Just a step away from Sydney the New South Wales Central North Coast is the perfect holiday destination - a blue water paradise made up of stunning waterways, golden sandy beaches, eco-diverse Marine and National Parks, and all the soft adventure and fun that you could wish for.
Here, you'll discover a hinterland of river valleys bordered by pristine lakes and an unspoilt coastline.
One thing is sure - you'll enjoy the region's laid-back atmosphere, whether you're swimming, surfing, fishing or sailing, or simply relaxing at one of the waterfront cafés or restaurants.
Only 85km north of Sydney, Ettalong Beach overlooks Broken Bay and Lion Island and offers beaches, lagoons and calm waterways, and is the perfect base for exploring the delights of the region.
Observe the native wildlife at the Australian Reptile Park, an award-winning zoo with its daily interactive wildlife shows that include koalas, platypus and Tasmanian devils; or visit Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park to learn about bush tucker, bush medicine, see endangered species and ancient Aboriginal cultural sites.
Take time out and learn to ride at Glenworth Valley Horse Riding, Australia's largest free-range horse-riding centre; or take a ferry across Broken Bay (from Ettalong to Palm Beach) or on Brisbane Water (from Woy Woy to Davistown).
Experience Norah Head Lighthouse, where you'll learn about manning a lighthouse in the early 1900's; or try swinging amongst the trees on flying foxes and suspension bridges at TreeTops Adventure Park in Ourimbah State Forest near Yarramalong.
Picnic at Muirs Lookout which provides a panoramic view of the coast from Lake Macquarie to Tuggerah Lakes; or tee off at the beautiful Kooindah Waters Golf Club in Wyong.
So much more than a lake, Lake Macquarie is edged on one side by stretches of immaculate sandy beach. Frolic in the water at Redhead or Blacksmiths Beach; explore the sea caves at Caves Beach at low tide, or scuba dive under the long jetty at Catherine Hill Bay.
Lake Macquarie itself is the largest coastal saltwater lake in Australia, and at 24 kilometres long it's four times the size of Sydney Harbour. Hire a boat, a jet ski, canoe or yacht, and explore this vast and unique body of water. Throw in a line while you're out there, and you may catch your own dinner.
The lakeside is ideal for scenic walks along Greenpoint Reserve, Wangi Wangi Flora and Fauna Reserve, Warners Bay and Toronto. Linking the beaches, lake and mountains are more than 90 villages and communities dotted throughout the City of Lake Macquarie
Just over 200km north of Sydney, Nelson Bay at Port Stephens is another excellent location from which to explore the surrounding natural wonders and tourism attractions including Hawkes Nest and Raymond Terrace nearby.
The Hunter Valley wine district also makes an excellent day trip. The real beauty of the Hunter Valley is that despite being one of Australia's most sophisticated weekend getaways it still retains its unpretentious country charm. Apart from the dozens of wineries to visit, you can indulge your sense of taste with a tempting array of cheeses, smokehouse goods, chocolates, fudge and coffee, olives and olive oil. You can try the locally farmed fish, the signature spicy grape sauce and, naturally, grapes fresh from the vine. Why not educate your palate by signing up for a gourmet cooking class or a wine appreciation seminar?
Worth the drive is Barrington Tops, a 25 kilometre long plateau, set among a series of extinct volcanoes and surrounded by more than 20 valleys. Covering 1,200 square kilometres of unspoilt wilderness, the Barrington Tops National Park ranges from subtropical rainforest to sub-alpine snowgums that are thousands of years old. With its pristine rivers and historic country villages, Barrington Tops is the ultimate retreat for nature lovers.
Closer to the coast, the Port Stephens Great Lakes Marine Park is a 98,000 hectare marine reserve, the largest in NSW. It includes Port Stephens and the Karuah River, the Myall River, Myall and Smiths lakes and all their creeks and tributaries.
Nature is at the centre of all that is Nelson Bay and Port Stephens. With a resident population of bottlenose dolphins, whales in season, spectacular bushwalking and wildflowers, and endless water activities such as first-class snorkelling and diving in marine parks, Mother Nature's diversity offers something for everyone.
For golfers the Nelson Bay Golf Club is a superb Championship Course, widely acclaimed as the ‘The Bush Course by the Sea'. Bounded by Tomaree National Park, this sand-based course in a tree-lined tranquil setting is not only a test of golf, but also a perfect escape to nature, with kangaroos, wallabies, native birds and goannas, a common sight on the course.
Of course, one of the joys of this location is simply eating some of the state's best fish and chips in the harbour, swimming, surfing and snorkelling the crystal clear waters, or settling in for afternoon coffees at the marina.
Nearby National Parks offer many bushwalks and secluded coastal walking trails. The Gan Gan Lookout in nearby Tomaree National Park is the area's highest and most accessible lookout point.
Discover deep river valleys formed by the mighty Manning, Hastings, Macleay, Nambucca and Bellinger rivers. Explore the exquisite Myall Lakes - a wetland of international significance. Admire the natural beauty and the spectacular views of the valley from Bucketts Way or Thunderbolts
Way, or travel Waterfall Way as it snakes through a temperate rainforest.
Once inland, you'll stumble upon living history. The area's townships are a delight to explore, whether they are Heritage-listed towns such as Stroud or Wingham, hubs of indigenous and colonial culture like Bowraville and Bellbrook, or peaceful settlements such as Nana Glen, or Karuah, where the river feeds Port Stephens.
Other must-dos include tobogganing down the dunes of Stockton Beach. This 30 kilometre stretch of sandhills has been the 'desert' for several film crews. Some of the dunes, which are always changing, can be 30 metres high. You can discover 'Tin City' a makeshift collection of squatter-fishermen's tin homes, and the wreck of the Sygna.
The Nelson Head Inner Lighthouse is a heritage listed lighthouse that features panoramic views of Port Stephens, while a visit to the Native Flora Garden or the Tilligerry Habitat are both worthwhile.
The Central North Coast is an intriguing blend of old and new; while the uncrowded beaches and World Heritage-listed rainforests haven't changed, there are new attractions and new destinations to entice.