There’s a fried-out Kombi parked at the northern end of Collers Beach. Its blue paint has faded to reveal a jaunty red undercoat; the roof and bumper are spattered with rust. Beyond it is the ocean, indistinguishable from the sky above: the two are knitted together in an endless quilt of brilliant, cut-glass blue.

This is 1960s Mollymook come to vivid, sunbaked life: the Kombi fitted with a surfboard rack, the surfers waiting patiently beyond the rock ledge for the waves to break, the weatherboard and brick-veneer houses set back from the shore like timid onlookers.

But things are changing in the seaside town three hours’ drive south of Sydney. Once a sleepy refuge for residents, celebrities and people in the know, Mollymook is undergoing a vibrant transformation. What started six years ago with the establishment of British chef Rick Stein’s restaurant at the landmark Bannisters by the Sea hotel will culminate this month in the launch of a stylish sibling, the 35-room Bannisters Pavilion.

A block away from the northern end of Mollymook Beach and a 10-minute walk from the original hotel, the new Bannisters is both thoroughly contemporary and at ease in its wetlands environment, where croaking bullfrogs provide a pleasant counterpoint to the roiling ocean. The hotel’s low-rise stature and address on one of Mollymook’s main thoroughfares gives little hint of the sophistication contained within: vaulted ceilings in the lobby, a rooftop bar and the masterstroke – a 1.2-metre-deep swimming pool suspended above Tallwood Avenue.

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Outside the hotel locals stop to chat and rejoice in the advent of summer. “Morning Pete. Great day, isn’t it?” calls one elderly man to another as he makes his way along the street beneath a flood of sunshine and past that glistening, glass-walled pool. “Doesn’t get any better than this,” Pete replies, his palms turned up towards the lacquered blue sky.

Pete’s onto something, for the sun is indeed shining on the town of Mollymook and the nearby pastoral hinterland town of Milton. A number of businesses have developed organically in the years since Rick Stein arrived on the scene with his beautiful, unpretentious food, encouraging in its wake an impressive restaurant-and-service culture. Many of the region’s chefs trained at Rick Stein at Bannisters and have transposed that experience into tastes that reflect the region’s sparkle and strong community focus.

There’s Mollymook’s highly regarded Tallwood restaurant and bar, a contemporary, art-filled space with a menu perfect for sharing: think chilli cuttlefish, glazed pork belly, taro chips and Tallwood’s signature paella.

St Isidore brings sophisticated dining to Milton. Set in a charming old house, the restaurant overlooks the surrounding countryside and the on-site market garden from which the menu draws much of its inspiration. Diners can order “an egg from the ladies” and “leaves from our garden”, along with gourmet offerings such as Otway Pork neck cooked in milk, miso-marinated salmon and local snapper served with clams and chorizo.

And this growth is attracting more than tourists: local kids who left Mollymook for the bright city lights have returned to settle, newcomers are moving in and those who’ve long called this place home are putting their stamp on the region in innovative ways. “When you’re growing up, you don’t appreciate it,” says Leighroy Hunter, a fifth-generation resident who did an apprenticeship at Rick Stein’s straight after school then left to roam the globe. “When you leave, you realise it’s the best place in the world. We’ve got all of the niceties and nine months of the year we’ve got the beaches to ourselves.”

Those beaches, long and plentiful, are embodied in another new development: two penthouse suites unveiled recently at Bannisters by the Sea. In keeping with the hotel’s connection to the local community, they’ve been designed by fashion icon Collette Dinnigan, who has a property in Milton.

SEE ALSO: Australia's secret beaches

She selected everything from fabrics and books to bathroom fittings, and the light-filled, whimsical spaces epitomise both her fashion sensibility and the landscape in which they’re set. “I wanted to capture coastal elegance,” she says, “a strong feeling of being on holiday and Australia’s romance with the ocean.”

This quiet region is a world away from the catwalks of Paris that Dinnigan built her international fashion following upon but she recognises its enduring appeal. “I love the [region’s] nature and beautiful beaches. It seems to have its own microclimate and local produce is plentiful.” 

There’s more whimsy afoot across the way from Bannisters Pavilion, where former Sydneysider Saxon Gyorgy has set up Willow & Fleur, a florist that wouldn’t have looked out of place alongside Dinnigan’s erstwhile London boutique. There are tiny-stemmed pineapples jostling in a vase, a rack of floral pinnies and jugs of heavenly scented blooms. “Wild and free, I like to describe it as,” says Gyorgy. “I don’t do perfect!” Except when it comes to choosing a home town, it seems. The newlywed was working as a florist in Sydney when she and her husband decided to move here last year “because, quite frankly, there’s no other place like Mollymook. It’s just the way it holds itself. It’s almost spiritual. It’s magical.”

A lot of the town’s appeal can be attributed to Milton, which, although in possession of a separate postcode, is really the pastoral twin of its carefree, salt-sprayed neighbour. Just a few kilometres inland, Milton is all rolling hills and storybook valleys scooped from a forest-framed landscape. Friesian cows dot the pastures, ponies take their young mistresses for rides and old buildings lining the highway bloom with new life.

The historic façade of the Milton Theatre belies a modernised interior and a guest list that has included comedian Fiona O’Loughlin and singer Megan Washington. At Miss Moss, Siobhan O’Brien sells a beautifully curated collection of jewellery and accessories; Annette Veitch’s Spaces 2538 is filled with ethically sourced products – Australian linen, copper flatware and lamps crafted from concrete and mango wood – and has supplied some of the décor for the new Bannisters Pavilion; and artist and coordinator of Milton’s annual Escape Artfest, Julie Sydenham, sells her own illustrated children’s books alongside a profusion of art supplies at Splatters.

You’ll discover much of Milton’s historic charm away from the main highway. The town’s old butter factory on Croobyar Road is now a home and private gallery for former Sydneysiders Sue Paull, an artist and photographer, and her partner, Bruce Adams, an academic, art critic and curator. They moved here permanently in 2010 and set about restoring the factory and using it as a canvas for their creative work – Paull’s photographs, Adams’s gouaches. And as Paull documents the town’s traditions on film, Adams looks at how its historic foundations might be preserved while nurturing a modern populace. “Milton is a living community supporting different trades, businesses and age groups,” he says. “There are enough young people to fill three schools in Milton itself.”

The best way to sample this diverse social mix, he advises, is to have a drink at The Commercial Hotel early on a Friday evening, when the Show Society’s meat raffle takes place. “Everyone is there, sharing one packed bar. Old farmers, young tradies, lawyers, dentists, weekend retreaters from Sydney, bushies from the hills and local rascals who are the stuff of small-town legend – all drinking together with their fingers crossed for the meat tray.”

Just up the road from the butter factory is the old cheese factory, recently transformed by former Canberra restaurateur Danielle McKeon and her business partner, Skye Longley, into wholefood canteen Milk Haus. McKeon moved to Milton to manage the restaurant St Isidore but knew she’d ultimately open a place of her own. “I like to feed and water people,” she says. “My food philosophy is to keep it simple, to not make food too contrived. With a beautiful piece of broccoli, all I want to do is steam it and serve it on the side. Good produce should sell itself.”

And so it is for this region, too. Even in the midst of great change, its residents are determined that it should stay exactly as it is: a living, breathing community, a place that welcomes visitors but has a deeply satisfying life of its own. 

Photography: Nikki To 


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