Turns for the better

Lee Atkinson ventures off the Pacific Highway and uncovers some hidden gems on the road between Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour.

The Pacific Highway between Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour is a long stretch of seemingly never-ending roadworks as new sections of the road are under construction. The final upgrade of Highway 1 to dual-lane motorway is still a few years from being finished but the good news is you don't have to wait that long to escape the traffic; some of the north coast's best-kept secrets are just a few minutes off the highway.

Crescent Head

The seaside town of Crescent Head is home to one of the best right-hand surf breaks in the country and a favourite with longboard riders around the world. Here, life is just like it used to be before fishing villages became seaside resorts: just one long beach and a casual, laid-back attitude.

A lunch of fish and chips on the sunny deck at the Crescent Head Tavern followed by coffee and cake at Creso Espresso makes the 15-minute drive from the highway at South Kempsey well worth the effort. macleayvalleycoast.com.au/pages /crescent-head.

South West Rocks

One of my favourite Pacific Highway diversions is the drive along the Macleay River to its mouth at South West Rocks.

At half an hour each way it's a bit of a commitment, but it more than pays off with gorgeous river scenery, eclectic shopping at Gladstone and great views from historic Trial Bay Gaol and Smoky Cape Lighthouse in Arakoon. There are a number of good eating options, including the newly renovated and family-friendly Heritage Hotel at Gladstone, Seabreeze Beach Hotel in the centre of South West Rocks and Trial Bay Kiosk in the shadow of the sandstone gaol. macleayvalleycoast.com.au/pages /south-west-rocks/.

Situated on the river's edge, the views are sublime.

Bowraville

It's not just the Pacific Highway that has bypassed Bowraville, 15 kilometres west of Macksville, but the 21st century as well. Known as the "verandah post town", the main street is lined with wooden shopfronts and overhanging verandahs and is full of old-world charm. If you like history and ferreting around in museums, you could easily lose half a day in Bowraville.

Start at the folk museum - the collection of local artefacts is huge and you'll find everything from beautiful old wedding dresses to the historic contents of the old shire offices. The enthusiastic volunteer guides help bring the memorabilia to life. Next door is Nambucca Valley Phoenix art gallery and cafe, a supported employment service for people who have an intellectual disability. There are four gallery rooms here displaying vibrant pottery and papier mache art - beautiful bowls, platters and sculptures. Across the road is the Frank Partridge VC Military Museum and opposite that is an Aboriginal art gallery and the Nambucca Leather Factory.

The restored theatre is worth a peek, as is the front bar of the Bowra Hotel. nambuccatourism.com.au/pages/bowraville.

Nambucca Heads

Driving along the Pacific Highway can sometimes feel like you're travelling through a good-food wasteland, particularly if you stick to roadhouses and fast food service centres. It doesn't have to be that way. It will take all of two or three minutes to turn off onto Riverside Drive at Nambucca Heads (on the south side of town) and follow the river to the Nambucca Boatshed and Cafe.

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Open from 7.30am until about 5pm, the Watermark Cafe at the boatshed serves excellent coffee, wickedly thick and fruity raisin toast and other breakfast goodies, as well as a fantastic range of light lunches, from fish and chips to salads and no less than six different gourmet burgers.

Situated right on the river's edge, the views are sublime and if all that sparkling sunshine glinting off the water makes you hungry for more, slip next door and hire a tinny or kayak for an hour or so. Beats hanging around at Maccas any day. nambuccaboatshed.com.au.

Urunga

Technically Urunga is on the Pacific Highway but there's not much to see as you drive through and it's tempting to dismiss it as just another featureless town whose only claim to fame is the Honey Place, a giant beehive-shaped roadside attraction where you can buy honey and watch bees at work. But invest the two or three minutes it takes to turn off the highway and you'll find a charming village with one of the best over-water boardwalks in the state.

The Kalang and Bellinger rivers converge at Urunga, spilling out into the sea a kilometre from the village, and you can follow the boardwalk along the river and over the dunes to the beach. A second boardwalk leads off into the mangroves of the Urunga Lagoon. At the very least, pull into the Anchors Wharf Cafe and Restaurant beneath the highway bridge for coffee or lunch with a river view. coffscoast.com.au.

Bellingen

The lush farmlands of the Bellinger River valley (10 minutes' drive up the Waterfall Way, about half an hour south of Coffs Harbour) were once covered in great forests of red cedar and rosewood, and Bellingen began as a timber-getting town during the mid-19th century.

The red cedar was soon all gone and the town became the centre of a rich dairying industry.

These days, Bellingen is a lively centre for artists and alternative lifestylers, with an arts centre transforming the old butter factory on the edge of town into a popular tourist attraction with some seriously interesting things being made on site. The historic main street, under its old-fashioned verandahs and shopfronts, is an eclectic mix of cafes, galleries, restaurants and shops, where free-range and organic seems to be the flavour of the day.

Take a wander around town on any given evening and you'll hear everything from bongo drums and brass bands to a cappella choirs; Bello locals are big on music, theatre, reading and writing and just about any other form of artistic expression you can think of and the town is host to a number of musical and literary festivals throughout the year, as well as live music at the pub and numerous halls most weekends. On the third Saturday of each month, the community markets have a wide range of home-grown produce and local arts and crafts and is a great place to pick up a bargain or some interesting valley-made souvenirs. bellingermagic.com.

Sawtell

I'm not sure the locals would entirely appreciate the comparison but sitting at a footpath table sipping coffee and eating cake, watching the passing parade of yummy mummies and well-dressed holidaymakers browse the boutiques on either side of the cafe, I can't help think that Sawtell is the NSW north coast version of Noosa.

Just 15 minutes drive from Coffs Harbour and only five kilometres off the Pacific Highway, the fig-lined main street of this pretty little seaside town is packed with restaurants, cafes, fashion boutiques, quirky homewares stores and day spas. Unlike Noosa, though, there are no traffic jams and prices are affordable. www.sawtellnsw.com.au.

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