Just metres from the back of the boat, I see two enormous bodies rise out of the water and then flop back in. Whales! I've come out looking specifically for them - not such an unusual activity off the New South Wales coast this time of year. But this trip in Jervis Bay is different.
"Get in, get in! You'll miss 'em!" the skipper shouts.
I'm wearing a wetsuit and flippers, and holding a snorkel and goggles, which I pull over my face before jumping in the water. I can just make out the whales diving down beneath me, the white of their bellies contrasting against the deep blue water, enormous but so graceful in their natural habitat.
For hours I have been out on the boat with Dive Jervis Bay, jumping in the water whenever we spot whales nearby. However, as I discover, this is not some Finding Nemo experience where the sea creatures play and talk. We are seeing a lot of whales from the deck but, when I get in and start swimming, they don't seem to want to frolic. (I guess I can't compete with the reason for their migration north.) Still, wow, how incredible to be in the same water as these giants of the ocean, to see their tails splash just a short distance away, to hear them gliding through, to catch a flash of their bodies as they pass by.
In the afternoon, we arrive back at Huskisson, a bustling town that is the main tourism hub of Jervis Bay. In recent years, it has seen a number of new stylish local businesses open (partly because the better road connection to Canberra means more weekend visitors). Salty Joe's is great for lunch, and for dinner I would recommend The Quarters for excellent food in an old coastal cottage. For somewhere to stay, Bay and Bush Cottages has boutique accommodation in bushland with kangaroos hopping past.
It's this proximity to the nature that I think makes Jervis Bay such a special place. Hyams Beach and its bright white sand has become the showpiece of the region and dominates social media posts in the summer. But it's just one of the squeaky clean beaches that you'll find along the four-kilometre White Sands Walk that starts at Greenfield Beach and meanders along the fringe of the coastal forest.
To escape the crowds, you can head to nearby Booderee National Park (managed by the Federal Government, it's had entrance fees waived until the end of the year). With crystal clear waters, high cliffs, and pristine bush, it's perfect for a hike and a swim. I take some time to wander through the Booderee Botanic Gardens - the only Aboriginal-owned ones in the country - which has walking trails with interpretive signs about bush tucker and other ways the Koori people used the plants.
Heading north up the coast, the sand becomes more golden again at the accurately named Seven Mile Beach. At the southern end of the beach is Shoalhaven Heads, the kind of coastal town that seems to have more caravan parks than shops. It's perhaps an unlikely place for Bangalay Dining, a destination restaurant that fuses together European and Australian styles. The restaurant is attached to a series of luxury villas where you can enjoy in-room dining, making for a special coastal getaway.
The food pairs well with some of the local wines from the region. A specialty here is Chambourcin, a variety sometimes called the "South Coast Shiraz". When I pop into the tasting room at Coolangatta Estate, cellar manager Benjamin Bishop tells me Chambourcin has only been in Australia for about 30 years.
"It's a nice lighter red wine. We tend to say it's quite mocha, with a cherry, spicy, liquorice taste."
The maritime climate of the NSW South Coast suits certain grapes, just as it suits other types of agriculture like dairy, which once dominated the region. At the northern end of Seven Mile Beach is Gerringong, where you'll find Buena Vista Farm, with views out to the water, run by Fiona Weir Warmsley and her husband Adam. Originally a dairy farm bought by Fiona's great-great-grandfather, it's now just seven hectares and has chickens, ducks, bees, coffee... and a collection of adorable goats that I spend far too long playing with. Adam shows me around and gives me a taste of the two-hour farm tours that you can take here.
"A lot of farms are just one or two things on a bigger scale and are not so accessible, whereas here you can see five or six different animal or plant systems going on and how they integrate," he explains.
In Gerringong itself I find another beautiful view at The Hill Bar and Kitchen, where I have an excellent lunch. But, for an alternative, you can head slightly inland to Berry. The fashionable village is well known for its homeware stores and local gourmet products. The Garden is a great choice for lunch, you can choose from almost 50 types of tea at the Berry Tea Shop, or indulge your sweet tooth at the famous Berry Donut Van or the Berry Chocolatier. Cameron and Troy, who run the chocolate shop, also show people the best local produce and wineries with their Foodscape tours around the region.
And then there's Kiama, the charming coastal town that is astonishingly on the same suburban Sydney train line as Kings Cross. This easy access makes it popular with day-trippers but there are plenty of good reasons to stay longer, like the new 22-kilometre coast walk, the Wednesday farmers market, and the beautiful beaches and rock pools.
Oh, and the Kiama Blowhole, of course. When I go to look at it, the ocean is calm and there are no explosions of water. But looking out to sea, I'm sure I can spot a few sprays of water from the blowholes of the migrating whales - perhaps their equivalent of a little wave to their swimming companion standing up here on the rocks.
WHAT TO DO:
- Go swimming with the whales with Dive Jervis Bay.
- Take a stroll along the stunning beaches of Jervis Bay on the White Sands Walk.
- Explore Booderee National Park, including the Aboriginal-owned Botanic Gardens.
- Taste some wine at local wineries like Coolangatta Estate, Mountain Ridge Wines, or Two Figs Winery.
- Take a food or wine tour with Foodscape Tours in Berry.
- Explore the shops and heritage buildings of the stylish village of Berry.
- Explore Buena Vista Farm on a tour of this fascinating property.
- Wait for the spray at the blowhole in Kiama.
WHERE TO EAT:
- In Huskisson, I would highly recommend The Quarters for dinner.
- It's worth making the trip to Shoalhaven Heads for the food at Bangalay Dining.
- In Gerringong, The Hill Bar and Restaurant has great meals with a stunning location.
- When you're in Berry, you'll find large and delicious meals at The Garden Berry.
WHERE TO STAY:
- At Jervis Bay, you can stay in one of the charming buildings at Bay and Bush Cottages.
- In Shoalhaven Heads, Bangalay Luxury Villas offer boutique accommodation attached to the restaurant.
- Or, if you've got a spare $3000 a night, you can stay at Dovecote in Gerringong - named Australian Home of the Year, with 150 acres of oceanfront farmland!
Michael Turtle was supported by Destination NSW. For more ideas on exploring New South Wales, you can see their list of the 213 most memorable experiences in the state.
Michael Turtle will be bringing you a new idea each week for a trip within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website for things to do in Jervis Bay.