Friday, 12 December 2014

Queen Margherita of Savoy: all fired up

Lee and Sharon Carroll, of QMOS, at restaurant Brandi, Naples, where the pizzaioli who created the margherita worked.  
Over the past few years, I have done the rounds, so to speak, steering my family everywhere from Leichardt to Lane Cove in search of some of Sydney's best pizza. Imagine my delight then, after an early-evening walk about eights months ago, when I noticed a local shopfront window in Cronulla with a laminated certificate stamped by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana stuck onto glass doors plastered in sheets of newspaper.  

I read with interest the accompanying newspaper article about local chef Lee Carroll, who had participated in a three-week training course in Napoli in March 2013 and was set to follow the stringent set of rules required to receive accreditation from the association. While in Italy, Carroll also worked around the clock at a pizzeria in Naples, to gain work experience. Mamma mia!

Lee Carroll's white-hot ambition in action at Queen Margherita of Savoy, Cronulla.     
White-hot ambition
As pizza purists in the know will tell you, accreditation from the AVPN is the stamp of approval that indicates that the pizzaioli (person who makes pizza) is sticking to the rules when it comes to 'due pizza-making processes'.  The fact that this Australian chef had travelled to Italy to learn how to make traditional Neapolitan pizza told me he was very serious about complying with pizza protocol. 
The Queen's Banquet ... at Queen Margherita of Savoy. 

Lee Carroll has earned his pizzaioli's stripes.
Say fior de latte
For non-Italians, this rigorous procedure may sound a bit over-the-top. But what it does ensure is that by adhering to the guidelines - which include a very precise method of manipulating the dough, to the cheese used in the preparation of pizza margherita, to the ingredients used to make the dough and the method of proving and then cooking the dough - the ancient traditions of 'verace pizza Napoletana' (true Italian pizza) are kept alive.

A passion for pizza

I stuck my head around the door and found chef Lee Carroll busy sending white puffs of flour into the air beside a glittering wood-fired oven. Lee appreciated my reverence for what he was trying to do and we riffed about pizza, Italy, that oven and where his passion for good pizza began.

"I took one bite from a slice of pizza at Pizza Mario 10 years ago and it changed my life. I've aspired to own a pizzeria ever since," says the 40-year-old, who sports rock-star sleeves of tatts and earned his chef stripes working at local restaurants such as Sea Level and the Blue Parrot.

Giulio Abussi is a Napoli native who helps man the pizza pans at Queen Margherita of Savoy. 
Red, white and green
Fast-forward eight months since my first meeting with Lee and his wife Sharon - who manages the floor - and
Queen Margherita of Savoy is on fire. Well the inside of the Stefano Ferrara Forni oven is, at least.  The name of the pizzeria pays homage to the Queen consort of the Kingdom of Italy (1878 to 1900) during the reign of her husband, Umberto. As legend has it, in 1889, Queen Margherita visited Naples and summoned the best pizza maker of the time, Raffaele Esposito, to prepare three pizzas for her. Her favourite pizza turned out to feature the red (tomatoes), green (basil) and white (cheese) colours of the Italian flag. When the queen asked Raffaele the name of the pizza, he said: "Margherita, in your honour."

It can't hurt the QMOS brand to have Neapolitan native Giulio Abussi working alongside Carroll in the kitchen helping to peddle an average of 150 pizzas per day. Carroll met the 25-year-old in Italy when he employed him as a language assistant to help him understand the training course, which is presented in Italian. The pair became firm friends and Carroll recognised that the young Italian had an intense theoretical understanding of Neapolitan pizza.
Queen Margherita of Savoy has a relaxed and comfortable vibe, conducive to chatter and noise.

"It struck me very early in the piece that Giulio knew so much theory. He worked for the AVPN as an interpreter, he’d been to the flour factory, he had met the tomato growers, has good friends who have pizzerias, and he was very giving with his knowledge. He knew everything from the ground up and shared my desire and passion to deliver the best possible product. He'd also worked at his friend's pizzeria in Naples," says Carroll, who is seeking to sponsor his offsider to extend his stay in Sydney. 

