Palm Beach to Avalon Beach walk (Sydney)

It’s Mum and my third and final day together on the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk so we catch a bus up to the northern terminus at Palm Beach. It’s about 1.5 hours by bus from Manly with a change half way. Today the bus ride gives the sky a chance to clear a bit so that we don’t have to start our walk in the drizzle that is falling when we leave the hotel.
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We disembark from the bus on the harbour side of Palm Beach just south of Barrenjoey Headland. The view out over Pitwater Bay is spectacular. Mum tells me that it reminds her of Greece, which immediately makes me want to add Greece to my ever expanding list of places to visit. The sight of all the yachts moored in the bay conjures up mental images of deck shoes, linen clothes, blue skies, sandy beaches and tangled hair. Having sailed as a child, I know the reality is something different but it’s nice to have these mental images.
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The sand on the shores of Pitwater Bay is hard and easy to walk along. We follow it north towards Barrenjoey Headland.
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At the end of the beach a restored sandstone roadway leads away from the beach and up towards the lighthouse. As always, Sydney’s rocky landscape takes my breath away. It feels so wild and epic to be amongst these small cliff lines and massive boulders.
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We pass the Smugglers Route and follow the restored roadway to the headland instead. It’s incredibly steep! The road simply climbs up without concern for gradient. It’s a good workout.
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With rewarding views of Palm Beach from the top.
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The Barrenjoey Lighthouse is a stunning sandstone structure. It was built in 1881 from sandstone that was quarried onsite. The Smuggler’s Route to the top (which we follow back down the headland) was built in the 1850s to allow local authorities to monitor local waterways for smugglers. You can take tours of the lighthouse on Sundays, which is something I might do in future.
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After a spot of geocaching we descended down the Smugglers Route and walked out onto the seaward-facing Palm Beach. It felt good to take my shoes off and walk along the beach for a short distance feeling the sand between my toes. But only for a short distance. The sand was soft and I have to admit my legs were feeling a bit fatigued from four days of walking so we soon retreated to the path just above the beach.
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One of the things I like about the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk is that it is so civilised. There are many cafés, restaurants and take away shops at which to refuel and enjoy the beach culture. In the past I always scoffed at this type of luxury hiking but now I enjoy a more balanced view, being quite happy to have a mix of roughing it and comfort in my life. We stop for some morning tea treats at a cute place with a view of the beach commenting on how lovely the presentation of the shop and food is.
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No sooner do we leave the café than we are challenged by the next steep climb of the day. Multiple flights of steep rough steps take us up to the top of the headland between Palm Beach and Whale Beach. The path is a narrow old easement between closely spaced houses but it feels quite wild due to the greenery that hugs the rocks.
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We detour briefly from the trail to visit the Biblical Gardens. The gardens are stunning. They have been established and maintained by a local church group and contain a range of biblical and edible plants, such as a fig tree, a Jonas tree and an apple tree. The view north from this gorgeous resting place makes the climb worthwhile. We can see exactly where we’ve walked so far as well as the seascape beyond Barrenjoey Headland.
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The next section of the trail follows steep local roads around the heads. It passes houses with million dollar views and impossibly steep driveways. From the road we look out over Whale Beach and the next headland we will need to cross. Everywhere there are houses perched along the waterfront and headlands, all competing for the best ocean views.
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There are surfers at every beach we pass. The culture is certainly alive and well here on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Men and women of all ages hit the waves under the gaze of the mansions sitting on their manicured lawns.
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There is a seawater pool at the southern end of Whale Beach and, beyond it around the heads, there is this sculpture. I learned about it through the geocaching game and it was worth the extra few hundred meters walking to come here. The sculpture is an old man surrounded by lizards and a turtle. I don’t know how or why the sculpture is there tucked away from most prying eyes. Even a Google search came up blank. But it is a stunning work of art that shows the mystery artist’s skills.
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Back on Whale Beach we stop for lunch under the shade of the pines. We’ve carried some tinned tuna, bread rolls and a Greek salad. I love this sort of picnic where you have simple food on a bench in a park or natural place.
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After lunch we set off on the final leg of today’s walk. Again we have to leave the beach to cross another headland. This time we have the pleasure of leaving the road to walk up a bush path. Being Sydney there are many rock steps to scale. This is one of the most beautiful stretches of this most northern section of the trail. It takes us from Whale Beach across to Avalon Beach.
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As with the rest of the walk, the path takes us to breathtaking views of the confluence between nature and man. The place where cliffs and pounding waves meet mansions and manicured lawns.
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I wasn’t sure what to expect on my Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk adventure. I learned about it through Lotsa Fresh Air’s blog. When there were some cheap flights available between the Gold Coast and Sydney I booked on a whim. What I have discovered is that Sydney is not all corporate suits and hectic traffic. There is a whole other side to this much maligned Australian city. There are beaches and cliffs, views and mansions. But mostly, there is an amazing strong surfing culture that booms as loud as the crashing waves. I’m no surfer but I love to watch it and have enjoyed lessons in the past. I can see myself coming back to Sydney more regularly to explore the rest of the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk, take a few more surfing lessons, paddle a kayak and explore the many dining options available.

