Quiet and uncrowded, this peaceful seaside pocket is a favourite of water lovers, writes Lee Atkinson.
The Camden Haven, a collection of three villages - Laurieton, North Haven and Dunbogan - at the mouth of the Camden Haven River, tends to get overshadowed by Port Macquarie, 35 kilometres to the north, as a holiday destination, but it's a wallet-friendly place with uncrowded beaches, quiet waterways, riverside parks and affordable family accommodation.
What it's known for
Fishing and boating. Surrounded by lakes and lagoons that are linked to the ocean by the Camden Haven Inlet and various creeks, the Camden Haven is a popular spot for fishing and on any given day you'll usually find dozens of locals casting their lines along the break wall, off the beaches and from tinnies, or probing the sandbars during low tide for bait. You can hire fishing gear, boats and kayaks at the Dunbogan Boatshed.
What you didn't know ...
The art deco Plaza Theatre at Laurieton likes to claim that this is where film director Baz Luhrmann was inspired to make his films. In the 1970s his father was a projectionist here and locals who remember him say this is where Baz was first bitten by the film bug. Although nothing to look at from the outside, inside the tiny theatre is full of old-world atmosphere. You can catch the latest blockbusters in the main auditorium or watch an art-house or foreign film in one of the comfy armchairs in the cine lounge.
Motor sport commentator Will Hagon has been collecting motoring and racing memorabilia for the past 50 years and has just opened a shop-museum in an old service station at the now bypassed town of Kew on the old Pacific Highway (where you used to turn off to get to the Camden Haven). The extensive collection includes magazines, videos, photographs, books, models, clothing and unique factory promotional material. There are more than 3000 items on show and for sale, with twice that amount still in storage out the back, so new items are going on display all the time. Will Hagon's Kew Pit Stop is open Thursday-Monday, 10am-4pm, or by appointment. (02) 6559 4550.
Take the coast road from Laurieton to Port Macquarie, which cuts its way through heath-covered sand dunes, over headlands with views along endless stretches of beach and skirts the shores of Lake Cathie (pronounced "cat-eye"). In Laurieton, the lookout at North Brother Mountain has good views over the Camden Haven's expanses of waterways and beaches, and a lovely rainforest walking trail. If you're in Laurieton on the third Sunday of the month, don't miss the Riverwalk Markets, with hundreds of stallholders selling art, craft and local produce.
Where to eat
If you have no luck catching your own fish, call in to the co-op at Laurieton for some fresh prawns or fish and chips, or pick up just-shucked oysters from the tin shed at Armstrong Oysters (Lot 1, Short Street). You can take your pick of any number of shady picnic spots in the riverside parks or beaches. If it's not picnic weather, try the Sandbar Cafe opposite the river in North Haven for a good-value lunch. 3/621 Ocean Drive, (02) 6559 6945.
Where to stay
The new Aspire Pelican H2O apartments in North Haven are self-contained and right on the river, complete with a jetty and boat parking - handy if you have your own boat. Rates start at about $110 a night for a two-night stay (02) 6559 9580. Also new are the tree houses at Diamond Waters on the river near Dunbogan. The two one-bedroom, self-contained houses are 3½ metres above the ground and have a large deck facing the river. The area is a koala habitat, so if you're lucky you might see one during your stay. Midweek rates start at $220 a night. (02) 6559 8328.
How to get there
The Camden Haven is 360 kilometres north of Sydney via the Pacific Highway, about a four-hour drive. The nearest airport is Port Macquarie. Both Qantas and Virgin Australia have regular daily flights to and from Sydney.