In the 1940s, my grandfather, like so many other returned servicemen, built a fibro beach house at The Entrance so his kids could enjoy long, hot summers by the ocean. Thirty years ago on the Coast exotic gourmet heights were scaled at the local Chinese restaurant, we were thrilled when the carnival came to town and the RSL was for entertainment and meat tray raffles.
However gorgeous the beaches were – and still are – a reputation for daggyness lingered.
How things change. In the past couple of years, the winds of transformation have been blowing in along the Coast, bringing with them a five-star resort, cool gallery spaces, newsworthy authentic Mexican, vintage upcycled threads, floral artistry, and fine dining to rival the best of big cities.
For the foodies
Egypt will always have the Pyramids, and the Coast will always have fish'n'chips and Chinese takeaway. What it also has now is an exciting influx of knowledgeable and passionate chefs and restaurateurs who love the relaxed beachy lifestyle as much as they love their marinated pork belly and kale salad.
How's the serenity? Book well in advance for an outside table with a sweeping sea view at The Cowrie Restaurant (thecowrie.com.au) in Terrigal. Recognised as one of the best seafood restaurants in NSW (and the nation), The Cowrie sets a high bar for the coast with fine dining, seven days a week for lunch and dinner. The seasonal fixed-price lunch menu is good value at $48 for two courses, or $58 for three courses, including a glass of wine. Thumbs up to the gulf prawns in crisp golden noodles with chilli lime caramel entree. Carnivores are also well-catered for, with innovative beef, pork and chook main course options. The complimentary organic sourdough bread from La Tartine could weaken the strongest carb-exclusion zone.
Owners of The Cowrie also operate another seafood star on the Coast: Ocean Restaurant at Blue Bay (oceanrestaurant.com.au). The absolute oceanfront view is as impressive as the well-rounded menu, which offers a la carte and fixed price options. The mussel and shellfish chowder might be worth a daytrip up the coast.
At Four Hands Pizza Bar & Grill (fourhandspizza.com.au) in Terrigal, you won't find a ham and pineapple pizza or a VB on the menu. What you will find is innovative woodfired pizza, an all-Australian craft beer and cider list and tasty tapas bites. Opened just over a year ago, the bar and grill is doing a roaring trade with its flavoursome peking duck, braised lamb and pork knuckle pizzas.
The Entrance Lake House (theentrancelakehouse.com.au) has brought a touch of class to the quaint lakeside town known for its daily pelican feeding and ample fishing trove. A tasteful renovation of a heritage building at the water's edge became home to the Lake House when it opened three Christmases ago. Fine-dining options, elegant rooms for high tea and a serene outlook set this venue apart. Open Wednesday-Sunday for brunch, lunch and dinner.
An innovative Mexican kitchen on the Coast? You bet. Forget cheesy Tex-Mex nachos, at the unassuming Hernando's Hideaway (corner Hutton and Hargraves streets, The Entrance North; 0424 746 321, no website) enjoy crisp fish tacos, nachos served with pico de gallo and succulent pulled pork, or the signature chicken chorizo quesadilla and much more. Sodas imported from Mexico and a well-edited dessert menu (do not skip the salted caramel slice) round out the offerings at this promising new establishment. Open 6 days, 11am-4pm; closed on Tuesday.
For the shoppers
Over the past two years, Long Jetty has emerged as a shopping destination for lovers of vintage, upcycled and bespoke wares as a dozen new stores have opened their doors. Don't miss Beautiful Garbage, Long Road Home and Webster's Vintage.
Dapper Darlings Vintage (cool website and online store at dapperdarlingsvintage.wordpress.com) has covetable upcycled, hipster and vintage clothing for ladies and gents, as well as unique gifts including boho bling rings and Australian small-batch men's grooming products from Uppercut Deluxe.
A few doors down, The Sound Exchange Record Bar (+61 405 261 696; no website) specialises in rare and hard-to-find vinyl, cassettes and old-school hi-fi equipment. The biggest record store on the Coast.
