This coastal town retains that magical, relaxed feel that harks back to simpler times, minus the mass-scale development.
Lake Macquarie is trapped in a time warp, but in a good way. I ruminate on this as I sit on the deck of Bluebell Retreat House at Murrays Beach, where the Watagan Mountains and Pulbah Island can be seen across the water.
"We're just going down to the lake," my daughter yells as she tears off barefoot across the grass with a friend. It's Friday afternoon, I have a glass of chilled pinot gris in hand, and my care factor is less than zero. It's not that I don't care about two nine-year-olds exploring on their own; it's just here it feels like you can ease up on the helicopter parenting we're so accustomed to in the city.
Watching Ella and her friend Erin explore reminds me of holidaying with my grandparents at Budgewoi, just south of where we're staying. Days back then revolved around fishing, swimming, climbing trees, and building makeshift cubby houses. My brothers and I would meet up with the neighbour's kids, and only return home when we were hungry. I never once remember grandma saying: "Be careful, watch who you talk to, stick together."
It was the late '70s and we were barefoot, free-range kids without a worry in the world.
Remarkably, Lake Macquarie still retains that magical, relaxed feel that harks back to simpler times. Despite boasting the largest full-time saltwater lake this side of the equator, 174 kilometres of shoreline, and 90 towns and villages, it has largely escaped mass-scale development. While the eastern side of the lake, where we're staying, is certainly more developed and touristy than the western side, there are still pockets like Murray's Beach (which is not, in fact, a beach), Caves Beach, Catherine Hill Bay and Red Head (the latter three renowned surf spots) that remain invitingly uncommercial.
It was the natural beauty of Murray's Beach that first drew Robert Macindoe, who bought Bluebell in 2008.
"It's like no other environment with respect to nature and wellbeing. The house has so much open parkland around it, with 270-degree uninterrupted views that will never be built out," he says.
Bordered by Wallarah National Park, Bluebell Retreat was designed by eminent Australian architect Gabriel Poole, and has won awards for both sustainability and its green design. It features two (potentially three) spacious bedrooms, a Bose entertainment centre and large decks with sun lounges overlooking all that serene bushland and lake.
One of best things to do is take the kayaks out for a paddle along the shores of Murrays Beach. We head down late afternoon to the pier where a group of fishermen are trying their luck; hungry pelicans poised nearby. Afterwards we head for the southern end of Caves Beach, where a network of sea caves can be explored at low tide.
Murray's Beach only has the one eatery, but thankfully it's a good one. We breakfast on the deck of the Lakehouse Cafe the next morning, up in the treeline. Tucking into zucchini, fetta and sumac fritters with poached egg, avocado and beetroot relish, the soundtrack is not of Cold Play, but laughing kookaburras and happy kids playing along the water's edge. "We saw an echidna," the girls tell me as they return from the playground for their fluffy pancakes.
While you could literally spend weeks exploring Lake Macquarie, it's only from above that you appreciate how vast it really is. Fuelled up with a good breakfast, we strap in for a scenic helicopter flight with Brett Campany, from Skyline Aviation. Brett, in his slick black Jet Ranger, is passionate about the area, so much so he's part of a consortium that purchased the old Belmont Pelican Airport. They hope it will eventually become a central hub for Lake Macquarie.
Choppering over the long sweep of Blacksmiths Beach, Brett tells me why he loves both living and flying here. "We have some of the most stunning beaches in Australia with spectacular cliffs, rocky outcrops and incredible wildlife. It's not uncommon to see dolphins, whales and sharks during our flights. We also have the mountain ranges, the Watagans, Broken Back and the Barrington, right on our doorstep."
This year, the old terminal at the now named Lake Macquarie Airport will be removed, followed by construction of new hangars, offices and potentially a cafe, restaurant and bar. "One thing's for certain, we'll definitely have an observation deck," Brett tells me as we circle back via Eleebana and Pelican, the aquamarine water below dotted with yachts.
Back on terra firma, we dine at Salina Restaurant, named after the Aeolian island of the same name and a bit of a local secret. It's a full house, yet owner Robert Fonti greets every customer walking through the door – many regular customers and friends. Robert grips my husband's hand like he's a long-lost friend and seats us at a table overlooking the pretty alfresco courtyard.
Salina is a charming neighbourhood restaurant where the service is as warm as a summer's day. Tables dressed in white linen, glow by lantern light and there's a buzz as groups of tables chatter and clink glasses. A pot of olives and a pizzetta of potato, rosemary, garlic and sea salt is delivered to the table, and Robert rustles up a bottle of wine. Happy diners tuck into the fresh and generous Sicilian menu – perhaps prawns in spicy tomato and olive sauce, a simple margherita pizza or potato gnocchi. Be sure to save room for dessert, which could be a gelato tasting plate or cannoli with Frangelico custard. Afterwards, we sip a glass of Limoncello, and feel like we're in Italy.
There are other good eateries nearby, too (and that's only including ones on this side of the lake), such as Cafe Macquarie for terrific breakfasts made from local seasonal produce. Common Circus on Belmont's waterfront is my pick for coffee, and a few doors down, Deck 56 is a good all-rounder, morphing from a breakfast hot-spot overlooking the fig-tree-lined shoreline, to smart dinner venue. Opt for an outside table on the deck overlooking the lake if it's a nice day (there are blankets to rug up in if the weather's iffy), and be sure to try the Mexican-inspired corn fritters if they're on.
Back on the deck of Bluebell, the setting sun casts long golden brush strokes across the languid lake. A yacht sits moored just off shore, while couples stroll the water's edge hand in hand. "We're over here mum," Ella yells as I see them running down the pier, hair flying in the wind, unplugged and happy. Yes, in many ways time has stood still in Lake Macquarie, and that's perfectly fine for this urbanite.
Sheriden Rhodes travelled as a guest of Lake Macquarie City Council.
Bluebell Retreat is priced from $225 a night a couple midweek (minimum two-night stay; weekly rates available). Bluebell can accommodate up to six guests in three bedrooms. Guests have use of kayaks, access to a 25-metre pool and receive a welcome box of chocolates and bottle of Hunter Valley wine. See bluebellretreat.com.au
EAT + PLAY
Take a scenic flight with Skyline Aviation Group from $95 a person for ten minutes, see skylineav.ocm.au. Hire a SUP or dinghy and explore Lake Macquarie with JetBuzz Watersports at Cams Wharf, see jetbuzz.com.au. Dine at Salina, salina.com.au, Cafe Macquarie, cafemacquarie.com and Deck 56, deck56.com.au