Shoalhaven region, NSW: Food the surprising new highlight

"You locals?" It's the bloke behind the counter in the fish shop at Ulladulla asking. He's surprised to see strangers because Fisherman's Wharf Seafoods hides itself at the seaward side of the big industrial barn where the catch is processed. You can't see it from the row of shops along Ulladulla's main drag, which is as far as most visitors get. Wouldn't even know it's there.

We're not, I tell him, but we've been spending holidays in these parts for yonks, and buying our oysters, snapper and blue swimmer crabs here. But no wonder he feels a sense of ownership about his seafood. Tuna off the back of the local fishing fleet is airfreighted direct from here to Japan, to be sliced and diced and presented as bite-sized sashimi morsels. Who could blame him if he wants to make sure his fish is going to a good home?

Four hours south of Sydney, Ulladulla is the working section of the three towns here that have grown tentacles, blurring the division between them, although each has its own character. 

There's Mollymook, the sun, fun and sand part of the equation, sloping down from woodlands and two luscious golf courses to meet the big Pacific rollers that boom and hiss across its beaches. Milton is the original, set on a ridge above green pastures, its handsome sandstone buildings ringed by generous verandahs that hint at colonial origins. Ulladulla is the service centre, the place to press your nose against the real estate agents' windows and dream, and to stroll around the harbour with its fishing fleet and buy fish. 

Natural gorgeousness you can take for granted. To the north is an almost continuous strip of sand – Narrawallee, Buckleys, Conjola – broken only by the occasional inlet or a headland, but there's not too much reason to stray farther than Mollymook Beach.

Drive inland and you leave the well-manicured towns for the enveloping forests and creeks of Morton National Park. To the west is Pigeon House Mountain, rising 720 metres from the forests at its feet. The Didthul walking track takes you to the summit, one of the headliners of the many tough but rewarding hikes over the deeply dissected sandstone plateaus of the Budawang Range. Murramarang National Park is to the south, famous for the eastern grey kangaroos at Pebbly Beach that appear silently from among the banksias and wait to be hand-fed (or plunder picnic baskets). 

Natural wonders are expected, but the surprise in this region is the food scene. Until not too long ago, fine dining took a holiday south of Berry. Then, about a decade back, fish fancier and celebrity TV chef Rick Stein took over the restaurant in Bannisters Hotel on a Mollymook headland and started a revolution. Suddenly, the locals discovered that among their number were some who'd pay $4 for an oyster, and 10 times that for bouillabaisse. 

Ground zero for local dining is Milton, where the pub dishes out wood-fired pizzas with buffalo mozzarella, and Dangerous Ales, made by a microbrewer on the premises. There's fine dining at Small Town Food and Wine, by the couple who created St Isidore, the local gastro-temple regularly voted one of the best restaurants in country NSW. 

In the rolling green hills at the back of town, Cupitt's Estate is a family-owned winery with alfresco dining overlooking the vineyard, and on the aptly named Woodstock Road, the Milk Haus is an urban-cool wholefood cafe in a former cheese factory with a locavore menu. New kid on the block is Gwylo, serving Asian street food, an evolutionary leap for the team behind Mollymook's much-loved Tallwood.

Local knowledge, you see. Take a deep dive here and you'll be surprised what comes up.

Read: Breath by Tim Winton, a meditation on surfing and the intoxicating beauty of the world and life itself when you're young, wild and innocent, and capable of losing yourself to it. 

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale October 11.