There is something almost intoxicating about being surrounded by dozens of butterflies as they flutter, feast on nectar or rest in the refracted sunlight.
For my daughters, Mila, 5, and Freya, 3, entering the Butterfly House at Bonville, near Coffs Harbour, is an Alice in Wonderland-like experience. Walking through the balmy indoor rainforest, a bright Red Lacewing settles on Mila's arm and, above Freya's head, a pair of turquoise ulysses butterflies perform a welcoming dance.
Butterflies are the James Deans of the insect world, their star shining brightly - for three weeks or less - before they flicker off the planet.
Our visit comes at the end of a five-day family road trip along the mid-north coast section of the Legendary Pacific Coast, the drive linking Sydney and Brisbane. For this trip, we're following the To Do Kids trail, which pinpoints all the family-friendly attractions as we travel along the coast.
Luddite that I am, I haven't yet embraced the app revolution. But the free Legendary Pacific Coast guide I download to my phone is indispensable. Not only does it zero in on your current location and list nearby attractions and places to eat and stay, but it also maps out directions to where you want to go.
On our sunny autumn trip, the Coffs Harbour Butterfly House is a fitting addition to a journey that's been all about the birds and bees and a fair few trees.
We begin with a stay at Honeycomb Valley Farm, near Nabiac. Just off the Pacific Highway, three hours' drive north of Sydney, this is another enchanting place for children. From the moment we arrive and visit the farm's fun Bee Motel, with its array of stingless native bees, to when we sadly say goodbye, our girls are totally immersed in the farm.
Staying at Honeycomb Valley, a working farm with 38 hectares of rolling pasture and a dedication to sustainability, is like being invited to share a dream. Eight years ago, owners Andrew and Anna Campbell ditched their Sydney jobs and moved to Nabiac with the vision of raising their children with a connection to the land.
Those children, Darcy, 12, Zach, 10, and Josie, 7, play a big part in welcoming guests to the farm.
Darcy, a chatty, confident horsewoman, takes our girls riding on Soda, the farm's Shetland pony, and Josie shows them how to bottle-feed baby goats and where to collect our breakfast eggs.
It might be school holidays but the attractions we're visiting combine fun with learning. At the Sea Acres Rainforest Reserve, near Port Macquarie, the girls are given "Wilderquest" bags, complete with magnifying glasses and rudimentary telescopes, and we follow a guide on a specially-tailored children's tour around a 1.3-kilometre boardwalk.
"The trees make a great big umbrella," our guide says of the sub-tropical and littoral rainforest, "which we call a canopy."
"This place was like a supermarket to the Birpai Aboriginals," our guide adds, proffering a leaf from the sweet sarsaparilla vine, which Freya loves.
Both girls are even more enamoured with the fresh strawberries that they pick later at Ricardoes Tomatoes & Strawberries, north of Port Macquarie. As they carefully snip along avenues of richly scented plants, only a few plump strawberries make it into their pick-your-own buckets.
Early next morning we journey north to visit the Valley of the Mist, a 77-hectare wetland and bush tucker orchard, near Macksville. The farm has been in Dennis Ryan's family for four generations and has sustainability built into its essence. Canoe tours of the extensive swamp take a maximum of four guests and the Ryans sell their bush tucker products locally.
Ryan's canoe tour is an unhurried glide through the wetland. As he and neighbour Will row us quietly through it, we pass bevies of black swans and rafts of ducks, and the girls lose count of the different-coloured dragonflies flitting by.
Back on dry land, Ryan leads us through the orchard, explaining the uses of native plants such as lemon myrtle, the crushed-up leaves of which can be used to make a natural mosquito repellent.
Between attractions, we make time for seaside fun, staying at Nambucca Heads and at Trial Bay Eco Park at South-West Rocks and on longer drives entertain the kids with DVDs. But it is never long before we are back in nature, learning something new.
On our penultimate day we follow the winding Waterfall Way to spectacular Dorrigo National Park, a segment of World Heritage Gondwana rainforest clinging to the escarpment to the west of Coffs Harbour. We arrive in time to join Discovery Ranger Brian Hawkins on a short tour through the sonorous forest. Hawkins is like a one-man sound studio of bird calls, able to imitate any of the 120 bird species found here. Our walk with him, among the tall, ancient, trees smudged by notes of sunlight, is full of trills and throaty warbles.
Daniel Scott was a guest of Legendary Pacific Coast.
Five treats for mum and dad
While the To Do Kids trail keeps children happy, parents can find ample rewards on the parallel Legendary Pacific Coast Food and Wine trail:
1 Cassegrain winery, Port Macquarie. cassegrainwines.com.au. With the kids occupied with colouring-in, we enjoy brunch on the winery's restaurant terrace, overlooking the vines, followed by a wine tasting.
2 The Corner Restaurant, Port Macquarie. cornerrestaurant.com.au. This classy Port eatery provides our trip's stand-out dinner, the blue swimmer crab panang curry with black sticky rice being particularly memorable.
3 The Seabreeze Hotel, South-West Rocks. seabreezebeachhotel.com.au. This is a great family-friendly seaside pub where we share a mountainous seafood platter, the kids grazing on fish and chips while we devour oysters, crab and calamari.
4 Mad Hatters Tea Garden in historic Bowraville, (02) 6564 7631. The cafe has a lovely garden shaded by a jacaranda tree where children can roam safely, allowing parents to enjoy a stress-free lunch.
5 The Canopy Cafe at the Rainforest Centre, Dorrigo National Park. canopycafedorrigo.com. A gourmet eatery in an ancient rainforest where dedicated chef Wolfgang Zichy produces delicious fare from locally-sourced ingredients. The girls love the chunky Dorrigo potato chips and their "frog-in-a-pond" ice-cream and jelly desserts. We love the king prawn laksa, soba noodles and slow-roasted pork belly.
This drive covers the mid-north section of the Pacific coast, from Nabiac (three hours' drive north of Sydney on the Pacific Highway) to Dorrigo, about six hours' north, reached via Waterfall Way.
Sea Acres Rainforest, Pacific Drive, Port Macquarie, open 9am-4.30pm daily. nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/sea-acres-national-park/sea-acres-rainforest-centre/tourist-information.
Ricardoes Tomatoes and Strawberries, 221 Blackmans Point Road, Port Macquarie, 7am-5pm daily. Free guided tours 11am daily. ricardoes.com.
Valley of the Mist, 88 Congarinni North Road, Talarm, near Macksville. Canoe tours $60 a person, bush tucker tours A$12 ($16). valleyofthemist.com.au.
Dorrigo National Park Rainforest Centre, Dome Road, Dorrigo. Open Monday-Friday 8.30am-4.30pm, Saturday-Sunday 9am-4.30pm, entry by donation. environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks.
Coffs Harbour Butterfly House, 5 Strouds Road, Bonville. Open 9am-4pm daily, $18 adults, $9 children. butterflyhouse.com.au.
Honeycomb Valley Farm, Nabiac, has two two-bedroom cottages from $350 a night. honeycombvalley.com.au.
Marcel Towers Holiday Apartments, Nambucca Heads, two-bedroom apartments from $145 a night. marceltowers.com.au.
Bellingen Valley Lodge, Bellingen, has family rooms from $145 a night. bellingenvalleylodge.com.au.
Trial Bay Eco Park, South-West Rocks, has luxury cabins from $180 a night. big4southwestrocks.com.au.
More information pacificcoast.com.au.
- Sydney Morning Herald