A short hop to the NSW South Coast is what's needed when a mother wants to spend quality time with her daughter, writes Vanessa Walker.
"Look Mum, cows!" My five-year-old daughter, Mila, and I are heading out of Sydney for two days to spend some quality mother-daughter time together. I've been working long hours and want some concentrated ‘us' time. Mila sees it more in terms of the activities I've casually mentioned (and she's committed to memory), namely a) a visit to Max Brenner's chocolate shop, b) a jewellery-making class, and c) a manicure and pedicure. I had been looking to go somewhere that wasn't too far away but would be a nice change of scenery - cue the lovely trio of Shellharbour, Kiama and Gerringong.
I elect to take the Southern Freeway so Shellharbour is only an hour-and-a-half drive away. We pull into the new mega-mall, Stockland Shellharbour. Although only half open (and due for completion mid 2013) this place is impressive and modern. You can scan a QR code imprinted on its walls to see what things are happening in the space; elsewhere Mila is entranced by an exhibition of people's portraits made from vegies or bits of dolls. At Max Brenner, Mila orders a huge chocolate and pastry confection but only eats two mouthfuls because she spies the outdoor play area, so I help her out by woofing the rest down and - just because I'm on holiday - following it up with a mint hot chocolate.
A short drive away is Kiama and with its beachy village atmosphere, it's the jewel in the region's crown. We take a walk in the fresh breeze to the big blowhole. It needs a south easterly swell but today isn't spraying so we make our way past the next headland to the little blowhole. It spurts on cue, which Mila captures with a flourish of the digital camera, before she notices a patch of wildflowers and goes off pointing (in vaguely the right direction) and shooting. I notice a beautiful park tucked into the hills leading down to the sea. It's Bonaira Native Gardens, a tiny regenerated patch with newly planted rainforest species and a park bench just calling for someone to sit down and contemplate the meaning of life. The blowhole is on part of the six- kilometre Kiama Coast Walk (from Kiama Heights) to Gerringong (Werri Lagoon) and a few happy walkers stroll by. There's a real end-of-winter feel to the day that makes everybody we encounter seem happy and energised for spring.
We lunch at the divine Little Blowhole Cafe, which is run by former Sydneysider Cathy Law. Fresh, local, seasonal, natural food is the order of the day and my pumpkin, chickpea, bacon, fetta & rocket salad, with homemade lemon, lime and bitters, hits the spot. Mila opts for an apple muffin and milkshake and I'm too happy enjoying the view to switch into strict parent mode.
We make our way through beautiful pasture land to Gerringong to the Bead Shack, where we spend an hour immersed in making a bracelet, necklace and earrings (clip-on in Mila's case). I'm impressed by how aptly the owner teaches Mila to bead, and how well Mila manages it. Jewellery making is one of those synergistic activities that are great for children: they get to use their concentration and creativity and are so delighted with the finished product. Mila comes up with some rather glitzy designs and spends the remainder of the evening fingering them, gazing at them, and returning to them again and again, bedazzled.
We're staying at the Mercure Resort Gerringong by the Sea and I'm pleasantly surprised to pull up at a lovely boutique-style hotel, with a huge pool and a serene air. Dinner is at its restaurant and staff indulge a by now fidgeting girl with fish and chips. I have a delicious entree of wild mushrooms arancini balls with whipped feta, walnut, mixed leaves and rosemary dressing followed by corn-fed chicken and tarragon pie with pea puree, roast winter vegetables and red wine jus. We are utterly full by the end of the meal but request the milk chocolate and pecan tart with salt caramel and dark chocolate ganache to take back to our room. It's lovely to curl up together with no other demands on our time, sharing a plate, chatting about our favourite parts of the day. But, before I know it my companion's eyes are drooping so I slip her into bed, then open the curtains to the view of dark fields and enjoy the quietude of the night.
The next morning as we leave the Mercure, Mila remembers we've left her empty lunch box in the hotel room fridge and I'm reminded yet again how fast she's growing up and keeping tabs on everything. We drive to Shellharbour Village and have a lovely tea and caramel milkshake at Green Poppy cafe before settling in for a manicure and pedicure at Absolutely Fabulous. Jackie and Michelle are patient and encouraging as Mila chooses not one but ten different colours for her fingers then asks for glitter over the top. Their pedicure room faces a large balcony with views over trees to the ocean and is a truly special place. By the time we emerge we feel utterly pampered, like time really has slowed down. We lunch at Relish on Addison, a contemporary restaurant with delicious modern-Australian cuisine. It's really a touch of urbane sophistication in a beautiful coastal setting – the best of both worlds. The tasting platter - mushroom risotto cake, pork belly, chilli prawns & squid, assorted dips, marinated olives served with grilled sourdough goes down a treat, followed by a wagyu beef burger that is simplicity itself: a butter-soft pattie encased in a just-right bun with shavings of pecorino and beetroot relish. A quick dip into Lollies for Me for a treat for my son, and a browse in Little Missy Moo and it's time for the drive home – a nice slow way to ease back into our everyday lives.