The drive from Sydney to Yamba offers plenty of diversions, writes Lynne Whiley.
Bless Russell Crowe. He bought the old Nymboida Coaching Station Inn, revived a piece of Australia's past, kept bar and meal prices reasonable, popped a shower and change table in the ladies' bathroom and opened a museum next door.
As the only watering hole on the stretch of road from Armidale to Grafton, the inn is both pit-stop and public service.
Children pour from family cars to tumble about the inn's gardens and hunt for geckos under bushes.
Adults admire the hand-sawn cedar and mahogany beams and browse old photographs mounted on the inn's walls before settling at a table for shaded outdoor dining overlooking the Nymboida River.
Crowe is selling the inn (but keeping the museum).
Knowing where and when to stop can make all the difference on a family road trip.
If you want your children to see some of their own place and soak up a little cultural heritage among small-town streetscapes en route, you go by road.
Driving from Sydney to Yamba on the NSW North Coast, we choose the pretty way - up the guts of the state to the Northern Tablelands, then east to the coast.
We take a more direct route home - down the Pacific Highway-Pacific Motorway in a day, with breaks at great spots on the way. With no DVDs or other screen-based distractions allowed in the back seat, the front seat plots routes that take in parks and affordable places to eat.
Here's how to have all that, including ice-blocks all round for good behaviour.
Tucked in the hills of the Hunter where the Avon, Gloucester and Barrington rivers meet, Gloucester has a character main street and riverside park. We turn off the M1-Pacific Motorway-A1 Pacific Highway thingy on to Bucketts Way just north of Raymond Terrace, then drive through grazing and dairy country.
At the end of Gloucester's main street, by the river, we let the children loose, then double back, park and choose from a cluster of cafes. Pick up a great holiday novel from the Gloucester Bookshop, opposite the cafes, before you head across the river and on to Thunderbolt's Way, with its stunning views of the Great Divide.
The Way's curves and surface make it popular with cyclists; we clock the prime pastures, inventive mail boxes and inviting turn-offs to national parks, but push on to Walcha. Nope, Walcha hadn't featured on my bucket list, either, until now. Central, shaded park? Tick. Fuel, food, ice-blocks? Tick.
Intriguing outdoor timber sculptures? Big tick. Walcha, about 420 kilometres from Sydney, is a magnet for trout fishers and hosts a fortnightly farmers market (see walchafarmersmarket.org.au) where local, seasonal and home-made is the norm.
It's a one-hour drive from Walcha to Armidale via Uralla and the New England Highway. By the time you reach Uralla's gorgeous heritage streetscapes, the back seat will have heard your thrilling tales about bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, a prison escapee, robber and bold horseman who rode across the land here, chased by the police. Shot dead in 1870.
Kapow! Look, there's his grave. Thank you, Uralla.
Armidale accommodation is plentiful and affordable (except when University of New England students are graduating).
We stay at the Armidale Regency Motel (armidaleregency.com.au) as it has value-for-money family rooms (sleep five), free Wi-Fi, is central but quiet and the front seat promised the back we'd stay somewhere with a pool.
Motel reception staff are on the ball: we're tired, fuzzy-brained and can't turn on the airconditioning, despite it being a simple thing. A quick call to the front desk and, less than a minute later, there's a polite knock on the door, the aircon is on and we're happy.
There's a playground on Armidale's central Dangar Street opposite St Ursulas and St Mary's (just look for the spires) or keep driving downtown to Dumaresque Creek, where the old flood plain offers a green wealth of running space and swings.
Dinner? At the Mandarin Restaurant on Beardy Street, of course.
EAST TO THE COAST
Coffee, pastries and delicious berries from the Armidale Farmers' Market (fortnightly on Saturdays in Walcha, Sundays in Armidale, see armidalemarket.com) are consumed before we set off for Grafton via Nymboida through grazing and timber country surrounded by a chain of national parks.
This is the run to the coast used by generations of Tablelands graziers and workers, so at the Armidale end the road is called Grafton Road and at the Grafton end it's Armidale Road. Easy peasy.
