Seems the Wollongong Forum has been quiet since I stopped asking all those pesky questions. Here's the fruit of your advice. Thanks so much! Wollongong was a great base for a wide range of activities.
In short, we had three out of five good tourist days during our stay in December. The other two days were so stormy I stayed close to the hotel (especially after having been caught in a hail storm while at Symbio). Yet if you have to hang out somewhere during a storm, hanging out at the Novotel and North Beach is a great place to be lazy.
Below is a description of the hotel, food and highlights of our trip.
HOTEL NOVOTEL NORTH BEACH:
Loved this place. Yes, I had read the reviews and was prepared for the worst. But the worst just didn’t happen for us. One reason is that we were lucky to have room 1003, which did not look into other rooms since it was near the end of the corridor.
Pluses: location, walk to beach and Diggies or North Kiosk. Our room 1003 had a nice balcony and a great unobstructed view. Helpful concierge most of the time, made dinner reservations for us, gave us maps of Wollongong and handed out large beach towels. Housekeeping was great, too, gave us extra biscuits for our tea.
Minuses: Price. Yet, that said, would stay at Novotel again for the North Beach-Diggies vibe. We had our routine of getting up early, having breakfast at Diggies or Kiosk, then going to the beach all before 9 AM. Room service and mini-bar crazily overpriced, with $31 AUD breakfast and $3.50 AUD potato chips.
NORTH BEACH across street from hotel. During the week, it was almost empty. Given that Diggies/Kiosk is there, my daughter fell in love with this location and we had our Diggies-beach routine.
SYMBIO ZOO. One of the best zoos ever! Small, personal and not crowded. As a group we followed a zookeeper on her feeding rounds that began at 11:30. The schedule is not publicized since it changes from day to day but this was the absolute HIGHLIGHT of our trip. Zookeeper fed meerkats, Tasmanian devils, spider monkeys and other animals. My young daughter bottle-fed a lamb, held a boa constrictor on her shoulders, fed kangaroos and petted a koala. Four months later, she’s still talking about it.
MINAMURRA RAINFOREST. Great walk on stroller-friendly path. Unfortunately, it was so dark and scary that my daughter freaked out less than 50 meters from the summit (after a long, punishing climb). This tells you, though, that Minamurra is indeed an atmospheric rainforest with the potential for “monsters.” I would not recommend the uphill part to the waterfalls to anyone pushing a stroller. Normally my daughter doesn’t sit in her stroller much, but she was so scared.
DRIVE TO WOLLONGONG through Royal National Park and on Coast Road. We planned to return to Royal but ran out of time. What views!
AUSTINMER BEACH. Stopped here after Symbio Zoo during a break in the rain. Great rocks to clamber over and nice tidepools.
DRIVE TO KIAMA ALONG THE OCEAN. Viewed Cathedral Rocks, headlands and lagoons. Nice small parks in residential neighborhoods were we could park the car.
WALK ALONG THE HARBOUR. Helpful signs explaining the sights, including the construction of the old harbor by inmates. This was a default activity when the threat of rain made me cancel the bike-along-the-beach plans. (Would have preferred to go biking, though!)
DIGGIES. Hours off the plane enjoyed poached egg on sourdough bread with asparagus. Fresh orange, strawberry juice combo great but overpriced at $6. Dessert: blackberry crumble, again yummers. Real winner dining place. We kept returning. Hint for ordering for kids (which we didn’t learn until our last meal there): they have a plain waffle with maple syrup for kids.
KIOSK. Take-out part of Diggies. Their yogurt berry combo is not to be missed. Also, their fresh fruit is indeed fresh.
LAGOON. $155 seafood platter for two+. Included lobster mornay, scallops in shell (with orange/pink thing attached, which I had to explain to my hubby), huge prawns, bugs, with excellent $38 bottle of sauvignon blanc. Splurge meal but worth every penny.
AUSTINMER CAFÉ. Across the street from the beach, nice food, able to sit outdoors. Highly recommend the fish and chips and the polenta with chorizo.
SCARBOROUGH PUB. Too late for lunch, so had cake (which pleased my daughter to no end!) Nice outdoor patio overlooking the ocean.
OSUMA SUSHI. Not bad, just comparable to what we get in Austin. Also, it served only rolls while we were there and I didn’t see the sign offering to make sushi to order until it was too late. My daughter loved the conveyer belt service, though. The price is great so would recommend to anyone who wants decent, fresh sushi on a budget.
DINNER AT NOVOTEL. The buffet was okay, with fresh asparagus and seafood. Yet it was pricey for a buffet, especially one that did not have many veggie options. Our host (who paid) was appalled at the minimal wine list.
HARBORSIDE RESTAURANT. Avoid avoid avoid. The ambient noise will fry your brain. The food was good, but not as good as Lagoon, yet the price was the same. My gut instinct was to go somewhere else, but my hubby hadn’t seen the harbor during his conference and wanted to walk somewhere close. Service was not good, for example did not get a bowl for our shells.
LE VENDI. Take-out place overlooking harbor. The fruit salad was old and the spring roll was greasy. A huge step down from Kiosk.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
THE WEATHER. Boo! Killed two days of activities. Planned to go biking one day, but the threat of storms prevented this. The storms were so bad that the beaches were closed when the creeks broke through their banks and dumped yucky garbage into the ocean. Ended up walking along the harbor and into town one day and hanging out on the beach the other.
Figures that with all the bad weather, by the time we made it to the blowhole the sea was calm.