The seat and commercial centre for the City of Shoalhaven, Nowra is a small town perched on the high, rocky banks of the Shoalhaven River.
Local farms, the presence of the Pacific Coast and a booming wine region all bless this part of New South Wales with world-class food and drinks.
The river, walled by tall cliffs, is an attraction of its own, affording scenic lookouts and peaceful cruises.
You can explore the coast and its multitude of habitats at the huge Jervis Bay Marine Park or drop by historic house museums like Bundanon Homestead where painter Arthur Boyd had his studio.
1. Shoalhaven Zoo
The South Coast’s most diverse group of animals is kept at this zoo on the cliffs above the Shoalhaven River.
In 6.5-acres of bushland, this zoo is a great opportunity to see and encounter Australian native animals like koalas, echidnas, various wallaby and kangaroo species, kookaburras, quokkas, emus, turtles, saltwater crocodiles and dingoes.
Shoalhaven Zoo is also known for exotic inhabitants like lions, meerkats and marmosets.
To get closer, you can book a range of special encounters, feeding lions, hand-feeding marmosets, cuddling meerkats and handling Australian animals like koalas, dingoes and kangaroos at the Ultimate Aussie Experience.
2. Treetops Adventure Nowra
Hoisted up in the tree canopy by the zoo in Nowra Park is an adventure-packed high ropes course.
To navigate from tree to tree you’ll have to pick your way across all sorts of tricky aerial challenges, like cargo nets, rope bridges and swinging bridges, while flying foxes shuttle through the canopy at high speed.
Trees Adventure is suitable for everyone aged four and up, and the course is designed in a way that lets you choose the difficulty level that suits you.
As you go you’ll be able to see into the zoo’s animal enclosures, and will get to scramble along the cliffs that line the Shoalhaven River.
A 2.5-hour session includes gearing up and a brief tutorial.
3. Fleet Air Arm Museum
HMAS Albatross, the primary naval air station for the Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Australian Navy’s aviation branch, is right outside Nowra.
The base’s museum holds a fleet of 34 aircraft, collected since the mid-1970s.
Some of the picks include a WWI-era Sopwith Pup, two McDonnell Douglas Skyhawks, two carrier-borne Fairey Gannets, a de Havilland Sea Venom, a de Havilland Sea Vampire and a MiG-15. Being a museum for naval aviation, helicopters feature heavily, with five Westlands, two Sikorskys, three Bells, a Bristol Type 171 Sycamore and a Eurocopter AS350.
These aircraft are neatly presented in a hangar, labelled with detailed information and accompanied by a wealth of equipment, photographs, documents and weapons going back to the dawn of naval aviation.
This weatherboard house built in 1886 for the local widow, Mrs Jessie Catherine Thorburn and her four daughters was absolutely palatial by Nowra standards.
Over the next century, the property would be handed down four generations of women, all of whom added to the personality of the building.
Meroogal retains the most intact collection of Victorian furniture and other household objects in an urban area in New South Wales.
There are lots of late-Victorian details, on the verandah and balcony balustrades, in the arched window sashes, cast iron fireplaces, wallpaper and panelled doors and ceilings.
Personal possessions and diaries tell you much about the women who lived at Meroogal, while the delightful garden has been restored to its 1920s layout.
5. Bens Walk
Beginning at the Nowra Showground, this light but scenic walking trail takes you on a 5.5-kilometre loop along the Shoalhaven River and back.
This route came about in the 1930s as a work initiative during the Great Depression, employing the homeless people camping in the caves here, and linking the Showgrounds to West Nowra.
On the way, Bens Walk will lead you through riverside forests, gorges and idyllic grassy banks.
A real high point is Hanging Rock, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
At Nowra Creek there’s a fun suspension bridge that you can cross to reach a picnic area.
This structure was first built in 1886, and was renovated a century later.
6. Hanging Rock Lookout
Close to the Showgrounds you’ll be met by a big wall of rock with a natural cleft allowing a footpath to pass through.
Make your way into this fissure and on the other side you’ll be able to look right around a bend in the Shoalhaven River for what seems like miles.
On a stone ledge surrounded by mature trees, Hanging Rock Lookout is at a height of 46 metres and is a great place to catch your breath, take some pictures and just soak up the scenery.
The lookout faces west, so the view is especially pretty at sunset.
7. Shoalhaven Regional Gallery
If you’re in the mood for some culture, Nowra is home to the arts hub for the entire Shoalhaven Region.
There are four exhibition spaces inside, with the Main Gallery staging travelling national and regional collections, invited or curated exhibitions, or shows introducing you to the considerable talent in Nowra and nearby towns.
The Foyer, East and Access galleries are more local in scope, and always have something worthwhile to check out.
Stay in touch with Shoalhaven Regional Gallery’s calendar for workshops, tours, talks and activities to inspire littler artists.