Watch chef Lee Carroll and offsider Giulio Abussi in the cut-out kitchen at QMOS. 
Naples: A way of love.
At your service.              Photo: Deidre Worsley.

The margherita pizza is food fit for a queen.                                                             Photo: Deidre Worsley.
The staple in Naples
"Giulio is a joy to have as a secondhander. It's so difficult to find talent when it comes to making proper Neapolitan pizza," says Carroll. Carroll describes the AVPN as "a glorified franchise" and he says that with the utmost respect. Part of the rules surrounding accreditation include the requirement to make a 40-minute video that follows him step-by-step through the process of making pizza. "Earning accreditation will be recognition that what we are doing is being done with integrity and pride. It will be a vote of confidence," he says.

The wood-fired oven takes pride of place in the rustic, dimly lit dining room, which features a black-and-white chequered floor, copper tones and dark timber. The theatre of watching this pair of pizzaiolis is part of the fun and it's the sort of dining room where you expect noise and clatter.

Lee Carroll's dream to open a pizzeria was no pie in the sky.                                                   Photo: Deidre Worsley.
Fire up
As for the product itself, my family have hoovered up many margheritas and that interplay of fire and dough and tomatoes and cheese is consistently fabulous. The dough comes out with that high and fluffy edge that has the right kind of chew and char and is so soft and pliable you could stuff a duvet cover with it. 

When just cooked, the taste of the tomatoes and cooked mozzarella and basil is intense and harmonious and a chorus of 'oohs and aahs' fills the small space, which also sells takeaway pizza. I've seen Carroll and Abussi in the kitchen together many times since that first meeting and their success says as much about the Shire's ever-improving food scene as it does about the quality of the product.

Carroll says what he loves most about Italian food is its simplicity. "Italian food is really primal. Cucina povera got people through world wars. Instead of surviving on awful food, they made the most of cheap cuts of meat and preserved food to make it last all year. I love the respect that they show for good food and great ingredients," says Carroll.

Christmas Carrolls .... Cute Christmas lights at QMOS are in the shape of triangles of pizza.
Carroll is not reinventing the wheel. But he has done much to shape local understanding about what constitutes an authentic Neapolitan pizza. Pizza posturing aside, it's really worth giving his pizzas a whirl. To read a review of QMOS, visit Good Food where fellow food writer Angie Schiavone recommended it for the Good Food Under $30 section of the site.

The dough has been properly rested and has the right amount of chew and char.

Pizza with principles
Highlights on the QMOS menu include the proscuitto cotto e funghi freschi (tomato, fior di latte, leg ham, mushrooms, garlic and parmigiano reggiano) from the pizze rosse section and the salsiccia e rapini (fior di latte, pork and fennel sausage and broccoli) from the pizze bianche

Antipasti and arancini.     Photo: Deidre Worsley.
The menu also includes insalata, antipasti, salumi and fritture (fried morsels) and the arancini make cameos on the specials board. Pizzerias with AVPN accreditation in Sydney include: Gigi, in Newtown, Lucio's Pizzeria, in Darlinghurst, Pizza Mario, in Surry Hills and Aperitivo in Leichardt. There are also many more pizzerias that, though they don't have accreditation, do a great job of earning a crust. Following are a few more of my favourites: Via Napoli in Lane Cove, Frankie's Pizza, Rosso Pomodoro, in Balmain, Hugo's Bar Pizza in King's Cross, Pompei's in Bondi, Vacanza, in Bronte and PizzAperta, at The Star. 

Take the AVPN quiz to see if you understand the principles of neapolitan pizza and tell me where you go to find a slice of pizza heaven. 

Queen Margherita of Savoy is located at Shop 9, 2-8 Surf Rd, Cronulla. For bookings, phone 02 9527 4992. Open Mon-Sun 5pm till late. Note: QMOS is looking to recruit another master neapolitan pizza-maker.

