Beauty with a steely soul

Explorers tried to land at Wollongong and failed. Bruce Elder takes an easier approach and is surprised by what he finds.

When Captain Cook sailed the east coast and passed what would later become the site of Wollongong, he noted: "We found that we no where could effect a landing by reason of the great Surf which beat everywhere upon the shore ... In the wood were several Trees of the Palm kind, and no under wood; and this was all we were able to observe from the boat." Surf, palm trees and open land - a subtropical paradise.

By the 1840s, a local mill manager's daughter was describing the region as an exotic rainforest. "From Wollongong to Jamberoo, the road was a mere day track through a forest of tropical foliage; gum trees 200 [feet] or more in height, gigantic india-rubber trees with broad shining green leaves, lofty cabbage palms, and many other kinds of tree towered above us, so that their tops made a twilight canopy, unpenetrable to the sunlight, save for an infrequent clearing in the forest made by the settler's axe."

Then came coalmining and the iron and steel industries, and the perception of the region changed to that of a big, industrial, smelly city.

Generations of Australians have locked in an image of so-called "dark satanic mills" without including the staggeringly beautiful view of beaches and ocean from the appropriately named Sublime Point, or the simple fact that, like all major cities, Wollongong now has genuinely fine dining and enough attractions to ensure the most discriminating visitor can spend days exploring the region's charms.

Attractions stretch from the city's northern beaches, which entranced author D.H. Lawrence, to the rugged woodland on the edge of the escarpment that hides such treasures as the Wombarra Sculpture Garden; from elegant Botanic Gardens (larger than Sydney's) to an excellent art gallery's unique collection of great Australian artists (all of whom painted the south coast); and from the Science Centre, with its interactive play area for children and its world-class planetarium, to the grounds of the University of Wollongong, which must surely have the finest gardens of any Australian university.

The entry point

Mount Ousley Road is one of the busiest entry points to the city but for "best entry" the argument shifts north to a tug-of-war between Sublime Point and Stanwell Tops. Both areas are linked by road to the Southern Freeway.

Sublime Point, overlooking Wollongong's northern suburbs, offers dramatic vistas from the southern edges of the Royal National Park south to Saddleback Mountain behind Kiama. The view of central Wollongong, with both its steelworks and Port Kembla harbour, and the city's northside beaches, is dynamic.

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Equally impressive is Stanwell Tops, where the view south, often with hang-glider enthusiasts floating on the thermals above the beach, is characterised by sheer cliff faces and waves crashing against dark rock platforms. The drive south from Stanwell Tops includes the Sea Cliff Bridge and a superb coast road, which winds between the escarpment and the ocean's edge.

Wombarra Sculpture Garden

Driving via Stanwell Tops and winding through the old mining villages of Coalcliff and Scarborough, the traveller arrives at Morrison Avenue, which runs off Lawrence Hargrave Drive and leads to Gaye Porter's Wombarra Sculpture Garden. The garden is open today and tomorrow.

It took Porter four years, from 1997-2001, to turn this piece of rainforest into a wonderland of paths where the visitor can view, and reflect on, about 60 works by Porter and other artists. The materials used range from local stone to bronze, ceramic (some delightful bird sculpture is hidden among ferns), ceramic mosaics, steel, concrete and local timber. Porter estimates all the works can be viewed in an hour but says many visitors stay for the day. There are plenty of seats, coffee and cake is served and visitors are welcome to have a contemplative picnic in the bushland.

Wombarra Sculpture Garden, 57 Morrison Avenue. Open on the first weekend of each month, 10.30am-4.30pm. Entry $8 an adult, children free. See wombarra.com.

D.H. Lawrence's Thirroul

Some of Wollongong's best-kept secrets include the suburbs of Bulli, Thirroul and Austinmer, where unspoilt beaches offer excellent surf.

