Flight Facilities’ Guide to Merimbula and Surrounds

While the natural beauty of the Sapphire Coast is its star attraction, it’s also a bounty of fresh produce, historic spots, art galleries and even an amusement park. In partnership with Jeep and the Empty Esky initiative, we speak to Hugo Gruzman from Flight Facilities about his family’s ties to the area – and what to see, eat and do while in town.

Published on 12 January 2021

Arriving in Merimbula was always like a homecoming for Hugo Gruzman. One half of Sydney electronic duo Flight Facilities (the other is James Lyell), Gruzman has deep family ties to the pretty coastal town in southern NSW. Gruzman’s grandfather was Laurie Gruzman, a pilot who in the 1960s founded air freighting (and later air search and rescue) service Flight Facilities here, from which the band took its name.

That link meant rather than piling into a station wagon for the six-hour trip from Sydney to a holiday house in Merimbula, Gruzman’s family would cram into his grandfather’s tiny plane, a six-seater Cessna 310. Flying to your holiday home in a private plane sounds glamorous. Gruzman describes it only as a “car with wings”.

Hugo Gruzman (far right) at Merimbula Airport, where his pilot grandfather Laurie founded air freighting service Flight Facilities.

“Sometimes we’d only get halfway there and have to land somewhere else because the weather was so bad,” says Gruzman. “Sick bags were frequently called into action. Once we even had the cat and the dog in the plane, and they were both sick.”

But once there, the trip was worth it. Gruzman remembers outings to the ice-cream shop, playing “putt putt” golf and arcade games at Top Fun (which we’re glad to report still looms over the main street today), and swimming to get fish and chips.

“We loved going to Fish Pen takeaway shop,” he says. “To get there you could [walk around the lake] or take a shortcut by swimming across the channel. But only at low tide.”

His grandfather’s Cessna might not be an option anymore, but Gruzman recently took a trip down memory lane and headed back to Merimbula by road.

John McCammon, who worked with Gruzman's grandfather Laurie in the Search and Rescue department of Flight Facilities


The trip was pure nostalgia. But also deeply important. South coast towns such as Merimbula – which rely heavily on tourism – were devastated by last summer’s bushfires, which hit just as their busiest season was getting underway. The town that normally hosts around 30,000 visitors in the high-season instead became an evacuation centre. Then of course Covid-19 hit, compounding the hurt on tourism operators.

Enter the Empty Esky initiative – a tourism movement that encourages people to take an empty esky to regional towns affected by bushfires and Covid-19, and fill it up with local produce, supporting local businesses. With travel restrictions lifted, Gruzman and photographer Pat Stevenson hit the road to spread some love around the seaside community still so dear to him.

“People lost so much in the bushfires,” says Gruzman. “Merimbula is a town that’s given me so much joy in my childhood and I have such fond memories. So it’s nice to be able to go back down there and support a place like that.”

For someone who’s travelled the world playing music, Gruzman still reckons the hidden gems are often closest to home.




“There’s so much in Australia we haven’t bothered to discover,” he says. “We’re spoilt for choice. You can have a great holiday for little expense without going far. People should be taking advantage of that. You’ll wind up in a beautiful beach town on the south coast. Places like this are always right on your doorstep.”

As luck would have it, the drive time from Sydney to Merimbula is about as long as Flight Facilities’ new decades mix, available on the recently-launched Flight Facilities app, Flight Deck. Gruzman says the songs, which span 40 years of musical history, is an ideal soundtrack for the nostalgia evoked by heading back to Merimbula.

“If you like our stuff then everything is here in one place,” he says, “including exclusive tracks and edits of other artists. You’ll find stuff that hasn’t been on the internet for 10 years. We’re pretty excited about it.”

There are over 200 businesses along the Sapphire Coast registered on the Empty Esky website.

Here’s Gruzman’s tips for a Sapphire Coast summer holiday to remember.



Eat and Drink



The slogan here is “Merimbula’s happy place” and with stand-up paddle board and kayak hire, an outdoor espresso bar and Merimbula’s longest-standing fishing charters, who are we to argue? Launch your SUP or kayak and explore Merimbula Lake (an idyllic calm-water alternative to nearby Main Beach), or just dive right in for a swim. The elegant jetty, with its little turquoise-coloured wooden beach cabin, has been here forever and is an iconic meeting spot on its own. Note: at high-tide it does get deep here quickly.

This long-running seaside stalwart is nostalgia all over for people like Gruzman (or anyone who’s spent a summer in Merimbula any time in the past thousand years or so). Simple and no-nonsense, this is the kind of place that can’t help but evoke childhood memories of fish‘n’chips by the sea, seagulls scavenging at your feet.

