Overseas holidays are still on hiatus, but Sydney’s spectacular Northern Beaches are back open for business. A staycation in this local paradise might be just what the doctor ordered.
Full disclosure: I’m local to Sydney’s eastern beaches and therefore the Northern Beaches may as well be another country. The journey OTB (over the bridge) is an unfathomable mission for me and most of my cloistered neighbours, no matter which way we read Google Maps’ 55-minute driving directions.
It seems ludicrous that it took a global pandemic to put the insular peninsula back on the map for Sydneysiders but here we are. In December, when the Northern Beaches was forced to lock down and withdraw its Spit Bridge connecting the city to its shores, news footage swept the country showing long lines at COVID-19 testing clinics. But the scenes that became etched in the minds of travel-starved New South Welshmen were more compelling: immaculate golden beaches, empty waves, and bush-backed hillsides with stupendous views.
With the lockdown lifted, a visit to the Northern Beaches is now a mission I am itching to undertake. I set out with a full tank of petrol, snacks, and water, to the very edge of my comfort zone in suburban Sydney. The meandering drive to Jonah’s at Whale Beach, a five-star boutique hotel perched on the crest of Barrenjoey headland, is bang on Google’s estimated time of 55 minutes. Guests who are missing air travel can even opt for a 20-minute seaplane commute from Rose Bay to Pittwater.
The view on arrival is jaw-dropping: a sweeping panorama from the precipice above Whale Beach, the lesser-known but arguably prettier strip of sand south of Palm Beach. Palmy tends to lure more visitors as the set of iconic TV series Home and Away. I’m unlucky with the weather – it’s grey with occasional drops – but the ballooning clouds add drama to rival an Alf Stewart scene. Speckled foam trails in the ocean below reveal the sort of miracle Bondi has not seen in decades: the waves look good, and there are only three surfers out.
This breathtaking view prompted Constance Vidal, an English widow of a priest, to buy three blocks of land overlooking Whale Beach for a mere 740 pounds back in 1928 (the equivalent of about AU$60,000 today). Whether or not she foresaw the Sydney property boom – which now prices Northern Beaches houses at an average $2.5 million – Vidal reckoned the newly invented automobile would take off. She built a roadhouse to fuel day-trippers from Sydney, and Jonah’s opened in 1929.
Today, Jonah’s is hedging its bets on weekenders. I’m here on the “Stay and Play” package, which includes a night in one of the hotel’s 11 sought-after rooms, dinner at its legendary seafood restaurant, breakfast, and the cherry on top: a charcuterie and champagne lunch on a yacht trip over Pittwater. The aim is to extend guests’ escapism, so Sydneysiders who make the trek OTB really feel like they’ve had a holiday rather than a rushed dinner, shut eye and hasty check out.
The weather is still in a mood, so our rain-smattered sailing trip looks a little different to the sunny scenes on Jonah’s Instagram. But the Bollinger is icy, and a strong easterly offers a thrill as our vessel Mei Wenti (Mandarin for “No Worries”, named by her ex-pat former owner) whips across the water. Sailors Michael and Jack from yacht tour company Taylor Made Escapes crank levers and rudders as we tack across the bay. They’re multi-skilled seamen, I learn; experts at navigating surprise proposals and anniversary sailing trips.
After lunch, a soggy jaunt down the hill from Jonah’s to Whale Beach and back ticks my step count over 10,000. Enough to earn another champagne – Bolly, darling – and a three-course feast with matching wines at the hotel’s hatted restaurant.
Executive Chef Matteo Zamboni, of former Pilu and Ormeggio fame, has designed an innovative Australian menu that heroes outstanding produce. John Dory is fresh and butter-soft, house-made tubes of casarecce pasta swaddled in green zucchini cream are comfortingly moreish. And while I’m not here for the steak, a slice of the seven-score marbled Angus is as dreamy as you should expect. The only shock comes with the bill: just $110 for three courses a la carte at a hatted restaurant. The wine is extra (both in cost and peculiarity) but worth the treat to roam the globe with food and beverage director Niels Sluiman, ending on a dessert “ice wine” picked from the frozen grapes of Niagara Falls.
Zipping from France to Germany, Italy and Canada in wine tastings leaves me a little jet-lagged. Fortunately, this is no airport hotel, and Jonah’s beds are apparently so comfortable that little business cards sit at the reception desk listing where guests can order the exact same beds online. My nine-hour slumber, backed by the blissful sound of crashing waves on sand, is enough for me to pocket a card on checkout. I’m a few suburbs and a harbour crossing from home, but this staycation feels worlds away.
Get there: Jonah’s is a 50-minute drive from Sydney CBD or, if you’re feeling indulgent, a 20-minute seaplane ride from Rose Bay.
Stay there: A weekend night at Jonah’s with dinner, bed and breakfast starts from $1,124 per couple. The Stay and Play package including room, three-course dinner, breakfast and yacht cruise with champagne picnic hamper is $898pp twin share.