Monday, 8 December 2014

El Sol has heart and soul

The Scorpion Bar at El Sol Mexican Cantina spills out onto the pavement on the Kingsway.
El Sol is the kind of knowingly scuffed space that demands you kick off your shoes, order a cerveza and recall the time you lived a barefoot existence in a palapa on a beach in Mexico, cooking fresh tortillas and frijoles over an open fire and practising your Spanglish. At least that's what The Husband and I do when we visit El Sol.

Did someone say it's tequila time? The drinks list at El Sol is extensive and impressive.
We rewound to when we spent a total of nine months in Mexico, with two-thirds of that time living on an isolated beach in Michoacan and cooking around a bonfire under a sky pricked with stars. To say we are fond of the North American country, its food, people and culture, is a rank understatement; it remains one of our favourite places on the planet.

Aye carumba! El Sol Mexican Cantina is loud and lively.
Day of the Dead-esque decor.

El Sol screams fiesta

It's no wonder we feel so warm and fuzzy when we enter the Cronulla cantina, which is a riot of colour from swatches of velvety fabric, skulls, skeletons, jugs of sangria, statues of Jesus, nuclear-red walls and a range of ridiculously hot sauces. It's got that anything-can-happen-and-it-probably-will vibe down-pat. That's Mexico en pocas palabras (in a nutshell).  Mexico is chaotic and loud and a little bit loose and El Sol is a microcosm of that, minus the moustachioed men in sombreros packing heat.

Beer on the bucket list
First impressions are muy bueno: the staff are young and welcoming,  the chef slings out really satisfying and serviceable food, the bartender rightly recommends a bucket of five Mexican beers for $30 and the place has found an audience that appreciates all of the above. With most starters on the menu at around the $10 mark and mains ranging from $15 to $30, the pricing is keen. Co-owners Jad Nakhle, Dean Hughes and Geoff Trio bought the business about six years ago and have cultivated a dedicated loyal following ever since.
Jugs of sangria, all-you-can-eat tacos, buckets of beer and live bands make El Sol a Sunday stalwart.

All-you-can-eat tacos for $15 is a sweet deal.
Aye carumba
Make no mistake, the food here is no-frills hawker-style food. But that's what Mexican food is. On Sundays, the all-you-can-eat taco bar ($15 for adults; $10 for kids) is a DIY affair. My two sons, who surfed for a total of five hours on the day we visited, devoured nachos ($11) with slow-braised shredded beef with black beans, cheese, salsa and sour cream followed by eight soft-shell tortillas each, which they filled with beef, salsa, queso and lettuce.

It's all about the base ...
The fact that the tortillas are pillowy soft and the salsa is perfectly piquant just adds to the joy. And seriously, at $1.25 a pop, it's a very wallet-friendly proposition. Warm chicken salad was much more appealing than it sounded, with hunks of marinated chicken still warm over a mound of shredded purple cabbage, capsicum, spring onion and coriander. Note the newly launched bar menu also features street cart faves such as elotes callajeros (grilled corn) and chilli con queso (four-cheese-dip with jalapeno chillies).
Terepai and his Funky Soul Allstars at El Sol Mexican Cantina
There is a lot to love about El Sol thanks to co-owner Jad Nakhle (pictured), Dean Hughes and Geoff Trio.  

A family affair

Like Yalla Sawa and the Brass Monkey, this is a family affair with Jad and wife Hayley's Argentinian brother-in-law head chef Francisco Desrets the Latin American connection in the kitchen.  As co-owner of the Brass Monkey, one of Sydney's best live venues, Jad's music industry connections make live music even more accessible for all with a Sunday jam session at El Sol led by Terepai Richmond a real weekend highlight. The fact there is no cover charge for such top-notch shows is another reason to support El Sol. To give you an idea about the calibre of the acts here, on the Sunday we visited, US singer John Mayer's guitarist David Ryan Harris was in the spotlight. I repeat: there was no cover charge.

