"I knew we were on the right track as soon as they started coming," says publican Luke Redmond, who nods to tables of women enjoying lunch as the sun streams through the front of the Bermagui Beach Hotel.
They are by no means the only women here on this busy, albeit socially-distanced, Saturday afternoon. Holidaying couples, families, groups of friends and tradies enjoy home-made pasta, local mussels, fish and chips and craft beers on the hotel's verandah while a couple of regulars who look welded into their bar stools sip beers and study a form guide in a corner.
But the reason the women's tables fill the hotel owners with joy is that they know that just a couple of years back, women would rarely venture into this historic pub, despite its breathtaking views of Horseshoe Bay – with its occasional whale spout - and Mount Gulaga across the road.
The problem was not so much the clientele, explains Luke's wife and co-owner, Lou, but the historic hotel's "face".
"The front verandah area where people now eat and enjoy the water was full of poker machines and was also the smoking area. We knew our first job was to change this."
And change it they did. The pokies and the smokers were moved and the area opened up with glass doors and lightened with a grey-blue and cream colour scheme.
The mission to return this faded but much loved historic beachside hotel to its former glory was a labour of love for Luke, who grew up in the hinterland around Bermagui. He and Lou and hotel partner Yannis Gantner bought the landmark 1895 hotel in 2017. They knew they had a gem on their hands: the original features were still there, and the locals were pleased that people were willing to take it on, but it did prove to be a baptism of fires - and COVID.
But they persevered and the result is what too many towns have lost: a character-full rejigged watering hole (16 beers on tap) that offers a fresh, locally-sourced menu plus regular staples. A more formal dining area has also been restored and here's a rarity – pub-style accommodation that is not scary. The nine upstairs rooms are bright and comfortable and four have spa baths and balconies overlooking the beach. Each room has a name linked to the hotel's history and black and white photos line the walls.
It's a history that was added to this year with the fires. Says Lou: "On the morning of New Year's Eve when the town literally went black, the pub was a logical place of refuge. We opened our doors to accommodate as many people as we could and help where possible as did several other businesses."
Thankfully, business at the hotel, like many others we visit on the Far South Coast of NSW in late October, is booming. Victorians usually account for more than 75 per cent of visitors here but Sydneysiders and Canberrans have filled the void while state borders are closed. And the word is that many first-time visitors from Sydney who hit the road to give fire-affected businessess a boost are returning again and again.
And it's easy to see why. While the area, known as the Sapphire Coast thanks to those dark blue and turquoise waters, is famous for its natural beauty (think the stunning Blue Pool with resident seals at Bermagui, Mystery Bay, the pretty towns of Pambula and Cobargo to name a few) it's also home to many creative businesses that are carving a unique place in local and visitor hearts. There's Longstocking Brewery at Pambula with its outdoor pizza oven, lush gardens and live music or Wheelers Seafood Restaurant at Pambula where you can watch oysters being farmed before tucking in. Or there's the soaring roof and seafood (and resident fish) at Merimbula's Aquarium and wharf restaurant and Kiah Wilderness Escapes where you can carve your way through these blue waters with guided kayak tours (kiahwildernesstours.com.au).
"It's our busiest October ever. Can you believe it?" asks our waitress at Il Passaggio Italian restaurant at Bermagui's Fishermen's Wharf. "After the fires, then COVID. Everyone's looking after each other and it's just so, so…" She blinks. "It's been bloody great."
SAPPHIRE COAST GEMS
NAME YOUR VINTAGE
Fans of the second-hand need to run to Strangers in Paradise in Lamont Street, Bermagui, for funky jewellery, 50s-style swimming costumes and vintage glassware and furniture. We score four Australian Senate glasses – just the thing for unrepresentative swill.
Entering The Time Machine second-hand book store via a bland Merimbula mall is like entering a portal to Scandinavia, so great is the selection of Nordic Noir on these beautifully organised shelves in Market Street. Fans of Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Ann Holt and Arnaldur Indriðason will revel in the range here, but so will fans of every genre. Warning: you will find something you cannot put down.
The scorched forests outside town are a stark reminder of Cobargo's tragic recent history, when lives and livelihoods were lost to bushfires. But the town is open for business. Well Thumbed is another second-hand book lovers' bonanza: head straight to their staff picks at the front. Grab a coffee at the Valiant Vintage Coffee Caravan or a bite at the pub. There's a cute op shop, a good nursery, butcher and homewares store, and an intriguing antiques shop that was closed during our visit. Need home brewing supplies? We didn't but the Bank of New South Ales in the heritage building on the highway made us smile.
If you're going to spin a seafarer's tale – the more bizarre the better. Head south to Eden's Killer Whale Museum for tall tales and true, including the one about Old Tom, a killer whale who helped round up his brethren for local whalers. His giant skeleton proves his existence. But was he a traitor to his species or a friend to human kind? Or just a smart mammal who knew which side his bread was buttered. The museum offers other strange stories, such as the man who apparently survived being swallowed by a sperm whale, and a rheumatism treatment which apparently involved sitting inside a beached whale carcass for a good 30 hours or so. See killerwhalemuseum.com.au
DOING THEIR FLING
But why not see the real thing with a whale-watching tour? There is no better place to watch a humpback jumping for joy. See merimbulamarina.com
Bermagui Beach Hotel From $104 a night bermaguibeachhotel.com.au
Coast Resort, Merimbula From $320 a night, reduced rates for longer stays
Wheelers Seafood Restaurant, Pambula. See wheelersoysters.com.au
Il Passaggio, Bermagui. See Ilpassaggio.com.au
Longstocking Brewery, Pambula. See longstocking.com.au
Merimbula Aquarium and Wharf restaurant. See merimbulawharf.com.au
Jane Richards was a guest of Sapphire Coast Tourism.