The authentic old Commercial Hotel at Ulmarra never disappoints.

The authentic old Commercial Hotel at Ulmarra never disappoints - www ulmarrahotel com au

As published by Starts at 60 on 24 April 2020.

In this crazy coronavirus world, it would be a very brave (or foolish) traveller who ventured overseas at present. Eventually, this crisis will abate, and once again international holidays will be a pleasure to look forward to. In the meantime, we can plan and dream of far off places, but make the most of this situation by considering travelling locally. Of course, you will need to heed all the reputable medical advice regarding your health, but with care, I believe there are uncrowded places we can still explore in Australia.

In my mind, there is no better place in autumn for a river cruise or driving holiday than to follow the beautiful Clarence River from Yamba to Ulmarra in northern New South Wales. The Clarence River, originally known as the Big River, is the largest river on the east coast of Australia and features many delightful towns and wondrous scenery.

In 1839 the river was renamed Clarence after King William IV, Duke of Clarence. It is deep and wide and navigable to Grafton and beyond. One of the great things on the Clarence is that every town has a fairly new jetty either right out front or close to the pub, so for boaties like us, visiting could not be easier.

We have twice cruised the Clarence over Easter in search of the authentic Aussie pub, which I describe as the pub of my childhood where Dad would take us on the way home from the footy or a trip to the beach. You know the style. Rooms of different sizes and designations (like the lounge), usually clustered around a large central bar area with several serving outlets. Often these would include a semi-enclosed area known as a ‘beer garden’ and many would offer accommodation.

At the head of the river, Yamba is a gem and one of our favourite haunts. With bountiful accommodation and places of interest including surf beaches, river kayaking, food, beer and wine tasting, river ferry cruises, golf courses and more, Yamba is a great place to explore at your own pace. We took the Yamba bike path walk along the Clarence River from the Yamba Marina to Turner’s Beach, then walked up the hill to see Yamba Lighthouse that dates back to 1880.

While I enjoy a good lighthouse my preference was to lunch at the glorious and iconic Pacific Hotel situated on top of the escarpment overlooking Yamba main beach and the entrance to the river. The Pacific Hotel was built in 1934 and at the time laid claim to being “the most perfectly appointed place of all seaside resorts north of Sydney”. Although there have been considerable changes since it was built, it still retains the ‘Art Deco’ style of the 1930s. Their Pacific Bistro offers well priced fine dining and great food overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Another must-do whilst in Yamba, as we did, is to take a day trip over to Iluka on the northern shores of the mighty river aboard one of the two Clarence River Ferries. The 45-minute daily service departs the River Street Jetty in Yamba and arrives at the jetty at the Iluka Boatshed and Marina in Charles Street (the main street).

The not to be missed Sedgers Reef Hotel at Iluka.

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For the quintessential old-fashioned Aussie pub lunch experience, we recommend you can’t go past Sedger’s Reef Hotel overlooking the boat harbour. Also referred to as ‘the Fibro Hilton’ the hotel at first appears old and run down but don’t let appearances put you off because you will be treated to one of the best seafood pub lunches still available in Australia. Oh, and the beer is nice and cold too!

Sedger’s operates a complimentary shuttle bus connecting the ferry service to the hotel, or like us, you could wander the leisurely 1.3km walk along the flat grades of Charles and Queen streets to work up your appetite. Iluka is also home to NSW’s largest remaining seaside rainforest, part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area. We really enjoyed the 2.6km walk along the Iluka Rainforest walking track taking you out to the stunning Iluka Bluff lookout.

A mere 12km upstream is the small hamlet of Harwood where you will find the Harwood Lifting Bridge. This two-lane steel truss bridge built in 1966 carried the Pacific Highway over the Clarence River until 2019, when a four-lane replacement bridge opened parallel to it. 

The eerie image of the Harwood Lifting bridge on a foggy Clarence river morning.

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When we toured the Clarence River in 2014 and 2015 aboard our yacht, it was a powerful feeling to halt all traffic on the Number 1 highway in Australia so that the bridge could be raised for our humble vessel. To minimise the impact to Pacific Highway traffic, we were required to sail under the raised bridge at 7am in dark and foggy conditions, which was really eerie.

