(CNN) — While it’s possible to fly from Melbourne and Sydney in an hour and even drive the 878 kilometers in a (long) day, inland via the Hume Highway, there’s a far more captivating way to journey between the Victoria and New South Wales state capitals.
Taking a few days to follow the coastal route offers hundreds of kilometers of wild Australian beaches, backed by expansive waterways and swathes of littoral forest.
With inviting seaside towns and restaurants serving world-class meals interspersed along the way, it’s a route that’s made for leisurely road trips.
Here’s a look at the itinerary CNN Travel experienced during a seven-day drive from Melbourne to Sydney, which gives a sampling of the area’s many scenic, cultural and culinary offerings.
Leaving Melbourne in the afternoon, we begin our journey with a two-hour drive to the Mornington Peninsula wine region, checking into the much-touted Jackalope hotel and vineyard (166 Balnarring Rd, Merricks North; +61 3 5931 2500), where Range Rovers crowd the car park.
Opened in early 2017 by young Melbourne entrepreneur Louis Li, the five-star property has a modernist, alchemistic design, with test tube displays in the lobby area and a striking light globe installation bubbling across the ceiling of restaurant Doot Doot Doot.
Clad mostly in black and staffed by young hipsters, Jackalope has the feel of an upmarket nightclub and isn’t the most comfortable place to lay your head, partly due to its blancmange-like beds.
But it scores for its innovative food and loving approach to wine, with learned sommeliers delivering sermons on each glass paired with dishes on the restaurant’s tasting menu.
Flocks of pelicans and black swans can be spotted along the shores of Gippsland Lakes.
The next morning, after a four-hour drive, we pull up outside Sardine, on the esplanade at Paynesville, in Victoria’s Gippsland Lakes.
“Do you mind if I just send out a few dishes?” asks award-winning chef Mark Briggs, who opened Sardine with partner Victoria Hollingsworth, in October 2017.
We emerge two hours later having sampled seven seasonal, locally sourced dishes, each one memorable for its presentation, texture and taste.
Among the delights are zucchini flower with goat’s cheese and honey from nearby Raymond Island, a roast Dory fish fillet with porcini and pearl barley risotto and mussels, and a fall-off-the-fork Beef short rib.
With delectable food matched by knowledgeable service, Sardine (3/69A Esplanade, Paynesville; +61 3 5156 7135) is a smash hit among Gippsland locals and visitors alike.
Sated, we can only manage a cup of tea at the nearby Nicholson River Winery (57 Liddells Rd, Nicholson; +61 409 568 241), set on a bluff above the waterway. However, there’s still much to learn about Australian winemaking and the “Pinot coast” from owner Ken Eckersley.
Our base in East Gippsland is the village of Metung, with its lakeside hotel of the same name — serving above average pub grub — holiday accommodation and convivial cafes. Occupying a spur jutting into the huge lake system, Metung Hotel (Kurnai Avenue, Metung; +61 351 562 206) is an excellent location from which to explore the waterways in a hired boat.
On the second morning, after grabbing breakfast and a take-away lunch from Bancroft Bites café (2/57 Metung Rd, Metung; +61 3 5156 2854), we venture past scrubby islets and flocks of black swan and pelicans, to Barrier Landing, where a sandbar separates the lake from Ninety Mile Beach and the churning Bass Strait.
Even in midsummer, this long beach is empty and bracingly windblown.
Croajingalong National Park
Later that day it’s time to get back on the water, further east, and enjoy a twilight cruise through the twisting Mallacoota Inlet, on the MV Loch Ard, a former ferry built in 1910.
Skippered by abalone diver Dale Winward, who grew up locally, this is a serene journey along the inlet’s creeks and “narrows,” their shores covered in the temperate forests of Croajingalong National Park, and includes handfeeding two sea eagles off the back of the boat.
Next morning, after spending the night overlooking the inlet at Gipsy Point (35 MacDonald St, Gipsy Point; +61 3 5158 8205), we take a short, rocky road off the main Princes Highway toward Genoa Peak, where we find a 1.5-kilometer walking track.
It’s a steep uphill trek, and requires scaling three ladders, bolted into the rock, near the summit, but the effort is rewarded with outstanding views over Mallacoota Inlet, Croajingolong National Park and the whole southeastern Victorian coastline.
Into NSW: Eden and Merimbula
Merimbula is one of the first stops after crossing the New South Wales border.
courtesy Dee Kramer Photography
Continuing on the highway, as it curls through coastal forest, we cross the New South Wales border, reaching former whaling town of Eden by lunchtime.
The Eden Killer Whale Museum (184 Imlay St, Eden; +61 2 6496 2094) details the extraordinary symbiotic relationship that evolved between the town’s whalers and a pod of killer whales, during the late 19th and early 20th century. Acting like sheepdogs of the sea, the orcas would round up larger whales and drive them into Twofold Bay, where the whalers processed them for their oil, used for lighting among other things.
In return, the killer whales were thrown the larger baleen species’ tongue and lips, their favorite food.
Journeying further north, we stretch our legs among 77 hectares of billabongs, salt marshes and grassy plains, which draw prolific numbers of waterbirds, at Pambula Wetlands.
Home for the night is at Coast Resort (68/1 Elizabeth St, Merimbula, +61 2 6495 4930) in the likeable seaside town of Merimbula, with dinner at local institution, Wheelers Seafood Restaurant (162 Arthur Kaine Dr, Pambula; +61 2 6495 6330), where we sup on oysters, a flavorsome clam and scallop bouillabaisse and prawn linguine.
Mimosa Rocks National Park
Mimosa Rocks National Park is one of the most beautiful areas on the New South Wales South Coast.
Nick Rains/Destination NSW
Named after a collection of granite boulders encrusted by lichen, Mimosa Rocks National Park enshrines one of the most beautiful parts of the NSW South Coast.
We take in its lagoons and peaceful coves and visit secluded Myer House (44 Penders Rd, Tanja; +61 1300 072 757) — built on the beachfront by Australian retail magnate Kenneth Myer — and Tanja Lagoon Camp (142 Haighs Rd, Tanja; +61 2 6494 0123), a luxury tented accommodation surrounded by grazing kangaroos.
After stopping off, slightly inland, to do a cheese, fudge and ice-cream tasting tour in the pretty village of Central Tilba, near where TV show “River Cottage Australia” is set, we bed down in a luxurious bush chalet at the Bower Broulee (2352 George Bass Dr, Broulee; +61 2 4471 8666), with birdsong the soundtrack to our stay.
Rick Stein’s Bannisters
Our penultimate day begins with a kayaking tour with Region X Unspoilt Adventures, among the oyster leases on the Clyde River Estuary at Bateman’s Bay. This a paddle-up tasting of giant, creamy bivalve mollusks, at the wharf of Wray Street Oyster shed, where we get the low-down on the business from Jade, a fourth-generation oyster farmer.
An unhurried wine tasting, tour and lunch follows at Cupitt’s Estate (58 Washburton Rd, Ulladulla; +61 2 4455 7888), with its craft brewery, fromagerie and restaurant overlooking Burrill Lake, in seaside Ulladulla.
For our sixth and final night on the road, we check into British chef Rick Stein’s upmarket hotel and restaurant Bannisters By the Sea (191 Mitchell Parade, Mollymook Beach; +61 2 4455 3044), in nearby Mollymook.
The hotel’s restaurant, Bannisters Pavilion, maintains the highest standards for seafood on the NSW South Coast. Presented simply or with an Asian twist, dishes like prawns on ice with mayonnaise and steamed Ulladulla snapper with ginger and soy sauce make for a memorable final feast before our three-hour drive to Sydney the next day.
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