8. Jervis Bay Marine Park
More than 100 kilometres of coastline just south-east of Nowra is conserved as a national park.
Much of this is made up of the enormous Jervis Bay, which, partly because of its narrow entrance but also because of unique currents, has sparkling transparent waters.
There’s an amazing variety of habitats in the park, from beaches to reefs, rock platforms, estuaries, mangrove forests, open ocean, seagrass meadows, kelp forests, and more.
This allows an abundance of nature to thrive, including over 210 fish species, a diversity of marine mammals and all sorts of birds and reptiles.
As for things to do, you can seek out deserted beaches, spot dolphins and whales, and go diving, fishing and boating, to name a few.
9. Shoalhaven River Cruise
Based at Nowra Public Wharf, this company offers a choice of scheduled trips along the Shoalhaven throughout the year.
As you float along the broad river on the Shoalhaven Explorer you can expect to see sweeping and unblemished bushland, spectacular sandstone outcrops, imposing examples of rural industry, farmland and lots and wildlife.
The Shoalhaven Explorer can hold 58 passengers, and among the options there’s a trip to Greenwell Point accompanied by fish and chips fresh from the fryer, a Morning Tea Cruise, a Twilight Cruise and a 2.5-hour cruise upriver to Red Rock.
10. Nowra Fresh Fish & Meat Market
The South Coast has wonderful produce, and this goes for seafood in particular.
If you’ve got a barbecue in mind and want to stock up, this family-run business is a fine place to start.
The market brims with prawns, lobster, squid, octopus, scallops, salmon, snapper, tuna, bream… the list goes on.
There’s an oyster bar staffed by expert shuckers, and ultra-fresh sushi and sashimi may catch your eye.
Meat-wise you’ll find various cuts of beef, lamb and chicken, but also crocodile, emu, rabbit and goat.
11. Shoalhaven Coast Wine Region
Nowra is in a wine region that traces the New South Wales South Coast and drifts into its hinterland.
There hasn’t been viticulture in this part of Australia for very long, but the region is beloved among wine aficionados for its pleasant year-round weather, stunning ocean scenery and ample dining options, combining seafood straight from the pacific.
The ocean helps keep temperatures from rising too high, allowing grapes like Chardonnay, Chambourcin, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz to flourish.
With light peach notes, Chardonnays on the Shoalhaven Coast tend to be very drinkable and pair beautifully with the region’s seafood.
Some wineries moments from Nowra include Two Figs, Cupitt’s Estate and Mountain Ridge Wines.
12. Bundanon Homestead
In 1993 the renowned landscape painter Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) and his artist wife Yvonne gifted this sprawling property on the Shoalhaven River to the people of Australia.
This tallied with Boyd’s belief that you “can’t own a landscape”, and he wanted the public to draw the same inspiration from this place that he did.
You can tour Boyd’s studio and the homestead, which dates back to 1860 and is on the Register of the National Estate.
Displayed here are works from the Bundanon Collection, while the upstairs gallery has intimate exhibitions that are updated regularly.
Also on the property is an education centre and an artist-in-residence complex with four art studios, a writer’s cottage, dance studio, musician’s cottage and silversmith studio.
Visiting the homestead you can head off on walks into the bush and along the riverside, and linger over the scenery with a picnic.
13. Crookhaven Heads Lighthouse
From Nowra you can drive all the way to the mouth of the Crookhaven River, part of the Shoalhaven Estuary.
There at the tip of Crookhaven Heads is a lighthouse raised in 1904 to replace a timber construction from the 1880s.
As of 2020 this building and its keeper’s cottage are in poor condition, although there are rumours of a restoration in the next few years.
But the main reason to visit, if you don’t mind the steps, is for the fantastic views from a pair of lookout platforms at Crookhaven Heads, out into the Pacific across reefs and rocky outcrops.
14. Shoalhaven Entertainment Centre
The region’s main performing arts destination is also right here in Nowra.
Opened in 2008 with a bright glass facade, this is still an architectural statement more than a decade later.
At the Auditorium and Studio theatres there’s a busy line-up of classical music, plays, dance, live gigs, musicals and comedy, as well as plenty going on for children, from shows to drama classes.
The centre is a flexible venue, also hosting functions, sporting events, dinners, conferences and more, while you don’t need to be here for a performance to call in at the cafe and two bars, which have daily specials and a good selection of spirits.
15. Nowra Farmers Market
Not an event but a permanent store, Nowra’s Farmers Market relies on a whole network of local producers and buyers to ensure an impeccable level of freshness.
Depending on the season, fruit and vegetables like lemons and spinach will be on the shelves here within hours of being harvested.
This ultra-fresh produce is accompanied by top-notch specialty foods and delicatessen products sourced from Australia and around the world.
Among them is a massive range of cheeses, cured meats, olives and patés, as well as rice, tea, couscous, spices, bottled preserves and exotic sauces.