If you are interested in this walk, check out the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk website. There are more than 300km of trails to explore so I have only touched on a small section.

North Head Loop walk (Manly, Australia)

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Over the past year, I have developed a particular love of waterfront places. I don’t know whether its because I started my journeys by camping on Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island) for six weeks or whether it’s because I’ve come to live across the road from the sea. Whatever it is, waking up and seeing the water makes me feel relaxed. So it was only natural that I would start today by wandering down to the water to eat my breakfast. A glorious sight awaited me as I walked past the Manly Ferry Terminal: crystal clear water, white sand and moored yachts.
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Mum arrived from Brisbane just in time for an early lunch. My sister had picked her up from the airport too and made arrangements with our cousin to meet up. We ate at a delightful gourmet café on Pittwater Road where I indulged in some home made baked beans served with fresh pressed juice. As I took a photo of my food my sister joked that I am on a “food tour of the world” and I guess she’s probably correct.
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Lunch eaten, farewells to cousin said and it was time to hit the trail. For our first foray onto the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk we decided to do a loop of North Head starting and finishing in Manly. The walk is well-signed and the trail well-maintained. The trail winds through some amazing natural landscapes but is accessible even to the novice because it is clearly marked and close to civilisation.
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We started up the trail that I took yesterday but continued after the big rock wall. It didn’t take long to come to this hanging waterhole. A man was sitting on the rocky shores painting the scene in the hot afternoon sun. He was friendly and chatted a bit with us, lamenting his decision not to bring any shade with him.
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The trail moved easily through a range of different vegetation types. In places National Parks have built protected grates to allow walkers into an area with minimal disturbance to the delicate soil and plant life. This allows the path to be used by hundreds of people a day without eroding a depression into the soil. It also means we get to keep our feet dry when walking through here in wet weather.
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We walked through an old barracks complex that was used as a training ground by the artillery unit of the Australian army. Beyond that, the trail took us to another hanging swamp where someone had started a cairn over on the other side of some water.
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The nearby soldier’s memorial walk was quite a contrast to the hanging swamp. A great big cannon stood pride of place at the entrance and interpretive signs told of the role that the artillery units played in Australia’s military history. It was moving because a family friend was in the artillery unit during the Vietnam War and I realised he might have known some of the men standing in the photos in the display.
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There are a range of bunkers and gun posts on the headland due to the military training camp. It is something unfamiliar here in Australia where war has not touched our shores in the way it has in so many other countries of the world. It made me think of the artillery posts on South Korea’s north-east coastline.
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Before long the trail took us back to the coastline and some spectacular cliff-top views.
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This is something I love about Sydney: all the seaside cliffs. There are just so many spectacular lookouts to stand at.
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And then you see the city skyline and realise that you are still in Australia’s most populous city but yet this view has been preserved.
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We also found some dinosaur eggs. Well, not really. But these boulders sure did look interesting.
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The walk was incredibly diverse. Between the swamps, military history and views we also came to an old quarantine cemetery. Most of the graves dated to the small pox epidemic of the 1880s and the bubonic plague outbreak of 1900. This was just one of a series of cemeteries established around Sydney at the time and the interpretive sign told of the stench that they created. The grave stones are slowly being over run by the local flora so I wonder whether this site will one day cease to be visible at all. The overrun flora did give an interesting atmosphere to the site though … It made it kind of creepy.
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Pretty Collins Bay appeared at just the right moment. We’d been walking for a few hours and it was hot in the sun so cooling off in the water was delightful. The beach was set in a sandstone bay with great gum trees rising from the cliffs. It was so Australiana.
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From here the trail hopped from one pretty beach to the next, providing plenty of opportunity to stop for a swim or just to watch the water. At Little Manly Beach we swam a bit before watching a big school of fish in a frenzy further out in the sea. The fish would have been a good 50m from the shore, maybe more but we could see them thrashing about. Seagulls hovered above and dove to grab a feed. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the fish were being hunted by that large aquatic animal with the big teeth and ominous fin.
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The sun started to set as we walked back towards the Manly Ferry Terminal. They have daylight savings here in New South Wales so it was already after 7pm.
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Near the ferry terminal we watched a group of guys playing stand up paddleboard water polo. It looked like a fun game. Few were actually standing on their SUPs but all were using their paddles to great effect to grab at the ball. A guy jumped off his board to tackle another guy off his and a few goals were scored. There was even a referee on a SUP governing the game complete with umpire’s whistle.
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We’re staying in a much nicer hotel for the next few days. We have the front two rooms of a gorgeous Sydney cottage on a quiet street near the beach. The front veranda is the perfect place to eat cheese and crackers after a long day walking. There’s something enjoyable about coming home to a good space when you travel. Sometimes it’s the comfort of your own tent in a picturesque campground while other times its rented apartments or homestays. I think it proves that sometimes accommodation needs to be more than just any old bed if you want to get the most out of your travel experience because you don’t just go there to sleep; you go there to relax, reflect and recharge so you are good to go and explore some more.
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The only trouble with our place being so nice was that we didn’t go out to look for a meal until about 9pm so many kitchens were already closed. But we did find this spectacular table overlooking the harbour and the Manly Ferry. The ferry looks beautiful as it cruises in and out of the terminal all aglow. It would be amazing to have a slow shutter speed on a camera and to take a photo of it moving across the water so gracefully.
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Of course a magnificent day requires a delicious ending. We end ours by sharing a Greek-style lamb pizza and a fig & prosciutto salad. Have I mentioned yet that Manly has some amazing food options?

Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk: First Impressions (Manly, NSW, Australia)

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After a long two hour motorbike ride in the rain and a short bumpy one hour flight I look out the plane window to see that most famous coat hanger the Sydney Harbour Bridge straddling the water and the big white sails of the Sydney Opera House shimmering under an overcast sky. I feel excited about the week ahead. I have five days set aside to explore sections of the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk, two nights to visit friends further up the coast in Newcastle, and then a couple of nights holidaying with my sister and her family who are holidaying in Sydney for the weekend (would you believe they bought return airfares for a family of 6 for a total of $120 from Brisbane … not $120 each but $20 each return).

When I arrive in Sydney I get a pleasant surprise, my other sister lives here part-time and calls to say that she’s picking me up from the airport. She’s on her way past the airport to have lunch as Sushi Train in Bondi Junction where you have to line up outside to get a seat. The wait is worth it because the sushi is fresh and delicious; not like the suburban stuff I’ve eaten in the past. And then I’m off on the train to Circular Quay and the famous Manly Ferry. This is a must do here in Sydney and I discover why as I’m on board. However, I forget to take photos as I find myself talking with a lovely elderly lady who insists I take the forward facing view because she has taken the ferry many times.
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Half an hour later I am in Manly. After checking into my hotel (do not stay at the Boardrider Hostel and Budget Hotel because it is more boarding house than hostel so is filthy and noisy) I head out for a short 5km run. The beach is beautiful and just a few hundred meters away. It reminds me a bit of Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast but with better waves for the surfers.
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The surf culture is thriving here. There are plenty of surfers in the water, both on the beach break and the points. I love watching surfers in action. There’s something amazing about the way they can stand on the water and move on the waves. I have taken lessons in the past and enjoyed it but found that the act of dropping down a wave freaked me out a bit. So I think I will just watch the wetsuit-clad crowd do their thing from the relative safety of the shore.
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The walking path here along the coast is well-signed and easy to follow.
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It takes me past quiet suburban beaches where homes proudly boast ocean views and rocky headlands are criss-crossed from decades of surfers and walkers taking short cuts to their favourite spots.
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A rough but well-trod bush trail takes me up onto the headland. It feels good to be running along trails again after such a long break. I am not a good runner but I enjoy it when I get into it. And today I am definitely getting into it.
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Some of the rough-hewn steps through the rocks remind me of The Great North Walk (which I walked in 2013) and I can’t help but wonder whether Sydney is the best city in Australia for bushwalking because there are so many kilometres of these paths within easy reach of public transport. It’s difficult to believe I am just a half hour ferry ride from the Australia’s busiest CBD and less than a kilometre from the nearest suburban maze.
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At the top of the climb I am rewarded by amazing views over that other fantastic Sydney icon: the coast’s sandstone cliffs. I am always drawn to headlands and mountains. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the views they promise or maybe it’s something more mystical than that. But I just have to get higher and closer to those big rocks and that’s exactly where the path takes me.
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There’s a huge sandstone wall at the top of the trail. It runs from the suburban houses to the edge of the cliffs. I’m not quite sure what it is but it sure does make an impression. A low hole has been broken in the wall to allow people to walk through and up to North Head. This is where I turn around on my afternoon jog. I will continue from here later in the week with Mum because I imagine North Head will be a fabulous walk.
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On my way back to Manly I stop to watch the surfers off the end of a point. It feels surreal that this is some people’s every day life: surfing and watching surfers. The surfers here are ending their rides on top of shallow rocks and I can’t help but wonder at how many broken bones and near drownings it took for them to get good at their craft. A part of me envies their courage and wants to be out there living that dream. Maybe I will find a quiet safe beach somewhere to take lessons and gain confidence.
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I stop to take a few photos before heading back into Manly to meet my cousin and his family for dinner. They are from Holland but have lived in Shanghai for over a decade and I haven’t seen them since I was in their city in 2009. It’s funny because I only learned this morning that they are in Australia and, by coincidence, they are also staying in Manly tonight. We while away the night catching up and eating at one of the many fantastic restaurants near the Manly Wharf. Later I return to my hotel and am glad I have to knock over a lot of work because the noise from someone playing shoot-em-up games on his big screen television doesn’t end until after 2am and the drinking noise coming from another room continues well into the morning. I can usually sleep well at any place but “backpacker hostels” that are actually boarding houses are not my cup of tea and should  be forced to register as boarding houses not hostels. But, I manage to pump out a heap of work meaning that I now have a couple of days to just relax and enjoy some time with Mum exploring all Sydney has to offer.