Australia often gets ribbed for having indecipherable slang, an impenetrably twangy dialect and silly-sounding place names. Nothing could be more true of the Illawarra region – an hour's drive south of Sydney – where the main city of Wollongong is referred to almost exclusively by locals as 'The Gong' and townships are called things like Bulli, Windang and Fairy Meadow.
Easily accessible by road or rail from Sydney, the Illawarra is a string of suburbs flanked by long sandy beaches on one side and thick, mountainous bushland on the other. This is 'real' suburban Australia, where hamburgers have beetroot on them, every service station sells meat pies and hot chips are seasoned with chicken salt.
It's also a place with long-standing indigenous history, and it's this aboriginal heritage to which the Illawarra owes many of its unique place names. Indigenous tribes inhabited the area for millennia – archeological evidence suggests 20,000 years of inhabitance – and many place names and walking trails can be attributed to the Thurawal and Wadi Wadi tribes.
For travelers seeking a relaxed Aussie beach experience, free of crowds and pretense and with affordable accommodation, a self-drive holiday 'down the Illawarra' is a great option. Here are some of the best spots to visit in the Illawarra.
Illawarra Top Spots
- Stanwell Park/Bald Hill
If you're coming from Sydney through the National Park on the scenic Lawrence Hargrave Drive (highly recommended), you'll pass Bald Hill. This is one of the best spots to enjoy a panoramic view of the region and is the area's main hang gliding base (www.hanggliding.com.au). Inexperienced gliders can buy a 30-minute tandem flight.
- Austinmer beach
Part of the historic township of Austinmer, this wide patrolled beach has two rock pools and a grassy shaded strip for picnics. Framed by Norfolk Pines and with toilets and change facilities and cafés nearby, it's popular with day-visitors from Sydney.
- Wollongong Harbor and beaches
Wollongong is the region's largest city, but its allure is out of the city center, along the coastline. There are two main beaches here: North Beach and South Beach, the former more popular with bathers and volleyball players, the latter more of a surfing spot.
- Botanic Garden
West of Wollongong, adjacent to the university, this peaceful spot includes duck ponds, rainforest trails, a rose garden, glass house, Japanese tea house and various native plant species.
- Port Kembla beach
Of the Illawarra's dozens of beaches, Port Kembla beach has to be in the top 3. Repeat winner of the Clean Beach Challenge award for NSW, this long sandy beach has been meticulously maintained by locals, and boasts a free saltwater pool, a kiosk, a lifeguard club, signs in multiple languages and a picturesque promenade. At 6.6 kilometers, there's plenty of space for everyone.
- Nan Tien Temple
The biggest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere attracts both local and international tourists. The venue is a popular meditation and monastic retreat, with T'ai Chi classes, vegetarian cooking classes and courses in Chinese culture, but many just come to appreciate the architecture. (nantien.org.au)
- Wollongong City Gallery
Indigenous, Asian and contemporary art, plus local and international exhibitions are on display in this small city center gallery.
- Bushrangers Bay
A protected cove close to the city of Shellharbour, this is a popular local diving and snorkeling spot. The two sections of the bay offer intertidal rock pools with kelp forests and smaller sea creatures such as nudibranchs and anemones, while the deep end of the bay houses an abundant array of fish species.
- The Blowhole and Kiama Historic Township
A rock formation along the rocky shoreline of Kiama, the Blowhole earned its name for shooting plumes of sea foam into the air and onto spectators. Though erosion has lessened the Blowhole's frequency, it still erupts several times per day. Kiama is a pleasant town to visit in its own right, with boutique arts and crafts stores, restaurants and cafés, pretty parks and nine beaches.
- Minnamurra Falls
For a glimpse of Australian rainforest, Minnamurra rainforest offers a walking track through national parkland to the two-tiered Minnamurra Falls waterfall. A visitor center and picnic area make it a complete day for families and nature lovers.
- Jamberoo Recreation Park
Families with children will appreciate this water theme park with various waterslides, an artificial beach and wave pool, a bobsled, a kiddie pool, mini golf, go karts and a variety of souvenir shops and food outlets. jamberoo.net