They’re the beaches of our childhood, where the days are long and the iceblocks at the corner store taste like summer. Catherine Marshall travels the Australian coast to find those rare towns untouched by time – and there’s not a chai latte or digital device in sight.
Visitors to Kilcunda are instantly transported to the early 20th century, for here stands the Kilcunda Bridge, built in 1911. The timber trestle structure straddles Bourne Creek where the tannin-rich water empties into the sea. Cushioned by dune grass and stained with salt spray, the bridge stirs memories of a bygone era, when steam trains would chug across it on the way to Melbourne (123 kilometres away) and beyond.
The village (population about 400) is not much more than a clutch of unprepossessing houses that straddles the Bass Highway on the South Gippsland coastline and peers across Bass Strait. It’s anchored by a public house and a general-store-cum-café (03 5678 7390) that’s reputed for its macadamia brownies and homemade relishes and chutneys.
Crowds peak in January with the Kilcunda Lobster Festival (28 January). But all summer long, Kilcunda Coastal Reserve – which runs the length of the clifftop above the main beach – bristles with picnickers. Below, the shore is speckled with beachcombers searching for shells, driftwood and sea glass. And when the rock pools emerge at low tide, they whirl with children hunting for crabs, sea snails and starfish.
Hopetoun, Western Australia
This tiny settlement on the far-flung south coast, where pure-white sand wreaths the sea, magnifying the ocean’s astonishing blue, feels like the edge of the world. It’s a vision few Australians get to see, one that remains almost untouched by development due to its remoteness from the state’s major centres.
The Port Hotel Hopetoun (08 9838 3053) – built in 1901 when the town was established – has fisherman’s baskets, icy-cold beers and unmatched views of that luminescent ocean. Across the road, the original jetty has been replaced with a groyne that protrudes into Mary Ann Haven and bisects the coastline. It’s the perfect place for a spot of fishing. The adjacent McCulloch Park has a replica of the Hopetoun Railway Station (the site was originally a railway loading area), along with a barbecue and a playground with a jumping pillow.
While you’re in the region, explore Fitzgerald River National Park, one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. The topography is a mishmash of inlets, bays, deserted beaches, peaks and headlands; in the springtime, it’s awash with wildflowers. Pack a picnic lunch – you’ll find freshly baked bread and rolls in town at Shipwrecked Gourmet Bakery (08 9838 3715) – then head to the park’s Barrens Beach. Sheltered by dunes and a rugged headland, it’s ideal for swimming.
In the evenings, you can listen to country music at the Port Hotel or grab chicken parmigiana and burgers from the Wavecrest Village kiosk then find an empty stretch of beach and watch the stars come out.
→ Port Hotel Hopetoun (08) 9838 3053
Seclusion and old-worldliness are the hallmarks of Stanley, a small village on a peninsula that juts into Bass Strait on Tasmania’s north-west coast, 225 kilometres from Launceston. The town’s beautifully preserved houses are clustered around The Nut, a flat-topped volcanic plug that protrudes spectacularly from the water’s surface.
Godfreys and Tatlows beaches flare outwards from this geographical phenomenon like butterfly wings, providing endless attractions. There’s a bay on which to sail, a wharf from which to fish and sandy crescents on which to take long walks or collapse with a book.
Energetic visitors can explore Tasmania’s Tarkine wilderness, a half-hour drive from Stanley, where you can search for colonies of little penguins. Others might like to peer into the past; the town was home to a young Joe Lyons, the only prime minister to come from Tasmania, and his family’s weatherboard house is now a museum.
It’s no surprise that scenes from the 2016 period drama The Light Between Oceans were filmed here, for Stanley’s main street oozes yesteryear charm with its handsome colonial buildings and weatherboards crowned with jaunty awnings.
The town provides the dead with a somewhat redundant ocean view: you could spend hours in the historic cemetery, bathing in the sea breeze and piecing together Stanley’s compelling history.
It’s the quintessential Australian holiday: lapping surf, blazing sun and kangaroos grazing beneath casuarina trees just metres from the beach. Woodgate is a coastal town with a vintage vibe, wedged between Burrum Coast National Park near Bundaberg and the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Time unspools slowly here, for 21st-century busyness hasn’t been allowed to intrude.
Even so, visitors are faced with countless (leisurely) ways to spend their days. They play lawn bowls at the Woodgate Club and tennis behind the community hall (07 4126 8599); they hone their skills at the skate park and, while cycling down the track that runs the length of the foreshore, they look out for the kangaroos that chomp on the locals’ lawns. Families gather around giant board games (Scrabble, chess, snakes and ladders) beneath the she-oaks at Woodgate Beach Games Hire by the 16-kilometre-long beach. And when the sun is high in the sky, they pack it all in and go for a swim.
Mums and dads teach kids to catch fish and prawns. When they’ve hauled in enough, they throw them on the barbecue at one of the oceanfront picnic spots at Banksia Park. For an extra-special treat, they take the 30-minute scenic drive to Mammino, near Childers, for homemade ice-cream.
→ Woodgate Beach Hotel/Motel (07) 4126 8988
Seal Rocks, NSW
There’s nothing much at Seal Rocks besides a scattering of beach shacks, ribbons of golden shoreline and a colonial-era lighthouse that presides over the settlement. The approach into town evokes the thrill of an old-fashioned beach holiday: after winding through the dense thickets of Myall Lakes National Park (are we there yet?), the road finally comes to a clearing where the trees part to reveal waves crashing on the shore. Yes, we’re here, at the sleepy Seal Rocks village near Forster on the Mid North Coast, a town that refers to itself as “the last frontier”.
Here, the environment serves as entertainment. The beaches are ideal for swimming, surfing, walking and building sandcastles. There’s bushland and the spectacularly jagged headland on which Sugarloaf Point Lighthouse stands, where lucky visitors will spot migrating whales (May to November) and frolicking dolphins.
There’s a general store for ice-creams and, if you can bear to leave Seal Rocks, Pacific Palms Recreation Club is a 20-minute drive north with bingo on Mondays and fish and chips all week long. Or head to Blueys Beach for a blend of booming surf and gentle yoga.
Tumby Bay, South Australia
The summer sun dances on the beaches and corrugated-iron dwellings in Tumby Bay, a fishing village surrounded by a tapestry of farmland in the south-east of the Eyre Peninsula. The turquoise bay is like a stage and the village crowded along its shoreline a captive audience. People fish from the long jetty, launch boats at the yacht club, stroll along the gently arcing foreshore and search for leafy sea dragons in the marine reserve offshore.
The past lives on at the rotunda, opened in 1910, which sits on the esplanade and is home to the Tumby Bay Art Group. Children whiz about in pedal go-carts at the seafront caravan park and play in the sandpit at the Tumby Bay Hotel while their parents order a pint and study the list of publicans on the wall, dating back to 1904.
Protective butcherbirds swoop visitors at the nearby mangrove boardwalk and, as the sun begins to sink, families grab hot dogs and buckets of chips from Rodda’s Roadhouse (08 8688 2584) then eat them down at the beach.
→ Tumby Bay Hotel (08 8688 2005)