Must see Australian destinations: Ultimate road trip from Sydney to Brisbane

We have barely begun paddling through the Valley of the Mist's 52-hectare wetland when our guide, Dennis Ryan, spots it.

It is slung over a grassy tussock, like a thick bow straining to control an unruly hairstyle.

"Let's get you nearer," says Ryan, gently manoeuvring the canoe towards the serpent slumbering in the early morning sun.

I love snakes, or so I tell anybody who'll listen. Over time I've conquered an irrational fear of them and come to admire their elaborate markings, their guile and grace.

We are close now, alongside the tussock, and can see that this is a three-metre-long python, chunky enough to suggest a reliable supply of ready meals.

The sun glints off its coils. My travelling companion Phil is reeling off shots on his Nikon. I'm adjusting the settings on my Canon digital SLR to capture the creature's essence for posterity.

Then, perhaps disturbed by our presence, the snake moves.

Instinctively, I lurch away from it.

"She won't hurt you!" protests Ryan, as my jolt sideways tips the canoe, our combined weight completing the plummet into the shallow, reedy water. Thousands of dollars of camera equipment plunges into the water.

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"Well, that's a first," says Ryan disbelievingly, as we drag the canoe back to the landing stage. "I've never had a canoe overturn before."  He hurries off to fetch some rice with which we hope to dry out our waterlogged cameras.

My shame lasts all morning, but we dry off quickly and, back in the canoe, we glide through the bristling wetland, near Macksville on the NSW mid-north coast, among jabirus, congregations of priestly black swans, ospreys perched on high branches and the occasional python, resting on grassy verges.

This visit to Valley of the Mist is my third, and this road trip between Sydney and Brisbane, is probably the 10th time I've made this journey between the state capitals.

Yet, my canoe mishap is not the only first on this trip. We begin, on the Central Coast, an hour's drive from Sydney, with another maiden adventure, a flight in a microlight.

Installing myself into what looks like a motorbike strapped to two sails with a giant blender blade for a propeller on the back, I have some jitters.

But there is an air of reassurance about South African pilot Len Berger that quickly quells my nerves, allowing me to relax into our half-hour flight above the Central Coast's hinterland, lakes and beaches.

Taking off from Somersby airfield, 14.5 kilometres inland, Berger brings the microlight up to about 300 metres and a cruising speed of 60km/h.

It's an ideal day for flying, clear and fresh with a slight headwind occasionally buffeting the craft.

"It's like a yacht," Berger tells me through my headphones. "The nose wants to turn into the wind.

"To orientate you, Brisbane Water is down there, that's the M1 Freeway below, Terrigal is ahead and, looking north, you have the lake systems going all the way to Newcastle."

I'm struck by how undeveloped and forested the hilly hinterland is. Driving north, the Central Coast often seems like an urban sprawl that's an extension of Sydney.

After flying over Tuggerah Lakes, a maximum of  three metres deep and, says Berger, "undermined by an old coal mine", we reach the coast above The Entrance, arriving as pelicans assemble for the 3.30pm waterfront feeding.

Then, tracking south, we fly over Blue and Toowoon Bays, together forming a heart shape from above, before the coast rises up to headlands, north of Forresters Beach, from where a hang glider is being launched.

Below us the green ocean is translucent save for the dark mass of rocks or shoals of fish, and sheets of white surf unfurl across it onto mushroom-coloured beaches.

"That's Avoca beach," Berger says. "And you've got Copacabana and Macmasters, the Hawkesbury coming out into the ocean and on the horizon you can see Sydney."

We turn west over Terrigal, where tonight we'll bed down at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and head back, passing over Brisbane Water before Berger eases the microlight down onto the runway.

My first microlight flight in Australia has been a thrill from beginning to end.

The following morning we continue north, reaching the Sea Acres Rainforest Centre, a swathe of subtropical vegetation behind the coast at Port Macquarie. It provides another surprise, a French chef – Jean-Louis Tostivint – presiding over a National Park's cafe. He provided fare with Gallic flair, including several creamy desserts.

After lunch we take a bush tucker tour along the 1.3-kilometre boardwalk. "This entire area was like a giant pantry for my people," Birpai man Chris O'Brien says.

"It was also a meeting place, a medicine chest and a tool box."  He points to a walking stick palm, which he says was first used by injured soldiers in the Boer war. 

That night we are surrounded by food of a more traditional Western bent at the Telegraph Retreat, a luxurious farmstay, north of Port Macquarie.

We settle into a two-bedroom Federation cottage, stroll around the property with Northern Irish host Roger Marshall, cold beer in hand, and feast on a home-cooked dinner, including freshly baked bread and grilled salmon, prepared by Roger's Scottish wife Melanie. We end the evening, under the stars, in the hot, bubbling jacuzzi, on the verandah.

Over the next three nights, we make the Bali villas at Rancho Relaxo, near Crescent Head, our base.