Also on the Long Jetty strip and open less than two years, Octopus' Garden (+61 497 082 748; octopusgarden.net.au) is much more than a flower shop. Floral artistry goes some way to describing the wares on display, though with bright bouquets spilling out of oversized ice-cream cones and cactus gardens arranged inside vintage TVs, these words don't capture the full wow factor.
Refuel at espresso bar and locals' favourite restaurant The Glass Onion Society (+61 2 4326 1650; no website). While you're there, take a look at the adjoining gallery space, where the works of local artists are proudly displayed for sale.
Drinks with a view
At Florida Beach Bar (floridabeachbar.com.au) you'll find a younger crowd and sweeping views of Terrigal Beach. One of the largest open-air dining areas on the Coast has recently become more family-friendly, and the proximity to Terrigal and Wamberal beaches can't be beat.
For cocktails and satisfying pub fare, check out the recently refurbed deck space at The Entrance Hotel (theentrancehotel.com.au). The hotel's kitchen scored 17/20 in the SMH Good Pub Food Guide for its dishes including Thai fish cakes served with Asian slaw and kale and goats cheese salad. Not the place for cheap charlies – $26 for fish and chips and $22 for pot pie – the kitchen turns out confident, elegant nosh in a pub environment.
Shelly Beach Surf Club (shellybeachsurfclub.com) lays claim to one of the most awesome, uninterrupted ocean views on the Coast. A recent minimalist renovation to the clubhouse and event space has opened up the view and created an al fresco bar area. The bar opens on Sunday afternoons for drinks and Friday evenings for dinner.
For the beach-lovers
Rivalling some of the best in the world, the Coast's beaches are worth the trip. Swim laps in the saltwater Olympic-size pool at The Entrance Baths, or splash with the littlies in the adjoining kiddie pool. Enjoy a gentle dip at horseshoe-shaped Toowoon Bay Beach or a more invigorating swim in the open ocean of Shelly Beach. Both are clean, clear and safely patrolled by surf lifesavers. Learn to surf at Terrigal Beach or tackle more challenging breaks at Norah Head.
Depending on which part of Sydney you're leaving from and which town on the coast you're heading for, the Central Coast is a one to two hour drive north of Sydney. Car rental can be arranged at hertz.com.au.
Trains departing from Sydney's Central station service towns along the Coast including Gosford, Woy Woy and Tuggerah (where a connecting bus takes passengers to The Entrance). See sydneytrains.info
Ibis Styles The Entrance opened last month overlooking Tuggerah Lakes. The 52-room purpose-built property is a welcome addition to the coast, adding a much-needed modern accommodation option for travellers and families.
315 Central Coast Highway, The Entrance; +61 2 4336 0400; ibis.com
Hotel Pullman Magenta Shores Resort offers sleek 5-star villa accommodation and resort facilities on the oceanfront at Magenta, 90 minutes north of Sydney (halfway between The Entrance North and Norah Head).The adjoining 18-hole golf course takes full advantage of the unspoilt views. Also at the resort: a luxury day spa, tennis courts, landscaped pool, two restaurants and three bars.
1 Magenta Drive, Magenta; +61 2 4352 8100; pullmanhotels.com
Be prepared to be swept away by the sensational cliff-top views from Sirocco, a private Mediterranean-style home in Terrigal. Offered for the first time for holiday letting, the house sleeps eight and is priced from $475-$1000 per night. Location is king here, with a prized spot on the tip of the headland affording unobstructed views of the ocean.
30 Scenic Highway, Terrigal; +61 2 4385 9564; accomholidays.com
C'est La Vie, a covetable designer beach house set upon the sand at Wamberal, complete with two guest pavilions and a swimming pool, can be yours for $800-$1600 per night.
51 Ocean View Dr, Wamberal; +61 2 4385 9564; accomholidays.com