This growing suburb in the Hunter Region is near the west shore of Lake Macquarie, a vast saltwater lake and a Mecca for recreation.
The story of Cooranbong is entwined with the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, which moved here in the 1890s during their mission to Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Avondale University College, an absorbing ethnographic museum about the South Seas, and the Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing Company, are all Seventh-day Adventist creations in Cooranbong.
There’s sumptuous rainforest and mountain scenery behind the town at Watagans National Park, while cute villages, little parks and holiday communities speckle the shoreline of Lake Macquarie.
1. Watagans National Park
Cooranbong is partly enclosed by a 77.51-square-kilometre national park, rich with jaw-dropping rainforest scenery.
Blackbutt trees and mountain blue gums conceal an undergrowth of black cherry, tree ferns and climbing vines.
You can make your way up to lookouts for lovely views of lush rainforest gullies, or hike to the paradisiacal Gap Creek Falls, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
The Watagan Mountains are of huge importance to the Awabakal and Darkinjung People, and there are more than 100 abstract motifs carved into walls across the park.
In the 19th century the timber industry moved in, harvesting the abundant hardwood and cedar, and there are clues going back to these days littering the landscape.
2. Lake Macquarie
In the other direction is the largest coastal saltwater lake in Australia, the shore of which is barely five minutes from the centre of Cooranbong.
Lake Macquarie is more than twice as large as Sydney Harbour and offers a world of experiences and activities.
A lot of the 32-kilometre shoreline is preserved by a string of parks that make up the Lake Macquarie State Conservation Area, where you can wander at gorgeous locations like Wangi Wangi Point, poking into the lake at the tip of a peninsula.
There’s ample opportunity to navigate the lake by canoe, kayak or paddleboard, and fishing is practically a way of life around these parts.
On land are farmers’ markets by the water, and you can head over to Lake Macquarie Airport for unforgettable flights to see the lake’s twisting shoreline from the sky.
3. South Sea Islands Museum
The main reason to venture onto the Avondale Estate is for this museum displaying artefacts collected by the Seventh-day Adventists on their missions to the South Sea Islands in the late-19th and early-20th century.
Gathered from the as far afield as the Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand and the Cook Islands is a revolving array of tools, weapons, spiritual items, vessels and even headhunting gear.
The museum’s mainstay is an extraordinary war canoe from the Solomon Islands, used for headhunting raids.
The museum is in a former residence built in 1896 and opens to regular visitors on Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday, 14:00-16:00.
4. Sunnyside Historic Home
The American founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ellen G. White (1827-1915), commissioned this house as her base for her six-year mission to Australia between 1895 and 1900. Sunnyside is right next door to the South Sea Islands Museum and lies on the edge of the Avondale College Campus, which White helped to establish.
The property is lovely, clad with weatherboard and featuring beautiful ironwork on its verandah.
On a tour you’ll find out about White’s life story, her prodigious writing output, her philosophy on nutrition and the myriad other ways she her influence has touched millions of people.
5. Gap Creek Falls
This walk in Watagans National Park begins at the Gap Creek picnic area at the end of Bangalow Road.
From there you’ll take a track uphill through dense stands of Illawarra flame trees and red cedar.
On a hot summer’s day you can pause at a magical space by the creek, scattered with boulders and with cascades and pools inhabited by endangered yabbies.
A little further on you’ll be met by the magnificent Gap Creek Falls, a broad, silky curtain of water dropping over an amphitheatre of stratified sandstone.
Try to visit after a period of heavy rain, but allowing enough time for the roads to dry out.
6. Monkey Face Lookout
An easy excursion into Watagans National Park from Cooranbong will get you to one of its most spectacular locations.
This lookout is perched over the Martinsville Valley, which unfolds to the east.
Come in winter and you’ll get a blast of fresh, crisp air, while in summer the colours are amazing as the sun bakes the valley.
The picnic area at the lookout is under the canopy of ancient ironbark and grass trees.
Bring a camera with a good zoom lens, or a pair of binocular, as there’s a lot of birdlife up here, not least the glossy black cockatoo.
7. Water Activities
The gentle waters and profusion of little bays and coves around Lake Macquarie’s shoreline set up Lake Macquarie as a prime water sports destination.
Sailing, boating and water skiing are all on the menu, but two activities that have recently taken off are kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.
The Newcastle-based School of Yak provides guided eco kayak tours of the lake, Kite & SUP is in the north at Warners Bay, while Lake Mac Kayak & SUP Hire is a mobile service reaching the entire lakeshore.
With smaller vessels like these you’ll be free to go where your sense of adventure takes you, and go ashore for a break at one of the many parks around the lake.
Lake Macquarie also shines as a hotspot for recreational fishing, whether you go by boat or want to cast a line from the shore.
