Boulevard of dreams

On Sawtell's First Avenue, Daniel Scott is seduced by the village's energy and charm.

I first visited Sawtell on a chilly Wednesday evening a year ago. After checking into a bed and breakfast, I rugged up and sauntered on to its main street, First Avenue, in search of dinner.

I didn't get far, just 100 metres, but it was far enough to find Sawtell defying the typical winter hibernation of a coastal town. At the centre of the broad street, on a median strip known as ''the plot'', several elephantine fig trees were ablaze with lights. On either side of the street, people drank and ate under outdoor heaters on the footpath. A convivial babble seemed to spread from one bar or restaurant to the next.

Unable to decide which of three eateries was best - Barrels Bistro, Taste restaurant or Fig - I tried them all, eating a course in each. Everywhere I went the food was excellent and the locals welcoming. It felt like Christmas in the middle of the year.

After that trip I raved to my partner, Sarah, about Sawtell. We've since visited twice and she's been equally taken with the seaside village, south of Coffs Harbour.

We're not the only ones impressed by Sawtell. A survey last year by the University of New England, which assessed a raft of important amenities, proclaimed it the most desirable place to move to in NSW.

If I had to envisage my ideal coastal town, Sawtell would come close to fitting the bill. The appeal begins with its setting. It sits behind an expansive ocean beach framed by lumpy headlands, with protected creeks curling seaward at either end. Long ago this area drew the Kumbaingeri Aborigines, who called it Bongil Bongil, which has several translations, including ''long white sands'' or ''place of plenty''. But my favourite, reflecting its geographical beauty and its reliable food supply, is ''place where one stayed a long time''.

It was a developer with some vision, Ossie Sawtell, who saw a chance to create the ''Manly of the North'' in the 1920s on coastal land he had bought here for just £500. Construction of the town's First Avenue began on the beach's back dune. After the street's west side was completed, Sawtell, who owned the entire eastern section, set the buildings back by a road width to give space for a central garden strip.

It's this boulevard-like main street, lined with cafes, restaurants, knick-knack shops, an original art deco cinema and a decent pub, that is Sawtell's focal point. But it's the central hilii fig trees (ficus microcarpa), planted in 1946 and now heritage-listed, that define First Avenue.

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''It's unique; it's what makes the town,'' says Margaret Bond, of Sawtell's historical society. ''The trees are the embroidery.''

First Avenue is the site for next Saturday's annual Sawtell Chilli Festival. ''It's been going 12 years now and it's become amazingly popular,'' says the chamber of commerce president, Leigh Martin. ''Last year we had 60 chilli-related stalls, including one exhibitor who came from Perth, and about 8000 visitors.'' This year, the festival warms up with a chilli-eating competition, live music and a drumming workshop before getting steamy with a Latin dance night at Sawtell RSL.

It's typical of Sawtell to conjure celebration out of midwinter. But even on an average June weekend it's humming, as I discover on my fourth visit a fortnight ago. Hoping for a break from incessant rain, I've driven the family north again and, miraculously, as we near Sawtell, the clouds part and it stays fine for the rest of our stay.

We begin with dinner at booked-out Fig restaurant. Our two-year-old grazes on fish and chips while we tuck into a sizzling garlic prawn pot and soft-shell crab in tempura. The ambience at Fig is a rare combination of refined and relaxed and the staff remain unflappably sweet with our small children throughout. Our main courses - twice-cooked crispy duck breast and ocean trout - and desserts - pannacotta and a wickedly rich hot-chocolate pudding - are delicious.

The next morning we're back on bustling First Avenue for an alfresco breakfast at Split cafe. As we linger over dukka-spiced poached eggs and chat to the cafe's owner, who is from Canberra, we find a pattern emerging. Many of Sawtell's eateries are run by relatively new arrivals, emigres from Victoria, New Zealand and Canada.

For the remainder of a sunny winter Sunday we stretch our legs on the beach and spend time at the playground and kiosk at the Boambee Creek Reserve, just north of town. At twilight we're drawn back to First Avenue, to the live music at Barrels Bistro. Again the restaurant is fully booked and we're impressed by how well our children are catered for in such circumstances, with boxes of toys to play with and paper tablecloths to scrawl on.

On our last morning we find a grandstand view at the Surf Club Cafe. Set on a grassy reserve behind Sawtell beach and serving good food and fresh juices, it's the sort of cafe where you could dwell all day.

But, for me, there is one more perspective to experience - the view of Sawtell from above. I head five minutes up the road to Coffs Harbour Airport - the regional hub's proximity is another drawcard for Sawtell - and climb aboard a helicopter for a short ''coastal experience'' flight.

From 300 metres up, I look down on a barrelling swell assailing the craggy coastline and behind it, resplendent in the winter sun, I see Ossie Sawtell's dream of the ''Manly of the North'' spreading out neatly from First Avenue.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW and Sawtell Chamber of Commerce.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The drive from Sydney to Sawtell takes about seven hours. Virgin Blue flies daily from Sydney to Coffs Harbour from $99 one-way.

Touring there

The Sawtell Chilli Festival is on Saturday, July 3, 10am-4pm; see www.sawtellchillifestival.com.au.

Precision Helicopters has scenic coastal flights from $80 a person. On weekends in late July there are tours to nearby South Solitary Island and its lighthouse. Phone 6652 9988, see www.precisionhelicopters.com.au.

Staying there

Creekside Inn B&B has rooms for two from $150 (off-season), including breakfast. At 59 Boronia Street, phone 6658 9099, see www.creeksideinn.com.au.

Sawtell Motor Inn, 20 metres from First Avenue, has spacious rooms from $120. At 57 Boronia Street, phone 6658 9872, see www.sawtellmotorinn.com.au.

Eating there

Barrels Bistro, 23 First Avenue, open Tues-Sun from 5pm, phone 6658 8255.

Taste restaurant, 11 First Avenue, dinner Wed-Sat from 6pm, phone 6658 3583.

Fig restaurant, corner First Avenue and Boronia Street, open Tues-Sun from 5pm, phone 6658 3638.

Shimmers On First, 18 First Avenue, open daily 7.30am-5pm, phone 6653 1099.

Split Cafe, 4 First Avenue, open daily 7.30am-5pm.

The Surf Club Cafe, Fourth Avenue, open daily 9am-2.30pm.

For more information: www.sawtellnsw.com.au; www.visitnsw.com.

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