Is Merimbula the most underestimated seaside getaway in NSW? Could be. The setting is beyond lovely. Lagoons, lakes and waterways blue as peacock feathers are embraced in bushland that rises up hillsides and spritzes the breeze with the scent of eucalyptus. A string of voluptuous beaches allows you to pick from a daily menu of desires: snorkelling off Bar Beach, surfing at Short Point, picking your spot to flop on six-kilometre Main Beach.
And yet Merimbula, 70 kilometres shy of the Victorian border, is far enough from Sydney (six hours) and Melbourne (seven) that it has avoided short-break busyness, unnecessary entertainments and big-city pretensions. Merimbula has Goldilocks size and a laidback country attitude. If you're on a road trip, you think you might spend a night, then get lulled into disgraceful indolence and slink off a week later wondering where time has gone.
The charm is old-fashioned and makes you think of childhood holidays: Boney M on the radio, buckets and spades, Norfolk pines tall as skyscrapers, boiled lollies to break your jaw, salty skin. In a fraught travel era that follows almost two years of end-of-days worries, that retro feeling is very welcome. This is a stress-busting getaway on which to slump over long lunches, paddle at the water's edge, poke at starfish in rock pools, and pop a cork as another sunset splashes the water pink before it goes slouching over the hill in Technicoloured glory.
You can also feel fine by working on your fitness in happy ways that don't involve sweat-smelling gyms and dreary exercise machines. There's swimming, of course. Windsurfing. Hiking the headlands of Bournda or Mimosa national parks. The recently inaugurated Wharf to Wharf walk will take you 27 kilometres north to Tathra if you're up for it.
Head down to Mitchies Jetty and hire a kayak. This is where Merimbula Lake opens to the ocean in a swirl of blue patrolled by pelicans. You skim past a man in a boat, then past a jetty where a fisherman scrapes fish so that his sun-toughened skin twinkles with slivery scales like Mardi Gras glitter. Merimbula is the sum of these happy little moments, on sunny days to the background boom of the surf.
If there's one thing we've learned in recent times, it's to make the most of slow pleasures.
Remember the old days when life wasn't a rush and there was no need to fidget with a phone for fear of missing out? If you've forgotten that in these sped-up times, Merimbula reminds you that, once upon a time, we all got along perfectly well doing the simplest of things.
Watch whales hurrumphing in the ocean. Admire the red rocks poured like cooking dough over the coast at Merimbula Wharf, startling in their burgundy brightness against a sapphire sea. Sit under a jacaranda tree and have a beer. Take a drive without checking where you're going, and see where it takes you. A half-hour inland and you'll be amid the cow-chewed fields of Bega. A half-hour south and you can paddle up the twisting Towamba River in a kayak, serenaded by birdsong.
A day is well spent by simply pootling 15 minutes down the coast to eat oysters at a shack by the side of a lagoon. Your lullaby is the slurp of tide in mangroves and susurration of wind in trees. Your sense of urgency is zero. A half-hour will be extended to a light lunch of Tilba cheese and Eden smoked salmon, and two hours later you'll reluctantly haul yourself away.
Sue McIntyre and Greg Carton have been farming oysters on Lake Pambula for 24 years.
Their Broadwater Oysters on the water's edge is a shed and a boat and a couple of teenagers scrubbing oyster shells for holiday money. You can attend a shuck school and learn how to open oysters with the twist of a knife and a bit of style that will impress people back home.
Broadwater Oysters produces 60,000 dozen a year and you'll want to relieve them of at least one of those dozen, at the price of a couple of oysters in a city cocktail bar.
There is no better way to eat oysters than almost straight from the boat that collected them. They're plump and creamy and delicious the way they are, although everyone will fall to chatting about how they like them best.
Greg likes a pinch of marinated seaweed and wasabi mayonnaise. Sue likes native finger lime, or a splash of rosemary-infused gin and tonic. A visitor confesses to liking oyster sandwiches with butter and a bit of lemon. Nobody argues. Why would you? The day is hot, the shade just right, the lake like a burnished mirror, and oyster shells are added to a clanking pile. What more could anyone want?
Qantas flies direct to Merimbula from both Sydney and Melbourne. See qantas.com
Sapphire Coast Guiding Company organises long hikes such as a three-day guided Wharf to Wharf walk that includes meals, transfers and accommodation. See sapphirecoastguidingco.com.au
Hillcrest Merimbula is a redesigned 1970s motel with dazzling outlooks over town and coastline and a chic swimming pool. Rooms from $149. See hillcrestmerimbula.com
Brian Johnston was a guest of Destination NSW (visitnsw.com)