Some places are so beautiful; it feels like holy ground. For me, Bellingen has always had that consecrated feeling. It's obvious, given the name the early pioneers gave the Promised Land, a scenic 10 minute-drive from Bellingen's township itself.
Here the land is so abundantly verdant and fruitful; it literally drips with milk and honey. It's a place so special the fortunate locals that call it home, including its most famous residents George Negus and David Helfgott would much rather keep all to themselves.
As you pass over the Never Never Creek not far from the historic Glennifer Hall, you cross NSW's cleanest tributary, the Bellinger River. Here the countryside opens up to lush green farmland, where cows graze, and a dirt road completes a circular loop of Glennifer Valley, overlooked by the brooding escarpment of the Great Dividing Range, which is often shrouded in mist.
At the height of summer, families flock to the utopian valley seeking relief from the searing heat by taking a dip in the cool, jade coloured river where tiny fish and eels nip at your toes.
There are several magical water holes where you can lose yourself shaded by soaring, moss covered trees.
The bohemian town of Bellingen and the Promised Land is part of the mid north coast, which includes the rainforest escarpments of Dorrigo, the series of golden beaches from Urunga to Woolgoolga, stretching to the blue waters of the Solitary Islands Marine Park just off Coffs Harbour.
The heart and soul of this bucolic region is unquestionably Bellingen, with its creative, alternative village feel and beautifully preserved shop fronts. Each year my family make a pilgrimage to this free spirited town in the Coffs Coast hinterland. It feels like a cross between the refined village of Bangalow, tucked inland from Byron Bay, and the alternative hippy hub of Nimbin. Utes with farm dogs line the main street alongside Land Rovers, BMWs and rusty bicycles. Long-haired children run through town barefoot or leap boldly from Lavender's bridge into the river, looking like Peter Pan's Lost Boys.
Previously we have stayed at the Promised Land Cottages (now Promised Land Retreat), 12 kilometres north of the town across Lavender's Bridge and next door to Helfgott's property. Another time we stayed at North Farm, a small hobby farm owned by one of George Negus' former producers and offering fabulous views of Bindarri National Park to the north.
This year however we base ourselves at a handsome 1900s federation home, with a prime Bellingen location that we found on Airbnb. Surrounded by century-old homes, this timber and weatherboard beauty is bounded by beautiful established gardens and offers serene views of the valley and pastureland from the wrap-around veranda. Danny Deck Chair starring Miranda Otto and Rhys Ifans was filmed in Kilkenny House, a little further up the street.
Still damp from our swim, we make a pot of tea to enjoy on the shady veranda. It's become something of a ritual, that whenever we arrive in town we head straight for the Bellinger River. Our first swim always feels baptismal as the lethargy of our journey is washed away downstream, marking the start of a holiday that never fails to reset the body clock. As we sit on the deck, the cool sounds of jazz float across from Lodge 241 opposite and we muse that this is surely as good as it gets.
But in Bellingen, things only get better. One night we find ourselves on the veranda of a century old weatherboard cottage, Oak Street Food and Wine. Bellingen's former famed restaurant No. 2 Oak Street, that put Bellingen firmly on the foodie radar, has reopened under new owners, with a new name and a new chef. The night is balmy and a waft of frangipani mixes with the tempting smell of freshly baked bread from the kitchen, as happy diners tuck into herb and parmesan crusted lamb shoulder with polenta and Oak Street smoked salmon, beetroot relish and caraway rye toast. We walk home as hundreds of bats fly overhead, aiming for an enormous fig tree nearby.
Our favourite spot however is No. 5 Church Street and we return here again and again for live music, heavenly strawberry daiquiris and its biodynamic, organic and local produce driven menu. I'd drive the five-hour journey from home any day just for the cafe's biodynamic buffalo burgers and the heavenly zucchini and ricotta fritters. Not to mention the friendly staff.
Another morning we breakfast at the Hearth Fire Bakery, have coffee and a squiz through the interesting Hyde and then have a browse of the Hammond and Wheatley Emporium, an iconic building on Bello's main street. The colourful monthly markets are also well worth a visit. It's a hot and sticky morning on market day, so afterwards we head for the hills – the World Heritage-listed Dorrigo rainforest – one of the top 10 most visited parks in NSW and one of the highlights of the Waterfall Way, a scenic route that runs from New England to Coffs Harbour.
