It's surprising, given it's twice the size of Sydney Harbour and the largest permanent salt water lake in the Southern Hemisphere, how underrated Lake Macquarie is. And for all that water, remarkably there are only a handful of places to hire a boat. "It's a forgotten haven for boating," Michael Paull tells us as we sail across the lake in his sleek yacht Yesdear, the salty spray licking our faces.
A mere 90-minute drive north of Sydney, Lake Macquarie appears somewhat of a forgotten holiday haven, too, and retains serious old world charm. Holiday shacks perch on the water's edge, sail boats bob on the tide, pelicans glide into land and children fish off wooden jetties. Even during peak times, you can easily find a secluded alcove or patch of sand all to yourself. Many of its sleepy lakeside towns and villages are virtually unchanged since the '50s and '60s; others are shaking things up with funky cafes and slick waterside restaurants that make the most of the water literally on their doorstep.
Unless you have your own boat getting on the water can prove tricky, although there are a few places to hire kayaks and runabouts, while at Lake Macquarie Yacht Charters, Michael and his wife can take out groups for a three-hour sail or longer.
Getting beside the water, or actually in it, on the other hand is easy: hire a bike from Boomerang Bike's new station along Warners Bay foreshore and cycle the pathway that hugs the waterfront for almost nine kilometres, take a walk along the long flat stretch of Caves Beach and explore the network of caves. Or grab some fish and chips and enjoy the gorgeous Pelican Foreshore or Croudace Bay Park.
Don't be alarmed when you google Lake Macquarie and swimming. Inevitably, shark will pop up. This is perhaps why it's best to swim at one of the four patrolled beaches in Lake Macquarie rather than the lake itself. Instead head for Blacksmiths Beach, situated at the southern end of a 14.5-kilometre stretch of sand. There's a gorgeous protected little beach at Salts Bay off the Swansea Channel that is ideal for families with young children. Catherine Hill Bay is another remarkable beach with its commanding historic coal loading jetty stretching out to sea.
The lake itself is immense. On the eastern side, you'll find Caves Beach, Belmont and Catherine Hill Bay within easy reach of Warners Bay and Speers Point. On the western foreshore, the Watagan Mountains incorporate forests, lookouts, picnic spots, and waterfalls. It's here you'll find Awaba House – adjacent to the Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery – one of the oldest estates in the area. This award-winning venue offers serene vistas over rolling green lawn dotted with sculptures to the lake, and serves up fabulous Devonshire teas and leisurely lunches. Next door the Hunter's only waterfront gallery hosts world class exhibitions, many from artists whom share a connection with the area. When we visit the gallery is showing the stunning shell work of Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Lola Greeno.
A major focus of the gallery's collection, including the works in the sculpture garden, reflect its unique location while it is also the custodians of a number of works by well-known Australian artists, including Sir William Dobell. Sir William lived for many years at Wangi Wangi and now visitors can see his lakeside home where an extensive exhibition illustrating his life and work is permanently on display (dobellhouse.org.au).
There's so much to do a weekend hardly does it justice, although you might simply be content to find a spot by the water and watch life sail by. A must for brunch is the wonderful Q&Co Cafe across the road from the Warners Bay foreshore (good coffee, too), while there are walks aplenty through national parks, along the lake or in bushland.
Even though it's slim pickings, Lake Macquarie is best experienced from the water itself. As we zigzag across the lake, we're joined by a pair of cavorting dolphins, surfing the bow and they follow us for the hour-long sail. "They always follow our boat," Michael tells us as my seven-year-old daughter hangs over the side laughing with delight at the frolicking duo.
Back at Lake Macquarie Yacht Club, a historic clubhouse, we take a cold ale out onto the deck and watch the incredible sunset; tiny swifts darting between the moored boats. The club is packed with happy yachties and locals and we watch as scores of sail boats return home after a day on the water. You won't find many hipsters in Lake Macquarie, but old school charm it offers up in spades.
Caves Beachside Hotel offers beach suites from $230 a night for two people; villas from $249 and a townhouse from $309. See cavesbeachsidehotel.com.au
EATING & PLAYING THERE
Awaba House, see awabahouse.com.au. Lake Macquarie Art Gallery, see artgallery.lakemac.com.au. Q&Co Cafe, see qandcocafe.com. Lake Macquarie Yacht Charters, see lakemacquarieyachtcharters.com. Lake Macquarie Boat Hire, see lakemacboathire.com.au. Lake Macquarie Yacht Club and Salty Dog Bistro, see lmyc.com.au. Boomerang Bikes, see boomerangbikes.com.au
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Lake Macquarie City Council.