The fishermen’s basket for two is great value (the calamari and sea scallops are house specialities). Grab a drink from the general store next door and stroll a few metres across the oval to Main Beach, where you can plonk down on the sand and look out over the waves to where your meal came from.


This is a top morning spot, pet friendly and perfect for coffee or a leisurely breakfast. The snug kiosk dishes up simple and tasty food from an ever-evolving menu and is a local favourite. From here it’s easy access to the Merimbula Aquarium (still delightfully daggy, still surprisingly informative) or an adventurous walk along the lake’s edge back to town.

Named after local woman Dulcie Goodsill – who from the 1920s raised 10 children in this weatherboard cottage – the former family home at the top end of town is now a casual, character-filled hangout serving beer, wine and summer cocktails. You’ll naturally gravitate towards the restored 1950s caravan in the beer garden, which pumps out American-style burgers (including their “Shroom” mushroom burger for vegos) plus crispy fries and Pambula Broadwater oysters. Look out for the cream picket fence and jacaranda tree. Traveller’s note: dogs are welcome.

Hanging plants decorate a light-filled, modern and supremely Instagrammable cafe in Merimbula Plaza, right beside the lake. It’s a great spot to grab a Bondi-style breakfast in a courtyard that opens to the morning sun. Local produce dominates a varied menu, with breakfast options including Bega Valley eggs, edamame falafel bowl and southern-fried chicken burger. Coffee is by Ona and it also does fantastic smoothies and milkshakes.


Activities



Bar Beach
"It’s a must,” says Gruzman of the cute Bar Beach near the entrance to Merimbula Lake. “It's such a great spot for a swim and when the tide is swinging right, just being able to float back into the lake is so lush.” Another especially tranquil option is to wait for low tide and walk out onto the sand and through the shallow water at Spencer Park for a gorgeous view back over the lake to Bar Beach.

If you have a soft spot for native Australian animals make a pit stop at this educational wildlife sanctuary 10 minutes drive from Merimbula in the Bega Valley. Koalas hit by cars or otherwise unable to live in the wild are often brought here, as are lizards, echidnas, dingoes, wombats, emus and possums. Kangaroos roam freely and can be fed by hand. Education is a key theme, so expect to come away with a whole new appreciation of animals you may otherwise only see whizzing past the car window.

Another classic attraction from Gruzman’s childhood, Magic Mountain is the Coast’s quaint take on a regional-Disneyland. It oozes country-town charm and it doesn’t skimp on the thrills. Ride the Sapphire Speedster rollercoaster, get lost in the Magic Mountain Maze or take your chances on the dual waterslides, the Doom Tube and the Black Hole with its 360-degree underground loop (you’ll need to pack your swimmers for those ones). There’s also minigolf and other more genteel attractions. The treetop climb is also great fun if you’d rather stay dry.

Surrounds



Pambula
Ten minutes south of Merimbula lies its folksy sister city, Pambula – a small town with a disproportionate number of quality boutique clothing shops, galleries, collectibles and handcrafted gifts. Wild Rye’s bakery supplies the bread and buns for pretty much any cafe worth its salt on the Sapphire Coast and is a must for pastries, coffee or gourmet pies.

Pambula Wholefoods looks after all your local organic produce needs, while Broadwater Oysters sells straight-from-the-sea Sydney rock oysters, farmed on Pambula Lake for more than 100 years. Across the entrance to the lake is the tropical island-like Barmouth Beach, “equally enchanting and beautiful,” says Gruzman. “I would suggest driving down to Lions and parking there and then rolling out onto the beach towards the river mouth.” It’s a bit of a trek to get down to from the car park but well worth it.


Bega
This dairy town 20 minutes north of Merimbula is all lush pasture and rainforest. The famous Bega Cheese Heritage Centre is currently closed due to Covid-19, so for a different slice of culture try instead the Bega Valley Regional Gallery, home to the Shirley Hannan National Portrait Award, Australia’s richest prize for realistic portraiture. Also currently showing is an exhibition of exquisite glass-blown sculptures by Clare Belfrage.

The gorges and waterways of the surrounding Brogo Wilderness are well worth exploring, and you can do it in style in a Canadian canoe courtesy of Brogo Wilderness Canoes.


Cape Green Lighthouse
The Sapphire Coast’s rich maritime history gets the recognition it deserves at places like the Eden Killer Whale Museum and this extraordinary lighthouse, the southernmost in NSW (and Australia’s second tallest). An hour and 10 minutes drive south of Merimbula, tours of the lighthouse run for 1.5 hours – you can even stay in the former lighthouse keepers’ cottages.


This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Jeep. Learn more about the Empty Esky initiative and the all new Jeep Gladiator.