An appetite for the coastal life
The voice is insistent." I don't want to leave, it's too lovely here . . . do we really have to go back?" says the young woman with pursed lips. The concerned man leans earnestly over the table.
"But what about the children, OUR children?" and the young lady flounces back in her blue and white-striped cushioned rattan chair. "I'm sorry," she says with a wave of the arm, "but I'm sure they will be OK."
It's one of those classic Somerset Maugham moments - over-hearing a conversation in a public area in a smart hotel (Maugham's favourite haunt was the lobby at Raffles in Singapore) that is forever immortalised in text or memory.
That's the problem with going to Bells at Killcare on the New South Wales Central Coast. You simply check in and never want to leave. Blame the delight of individual private cottages where your every sense is nurtured and encouraged.
Picture yourself lying on a day bed on a shaded deck listening to the distinctive dry rustling sound of gum trees dancing in the breeze, or waking under the purring ceiling fan with the doors to the balcony open to hear that unmistakable raucous sound of Australian birdlife. It's refreshingly relaxed and yet very smart.
All around you, gardens, fruit trees and greenery are intermixed with delicate fountains, trimmed hedges, and a cool, pristine (thankfully, not heated) blue-tiled swimming pool.
Add the friendly and helpful staff ("I can drive you to the beach and pick you up later, no worries"), and the outstanding food, and it is little wonder my dining companions didn't want to leave. After years of visiting similar boutique destinations it's important to give some simple advice - you always want to stay in a place that delights, but not so large that you feel like you are a mere number in a cast of hundreds, nor so small that you can feel self-conscious.
Bells of Killcare is ideal - it's a busy small wedding venue and romantic weekend destination as well as a small conference location during the week. It runs like a well-oiled machine, making it very easy to enjoy.
It is small enough to not overwhelm, and everyone feels special, yet with enough local support for it to sparkle. The reputation of the dining room is critical here. This is a serious and well-considered food destination.
Top Sydney chef and all-round great host Stefano Manfredi oversees the kitchen and holds cooking classes. The restaurant opened in 2007 and is now considered at the forefront of New South Wales regional dining.
Not surprisingly Manfredi is passionate about keeping things simple, fresh and local. His family immigrated from Lombardy in Italy in the early 60s and he says that while his potato gnocchi with burnt sage butter is considered a must-have on his menu, he is honest about its merits.
" I can't get my gnocchi as good as my mother - she makes the best ever," he says with a sigh.
"With Italian food . . . it's hard to explain . . . the classic ratio is 200 grams flour to one egg, but it is all about the feel - you have to know the feel - it's hard to teach - it comes from the heart and the family kitchen you just know by the touch when things are right."
Despite his candour the potato gnocchi is as light as a Nona's kiss and the sage from the garden is intense.
Next the whole fish is served with a side of beans - "I'm so glad you had the whole fish," says Manfredi. "That is perfection - simple."It is sweet and the beans al dente and vivid green.
It was time to ask the hard questions. So what is the secret to cooking a perfect green bean? "Well, I can tell [as my plate was empty] you are serious about food and I will tell you.
"Boil for only a few minutes so they are not yet cooked, remove from the heat and then dress with good olive oil, salt, pepper and parsley and let them sit in that till you are ready to reheat very quickly to serve. As they sit they absorb all that flavour."
The staff say the homemade lasagne is so good it makes you weep with joy, and the breads and all the in-house cooking is well worth the drive. For the record, the passionfruit from the garden on the breakfast buffet are some of the sweetest and most intense ever sampled. Equally, the cassata dessert is not to be missed, coming with a raspberry flavoured sorbet which is like raspberries on steroids. Contrasting with a luscious ice-cream, this is a turbocharged yin and yang experience.
When you're done with the eating, there are bush walks and visits to the beach to experience. Guest services manager Caine Jessup is a national treasure and his local knowledge and willingness to organise activities around the surrounding Bouddi National Park is a bonus.