The session musicians that join drummer Terepai Richmond on stage each week are some of Australia's finest funky allstars.
Terepai is one of Australia's most sought-after session musicians - he joined the Whitlams in 1999 - and he curates little variations to the lineup each week. As well as the improvisational jams, the colourful cantina celebrates music that is live and loud on Friday and Saturday nights and features the odd surf film and soccer match, too.
Let the good times roll at El Sol.
El Sol has two bars and while it hosts the occasional touring band, it's the local bands that get the largest draw. The Scorpion Bar is just a few steps above the main floor and spills out onto the Kingsway, while the Cantina Bar is one of the most comfortable places for all ages to sit and watch the show.

El Sol is buzzy and buzzy and a popular hangout for local musicians and hospo peeps.
In summary, this come-as-you-are cantina has a dark and divey ambience, is unpretentious and comfortable and boasts a menu that pairs perfectly with a cold cerveza or cocktail and a stellar lineup of local acts. Once the sun has slipped over the sea, the space really cranks and the good times roll until about midnight. It's one of the best down and dirty bars in Sydney and, even better, it's just around the corner from me in Cronulla.

El Sol, Shop 2 40-42 The Kingsway, Cronulla Beach, + 61 2 9544 4116, Open Tuesday-Sunday 6pm-12pm Tues-Thurs, 6pm-midnight Fri-Sat, 3pm-11pm Sunday.
El Sol has heart and soul and is a cantina a Mexican would be proud of.

Worship at the altar of hot sauce.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Kick off summer on the Central Coast

Jumping for joy at Umina Beach. 

If they were to be reincarnated, my two sons would surely return as labrador puppies. They need to be fed, run, watered and loved. Luckily, my husband and I are in synch with their exuberance and, while holidaying on the Central Coast, agree there's no better way to get a feel for a coastal town than to start the day with a walk along the beach in the buttery light of dawn.

Day two of our holiday along the Legendary Pacific Coast begins at Ocean Beach Holiday Park at Umina Beach. After a clamber on the rocks in the nook the locals dub ‘Kiddie’s Corner’ the boys bend their bodies like straws and star-fish into the sand. After being properly schnitzelled, breadcrumbed in sand and dirt, we have a quick dip in the sea before heading back to our cabin, which is bright and modern and has its own ensuite.

Caravan parks in Australia have come a long way, capitalising on their prime locations and offering so many options for children to go berko while parents enjoy the comforts of a really comfortable cabin replete with all the mod cons. 

Huevos rancheros at the the Point Cafe.
The next day, we have to bribe our boys to exit through the boom gate with the offer of breakfast at the Point Cafe in Avoca, where the customers all seem to know each other and the morning shift has a brisk turnover. It’s easy to love a place that sits overlooking the beach, which is curled like a comma just metres from our table.

In the swim of things
We watch one group of locals who swim year-round, no matter the weather, crawling out to sea in their cossies before returning to the cafe for coffee; a table of retirees who, according to the animated staff, might stay from breakfast to lunch; and young families building castles on the sand and dipping in and out of the sea.

The cafe has vases of flowers, easy listening tunes, tasty breakfast and lunch options and views that lower the blood pressure. The menu is pulled together using local produce and the chefs are flexible enough to tweak to your tastes or dietary requirements. Go for huevos rancheros, googey eggs with toast dippers or smashed avo with baby capers, smoked salmon and poached eggs on pumpkin seed bread.

Reserve a table overlooking the beach at Avoca, which curls out like a comma in front of the cafe.

Aqua culture
Come mid-morning, after a walk along Avoca Beach, we still have more than enough fuel in the tank for some Aqua Fun and are thrilled at the opportunity to try out the company’s large range of people-powered watercraft. 

While The Husband and I start off with the more sedate pedal boats, my two action heroes grab a watercraft that is part bike, part boat. The operation is run by Mick and Jennifer Kilp and their son Nick, who is the fourth generation of the family to be in the business of hiring out kayaks. Mick is Mr Water Man himself: his first job in the school holidays in the 70s was hiring out kayaks, and he was a deep sea fisherman for 15 years before launching the Aqua Fun venture 15 years ago.
Pedal-powered boats and water bikes are one of many Aqua Fun options at Avoca Lake.

