As a commuter, I was always captivated by the tranquil landscape of the Hawkesbury River on the otherwise monotonous train journey between the Central Coast and Sydney. For 13 blissful minutes, the busy urban streets and graffiti-covered buildings along the train line were replaced by an almost otherworldly scene unfolding outside the window.
Mobile phone reception waned, causing a literal and metaphorical disconnection as the train snaked its way along the gentle, glass-like river, which is framed by honey-coloured sandstone chasms and thick bushland.
But the Hawkesbury River, which marks the northern edge of Sydney, is so much more than a magical interlude on a dull train trip. The region that surrounds it is rich in Indigenous and colonial history.
The heartland of the Dharug people thanks to its rich soil and clean water (its Aboriginal name, Dyarubbin, means "wide, deep water"), it became a frontier in the conflicts between European settlers and First Nations people. The heritage-listed, convict-built Old Great North Road, which runs through Dharug National Park, is a reminder of these times, as are the charming, well-preserved buildings in historic townships, such as Windsor, located along the river.
While the area today is frequented by boating and fishing enthusiasts, the Hawkesbury remains something of a hidden gem, despite being a quick and easy drive from Sydney. Here are some suggestions of the best things to see and do.
Join the local postie for the day Operating since 1910, the Riverboat Postman delivers mail to isolated settlements upriver from Brooklyn. Visitors can join the daily run, taking in the picturesque scenery and hearing stories from the local skippers while enjoying lunch on board. riverboatpostman.com.au
Follow the harvest trail The Hawkesbury Harvest Trail showcases some of the best foodie experiences, including pick-your-own fruit, farmers' markets, orchards, nut farms and even native bush foods. harvesttrailsandmarkets.com.au
Visit a "shellar door" Operated by third-generation pearl farmers, Broken Bay Pearls is NSW's only pearl farm and its "shellar door" in Mooney Mooney is one of a kind. Join a cruise out to the oyster farms in the lower Hawkesbury, learn about Indigenous pearling and witness live harvesting of the rare Akoya pearl. pearlsofaustralia.com.au
Walk a convict-built road Built by convicts between 1825 and 1836, the Old Great North Road stretches 43 kilometres from Wisemans Ferry to Mount Manning. History buffs can walk a nine-kilometre loop within the Dharug National Park. nationalparks.nsw.gov.au
Berowra Waters Inn This 1920s former tea house was transformed in the '70s by award-winning architect Glenn Murcutt and offers a lauded degustation dining experience. Splash out and fly in by seaplane. berowrawatersinn.com
Cottage Point Inn Once a general store and post office for the river community, then an inn for travellers, this elegant building is now one of the Hawkesbury's favourite restaurants. cottagepointinn.com.au
Hawkesbury River Oyster Shed However you enjoy your oysters, the Hawkesbury River Oyster Shed at Mooney Mooney has you covered. hawkesburyriveroystershed.com
Marramarra Lodge Located at Fishermans Point and accessible only by boat, Marramarra (pictured) offers all-inclusive packages in glamping-style tents and stylish bungalows. marramarralodge.com
Luxury Afloat Have secret beaches and quiet tributaries to yourself aboard a houseboat. Luxury Afloat has vessels that can sleep up to 12 people. luxuryafloat.com
Amaroo Cottage Quaint Amaroo Cottage is located at Bar Point and accessible only by boat. Built in the 1920s, it has unrivalled water views. amaroocottage.com.au
This article appeared in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale March 7.