Then there is the day spa with its Aboriginal healing techniques featuring native oils, plants, muds, fruits and flowers. House-made toiletries in your room have a distinct native-bush aroma and lull you into the best relaxed state.
lThe Central Coast has always appealed for its laidback atmosphere after the intensity of the city, which is all the more remarkable given that Sydney is only 90 minutes away.
Getting there is straightforward and you have several options - you can travel by train and ask for a transfer from Woy Woy station, or take the sea plane from Rose Bay in Sydney and be collected from the water by the van service, or simply drive up.
I took a rental car from Sydney airport and used GPS, but can advise on the value of checking the settings before leaving, so you don't have "Achtung, achtung, nach rechts bewegen," yelled at you in German while driving through the Sydney tunnel.
Years ago a mate had a rustic beach house at Pearl Beach and lying in a hammock enjoying the coastal breezes and cacophony of bird song delivered happiness beyond belief.
We'd make a quick trip to Woy Woy (famous for once being the home of Spike Milligan's mother) and the Central Coast's premier seafood market at Fishermen's Wharf, where we would eat seafood from the shell and throw the shells and bones into the water while a resident pelican stood on a pole observing.
Today I venture back to Sydney via Palm Beach from Bells of Kilcare. The time on the road with the GPS means my German is improving, and I want to stop off at other beach destinations on my way.
First stop is an easy 20-minute ferry ride to the Boathouse Palm Beach for the best fish and chips ever. Flat head fish in superb beer batter served with chunky chips, washed down with fruit frappe (try the mint and kiwifruit) has scores of people flocking to this destination.
Family groups sitting out over the water enjoying a spectacular water view, with sea planes from Rose Bay arriving and departing, give the cafe great energy. Take time to look at the impressive displays of local flowers and produce that are artistically placed with deli fare to create a smart local market vibe. Afterwards head over to the beach itself. It's magnificent with white sand and perfect blue rolling ocean.
A nearby little restaurant in an old beach kiosk appeals for dessert and coffee. Clareville Kiosk in Avalon is a quiet and intimate fine dining restaurant surrounded by trees - this former post office and general store has been lovingly converted into a excellent dining destination receiving a Chef's Hat award in the Good Food Guide. Chef Peter Christensen not only restored the property but created some of the art work on the walls.
Guests enjoying a long lunch had flown up from Rose Bay in Sydney and got a water taxi over to the restaurant. My dessert and coffee showcased the care with ingredients and intense creative flavours. Christensen is enthusiastic about using flowers and herbs from his garden and even makes his own butter to accompany his own bread.
Once I got back to Sydney, I discovered that curiously the GPS could not find William St in Kings Cross (perhaps that's not so unusual - once a cab driver at Sydney airport couldn't find the Opera House in the points of interest on his GPS), but it was so easy to follow the signs past Manly into the city, that the directions weren't needed.
But the next time I head to Palm Beach I'm taking the L90 bus from Central Station. It takes 90 minutes as you weave through the suburbs of Sydney, with a great view from the bus, finishing with a walk down to the beach.
And I can still practise my German with the friendly co-passengers.
THINGS TO KNOW
A Day's Dining on the NSW Central Coast Breakfast Bells at Killcare. Breakfast comes with your room so enjoy the home-made breads, fruits and superb juices. Eggs are from their own hens. bellsatkillcare.com.au
Coffee and a sweet The Fat Goose Cafe, just down the road in Hardy's Bay. With friendly staff and popular with the locals, this is a place to enjoy being part of a welcoming and unpretentious community. Take time to walk around the waterfront and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. thefatgoose.com.au
Lunch The Boathouse, for great water views, friendly staff and divine fish and chips. theboathousepb.com.au
Dinner Clareville Kiosk. An oasis of charm for exquisite dining in Clareville Beach, Avalon. clarevillekiosk.com.au
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Australia and Destination New South Wales.
Sunday Star Times