A break, with tradition

Shaney Hudson returns to a string of beaches full of memories: Terrigal, Avoca, Copacabana and MacMasters.

Even in the most beautiful places, familiarity can breed indifference, if not contempt. The Central Coast isn't fashionable, it's not glamorous and its down-to-earth vibe and proximity to Sydney - just 90 minutes' drive from the city - means it's often overlooked by international visitors and taken for granted by domestic holidaymakers.

For many Sydneysiders, though, it's a place of memories and easy escape: childhood holidays with families, surfing getaways with mates, romantic weekends with lovers.

My rite-of-passage memories are attached to the string of beaches south of Terrigal. The seaside communities of Terrigal, Avoca Beach, Copacabana and MacMasters present a sliding scale of coastal development.

Terrigal is the most developed of the four beaches. In the quiet seaside-village-turned-cosmopolitan-resort-town, luxury apartments in pastel colours cascade like giant artificial waterfalls down the surrounding hills. At the bottom of the hill closest to the beach is a fringe of mostly overpriced beach-themed cafes, boutiques and gift shops. The large chain hotel that used to stick out like a sore thumb two decades ago now looks quite snug; the town's other developments have grown into it.

Despite its best efforts at edging upmarket, Terrigal remains the ultimate family beach, with ample parking, long stretches of sand, safe swimming conditions, few waves and excellent facilities. Piled up in the doorways of pharmacies arefluorescent buckets and spades in plastic nets, spinning racks of postcards at the newsagents and hat stands hung with floppy linen and stiff straw hats. And the takeaway fish-and-chip shop reigns supreme.

The most dominant landmark in Terrigal is the Skillion, a steep cliff that curves slightly to the left from the park below, like the head of a blue-tongue lizard. A grassy hill runs up its spine and a muddy dirt track is worn down its left side. As a child, I would run up the hill and cartwheel down, my parents willing to accept grass stains on my clothes because an exhausted child would sleep on the drive back to Sydney.

During winter, the lookout at the top is an excellent place for whale watching. But during summer, most of the action occurs at the boat ramp just across from the Skillion, in a little corner known as the Haven.

Diving is a popular activity in the area and Terrigal is set to benefit from the scuttling of the decommissioned HMAS Adelaide this month. The wreck will be 1.8 kilometres off the coast and will create an artificial reef for divers to explore. Once safety checks are complete, the wreck is set to become a world-class dive site.

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But if you're not the adventurous type, you can watch the dive, fishing and charter boats launch from the glass-encased balcony at the Cove Cafe, with its enviable position right on the water's edge. Serving strong coffee and lemon-scented scones, the cafe also has fresh seasonal food.

Heading south, Avoca Beach is half Terrigal's size but has double the appeal. It has the most character, in my view, of all the Central Coast beaches. There are no chain hotels or expensive cafes, just a collection of quaint shops, such as the tiny Hole in the Wall, selling knick-knacks by local artists.

For families, the estuary behind Avoca is made for school holidays, with shallows for toddlers, giant fluoro-yellow paddle bikes, surf skis and kayaks. For surfers, a weathered pine platform in the car park is the place to assess surf conditions.

The heart of the village is the tiny Avoca Beach Picture Theatre, which is unique and full of character. At the end of Avoca Drive, the theatre has been operating for more than 60 years. Outside, the building is covered in bougainvillea and looks more like a beachside shack; inside, there's art-deco grandeur, with leadlight lamps, red velvet seats, faded movie posters and an old-fashioned confectionary bar.

The theatre specialises in independent movies, showing everything from cinema noir to surfing flicks, opera and even the occasional premiere.

Last year, it hosted the inaugural Coasties Film Festival, at which shorts and features from filmmakers in the region were screened. Heading to the movies here has a real sense of occasion, evoking a simpler time when cinema was the height of entertainment and the social epicentre of a small town.

The village's character is largely drawn from the old picture theatre, though the tide of development is rising. Simple beach houses have been razed and replaced by condominiums built as high and wide and as close to the beach as the council will allow.

Just across from the theatre, a new surf lifesaving club has been built overlooking the ocean pool and main public swimming area. At the southern end of the beach, the club has a traditional beachside kiosk, along with a modern cafe and a function centre.

Ten minutes' drive over a headland is the small community of Copacabana. Named after the famous Brazilian beach of the 1960s, Copacabana could not be more different from its namesake.

There's nothing more to this village than a row of shops - a bakery, a burger joint, a bottle shop, a newsagent, a general store, a cafe and, of course, a real estate office - a smattering of holiday homes and a lagoon for swimming by day and prawning at night. But this is another community that is subject to rapid change. The houses that line the hills around Copa have doubled and sometimes tripled in height, their decks expanding to catch ocean views.

The main attraction is the beach. Taking a walk along the waterfront reveals a lot about this community. On a sunny weekend, children and dogs swarm the beach, the dogs' owners making full use of the leash-free sections. Grommets paddle out on short boards, their fathers' generation on long boards. Swimmers cluster between the flags.

Copacabana shares the stretch of beach with MacMasters, a relatively isolated village to the south. There is no direct access by road to MacMasters from Copacabana - it's a 15-minute backtrack to Kincumber by car to skirt the lagoon that separates the two. It's only a kilometre by foot along the beach, past sheer cliffs and over a few outcrops.

There's not much to MacMasters - no shops, no resorts, just holiday homes, a surf club and a small rock pool tucked into the southern corner of the beach. The community rallies around the MacMasters surf lifesaving club. Inside, members rostered on for the night pull beers while families congregate in the newly renovated outdoor section. Patrol duty, nippers training and carnivals are the summer routine.

MacMasters is peaceful and isolated. It is more rural in nature than beachy and a sharp contrast to the condominiums lining the hills of Terrigal only six kilometres further north. And that is largely MacMasters' appeal: just a community and a beach, surf and sun, simple and affordable - the essence the Central Coast's appeal.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The Central Coast is about 90 minutes' drive from Sydney via Gosford on the F3.

Staying there

There is a variety of hotels and holiday apartments in Terrigal and Avoca and mainly holiday-home rentals in Copacabana and MacMasters.

Crowne Plaza Hotel Terrigal has 196 ocean-facing rooms and 19 suites from $203. At Pine Tree Lane, Terrigal. Phone 4384 9111, see www.crowneplaza.com.au.

Avoca Palms Resort Apartments has two- , three- and four-bedroom self-contained apartments from $200 a night (the minimum stay is three nights). At 194 Avoca Drive, Avoca Beach. Phone 1800 821 481, see avocapalmsresort.com.au.

George Brand Real Estate has a comprehensive list of houses for holiday rental. Phone 4382 1311, see holidays.georgebrand.com.au.

Eating there

Cove Cafe is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner with an emphasis on contemporary cuisine and seafood. At The Haven, Terrigal. Open daily,

8am-5pm; dinner Saturday, 6-9pm. Phone 4384 5083, see covecafe.com.au.

Lizotte's Restaurant has live music and dinner shows and is known for attracting good local and international artists. At Lot 3 Avoca Drive, Kincumber. Phone4368 2017, see lizottes.com.au.

Things to do

Avoca Beach Picture Theatre is open Tuesday to Sunday, at 69 Avoca Drive, Avoca Beach. Phone 4382 1777, see avocabeachpicturetheatre.com.au.

The ex-HMAS Adelaide is due to be scuttled on March 27 and will open for diving a few months later. Large crowds are expected to watch the detonation from Terrigal and Avoca Beach. See hmasadelaide.com.

For more information phone 1300 130 708 or see visitcentralcoast.com.au.

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