“My grandfather hired our kayaks in Manly and my father spent the Second World War taking prisoners in kayaks. He was beyond enemy lines during World War Two in a kayak made of canvas conducting stealth missions,” says Mick, who is visibly proud of the long-standing link to the kayak, a type of canoe that was originally used by the Inuit.
Mick and Jennifer Kilp and their son Nick, of Aqua Fun on Avoca Lake.
After whirring about Avoca Lake for an hour or so, we all pick up the pace with a stand-up paddleboarding session, following a family of ducks using their spatula-like feet to get to shore and enjoying the aquarium below, which is full of flying mullet, plants and frogs.

Keep cool at the Kincumber
After people-powering around the waterway for a few hours, we head to lunch at The Kincumber Hotel, which has undergone an extensive makeover. It’s got it all: there are nooks for books, trivia nights, boutique craft beers on tap, staff with a sense of humour, table tennis for the children and a really excellent range of pub grub which includes Healthy Stuff as a main, rather than an after-thought. 

The signature Kincumber salad is one of many clean and green options on the menu.
The hotel, once owned by journalist Mike Willesee, is included in one of the 52 Local Secrets campaign to lure visitors to the Central Coast and, judging by the lunchtime crowd, this secret is well and truly out. Be sure to check out the boutique brews available on tap from local brewers, the Six String Brewing Co, which flings open its doors Wednesday to Sunday offering samplers and selling street food.

The Hairy Goat that inspired the name of the bar at the Kincumber Hotel.
Kincumber Hotel presents trivia nights every Wednesday.
Boutique brews are the order of the day at Kincumber Hotel.

The Kincumber Kitchen is all dark and moody with pendant lighting and comfortable booths.
We do as the staff suggest and share an octopus salad and the signature Kincumber Salad of quinoa, roast pumpkin seed, sunflower seed, roast almond broccolini, alfalfa and rocket before checking into our terrace suite at the Crowne Plaza Terrigal,
Watery views from our corner balcony room at Crowne Plaza, Terrigal.

Terrigal: a place of little birds  
Once settled into The Crowne Plaza Terrigal, which is in the process of undergoing a tasteful renovation, we spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the township of Terrigal – named after the Indigenous word that signifies a ‘place of little birds’ - playing a round of beach cricket and thrashing around in the shore break. We also huff and puff up to the promontory known as the Skillion, a local landmark that offers a birds’-eye perspective over the area.
The Crowne Plaza, Terrigal, is in the process of being brought up-to-date.
Our room has a restaurant directly below it, which is a great spot to watch the thunder and lightning show over the sea, stretched out like sheet metal in front of us. The Florida Beach Bar  or Beery’s as the locals refer to it – is also a-clatter with the sound of pool cues and Powderfinger. It’s known to cater to raging parties on the deck out front, which is festooned with lights, but on a Monday evening the crowd is a mix of conference-goers, out-of-towners and locals loving up their neighbourhood spot.

The perfect beach for a round of french cricket with the family.

At the day's end, The Husband and I reflect on how many holidays we've had to the Central Coast in the past few years and agree they are the type of short breaks that we will look back on for years to come. The fact that it's so close to Sydney only adds to the appeal of chasing the sun up the coast.

Carla Grossetti was invited to the Central Coast as a guest of The Legendary Pacific Coast

Body-surfing the shorey at the main beach in Terrigal.


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Frangipani: the frozen soundtrack

Diana Kontoprias, of Frangipani Gelato.
It's summertime in Cronulla and the living is easy. With the warmer weather comes the crowds who are drawn to the area for the simple pleasure of being by the seaside on a sultry summer's day where there are breaks and points and beaches to suit all comers.

When it comes time to turn your back on the curl of white sand at South Cronulla and dust off your bucket and spade, join the crush of visitors queuing at Frangipani Gelato Bar, located within a cluster of shops near to the train station.

A rainbow of flavours
This gelateria focuses on a high-quality artisanal gelato with a rainbow of flavours that is as diverse as the crowds: it's elbow-to-elbow with teens flirting over which flavour to try; grandparents committing blatant acts of bribery; and the grommet brigade cooling their heels between surfs.

