Sublimely sub-tropical

A short break is great to reconnect with family - messy hair and all, writes Bronwyn McNulty.

What is the definition of a family holiday? Does it mean scooping up the kids and their assorted technological chattels and whisking them off somewhere new so that iPads, iPods, laptops and Wiis will all hum against a different, more exotic backdrop?

Recently, when we were planning a family getaway, we wanted to go somewhere that didn't result in us simply transplanting ourselves and our recreational habits to a new destination. Perhaps naively, we wanted a holiday that would have us interacting and chatting and laughing together. We wanted to be that sunny family tossing their golden manes about in glee that you see on tropical holiday advertisements.

Apart from the obvious obstacles - too many children, knotty and lacklustre hair, a shortage of tooth whitener and shabby wardrobes all round - our goal was thwarted by a lack of time and money.

So, with our detangler, hairbrushes and finest variety store outfits packed, we headed off for a four-day getting-to-know-you break on the mid-north coast of NSW.

From northern or southern NSW, Coffs Harbour is comfortably midway along the coast. The stretch of highway that snakes through this town is a busy, ugly welt of a road, but don't let that put you off.

The sub-tropical area also boasts some of the country's most beautiful beaches and World Heritage-listed rainforest.

Plus, there is a lot for families to do together.

At the Novotel Pacific Resort we tried out the family fun package: a morning of bouncy fun on the inflatable Action Zone, followed by several rounds of Splash Golf - which involved hitting golf balls at floating targets - and then walking on water in the amazing Ozbobbles water balls, and fun rides on the all-terrain Segways.

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We had a ball. Admittedly, not everyone can be the first person ever to score a hole-in-one in the Splash Golf (even more of a triumph considering the difficulty I had in making contact between the club and the ball on most swings). So the rest of the family, in spite of their second-rate golfing skills, didn't have quite as much fun but managed to enjoy themselves anyway. As any golfer will know, coming back down to earth after such a feat takes a little time (or so my husband kept insisting).

While I concentrated on balancing my large head on my unprepared shoulders, the kids slipped into giant, see-through beach balls to try walking on water.

If you're old enough to remember the "Coke Adds Life" advertisement from 1978, in which a gang of good-looking, young people bounce and roll about in a large, transparent ball out on the ocean before emerging to down a few fizzy drinks, you will appreciate the idea of Ozbobbling.

The scale isn't the same as in the Coke ad. As well, these balls float about on the Novotel's angular, retro pool instead of the open sea, but they look every bit as fun.

Once the Ozbobblers got their land-legs back, it was time to try a Segway fun ride. I never understood the appeal of these clumsy-looking two-wheel scooters, but that might be because of a lack of appreciation for how they work. Sophisticated tilt sensors in the electric-powered Segways mean that drivers direct the vehicles simply by shifting their body weight. Lean forwards to go forward, backwards to slow down or go backwards, and left or right depending on which direction you'd like to turn.

Within minutes my 10-year-old daughter and I felt remarkably at ease. It was almost as though our legs had been replaced by wheels. After stepping off, we were surprised to find that leaning forwards and backwards didn't take us anywhere any more.

All of these activities and others, including Laser Clay target shooting and Bopping Heads music video making, are available in the grounds of the Pacific Bay Resort, which is also home to a picturesque nine-hole golf course.

Many hours could be whiled away here, even if you just opt to sit on the bar's deck that juts out over a man-made lake visited by curious water dragons and preening birdlife. But there's no time! There are other activities to try in the region.

Head down to Coffs Jetty for a spot of stand up paddleboarding. If you're more of a landlubber, stroll across to Muttonbird Island to join in a Discovery Tour, during which Gumbaynggirr elder and ranger Mark Flanders shares his knowledge about the island's amazing wildlife.

A short drive down the coast will bring you to the Coffs Butterfly House, where you can get almost freakily up close and personal with these insects. A popular destination for families visiting Coffs is Dolphin Marine Magic, where every guest gets the opportunity to share a fishy kiss with a seal and a dolphin.

And let's not forget the time-honoured old favourite: The Big Banana. These days it features massive waterslides and even an ice-skating rink. Have your kids keep their eyes peeled for it at 351 Pacific Highway.

Prefer not to be too organised? Sample the simple pleasures of the many beaches in the region - there are more than 90 to choose from. Our favourite was Diggers Beach. Once the kids had recovered from the excitement that was the help-yourself buffet breakfast at the BreakFree Aanuka Beach Resort each morning, we strolled back to our cabin along this unspoilt patch of sand.

"This is the most beautiful beach I have ever seen," said our seven-year-old son, eyes scanning the sand for more interesting shells to add to his upturned hat.

Shopping for all ages is well and truly covered in Coffs. There are loads of markets in the area, including the massive Bellingen Community Market. It is held on the third Saturday of the month with more than 250 stalls, as well as lots of food and music. Or drive up the winding Waterfall Way to the mountain village of Dorrigo, 1000 metres above sea level, to visit the Dorrigo Markets on the first Saturday of the month.

Should the weather turn bad there's indoor shopping at various malls and shopping strips in Coffs. Or, for the young at heart, the Tabatinga Family Fun Centre, which has something for all ages. Activities range from climbing frames to cannon ball blasting and glow-in-the-dark mini-golf. What was that? Did someone say golf? ... I wonder if anyone has ever scored a glow-in-the-dark hole-in-one?

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Coffs Harbour is a 45-minute direct flight from Sydney, with QantasLink and Virgin Australia operating eight daily services. CountryLink operates regular rail services daily from Sydney and Brisbane.

STAYING THERE

There's a large selection of family-friendly accommodation. Try resort-style options such as the Novotel Coffs Harbour Pacific Bay Resort (pacificbayresort.com.au) and the Breakfree Aanuka Beach Resort (breakfreeaanukabeachresort.com.au) for whole family enjoyment.

MORE INFORMATION

coffscoast.com.au

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