Pool at 8 o’clock the next morning, the ocean breaking against its rock wall but cool stillness on our side. I’m first in, followed by a Sydney couple taking a dip on her birthday. We bob around, pleased with ourselves, and the sun comes out. It’s some way to start a day.
The Sydney fella, who’s taking his wife to Mollymook for lunch at chef Rick Stein’s seafood place, sends us to nearby Horse Head Rock then Central Tilba for heritage-listed wooden buildings and “great jewellery shops”. He was spot on.
And here’s where a road trip is defined by the things you don’t do. It’s roughly 400 kilometres from Bermagui to Sydney, and the sticky-notes are thick along this section of the map. Seaside towns Broulee and South Durras miss the cut, as do the Mogo Zoo and Kiama, and Arthur Boyd’s artist retreat at Bundanon.
We cruise the Sea Cliff Bridge that swoops out spectacularly over the Pacific.
We do, however, pull in for homemade pies at the East Lynne Store north of Batemans Bay – chunky pepper steak and a heavenly raspberry pie with cream – and a side-trip to Hyams Beach at Jervis Bay for actually white sand and water that rolls in like green glass.
We cruise the Sea Cliff Bridge that swoops out spectacularly over the Pacific, and wish we’d had time to walk or ride the ocean-side walkway.
Our entree to Sydney is via Royal National Park, on a gorgeous ribbon of road winding through hairpins and wide bends under a canopy of sub-tropical green. It’s a driver’s drive and Lisa’s only frustration is the often 60kmh speed limit. At a high point we glimpse our destination, the harbour city herself glinting late-afternoon blue. It seals the Hume v Princes argument magnificently.
But if you ask for my highlight it’s the raspberry pie. Car, plus road, plus company. And fuel.
By the numbers
Mercedes E 300 Cabriolet. For a fuller review, go to racv.com.au/carreviews
- Heirloom tomato and goats cheese bruschetta, Koonwarra Store, Victoria (koonwarrastore.com.au).
- Fish tacos with Lakes Entrance whiting, avocado, greens and chipotle mayo, Marlo Hotel, Victoria.
- Egg and bacon roll, toasted sesame seed bun, lots of bacon, Cann River Cafe, Victoria.
- Locally caught flathead fillets, Bluewave Seafood, Bermagui Fishermen’s Wharf, NSW. (bluewaveseafood.com.au)
- Homemade raspberry pie with cream, East Lynne Store, NSW. (facebook.com/eastlynnestore)
Additional photos: Getty Images, Leon Sidik
- From St Kilda to Kings Cross, Paul Kelly
- The Boys of Summer, Don Henley
- Sea of Love, The Honeydrippers
- I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, Elton John
- Albatross, Fleetwood Mac
RACV Melbourne to Sydney map, including strip maps detailing route and attractions along the Hume and Princes highways ($6 member price at RACV Shops).
Off shore: Thousands of whales migrate along the NSW coast from May to November, with prime viewing spots at Eden and Jervis Bay.
On land: We spot everything from echidnas to kookaburras, and Lisa’s ‘tortoises’ might have been freshwater turtles looking for a nesting site in breeding season.