From here, we visit the new Slim Dusty Centre at Kempsey. Later we take in the story of the men of German origin incarcerated at Trial Bay Gaol, at South-West Rocks, during World War I. Those inventive internees turned their prison into a place of learning – and they studied languages, drama and music.

Rancho Relaxo does what its name says,  providing a laid-back interval.

We spend days playing tennis or haphazard golf at the on-site nine-hole course and evenings reading outside on the day-bed or dozing in the hammock.

By the morning we leave for the Valley of the Mist, I'm totally relaxed, making my vigorous reaction to the python slightly ridiculous.

But there is more repose to come in the riverside, beachside town of Yamba, further north.

Dropping our bags at the Sands Resort, we join Adrian Deville of Yuraygir Walking Experiences, to stroll part of this unkempt coastal National Park.

We take in a section beginning at nearby Angourie, heading south through coastal heath, passing behind sweeping beaches backed by coffee rock and pandannus. It's a taster of the operator's multiday treks through Yuraygir, accommodated in a luxury holiday home in the seaside village of Minnie Water.

Back in Yamba, we like Irons and Craig Cafe so much that we visit it for breakfast and lunch. Apart from championing Clarence Valley organic produce, and its friendly service and vibe, its homemade preserves – including liquorice jam, another first for our trip – and yummy food, such as a melt-in-the-mouth croque-madame, are commendable.

Further up the coast, we arrive at the hamlet of Newrybar, in the Byron Bay hinterland.

Cut off by the Pacific Highway's rerouting, this inspiring settlement is turning itself into a destination in its own right.  The Harvest cafe offers big-city food standards with local, sustainable and self-sufficient food ethics and personable service.

A lunch on the sunny verandah of the weatherboard house in which Harvest is set makes you want to linger all afternoon. My grilled octopus with sobrassada – a raw cured sausage with origins in Spain's Balearic islands – and bottarga  is enough to prompt me to return. But when we follow that with 12-hour braised lamb shoulder with pumpkin and salted ricotta (and a glass of cab sav), we don't want to leave.

Heading next to the Crystal Castle, a  paean to inner peace and spirituality, set high on the escarpment behind Byron, our contentment grows. As we amble through its Shambhala botanical gardens, among giant crystals, buddhas and a peace stupa blessed by Tibetan monks, all seems right with the world.

Little wonder then that when I have my spirit aura captured by a special camera, a blaze of orange (signifying creativity) predominates.

Returning to the coast, to Cabarita Beach, north of Byron, there is yet more restfulness on the menu, this time with a Mediterranean-style flourish, at Halcyon House.

What has been made of a former beachside motel is, in design terms, astonishing. It's now all whitewashed walls and stripey navy blue, there are detailed lattices and shuttered windows and a glinting pool, sits in its midst, reflecting everything.

Service standards from receptionists to waiting staff, take Halcyon House to another level and its fine dining restaurant, Paper Daisy, rounds off its classy feel. Dishes such as smoked albacore with agnolotti and egg yolk vinegar, and grade nine wagyu rump with parsley, brussels sprouts and dripping, tease and please our  palates until we cannot turn down a caramelised white chocolate and jerusalem artichoke for dessert.

In the bad old days, the journey between Sydney and Brisbane was long and tortuous, with tired icons like Coffs Harbour's Big Banana and Ballina's Giant Prawn providing the only distraction.

In 2016, the road trip offers every pleasure under the blue east coast sky, from flying above it in a microlight to scintillating gourmet food in unexpected places.

The writer was a guest of former The Legendary Pacific Coast and its members.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitnsw.com

TOURING THERE

Microlight Adventures is at Somersby Airfield, 89 Lackersteens Road, Somersby and 40-minute flights cost $190 (see microlight.net.au); Seacres Rainforest Centre is at Pacific Drive, Port Macquarie and opens from 9-4.30pm daily and Trial Bay Gaol is in the Arakoon National Park, Carwell Street, Arakoon, entry $10 for adults, open 9am to 4.30pm daily (see nationalparks.nsw.gov.au for these two). Nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/arakoon-national-park.. A canoe tour of the wetlands and gourmet bush tucker tour of Valley of the Mist at Taylors Arm costs $60 ar person (see valleyofthemist.net.au). Yuraygir Walking Experiences, Hiawatha Road, Minnie Water (see yuraygirwalks.com.au). Crystal Castle, is at 45 Monet Drive, Montecollum, with entry from 10am to 5pm and an adult day pass costing $22. See crystalcastle.com.au

EATING AND STAYING THERE

Try the Bamboo Buddha in Holgate (bamboobuddha.com.au); the Crowne Plaza in  Terrigal (crowneplazaterrigal.com.au); the Telegraph Retreat at Telegraph Point (telegraphretreat.com.au); Rancho Relaxo (crescentheadgetaways.com.au); Iron and Craig Cafe Yamba (ironsandcraig.com); The Sands at Yamba (sandsatyamba.com.au); Harvest cafe at Newrybar (harvestcafe.com.au); and Halcyon House at Cabarita Beach. See halcyonhouse.com.au

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