Daniel Scott surveys the state's best houseboating holidays.
Some of my most memorable holidays have been on houseboats, floating on tranquil waterways such as the Hawkesbury and Myall Lakes. They're close to home but feel a million miles away.
Autumn and early winter are the ideal time to cruise, with morning mists clearing to reveal crisp blue skies, mirror-like reflections and no other boats in sight.
Houseboaters are spoilt for choice in NSW. From long, broad rivers such as the Murray in the south to the sheltered creeks and inlets of the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park near Sydney, to extensive coastal lake systems on the north coast, a cruising holiday will transport you through unforgettable landscapes. Here are the state's best places to cruise:
The Murray is the world's third-longest navigable river after the Nile and the Amazon. Although it spans three states (including Victoria and South Australia), its waters are under NSW jurisdiction. Stricken by drought for years, the river is now in full, glorious flow. There are three houseboating centres on the NSW part of the river: in Moama, Wentworth and Buronga, opposite Mildura. From Moama you can cruise downstream to Echuca, with its pioneering history, and drift past river red gums. Magic Murray Houseboats at Moama has a May-September special - a week's houseboat hire for the weekend price; 12-berth boats cost $2195 (1800 356 483; magicmurrayhouseboats.com.au).
From Wentworth it's possible to explore the Murray, visiting wineries and the riverside Gol Gol pub, as well as the Darling, where you can escape from it all. Sunraysia Houseboats has 10- and 12-berth boats from $1900 for four nights in May-September (03 5027 3621; sunraysiahouseboats.com).
At Mildura, there are several houseboating companies with moorings on the Murray's NSW side. Among these are Adventure Houseboats (03 5023 4787; adventurehouseboats.com.au), with a fleet of new, eco-friendly vessels (May-August specials, extra night free), and Willandra Houseboats (1800 800 842; willandrahouseboats.com.au), with six deluxe spa houseboats (family packages for two adults and two children cost from $1500 for four nights).
South coast: Clyde and Shoalhaven rivers
On the south coast you can cruise on the Clyde River from Batemans Bay or explore the Shoalhaven, near Nowra.
The Clyde's meandering course is navigable for 38 kilometres and is surrounded by the Boyne, Currowan and Shallow Crossing state forests.
The historic river port of Nelligen is within easy reach. Clyde River Houseboats has eight- and 10-berth houseboats from $1000 and $1100 for weekend hire in May-September (4472 6369; clyderiverhouseboats.com.au).
Bay River Houseboats has eight- and 10-berth boats for $620 and $700 for hire from Friday-Monday in May-August (4472 5649; bayriverhouseboats.com.au).
On the Shoalhaven, Getaway Houseboats, near Nowra, has low-season three-night weekend rentals on its 12-berth vessel for $1600 (4421 4164; www.houseboatsonshoalhaven.com.au).
Given that Sydney is so close, houseboating on the Hawkesbury brings with it a miraculous sense of peace and isolation. Picking up a boat from Brooklyn enables you to explore the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury and the fiord-like creeks of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Surrounded by steep, wooded banks, the inlets at Yeomans Bay, Smiths Creek and America are particularly serene. For a gourmet treat, there are top-notch waterside restaurants to visit, such as Peats Bite at Sunny Corner (9985 9040; peatsbite.com.au), the Cottage Point Inn (9456 1011; cottagepointinn.com.au) and the Waterview (9456 2633; berowrawaters.net/waterview.asp) at Berowra Waters.
With Aboriginal cave paintings, walking tracks and hilltop vistas accessible by dinghy on Ku-ring-gai's shores and with rich settlement history around Wisemans Ferry, the Hawkesbury promises a complete houseboating holiday. Boat hire is available at Akuna Bay (9450 0000; relaxationboathire.com.au), Brooklyn, Lower Portland (4575 4099; paradiseafloat.com) and Wisemans Ferry (1800 024 979; ablehouseboats.com.au).
Luxury Afloat Houseboats at Brooklyn has 10-metre vessels sleeping six from $850 (10-berth boats are $1280) for a Friday-to-Sunday weekend hire in May-October (9985 7344; luxuryafloat.org).
Central coast: Brisbane Water
To the north of the Hawkesbury, at Brisbane Water, Central Coast Houseboat Holidays has a 10-berth craft for six people for $849, rising to $1249 for 10 people for a two-night weekend hire in low season. Houseboats depart from Gosford and cruise south to Hardys Bay and Ettalong's beaches and waterside restaurants (4343 1195; houseboathols.com.au).
If straying too far from civilisation makes you nervous, then houseboating on Lake Macquarie, south of Newcastle, could be the answer. With the vineyards of the Hunter less than an hour's drive away, cruising the lake offers the chance to stock (and restock) the on-board fridge with wines straight from the cellar door.
Nor are supermarkets far away, with 90 communities including Swansea, Belmont and Toronto grouped around Lake Macquarie. It's easy to pop ashore to a waterfront eatery at Toronto or clubs such as the Belmont 16ft Sailing Club and the Wangi Workers Club. Also at Wangi, art lovers can visit the home of painter Sir William Dobell (open 1-4pm weekends, $8 adults, 4975 4115; dobellhouse.org.au).
