Australia & NZ

Holiday at home: how to live like a local in Manly

August 24, 2020
Sunrise at Manly beach Sydney Australia

The theme for Australians in 2020 is ‘holiday here this year’. The deadly coronavirus has closed our borders so we can’t fly overseas.

Australians spend more than $60 billion on international holidays every year. Local tourism bodies are hoping at least some of that money will now be spent domestically.

And in true Aussie spirit, we’re busy planning at-home holidays to support local businesses. My hometown, the beachside suburb of Manly in Sydney, has always been popular with domestic and international visitors.

On weekends thousands catch the Manly ferry from the city and spend the day by the seaside. They enjoy strolling down the main pedestrian area, the Corso, and along the beachfront, eating takeaway fish and chips, soaking up the sea breeze, taking a refreshing dip in the ocean then popping into one of the local pubs and maybe doing a bit of retail therapy at one of many famous surf brand clothing stores.

Manly is a great place to take a short break. And if you want to do what the locals do in Manly, how should you spend your time? Here are a few things you can do to live like a local in Manly.

1. Swim in the ocean like a local at Manly

Top of the list is an ocean swim. You can’t come to Manly and not try and catch a few waves. On a hot summer’s day there’s nothing better. Swimming is akin to breathing in this part of town and many locals start their day with a quick dip in the surf. It’s a great way to wake up. Manly beach is patrolled by lifeguards so it’s safe to swim between the red and yellow flags.

To really fit in like a local you’ll need to do the swim from the south end of Manly beach (where the surf club is) to Shelly beach. This is a daily ritual for a dedicated group of swimmers called the Bold and the Beautiful. All sporting pink swim caps they swim every day at 7am, making their way across Cabbage Tree Bay, a secluded aquatic reserve teeming with more than 150 species of fish and abundant sea life.

It’s a stunning snorkelling spot. If the water’s clear you’ll come face to face with hundreds of fish, maybe a blue grouper, a cuttlefish, a wobbegong and probably several stingrays.

It’s about 1.5 kilometres to swim to Shelly Beach and back. You’ll need goggles (flippers might help too) so you can see the fish. After your swim, grab a coffee from the hole in the wall café at the surf club, plonk yourself on the sea wall to watch the swimmers and envy the lifeguards who may just have the best office in the world.

2. Go for a coastal walk from Manly

Who doesn’t love a coastal walk? Around Manly there’s a multitude of options. Put on your sneakers and set off from Manly up to Queenscliff, over the hill to the very family-friendly Freshwater beach, around the headland, past the revamped Harbord Diggers Club and onto Curl Curl beach.

The café at South Curl Curl Surf Club looks straight out over the waves and is a good halfway point. Stopping here makes it a six to seven-kilometre round trip with spectacular scenery and several coffee options on the way. It’s an easy walk.

Another great option is the Manly to Spit walk, a 10-kilometre hike along the harbourfront through bushland, national park, stunning secluded beaches and some of Sydney’s most desirable suburbs.

This is at least a two to three hour hike along a mixture of dirt track, rocks, stairs and wooden walkways, depending on how fast you move and how often you stop to admire the view.

There are no cafes along the way so you’ll need water and sunscreen as much of the track is exposed. There are a few cafes at the Spit and fromhere you can catch the 144 bus back to Manly. Or you can do the walk the other way around – start at the Spit and finish at Manly.

For a more casual stroll, skip the sneakers and walk along the sand at Manly beach. Dig your toes into the sand and wet your feet wet as the waves hit the shore. Going barefoot affords a delicious feeling of freedom and compels you to relax.

The coastal walkway between Freshwater headland and Curl Curl beach.
Public sculpture at Fairy Bower pool on the walkway from Manly to Shelly Beach.
Residences line the walkway between Manly and Shelly Beach reflecting in the Fairy Bower rockpool.

3. Ride a bike around Mantown

You’ve probably worked out that the Manly locals are pretty focussed on fitness and wellbeing, so the outdoor options are endless in this part of Sydney. Riding a bike is a great way to get around especially given traffic can be very busy and congested. There’s a bike track along the beachfront and bike racks all over Mantown, as the locals like to call it.

Hire a bike at Manly Bike Tours. They have several suggested routes you can explore but the best one is up to North Head. It’s a hefty hill to climb up but the panoramic views of Sydney harbour across to the city skyline are absolutely worth the sweat and maybe a little swearing to get there!

North Head is where local riders train away from traffic, doing loops around the headland and down the hill to Collin’s Flat and to the Q Station hotel. You might even spot an echidna around here and in wintertime (June/July), North Head is a great spot to sit and watch for whales as they migrate north from Antarctica to warmer waters.

4. Give Surfing a go

Manly is synonymous with surfing, so you have to give it a try although the waves can get pretty crowded. Generally the south end of the beach is tamer; the more experienced surfers head up the beach to North Steyne and Queenscliff where the south swell works best.

Manly beach is a great place to learn to surf. The Manly Surf School teaches thousands of people every year, so you start with the absolute basics. You can join a group class or opt for a one-on-one private session.

I learnt to surf here and while it’s very challenging, it’s also very rewarding. Catching a wave is a total buzz.

If there’s a big swell wander around the walkway to Shelly Beach (mind the big waves crashing onto the pathway!), up the stairs and across the car park to the viewing bays on the eastern side. That’s the Deadman’s surf break below and when the swell is pumping it’s the best show in town.

Beautiful Freshwater Beach on the coastal walk from Manly beach.
View of Middle Harbour on the Spit to Manly walk.
Have a picnic at the beach and watch the Manly surf action.

5. Enjoy a drink with the Manly locals

After all that hard work you’re going to be thirsty and hungry. In recent years, Manly has turned into ‘hipster-ville’ with some great restaurants, artisan bakeries, cafes, wine bars and drinking holes. But there are two iconic locations in Manly where the locals go for a relaxing drink. Both have fabulous views.

The Manly Wharf Bar is the upmarket venue down at Manly Wharf, overlooking Sydney harbour, where you can watch the ferries come in and the sun go down. It’s a magic spot.

At the beach end is the Hotel Steyne, a Manly institution on the Corso, facing the beach. The Steyne is one of Manly’s oldest buildings and the original pub dates back to 1859. It hasn’t always been the most salubrious destination, but the new owners have recently done a major refurb.  

If a pub’s not your go, byo rug and have a picnic along the waterfront at Manly Cove, adjacent to Manly Wharf, with a view straight down the harbour. Alternatively, down on the beachfront, sit on the grass or built-in table and chairs and watch the surfers do their thing. On a sunny afternoon that’s where the Manly locals will be.

Holiday here this year and live like a local in Manly

So that’s just a taste of some of the things you can do to live like a local in Manly, one of Sydney’s most desirable beachside suburbs. This neighbourhood has a very relaxed vibe so wear your boardies, bring your cossie, soak up the laidback atmosphere and chill.

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