Are we there yet? Great Australian road trips

Long an aficionado of the summertime road trip, Lee Atkinson recalls her all-time favourites.

The south coast

When I was in primary school, our summer holidays were always at a family friend's beach house on the south coast, down past Ulladulla.

A road trip with dad was all about getting there as quickly as possible – up before dawn to beat the traffic and heat so the big, grey Valiant's radiator wouldn't boil on the way. No stops were allowed, except when my little brother was carsick over all of us, which always happened before we had even left Sydney's suburban fringe.

Those summer road trips, cramped in the back seat in a fog of mum and dad's cigarette smoke and no airconditioning, elbowing my sister while my brother continued to throw up the whole way, were the longest road trips of my life. I never cease to be amazed by how quickly I can get from Sydney to Ulladulla now. Surely it took longer than 3 1/2 hours back then?

These days, the drive even has a name – Grand Pacific Drive – and I do it just for fun, heading out of Sydney through the Royal National Park and along the cantilevered Sea Cliff Bridge that curves around the cliffs 50 metres out to sea beneath the Illawarra Escarpment.

Depending on my mood, I'll stop for cheap-as-chips fish and chips by the fishing boats at Wollongong Harbour, or a takeaway coffee while watching the sea whoosh through the blowhole at Kiama, or a light-as-air doughnut from the Donut Van in Berry.

If it's hot, I'll stop for a quick dip in a rock pool at one of the beaches along the way, although my favourite is Austinmer because the gelato at the cafe across the road is so good.

Sometimes I take the back roads, snaking up over the escarpment and across the rolling green hills near Jamberoo; other times, I can't resist the urge to detour for an hour or two on one of the bushwalks in Booderee National Park or to the squeaky-white sands of Hyams Beach in Jervis Bay.

grandpacificdrive.com.au.

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The central west

During my high school years, my family moved to western NSW and the summer road trip west out of Sydney over the Blue Mountains and across the central western plains was always a good one because it meant I was on my way home from boarding school for the holidays. It would always just be me and my dad. He still drove in his manic style but we had a car with airconditioning by then.

I still get a buzz when I reach those western plains and the sense of endless space. My family don't live there any more but I still find excuses to go there as often as I can, although, unlike dad, I tend to dawdle because for me it's about being on the edge of the outback, not about getting somewhere.

I take the slower, more scenic and less-travelled Bells Line of Road across the mountains, stopping for a coffee and to indulge in some green-thumbed envy at the Mount Tomah Botanic Garden.

I linger in Orange, load up the boot with boxes of cool-climate wines and, if I have time, stop overnight so I can eat at one of the town's great restaurants.

Sometimes, I do exactly the same thing but in Mudgee, depending on whether or not I veer right at the crossroads west of Lithgow.

Ultimately, I get to Dubbo and the world flattens out just the way I like it. By the time I get to Bourke, I have to decide whether I want to keep going north into the outback proper or hook a left and follow the Darling River across the state, camp on the riverbank or stay in down-at-heel pubs in half-forgotten country towns along the way. It's not a trip I do in summer any more because it's too hot and there are too many flies, but it's still one of my favourites.

visitmudgeeregion.com.au, visitoutbacknsw.com.

Sydney to Melbourne

I love a good road trip more than most but the 10-hour drive down the Hume Highway between Sydney and Melbourne, which is mostly dual-lane freeway, is one of the most boring drives in the country. With many friends based in or near Melbourne, it's one we do almost every summer.

Last time I was in Melbourne, I decided to put the fun back into the interstate commute, even if it took a week. I got as far as Albury, 3 1/2 hours up the road, before deciding my time would be better spent watching the sun set over Lake Hume with a book and a glass of local wine and ignoring the fact I was still a very long way from home.

Day two and I followed the Murray River, meandering along the Victorian bank of the border through tiny towns such as Walwa and Tintaldra, facing off belligerent cows that refused to move from the middle of the road.

At Khancoban I began the long and winding climb into the Snowy Mountains along the Alpine Way. It's a gorgeous drive but slow, made even slower by my stubborn refusal to accept that the low-lying cloud was obscuring every view, despite pulling over to check at every lookout along the way.

The fog and rain suddenly lifted as I pulled into Jindabyne and the late-afternoon sunshine was too good to give up, so I called it a day. This is the heart of The Man from Snowy River country, so I went horse riding. The mountains were rainy, foggy and cold again the next day, so I headed for the coast to chase some sun.

In too-cute Central Tilba, where the heritage-listed main street is lined with bright, multicoloured weatherboard shops and houses, I guiltily gorged on home-made chocolate fudge while browsing the galleries; in Narooma I spent the afternoon in a fit of giggles with an equally golf-challenged friend as we tried to hit a ball around one of the most scenically sublime golf courses in the country.

In holiday mode, rather than commuting mode, on day four in Ulladulla I was only 120 kilometres closer to home than I was the day before, having spent most of my time kayaking around Tuross Lake before realising the next day was a Sunday and I really should make a proper effort to get home before the start of the working week.

I may have taken the long way home but it was sure as hell a lot more fun than barrelling up the Hume.

sydneymelbournetouring.com.au.

Sydney to Port Macquarie

If a favourite road trip is one you do again and again, then the five-hour drive between Sydney and Port Macquarie should theoretically top my list. I live in the hilly hinterland behind Port, so it's a road trip I know like the back of my hand, one I find myself doing two or three times a month.

When road fever strikes and I feel as though I just can't face the same dreary stretch of bitumen, I spear off the Pacific Highway just north of Raymond Terrace and head for the rolling hills and twisting turns of Bucketts Way.

This is a country road in its truest sense: some parts are more like a goat track than a highway; but most of the time there'll be little traffic and the scenery is some of the prettiest you'll find in country NSW.

First stop is the historic village of Stroud, where most of the buildings along the main street date from the 1830s and many were built by convicts. Gloucester is about half an hour away, home to the rocky mountains known as the Bucketts that give the road its moniker.

From Gloucester, Bucketts Way continues on to Tinonee, full of craft stores and art galleries, and Taree but I pick up tourist drive No. 8 to Wingham, mostly because the coffee is so good at the Bent on Food cafe. If I need to stretch my legs, I stroll the boardwalk through Wingham Brush with its resident flying foxes but I'm only a mountain range away from home, so I usually keep going.

The road's dirt, often in terrible condition if it's been raining, narrow and full of tight twists and turns but it's my favourite part of the drive, up over the mountain to burst out of the rainforest at Comboyne atop a high plateau of lush dairy farms and views all the way to the coast. Home is a short and easy 10-kilometre run down the hill.

Funnily enough, the trip heading north is always much more enjoyable than the identical one heading south. Perhaps it's because I'm coming home.

visitnsw.com.

Lee Atkinson is the author of On the Road: 40 Great Driving Holidays in Australia and Caravanning Australia: 50 Great Destinations.