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Bananas and bountiful beaches abound at this north coast holiday favourite, writes Lee Atkinson.
Roughly halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, Coffs Harbour is a family holiday hotspot, with golden beaches flanked by rainforest-clad hills, plenty of reasonably-priced beachside resorts and more than enough things to do to keep you amused, even if it rains every day of your holiday.
What it's known for
You can't drive through Coffs without a visit to the famous Big Banana: the "big thing" that started the craze in building monster-sized roadside attractions across the country.
If you haven't been here for a while, you'll find there's a lot more to "the biggest banana in the world" than a place to have your photo taken while eating a chocolate-coated banana, with ice-skating, toboggan rides, the biggest range of puppets in Australia, a three-storey-high inflatable waterslide and a new pop-up mid-north coast regional food store during school holidays.
Mind you, the frozen chocolate-coated bananas on a stick have always been worth stopping for, if you ask me. You'll find it on the Pacific Highway, just north of town. Open daily, admission free; rides are extra. bigbanana.com.
What you didn't know
The Pet Porpoise Pool, which has been a Coffs Harbour institution since 1970, is the only marine park in Australia where you can swim with dolphins. You can get in the water with them at Sea World on the Gold Coast, feed them and stroke them, but you can't get pushed around by them or ride them.
Called the Ultimate Dolphin Swim, you spend around 20 minutes in the water and a highlight is the chance to wrap your arms around a dolphin and hang on while it zooms across the pool. It costs $300-$400 a person, depending on the time of year, and includes a souvenir photo. The Pet Porpoise Pool is at 65 Orlando Street. 1300 547 737, dolphinmarinemagic.com.au.
Up on the mountain top behind the town there's a new lookout in Bruxner Park, cantilevered more than 20 metres out over the edge of the Great Dividing Range with great views of Coffs Harbour and the coast. Later this year (around November is the plan) it will be joined by a new treetop adventure course, with one of the longest flying-fox cable rides in the country.
There are also plans to build a cafe and cinema-cum-interpretive centre at the site, although these are still in the development stage.
Beyond lazing around on the beaches, there are plenty of things to do in and around Coffs, including white-water rafting on the nearby Nymboida River, sea-kayaking tours and learn-to-surf schools, whale watching between May and November and snorkelling and diving in Solitary Islands Marine Park, where you can see hard corals and grey nurse sharks.
One thing you shouldn't miss is the Bunker Cartoon Gallery. Housed in an old World War II bunker, it's home to a staggering collection of 16,000 cartoons and caricatures (mainly of the political and satirical persuasion) and exhibitions change monthly. It's on John Champion Way near the Hogbin Drive-Albany Street roundabout. Entry costs $2. Open Monday-Saturday, 10am-4pm.
Where to eat
Perched on the edge of the breakwall in the marina, Latitude 30 offers great seafood with even greater views, especially if you're lucky enough to be there when dolphins or whales cruise by. It's open daily; call (02) 6651 6888 to book. Most mains are in the $25-$35 price range. Even if you don't eat there, the bar downstairs is a great place for a sunset cocktail.
If you fancy something cheap and cheerful, head next door to the fish co-op, for takeaway fish straight off the trawler, and find a sunny spot on the breakwall.
The best eat street is Harbour Drive at the Jetty, which is lined with restaurants and cafes.
Where to stay
There's a string of beachside resorts just north of town. The pick of the bunch is the Novotel Pacific Bay Resort with beach access, pool, spa, restaurant and a flying trapeze school for thrill-seeking kids (and adults). Room rates start at about $200 a night, but check online for specials. 1300 363 360, pacificbayresort.com.au.
How to get there
Coffs Harbour is 530 kilometres north of Sydney, about a six- to seven-hour drive. Qantas and Virgin Australia have several flights to and from Sydney daily.