Once the traffic stopped, a red stop light appeared above the section to be raised. Then the bridge raised, and a catamaran appeared under the bridge. After it had cleared, the light turned green and we moved forward into a very scary black void. The only thing to guide the way was the reflection from the green light above. Nowadays the lifting bridge is still raised for passing yachts but the highway traffic on the new elevated arch bridge is not affected.

At the Harwood Hotel make sure that you order the small steak.

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Harwood is also home to another great Aussie pub we explored located on the north bank. The Harwood Hotel is a cosy eclectic little pub with a wonderful atmosphere and loads of memorabilia where we savoured fine food and hospitality. The current building, once the manager’s residence for the lifting bridge construction more than 50 years ago, was converted to a pub after the original larger hotel burned to the ground in 1966.

Next town upstream is the Scottish haven of MacLean. Of course, it looks nothing like a Scottish town. It is considered ‘Scottish’ because a large number of the early settlers in the valley were originally from Scotland. Over the Easter weekend (although sadly not this year) the MacLean Highland Gathering is a wonderful display for all things Scottish.

Scottish pipers and tartan telegraph poles at the MacLean Highland Gathering parade.

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When we visited there was a pipe band parade down the main street and a sports day including manly sports like caber tossing and shot-put as well as highland dancing. Oh well, perhaps next year?

The town’s most distinctive, and overtly Scottish symbols are 200-odd Scottish tartans that have been painted on the base of the telegraph poles. My heritage is from the Cunningham clan from Glasgow so you can imagine how eccentric I looked in my tartan cap searching for ‘my’ telegraph pole.

You can also amble up to the lookout to take in the expansive views to the sea across the fertile plains, or perhaps just enjoy a warming fireside lunch at the beautiful old Maclean Hotel built in 1903. We decided to do both.

A further 25km upstream (23 minutes by car or 2.5 hours by yacht) we arrived at the quaint and quiet village of Brushgrove. Brushgrove is situated on the southern end of Woodford Island, which at 37 square-kilometres, is the largest inland island in the southern hemisphere.

Originally settled for the abundance of red cedar on the island, Brushgrove was once a major trading hub for timber, sugar and other agricultural goods due to its location on the Clarence River. Nowadays the only hive of activity is the historic Brushgrove Hotel constructed in 1838.

The location next to the Clarence River, and the verandah setting, is something that you have to see for yourself. There’s a bar with a verandah, a dining room with a verandah, an outdoor area, a garden bar and accommodation. The other attraction is a public pontoon on the Cowper side of the river, which was perfect for our group of yachties.

The menu offers great variety and our dinner was another feast with a terrific wine selection. Our host, Dean, managed to make his first-ever margarita, which tasted just like a real one — perfect! Brushgrove is just 1km off the Pacific Highway and is a great place for travellers to stop for a quality country meal or an overnight stay.

Our final destination was the historic National Trust classified port town of Ulmarra. First settled in 1857, its many historic buildings, a river ferry and an antique charm all take you back to a time when the river was the vital transport route in the district.

The appeal of the town lies just one block to the west of the Pacific Highway and as you saunter past the many historic buildings in Coldstream Street you come to the magnificent Federation style Commercial Hotel built in 1906. This is the real deal!

The Commercial Hotel is so authentic that it was used in the 1987 television mini-series Fields of Fire portrayed as a 1929 Queensland pub. While the pub is true to its heritage, we chose to sit in the highly regarded beer garden and gaze across the mighty Clarence River to the cane fields and blue hills on the other side. This is a very popular hotel as the meals are sensational and ever since our first visit in 2014 it is now a regular stop whenever we drive south of the Queensland border.

Alas, all too soon our journey had come to an end and it’s time to return to the ‘real world’. We discovered many interesting towns steeped in Federation history all with their unique take on the authentic Aussie pub. Did we find a favourite? I’m not sure. I think we will just have to go and have another look. Would you like to join us?

Story:  Geoff East
Photography:  Di East

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