A unique literary experience can be had at Thirroul, too. In the early 1920s, the English author D.H. Lawrence stayed in Thirroul and wrote Kangaroo, with its memorable evocation of the NSW coast: "He liked the sea, the pale sea of green glass that fell in such cold foam. Ice-fiery, fish-burning. He went out on to the low flat rocks at low tide, skirting the deep pock-holes that were full of brilliantly clear water and delicately coloured shells and tiny, crimson anemones. Strangely sea-scooped sharp sea-bitter rock floor, all wet and sea-savage."

Lawrence was describing the rock platform and beach below his temporary home, the amusingly named Wyewurk, which still sits on a low headland at the south end of Thirroul Beach. Wyewurk is a private home and is not open to the public. Still, it's easy to experience the magic of Thirroul and get a glimpse into Lawrence's life by driving along Craig Street and walking along the public parkland at the street's southern end to the rocks below.

Wollongong Science Centre and Planetarium

In two decades, the centre has grown from a planetarium run by enthusiastic amateurs to one of the best hands-on science experiences in the state, run as an adjunct to the University of Wollongong.

There are two floors of exhibits including Foucault's Pendulum, a working beehive, a gyroscope in a suitcase, an underground mine model and dinosaurs, which move and roar. The adjacent planetarium has a full dome where visitors can gaze at the planets and galaxies.

As well, there are impressive laser concerts and a movie about the history of natural selection that, amusingly, includes a cave man with an electric guitar. The science shows in the centre's Science Theatre vary; recent ones include a lecture on the properties of water from a visiting Cambridge University scientist and a show exploring the properties of sound and music.

Wollongong Science Centre and Planetarium, Northfields Avenue, open 10am-4pm daily. Entry $12 an adult, $8 a child. Planetarium, science shows and laser show are an extra $4. See sciencecentre.uow.edu.au.

Wollongong Botanic Garden

On 28 hectares next to the University of Wollongong, the Botanic Garden, apart from extensive lawns and fine floral displays, boasts a rare all-abilities playground where people restricted to wheelchairs can happily get lost in a true rarity: a maze built for disabled people. Ideal for a picnic - there are extensive grounds and cool retreats under large trees - the landscape includes a herb garden, flowering trees and shrubs, open forests, grasslands featuring dry and wet sclerophyll forest plants from the east coast, a sandstone collection highlighting the heath plants found in the Illawarra and Shoalhaven, an impressive succulent mound, dryland area and a rainforest community that includes a stand of Illawarra rainforest with 80 species of trees and 15 of ferns.

An indigenous garden, which will feature both bush tucker and plants used for medicinal purposes, is being developed. In the south-west corner of the gardens is Gleniffer Brae Manor House, built in 1938 by the Hoskins family (of early steelworks fame). It is closed to the public but is still a remarkable celebration of the fine art of bricklaying.

Wollongong Botanic Garden, Murphys Avenue, Keiraville, open 7am-5pm weekdays and until 6.45pm on weekends. Entry is free. See wollongong.nsw.gov.au/botanicgarden.

Wollongong City Gallery

Many regional galleries house significant collections of Australian artists. The extraordinary quality of Wollongong's is that the artists all painted the local area. Conrad Martens, the great painter of Sydney Harbour, also painted Illawarra Lake. The work is held in the gallery.

The late Margaret Olley used to holiday at Era in the Royal National Park and a painting she did of the area, Era Landscape, is in the gallery. Add to the list works by Arthur Boyd, Ian Fairweather, Tony Tuckson, Lloyd Rees, Eugene von Guerard, Sali Herman and Grace Cossington Smith's sublime The Sea at Thirroul. The gallery also contains works by Arthur Streeton, Margaret Preston, Joy Hester, John Brack, Jeffrey Smart, Desiderius Orban and Brett Whiteley.

Wollongong City Gallery, Burelli Street, City, open 10am-5pm, Tuesday to Friday; noon-4pm at weekends. Entry is free. See wollongongcitygallery.com.

Wollongong is an hour's drive from Sydney CBD via the Princes Highway/Southern Freeway. CityRail's Eastern Suburbs-Illawarra Line has frequent daily services.