Hot day? Swim in the river. Coolish? Enjoy the warmth of the Nymboida Coaching Station Inn. Any time? The bar staff don't laugh when I order a deeply unfashionable middy of shandy. I'm driving, that's my excuse.
Crowe's Museum of Interesting Things includes his collection of film memorabilia and a replica Cobb and Co stage coach.
It also features useful displays of how work was done in ancient times - that is, before computers (see coachingstation.com).
The run east takes drivers through lush hinterland. Then we're past Grafton's mighty Clarence River and on the Pacific Highway, heading north for blink-and-you-miss-it Ulmarra, an old river port with heritage main street, B&Bs in side lanes and an excellent pub.
The Commercial Hotel's shaded beer garden adjoins the river foreshore (see ulmarrahotel.com.au).
The back seat runs, the front seat strolls before settling at the pub's Cafe Clarence, which scored a 15/20 in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Pubs Guide 2011.
Between ordering and eating we clock the pub's pressed metal ceilings and old subdivision maps. From Ulmarra, Yamba's beaches are a 50-kilometre journey, even if you detour through Maclean.
The Pacific Highway-A1 is still an undivided road in sections, still dangerous and still the subject of political contention.
Segments are progressively being converted to dual carriageway or freeway standard and some interchanges and bypasses are so new looking, there's yet to be a build up of emission-grime on the concrete.
We plot a day-long course back to Sydney that takes in local shops and parks.
Detours add to the average eight-hour journey south but who's complaining when it includes a splendid brunch and afternoon riverside paddle?
Leave the highway, head to the intersection of Beach and Wharf streets, Woolgoolga, park and take your pick of cafes and bakeries.
The supermarket is across the road. Load up with lunch. Forgot the Esky? How un-Australian.
Driver Reviver, mid-north coast
The volunteers at the Driver Reviver depot by the Pacific Highway near Port Macquarie have it sorted.
Answer a quick questionnaire, gold-coin donation, drinks for young and old, permanent tables for BYO meals, and the children can play as the depot's grounds are fenced.
Come winter, the epic on-site fireplace might be roaring too.
Feel free to linger.
(Woolgoolga-Port Macquarie, 182km)
We take the smooth off-ramp from the Pacific Highway to Bulahdelah's main street, park next to the pub and walk down the grassy slope to the Myall River.
Picnic tables, dogs on leashes, geese, families relaxing, passing parade of small boats. It's a good vibe, ice-blocks all round, as we cool our feet in the river while watching swimmers paddling from the boat ramp on the opposite shore.
(Port Macquarie-Bulahdelah, 148km)
Late afternoon: Mooney Mooney
It's tempting to push on to Sydney. But it's best to assume the A1 Pacific Highway, which becomes the M1 Pacific Motorway, will have heavy traffic and delays around Mount White.
Just as well there's Mooney Mooney Point and Deerubbun Reserve.
Leave the Pacific Motorway just before the Hawkesbury River Bridge, loop down and on to the old Pacific Highway and across to the point.
(Bulahdelah-Mooney Mooney, 172km)
If the front seat has thoughtfully made an additional - purely medicinal, of course - purchase of chocolate in Bulahdelah without the back seat knowing, and disposed of all evidence of it while the children are at Deerubbun Reserve, the 50 kilometres from the Hawkesbury River to central Sydney should be a smooth drive home.
Destination NSW can help travellers plan an itinerary and its online maps service allows drivers to opt to take routes that avoid toll roads and highways. See visitnsw.com. The NRMA also has detailed maps. See mynrma.com.au.
The Armidale Regency on Dangar Street has air-conditioning. There's a fenced pool, good on-site restaurant and free Wi-Fi. Queen rooms from $126 a night. Phone (02) 6772 9800, see armidaleregency.com.au.
In Yamba, the place for travellers with children is the Angourie Rainforest Resort, halfway between Angourie surf beach and Yamba itself. Think well-appointed, airconditioned villas, central pool, cafe and restaurant. Low-season two-bedroom villas are from $160 a night; $320 a night in high season. Phone (02) 6646 8600, see angourieresort.com.au.