At more than four times the size of Sydney Harbour and with 174 kilometres of foreshore, it isn't hard to find uncrowded bays at Lake Macquarie, particularly in its south-western corner. Boats are available from Lake Macquarie Houseboats, which has a three-night weekend hire on a 10-berth houseboat for $1700 until June 30 (4975 5381; lakemacquariehouseboats.com.au). Lake Macquarie Luxury Houseboats has a 10-metre houseboat for $1050 for a two-night weekend hire until September (4956 6266).
Known for its blue bays, coastal beaches and bottlenose dolphins, Port Stephens is a great spot for a houseboating holiday. From pick-up point at Lemon Tree Passage on the Tilligerry Peninsula, you can cruise around the inner bay stopping at seductive spots such as Wander Beach and Little Salamander. Also accessible further inland are sheltered Fame Cove and the Karuah River. There are more than 65 species of birds around the bay and the Tilligerry Peninsula offers excellent odds of spotting koalas.
Port Stephens Boat Hire has an eight-berth houseboat from $850 for a three-day, two-night weekend, May-September (4982 4559; portstephensboathire.com.au).
The Myall Lakes coastal system - Myall, Broadwater and Boolambayte - within the Myall Lakes National Park, has 130 kilometres of waterways to explore by houseboat.
Cradled between high coastal dunes and flatter sands to the west, these fresh-brackish lakes are ringed by sheltered beaches and secluded anchorages. Good mooring spots include Violet Hill (where there's a campsite with facilities), Shelly Beach and Kataway Bay.
If you feel like dining out, the Myall Shores nature resort (1300 769 566; myallshores.com.au) at Bombah Point has a restaurant. But with the profusion of catchable bream, mullet and flathead in the lakes it shouldn't be necessary.
The national park is noted for its colonies of black swans and other waterbirds. Going ashore for a bushwalk among the forests of paperbarks and casuarinas fringing the lakes adds another dimension to a floating holiday. But even if you do nothing but cruise, Myall Lakes will deliver delicious isolation and spectacular reflected sunrises and sunsets.
Two Bulahdelah-based companies - Luxury Houseboat Hire (4997 4380; luxuryhouseboat.com.au) and Getaway Luxury Houseboats (1800 620 202; getawayluxuryhouseboats.com.au) have 10-berth houseboats for weekend hire in May-September for $900.
As a nearby alternative to cruising on Myall Lakes, this 23-kilometre-long, nine-kilometre-wide waterway, spreading behind Forster-Tuncurry, has much to offer. It encompasses 27 islands, including one that's a pelican rookery, several navigable rivers lead off it and it's flanked by the Booti Booti and Wallingat national parks.
On its eastern shore is a four-kilometre bushwalking track, the Green Cathedral bush church and the Lakeside cafe and boatshed for a lazy brunch (6554 0309). Further south you can come ashore for drinks and a bistro meal at the Pacific Palms Recreation Club (6554 0207; pprc.com.au). For on-board dining, pick up some succulent Wallis Lake oysters from Forster.
Forster Luxury Houseboats has six- and 10-berth vessels available for two-night weekend hire for $750 and $1100 in May-September (6554 7733; forsterluxuryhouseboats.com.au).
Mid-north coast: Macleay, Nambucca and Clarence rivers
Based in Kempsey, Macleay River Houseboats has vessels with which you can explore the Macleay River valley up as far as South-West Rocks. Customised for two people, they cost $400 for two-night weekends in low season (6562 3399; macleayriverhouseboats.com.au).
Further north, Nambucca River Houseboats has eight-berth houseboats for $500 for three-night weekends in May-September (6569 4055; nambuccariverhouseboats.com). Departing from Nambucca Heads, you travel inland, often with dolphins for company, towards Macksville. The Clarence River valley has 350 kilometres of waterways between Yamba at its mouth and Grafton upstream. Brushgrove-based Clarence Riverboats has five-berth houseboats for weekend hire for $850 in May-September (6647 6232; clarenceriverboats.com.au).
North coast: Tweed River
Navigable for 60 kilometres into NSW to beyond Murwillumbah, the Tweed is at its best in winter, as still as a lake and with superb sunsets over Mount Warning. Among the places to stop are Chinderah, where's there a pub; Dodds Island for mud crabbing; and the nature reserve on Stotts Island, with 160 hectares of subtropical rainforest and 47 bird species.
Weekend houseboaters usually reach picturesque Tumbulgum, stopping for a drink at its 1887-built tavern.
Three NSW-based companies hire out houseboats on the Tweed: Tweed River Houseboat Hire (6676 6227; tweedriverhouseboathire.com.au); Berger Houseboat Holidays (07 5524 3222; bergerhouseboats.com.au); and Boyds Bay Houseboats (1800 468 732; goldcoasthouseboats.com). The latter has a luxury 12-berth vessel with rooftop spa for $1400 for three-night weekends in May-September.