You would need a separate article for a comprehensive run-down of the all of the fishing spots and species at the lake, but there’s a few things we have to mention.
The prime location on the shore is the jetty at Speers Point Park near the lake’s northernmost tip.
Reids Reserve at the Swansea Channel is also popular, and there’s always a crowd of anglers competing with the pelicans on Lucy’s Wall.
Closer to Cooranbong, Rathmines Park is the pick if you don’t want to travel far.
As for the fish, there’s a host of recreational species in these waters like sand whiting, yellowtail kingfish, dusky flathead, mulloway, luderick, bream and Australian salmon.
9. Dora Creek
This watercourse flows through Cooranbong on its way to Port Macquarie.
The banks of Dora Creek are picture-perfect, especially where the river bends past the Avondale University College campus.
There’s a little white-painted footbridge here, where you can bask in the peace and greenery.
Dora Creek is also one of the favoured watercourses around Lake Macquarie for kayakers to explore, and you can bring little ones to the grassy spaces beside it to feed the ducks (birdseed instead of bread!). At the mouth of Dora Creek is the namesake village, which in 1840 became the first European settlement on the lakeshore.
10. Heaton Lookout
As with many of the highlights in Watagans National Park, this majestic lookout and accompanying picnic area can be accessed by 4WD via gravel/clay roads.
Heaton Lookout is on the range’s first ridge and points east for an awe-inspiring view of the coast.
The knotted shoreline of Lake Macquarie is laid before you, and you can see right across to Norah Head Lighthouse, around 40 kilometres to the south.
Needless to say, the sunrise at Heaton Lookout is indescribable, and there’s a campsite here for the 240-kilometre Great North Walk between Sydney and Newcastle.
The picnic area comes with undercover seating and three fire pits, easily accommodating a barbecue with a difference.
11. Dobell House
On Wangi Wangi’s narrow and twisting peninsula sits the house and studio of Sir William Dobell, one of Australia’s foremost 20th-century artists.
This lakeside property was first built in 1925 by Dobell’s father as a weekend escape, and William eventually took up permanent residence in 1950. In the intervening years he added an extra storey to the house so he could paint in privacy, and he would work here until he passed away in 1970. The Dobell House opens its doors on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, and is full of memorabilia, fascinating ephemera, family furniture, photographs, prints and painting equipment, for a sense of Dobell’s home life and creative process.
12. Avondale Estate
To really get a feel for Cooranbong it’s worth taking a little tour of the town’s Seventh-day Adventist sites on the north bank of Dora Creek.
What will catch your eye right away is the brick-built Sanitarium Health Food Company factory building, dating to 1909. Avondale University College on the estate is made up of modern buildings interspersed by some structures from the end of the 19th century in the New England colonial style.
A couple of fine examples are Bethel Hall (1897) and College Hall (1899). To the west, close to the Cooranbong Playground is the Saints Patrick and Brigid Church.
This pared-down monument is from 1906, but the heritage-listed graveyard is half a century older, and its oldest gravestone bears the date 1861.
13. Cooranbong Playground
The main park in Cooranbong is a lovely little space on Dora Creek.
For families with wee ones there’s a newly installed playscape, partially shaded by trees.
A cute footbridge carries you over the river to a picnic area, and you can wander around the pond to visit the old graveyard of Saints Patrick and Brigid Church.
On the first Sunday of the month the park plays host to Cooranbong Eat Street, an enticing market with a lineup of food trucks for every palate.
14. Catherine Hill Bay Beach
To feel the sand between your toes, the Tasman Sea can be reached within half an hour of Cooranbong.
The beaches all along the two peninsulas enclosing Lake Macquarie are sensational, but if you only have time for one, Catherine Hill Bay Beach often makes it onto “Australia’s 101 Best Beaches”. This patrolled beach is on the edge of a quaint old mining village, a remnant of which can be found at the pier on the south end.
There are also rusting vestiges of the industrial days in the green hills enclosing the bay.
The beach itself is pristine, and bathed by rolling waves that attract lots of surfers.
The more protected south end is more suited to swimming, and if the surf is too much for less confident bathers there’s acres of shallow water to splash in at low tide.
15. Rathmines Park
If you’re hunting for another place to spend an hour or two next to Lake Macquarie, Rathmines Park is minutes away to the east, and looks across Catalina Bay.
What you’ll find is a neat, well-maintained park with lots of shade from the trees lining the lakeshore, as well as picnic areas, barbecues, a children’s playground, a skate park, an off-leash area for dogs, a disc golf course and trails for strolling and biking.
As with all the parks on the west shore, the views at sunrise are well worth the pain of getting up early.
In late-May the Catalina Festival celebrates WWII-era RAAF Base Rathmines, formerly on this site, and raises funds to preserve a Catalina seaplane.