Kontoprias was taught to make gelato by an Italian when she was living and working in Greece more than a decade ago. She has since gone on to scoop one gold and more than 20 silver medals at Sydney's Royal Easter Show, received third place in the Oceanic Australia and NZ division of the Gelato World Tour and a special award for her pavlova flavour at the global gelato event held in Rimmini, Italy in September, 2014.

Pavlova perfection
Kontoprias was joined in Italy by representatives from Gelato Messina (which has just opened its new premises at Westfield Miranda) as well as the Cow and the Moon, which went on to beat 23 other finalists from around the world. The three Australian teams were chosen out of 16 Australian and New Zealand competitors to travel to the finals in Italy. As one of the top three contenders at the Oceanic Australia global gelato event, Kontoprias was proud to have a crack at the world title with her Aussie-as pavlova flavour, which received a special mention as voted by her industry peers.

Pavlova is the perfect summer flavour.
"As a Greek-Australian the fact that I have received recognition for my artisan gelato is such an honour because I am competing against Italians who have been making gelato for generations. Frangipani is such a small artisan gelato shop and it holds its own against some heavyweights," says Kontoprias, who founded the gelateria in 2002.

A formula for success
The pavlova-flavoured gelato, which features a meringue-flavoured base, passionfruit puree and meringue pieces folded throughout, was created just a year ago and has gone on to become Frangipani's fourth most popular flavour behind cookies, Snickers and salty caramel.

Her award-winning formula adheres to the artisan principle of makes the creamy confection fresh every day using highest quality ingredients and she then tweaks the flavours according to her own taste.

"Once I learnt the basics of making gelato I was free to experiment and that's what I love doing. I've been back to Italy to study the art of making gelati, but my approach is to be as experimental as possible and throw out the rule book when it comes to traditional flavours," says Kontoprias.

'Tis the season
The flavours change as different fruits come into season. This summer, Kontoprias says the hottest flavours are cool and refreshing, such as lime, coconut, raspberry coconut and toffee. She says the sorbets - which are essentially non-dairy gelati - are also really popular.

Frangipani has recently had a facelift, with a berry-flavoured feature wall and pendant lamps illuminating the sleek gelato counter; coffee nuts should also note that Kontoprias is also obsessive about coffee, which is made using The Little Marionette boutique beans.

Expect the gelateria to be smashed this weekend following Slam, the World's Largest Beach Volleyball Festival, to be held at South Cronulla Beach this Saturday, December 6.

Savour the flavour of Frangipani Gelato, which is near to the Cronulla Train Station.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Blue-sky thinking on the Central Coast

Family frilled to be at the Australian Reptile Park.
There’s something a little bit wicked about sneaking off on a Sunday for a jaunt up to the Central Coast. While most Sydney-siders are returning to their busy city lives after a weekend away, we’re blasting Triple J, playing spotto with Jacaranda trees and feeling a little bit smug about skiving off work and school in favour of play.

Despite it being a flat-out scorcher of a day, we’ve somehow managed to beat the heat and file away a few happy family memories in the back catalogue for future reference.

Web of intrigue  
The first stop on our traipse-around the Central Coast, on The Legendary Pacific Coast, was The Australian Reptile Park in Somersby, just one hour’s north from Sydney. What the children learnt at this hands-on zoo today adds layers to what they might have otherwise learned from a textbook and then some, with the exhibits identifying Australia's vulnerable species as well as our most venomous snakes and spiders. While snaking our way around the park increased our understanding of the eight-legged inhabitants of the park, the experience of scurrying around the caves of creepy crawlies saw me outed as an arachnophobe from the get-go.

Snakes alive
The displays are fun, informative and categorically creepy as they help identify various species of spiders that have apparently infested our house. Despite reading the sign that 'hairy doesn't mean scary' and seeing the safety net of inch-thick glass, my reaction when confronted with tarantulas is one of abject terror. What the children loved most about this den of predatory arachnids was dropping foreign objects into my hair and freaking me out.  They also enjoyed learning about the park’s long association with the production of funnel-web spider venoms.

