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Sydney's Award Winning Northern Beaches

Ben Hall

Sydney’s famous landmarks continue to wow visitors from Australia and overseas, and for most people, the Harbour Bridge, Opera House and Bondi Beach are dinky-di must-do Aussie experiences. They’ve endured as the ultimate symbols of Sydney, but once these icons are photographed and filed away, there’s the city-proper waiting to be explored. 

And here’s a little secret; a short hop away from the city centre is a 30km stretch of some of Australia’s most stunning beaches, pristine waterways and national parks, revealing another side of the “Harbour City”.  Perhaps because it is arguably suburban, Sydney’s Northern Beaches is a destination that slips under the radar of most visitors to Sydney. And the locals don’t mind; it leaves them with all the more space to swim, surf, sunbathe, kayak, fish, windsurf, parasail, scuba dive, snorkel, bush walk and eat out.

Manly Beach 

The Northern Beaches stretches from the entrance to Sydney Harbour at North Head, north to Barrenjoey Lighthouse at Palm Beach. Its unofficial border to the west is a system of National Parks, to the east it’s the Pacific Ocean, and the wide pristine sandy beaches are punctuated by impressive sandstone headlands that add to the dramatic landscape. The Manly Ferry, which connects with Circular Quay on a 30 minute journey, drops visitors off at the heart of the Northern Beaches, but few people venture past Manly Beach to its quieter neighbours to the north. 

Manly itself is described as the “jewel of the northern beaches” and is actually a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water. It’s a self-contained community-cum-resort-area which has also earned another nickname, the “insular peninsula”. It’s also been voted as Australia’s Best Beach by Tripadvisor two years in a row, taking out top honours again in February 2019. To the casual visitor, it’s obvious the surf culture is strong in Manly and the famous surf breaks can be pretty busy on weekends.

Mop-haired teenagers run barefoot with their boards through the famous pedestrian area, the Corso, and it seems like everyone who lives in the area has some sort of connection with the surf - grannies on bodyboards, girls on mini-mals, Asian tourists on the big blue beginners’ boards at surf school. The surf culture of Manly has developed way beyond the bronzed blokey image of the 1960’s. Thanks largely to its connection to the city by ferry and fast ferry, Manly’s cafe and restaurant scene is almost as big a drawcard as its 18 ocean and harbour beaches.

North To Freshwater 

The ocean plays a vital role in the heart of the Northern Beaches, however, and venturing north from Manly over Queenscliff headland is Freshwater Beach, a favourite with locals. Freshwater’s place in Australian sporting history was cemented in 1914, when Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku performed a surfing exhibition at the beach. An Olympic swimming champion, it drew national media attention and is regarded as the event that “gave birth” to surfing in Australia. A statue of “the Big Kahuna” riding his 14ft board sits  atop Freshwater headland in his honour.

The next beach up is Curl Curl, and it’s here that the sand starts to change colour - on the southern beaches like Manly it’s yellow-white and it changes to a more golden hue further north. “Curly” has no beach front houses or development and is one of the prettiest and quietest of the northern beaches, but it does get quite rough surf and strong rips so even a quick dip outside the lifeguard flags is not a good idea. Between Curly and Palm Beach, there are more than a dozen additional beaches to explore - Dee Why, Long Reef, Collaroy, Narrabeen, Mona Vale, Bungan, Newport, Bilgola, Avalon and Whale Beach to name a few - and each has its own unique character. Until you reach the “glamour” enclave of Palm Beach, however, they’re all quiet havens midweek but fairly busy on weekends.  

Palm Beach

Palm Beach marks the end of the Northern Beaches and sits on a long spit just a few hundred metres wide with the Pacific Ocean on one side and Pittwater on the other. Barrenjoey Headland and its famous lighthouse stand sentinel over Palm Beach and its sheer beauty has led to it becoming the playground of Sydney’s rich and famous. Multimillion dollar homes overlooking the ocean or Pittwater are the norm, and anything less than five-bedrooms-two-bathrooms is considered a bit of a dive around these parts.  

Fans of the television soap Home and Away will recognise sections of the landscape as the series is filmed here, and it has a well earned reputation as a longstanding celebrity hangout, attracting attention long before Byron Bay further north in the state. Between Christmas and New Year the film set from Australia and overseas, and the paparazzi, converge on Palm Beach and this is the best time to pull up a towel on the sand for a bit of celebrity-spotting. Be warned though - on weekends in summer, and especially Christmas holidays, it’s almost impossible to park a car because of the sheer numbers of visitors to the narrow spit. If people-watching is your thing, then this is the place - and those who prefer a quiet spot may not even make it this far.


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