There was a time when “heading down to our local” typically meant a carefree afternoon drinking beer or sipping G&Ts with my husband and our friends (often followed by a slight hangover the next morning). These days, with a one-year old baby under our belts, the phrase points to a much more wholesome afternoon down at our local beach.
With around 85% of the population living on the continent’s coastal fringes, we Aussies are a salty lot. For most of us heading to our local for a dip is a regular event, particularly if you have kids. Babes and beaches go hand in hand.
In this series of posts I’ll introduce you to what I believe are some of the best family-friendly beaches that Sydney has to offer. Regardless of whether you live in Sydney or are visiting our fair shores, each of these sandy strips is a fantastic family destination and worth making the trip for. So get ready to slip, slop, slap and hit up some of Sydney’s finest watering holes!
Nielsen Park: the perks
My husband and I consider ourselves incredibly lucky to call Nielsen Park beach “our local”. It’s a gorgeous, little harbour beach in Sydney’s east that is practically perfect for babies and young children. Boasting sparkling harbour views, brilliant white sand, shade trees and a gentle swell, it’s definitely one of the most baby-friendly beaches in town.
It has been a popular swimming spot for centuries, with Aboriginal people having lived and fished there, their presence evidenced by shell middens they left behind. Subsequently, the beach and surrounding grounds formed part of the large estate of Vaucluse House – the extravagant residence of the famous Wentworth family. Thankfully for us, the beach and foreshore were acquired by the Harbour Foreshore Committee in 1911 and Nielsen Park was opened up to the public.
These days Nielsen Park is part of Sydney Harbour National Park and is hugely popular with locals and visitors alike. If you haven’t taken the munchkins for a dip there yet, let me take a moment to highlight why it’s definitely worth a visit and why you and your littlies will love it!
- Beauty: First up, it’s a stunning beach! White sand, turquoise water and views of the leafy north shore. With ferries and sailboats cruising past, as well as the occasional seaplane coming in to land, there’s also a bit of drama here too.
- Shade: If you time it right (early morning or late arvo) the rocky headlands cast a bit of shade onto the sand, providing a perfect space for the little ones to build sandcastles without the intense UV threat. The beach is also surrounded by gloriously shady parkland with plenty of space to play and kick a ball around. Magnificent towering fig trees offer a multitude of calm, cool picnic spots too.
- Safe: Okay, so technically the beach here is called Shark Beach (Nielsen Park is the name of the park that surrounds the beach. The beach overlooks Shark Bay, which is where it gets its name). However rest assured that your kids aren’t going to end up as shark bait – most of the beach is encircled by a very reassuring shark net. Being a harbour beach there also aren’t any big waves to contend with, so it’s incredibly safe. You do get the occasional small set come through (usually wash from a boat going past) but the waves are a good opportunity for the kids to practice their wave-jumping/bodysurfing/duck-diving!
- Coffee: A very important point for all the mamas and papas! Nielsen Park Cafe sits in a heritage sandstone and timber pavilion in the middle of the beach. The kiosk serves up decent coffee, sandwiches, fish and chips and cold drinks, while there’s also the lovely restaurant in the rooms next door. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings throughout daylight savings (i.e. the summer months until the end of March) they serve up fish and chips from the old timber surf club on the waters’ edge.
- Pram parking: There’s plenty of pram parking on the esplanade and under the trees, all of it visible from the beach so you can keep an eye on your wheels while you splash about. The other great advantage is that you can wheel your baby and all of their paraphernalia from the car right to the sand, eliminating the risk of giving yourself a hernia by trying to carry it all. If need be, you’re also able to wheel baby back and forth along the esplanade to help them fall asleep, while you enjoy the view and a takeaway coffee! (I spent a fair proportion of my maternity leave doing exactly that!)
- Exploring: Bigger kids can explore the rocks at either edge of the beach, while there is also a walking track (the Hermitage Foreshore track) that takes you over the rocky outcrop above – spectacular views of the beach and harbour beyond! The track here is part of the Hermitage Foreshore track (total distance of 1.5km, 1 hour’s walk), which is one of the city’s great coastal walks and well worth a visit of its own. Definitely doable with your baby or toddler in the baby carrier, while older kids will be able to manage on their own, particularly if you choose to just do a shorter section of the track.
And now for the disclaimer…
Nielsen Park is a small-ish beach so be prepared for an intimate experience. If you prefer lots of space on the sand then this may not be the beach for you (at least on the weekend and during school holidays). That said, there is always a lot of room up in the park itself and having lots of families and kids around means there’ll always be little pals for your bubbas to build sandcastles with! If you do prefer a calmer and quieter experience (though with little kids is that even possible?!), then go midweek if you can.
Be prepared for the typical dilemma of Sydney parking, particularly on sunny weekends and school holidays. There’s free street parking on Greycliffe Ave (which leads to the park entrance) but it’s more than likely you’ll need to grit your teeth and stalk out a spot. If you keep following the road around towards Vaucluse House you’ll eventually find a spot on one of the nearby residential streets.
- Toilets at either end of the beach and in the main shower block, the latter of which was constructed in 1932. The whitewashed timber stalls and 10ft high showers, with a view of the fig trees draped above, are a charming little slice of history.
- Kiosk and cafe, including fish and chips on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights (only during daylight savings, til end of March)
- Picnic area and park behind the beach
- Free parking
- Public (bus) transport nearby
- Stationed nearby, Vaucluse House is also worth a visit if you have time to wander through the grounds and stop for a coffee or tea and scones at the cafe. There are a few goats, chickens, geese and sheep sharing a large pen under a huge, spreading fig tree, which offers kids a rare chance to see some rural creatures in the city! Lots of very pleasant picnic spots here too.
- Parsley Bay is another fantastic beach for young families and is only about a five minute drive away. It has a huge grassy area, play equipment and a small kiosk, shark nets and no waves to speak of.
- Camp Cove at Watsons Bay has a similar feel to Nielsen Park. There’s another big park nearby with play equipment, while Watsons Bay Hotel on the foreshore offers alfresco drinking and dining and is reasonably baby-friendly if you feel like rewarding yourselves with a couple of afternoon beers.
By car: Follow New South Head Rd towards Vaucluse, taking the signposted turnoff onto Wentworth Rd. Continue past Strickland House on the left and shortly after turn left onto Greycliffe Ave.
By bus: The 325 bus from the city (via Edgecliff) pulls up about 100m from the beach.
Have you taken your bubs on a daytrip to Nielsen Park? What did you think? Also, tell us about your fave local beach and why you and your little folk love it!