If you arrive at 9.45am, you can observe the funnel-webs being milked. Incredibly, since the advent of the anti-venom in 1980 there have been no further deaths attributed to bites from this – the world’s deadliest spider. Go Australian Reptile Park, go.
Other highlights of the park included seeing venomous snakes, a legless lizard, learning about the zoo's efforts to save the iconic Tassie devil, having our photos taken with Polly, the koala and watching in awe as the zookeepers feed Elvis, NSW’s largest crocodile and a gang of ‘hangry’ gators.
The lagoon becomes a broiling pit of hangry gators at feeding time.
After enjoying a welcome picnic of sandwiches and fruit at the Hard Croc Cafe, we motor back out on the highway and head to the Glenworth Valley, which is heaven for outdoor adventurers. Despite being scheduled to go horseriding, the heat flowing down into the valley precludes this an option as the engines of both horses and humans are overheating. According to my phone, it’s 42 degrees in the shade. So the suggestion to go kayaking is the kind of blue-sky thinking that the outdoor adventure centre is renowned for.

Too cool for school
After patting a few palaminos, we follow our guide James on his quad bike spiralling through a speckled stand of eucalyptus trees until we reach a pretty crook of the Popran Creek. We drag our kayaks down onto the river bank and flop in unison into the mineral-rich water for a swim that can be best described as life-changing, with the creek a delicious mix of rainwater from the mangroves and saltwater from the Hawkesbury. I know it’s not rational, but with the alligator feeding frenzy still front-of-mind, I keep a close eye out for any croc-ologs.
What better way to spend a broiling hot day than paddling in a kayak in Popran Creek.

After an hour slicing through the silky water, we board the family wagon for the short drive to Umina, which is still so accessible from Sydney. “You say You Miner, I say You Meena,” says my husband, which prompts a Dad Joke Alert from the back.

Fun, fun and then some
The air smells delicious at the Ocean Beach Holiday Park, briny from the sea and fragrant with the blossoms of the flowering gums. Our cabin is clean, comfortable and modern and the park is purpose-built for kids and parents: think jumping pillows, water park, half-size tennis courts and adventure playground.
The Central Coast has large pockets of national park and hinterland as well as its stunning coastline.
Kiddies' Corner is a safe and sheltered cove at the southern end of Umina Beach.
While our boys, aged 10 and 11, affix their faces into the joyful position for the afternoon – doing backflips on the inflatable pillows, racing each other on go-karts and doing potentially illegal bombies in the pool, we then stroll along Umina Beach until we hit the local surf club, where, for the sum of $6 we enjoy a sundowner at the session the locals call ‘Sips’ while the kids splash about in the shorey.

The park is protected by Broken Bay at the southern end of the Central Coast and the children have pinky-sweared we will enjoy the 4km return journey again along the talcum-soft sand tomorrow morning.

Pub Grub at Patonga
Any pub awarded Best Regional Pub and a whopping three schooners by Fairfax’s Pub Food Guide is worth travelling to. Patonga means ‘little oyster’ in the Guringai people’s language, whose country stretched from the north side of Port Jackson to the southern end of Lake Macquarie.

Patonga is a very sedate and picturesque fishing village on the Central Coast.
The Patonga Hotel scored a whopping three schooners in Fairfax's Good Pub Guide. We concur: Top pub grub.

It's only a short drive to the Patonga Hotel where we pull up a table in the beer garden and observe as a boy and his father walk past with their fishing gear, their faces tanned by the sun; a couple of families arrive with their children dressed in their PJs and a table of touros sit obsessing over the view. We order burgers for the kids, grilled barramundi for the grown-ups and rejoice at just how sedate this setting is, how relaxed and reasonable the staff are and how seductive the overall experience is.

While we can see Palmie and the City of Sydney in the distance, it feels like we are a world away. Worth noting is that you can walk to Pearl Beach from Patonga via a fire trail, a picturesque trip that will take about 2 hours. It’s another reason to return to this stretch of coastline, where we stay until the scene has been smudged away with nightfall.   

Jumping for joy on our jaunt to the Central Coast.