The drive from Bellingen spirals upwards to the rich red soil of Dorrigo plateau through towering rainforest, past gushing waterfalls and the Bellinger River. At 800 metres above sea level, the air is decidedly cooler and we marvel at the magnificent rainforest canopy from the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre and Skywalk. Here, the Canopy Cafe, run by Wolfgang Zichy and his wife Catherine McDonald, is yet another foodie find, serving up an interesting menu that includes all day breakfast and weekly specials concocted from the Bellofoodbox, a community initiative which distributes local, seasonal produce within 160 kilometres of Bellingen. "I love it here," Wolfgang enthuses looking out over the view from the sun-drenched deck: "every day is different." Afterwards we stroll the "Walk with the Birds" and from the lookout see two eagles soaring on the thermals high above the Bellinger Valley with the Pacific Ocean sparkling invitingly in the distance.
Before we know it the week has flown by. We take one last swim with the locals at our favourite swimming hole in the Promised Land, before heading home. Sadly we leave Bellingen, our car filled with the smell of freshly baked pumpkin sourdough, the glove box crammed with local real estate brochures and a deafening chorus of cicadas through the open windows.
Bellingen is 520 kilometres north of Sydney, just inland from the mid-north coast. It is a 30-minute drive from Coffs Harbour airport, serviced by several daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne on Qantas, Tiger Air and Virgin Blue. CountryLink trains run three times a day from Sydney to nearby Urunga and Coffs Harbour (about eight hours).
Six Coronation Street, a self-contained federation house, is priced from $240 per couple per night (extra persons are $50 per night) or $1400 for weekly stays. The adjoining studio is $140 a night. See airbnb.com.au/rooms/2387682.
Promised Land Retreat offers three luxury self-contained chalets from $250 a couple per night. See promisedlandretreat.com.au.
Cottonwood Farm is a charming, self-catering B&B with 400 metres of Never Never River frontage, priced from $600 for two nights. cottonwoodfarm.com.au
The author travelled at her own expense.
FIVE OTHER RIVER TOWNS
With its abundance of leafy trees and parks, Grafton is one of Australia's most beautiful provincial cities, renowned for its jacaranda trees, graceful old buildings, and its location on the banks of the majestic Clarence River. The city has wide streets, elegant Victoria-era buildings and the glorious river passing through. The city hosts the annual Jacaranda Festival and boasts a fine regional art gallery.
This historic port town, located on the Fleurieu Peninsula, is where the Murray River meets the sea. Goolwa stands at the mouth of the river on Lake Alexandrina and derives its name from an Aboriginal word meaning elbow. Nearby is a mix of quaint seaside villages, wineries and incredible stretches of often deserted coastline. Wander the narrow streets of Goolwa's early commercial core known as "Little Scotland", have a flavoursome beer at the microbrewery, The Steam Exchange, and have a mosey around the Goolwa Markets.
It's Australia's paddle steamer capital – often referred to as the Chicago of Australia – with a rich colonial, Aboriginal and riverboat history to boot. The heart of the town is the mighty Murray River, which divides Echuca and the NSW river border town of Moama. Visit the old Port of Echuca, see working paddle steamers ply the river, take a ride on a horse and carriage or simply soak up views of the great Murray River.
The picturesque township of Murwillumbah is located at the heart of the lush Tweed Valley on the banks of the Tweed River on NSW's far north coast. Watched over by the commanding Mt Warning, and surrounded by five World Heritage National Parks, the countryside surrounding Murwillumbah is a blend of rolling green hills and gently flowing rivers, punctuated with pockets of sugar cane, banana plantations, hobby farms and small villages. Visit the excellent Tweed Regional Art Gallery, home to the Margaret Olley Art Centre, have lunch at the fabulous cafe run by well-known locals Peter Clarke and Charlie Ebell of Mavis Kitchen fame and explore the World Heritage Rainforest Centre, which documents the wildlife and botanical splendours of the region's national parks.
This quaint historic settlement at the convergence of the Macquarie River and the South Esk River is known for its convict-built houses and English country landscape. Visit Woolmers and Brickendon, authentic examples of Australian pioneer farms, take a self guided walking tour of the town, or hire a guide and have a go at fly fishing in the clear waters of the Macquarie River.