Out of the Way Surprises on Australia’s East Coast

Staff Writer
Cooking and eating by sand and sea in Australia
Wilson Island kitchen
Trish Friesen
Wilson Island kitchen

I recently ate a lot in Australia, which is odd considering I basically lived in my bathing suit. I didn’t mean to consume at the ravenous pace of a crocodile, it just happened. How could I resist swish beach town restaurants, an Italian chef’s creations on a private island, or a refined retreat that went so far as serving appetizers with breakfast? I couldn’t. So I snorkeled a little harder and stand-up paddle-boarded a little longer to counteract the copious consumption.

Aside from an evening where I stumbled upon a dark, side street cafe serving an intoxicating mix of live bossa nova jazz, alfresco dining, sangria, and paella, most of my eating in seaside Sydney was indoors. First stop, the mall. I know, in North America this would be a culinary travesty, but at Sydney’s Westfield Centre it’s a treat. Combine high-end shopping with modern design and multi-levels of wholesome food choices, and you’ll want to spend hours in the mall, for the food alone. The clothes aren’t so bad either.

Etched into the landscape of Sydney’s most famous beach towns are a couple of Italian-inspired, destination restaurants whose oceanfront views are as spectacular as their food. One used to be a dressing room for the throngs of bathers flocking to the beach and the other is perched above a modern-day swim club.

Drizzled in history, the Manly Pavilion is an elegant eatery that rewards people for taking a 30-minute ferry from Sydney. Aside from my delicately prepared meal, my reward was a complimentary house-made platter with cocoa-covered nuts, raspberry Turkish Delights, and chewy lemon candies. At the other end of the spectrum is Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, a mod place to be seen. Don’t miss the polenta chips with sour cream. It sounds so plain, but tastes so good.

My next stop was off the grid. So far off the grid, in fact, that every bit of cargo, including guests, had to be brought in via small boat. I stayed on Wilson Island, a coral cay at the Southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, with 6 tents, a central longhouse, gourmet chef, and enough wine and cheese to sink a ship.

The food was akin to a Michelin-starred restaurant, yet the cook only had 5 fridges, 2 barbecues, and a burner to create his gastronomic goodies. Emilio’s version of eco-camp cooking was prawn and avocado terrine, macadamia-nut encrusted barramundi (a white fish), mint-garnished watermelon granite, and nightly Champagne at sundown.

As luck would have it, I went from one Champagne toast to another, traveling one step farther up Australia’s East Coast to qualia, a resort on Hamilton Island.

When my chartered chariot (er... Honda Odyssey) pulled up to qualia’s open-air lobby, my eyes zeroed-in on two things: a champagne flute and aqua-hued ocean vista. This wonderful juxtaposition of beverage and backdrop continued throughout my whole stay. Once qualia added food into the mix, the infinity pool wasn’t just for looking at, it was for swimming off the calories!

Good thing the thoughtfully prepared menus were healthy and well-rounded. Case in point: I could barely finish my eggs benedict with avocado and tomato slices, since even breakfast came with a yogurt parfait and fresh fruit appetizer. The poolside smoothies or virgin mojitos are another story entirely — don’t let me start now.

As I reflect on each of these diverse culinary encounters, two things stand out: just because you’re cooking on sand floor with a barbecue doesn’t mean you can’t go gourmet and you should always toast someone special every evening at sundown. Cheers!

(Photos courtesy of Trish Friesen, unless noted.)

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