ANY of us who have been raised in Sydney know the gem that is the Royal National Park.
Less than 90 minutes south of the CBD, you'll find a world of breathtaking beauty - towering old growth forest, pristine beaches you usually have to share only with local wallabies, and air so fresh and pure.
The Royal National Park has been a drawcard for Sydneysiders for generations.
We all knew there was a lot more to discover by driving through the park and onto Lawrence Hargrave Drive, surely one of the most scenic roads in Australia.
Unfortunately, it was also one of the most dangerous, with sudden rock falls making it a notoriously dangerous route to negotiate. True to form, in 2003 the road was finally closed after an embankment slip made it a no-go zone.
But three years ago all that changed. Some $49 million later, the 665m Sea Cliff Bridge opened, allowing safe, easy access to the South Coast along with some of the country's most spectacular scenery.
A 140km route branded the Grand Pacific Drive now wends its way through to Wollongong and beyond, opening up a discovery network of quaint and beautiful coastal towns.
The Royal is the second oldest national park in the world (Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, the Royal in 1879 - good for trivia questions!).
Drop into the visitor centre at Audley for information and to purchase your $11 vehicular entry if you plan to stop or park any time while you're in the park.
It's money well spent - you can go canoeing or kayaking along the Hacking River, take a short scenic walk from Bonnie Vale to Cabbage Creek, or try the famous coast walk from Wattamolla.
And if you've had the presence of mind to chuck the bikes on the back, a cycle through the rainforest along the historic trail off Lady Carrington Drive is a must.
From the Royal, you'll hit Stanwell Park - usually alive with hang gliders who take full advantage of the sheer sandstone cliff faces and perfect wind conditions to soar into the blue.
The locals are taking full advantage of their new bridge - there are fun things like a Harley Davidson joyride on offer, or many simply park the car and stroll across the pedestrian path for magnificent views.
It's also one of the best whale watching places, so keep an eye out in migrating season.
Austinmer is also very family friendly for a stop over. There you'll find charming cafes, boutiques and bookshops along with a safe swimming beach.
Grab a gelato from the Austi Beach Café or visit a local pub and settle in for a while to enjoy the surroundings.
Next stop is Thirroul, another charming coastal village with a seaside atmosphere that is totally contagious.
You might find you want to take a look at Fairy Meadow, where you'll find the science centre and planetarium.
From here, Wollongong is only a spit away, and if you haven't been to NSW's third largest city for a while, you're going to see some incredible changes.
Six international-standard hotels have boosted capacity by 535 rooms, a range of exciting new restaurants have opened, two major new rides have been installed at NSW's largest theme park, Jamberoo Action Park, and the new Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk has been established in a dramatic section of the Illawarra Escarpment behind Wollongong.
Tourism Wollongong's general manager Greg Binskin said the new developments, along with the Grand Pacific Drive, had opened up a new era of tourism in the 'Gong.
Greg says work is well underway on the Southern Gateway Centre, a $7.6m tourist “shopfront” that will include a tourism information centre, 250-seat restaurant and aboriginal tourist attraction at the top of Bulli Pass.
Of course, there are still the favourites.
Wollongong beach is a cracker and breakfast at the Novotel, overlooking the beach, is still one of the best ways to start the day.
And, for something uplifting and completely different, make it your business to visit the Nan Tien Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere, where you can do a meditation class or sample traditional vegetarian fare.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Five Islands Brewery offers fine local beers from Australia's largest microbrewery.
Beyond Wollongong, the Grand Pacific Drive continues, taking in some truly wonderful scenery such as Shellharbour, with its historic boat harbour constructed in 1859.
It also offers stunning snorkelling or scuba diving at Bushrangers Bay and has a host of quaint shops, cafes and restaurants, including the Illawarra's only high tea at Ravensthorpe Guesthouse.
Keep going and you'll find Kiama, with its rolling hills and spectacular blowhole, the Minnamurra Rainforest, the quaint village of Gerringong with its wonderful aboriginal art and culture studio and the spacious wonder of Seven Mile Beach at Gerroa.
■ For more details and itineraries, go to www.grandpacificdrive.com.au.
■ Valentine's packages and other bookings are available via www.tourismwollongong.com.au.
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