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By GREG ELLIS
The South Coast's first settlement is now Coolangatta Estate, where Brad and Jen Ratcliffe sampled wines of the region. Afterwards, they enjoyed lunch at Alexanders Vineyard Restaurant with organic chicken breast nicoise and chambourcin pie.
Harley Davidson driver Steve Melchior kept the couple safe and informed.
Love may be in the air but you can also feel the history at Coolangatta Estate. The convict cottage is a popular retreat for honeymoon couples who want some privacy.
Pictures: ADAM McLEAN
Sitting on the back of a Harley, the wind in your hair, heading to a vineyard with fine food and wine ... what heaven is this? GREG ELLIS records a romantic day spent in the Illawarra.
FIGURES from Tourism NSW show the Shoalhaven is the busiest holiday destination in the state outside Sydney.
"There has been great maturity in the region over the last 10 years," Shoalhaven Tourism manager Tom Phillips says.
And that popularity is not limited to the southern end of the Illawarra. Wollongong too is well in the game.
People living here have started to discover their own back yard and it is driving a vibrant restaurant and wine industry that is quickly growing in reputation.
Tourism Wollongong manager Greg Binskin says the response to the Northern Illawarra Coastal Villages campaign is another good example of how willing people are to shop and recreate in their own backyard.
As the Illawarra and South Coast has emerged as a lifestyle centre of choice for many baby boomers over the past decade, residents have discovered more things to do and they are telling others.
Talk to any operator and it is clear restaurants and vineyards are attracting more Sydneysiders, in some cases accounting for more than 50 per cent of business.
But the icing on the cake has been the growth in intra-region visitation.
With a hint of Valentine's Day romance in the air Weekender decided to join a couple for a taste of what the Illawarra/Shoalhaven region has to offer.
BRAD and Jen Ratcliffe, of Dapto, might not be as famous as the Brad and Jen of Hollywood, but they felt like royalty this week. It started with breakfast by the beach at Diggies before the pair climbed aboard a Just Cruisin' Harley for a seaside trek and romancing the vines tour.
8AM - Breakfast by the beach at Diggies Cafe.
Brad and Jen relax with fresh juice and pancakes with strawberries and maple syrup while enjoying the sea breeze and ocean views over North Beach.
The couple had heard of, but never experienced Diggies and they discover why it is such a popular location.
Diggies co-proprietor Aaron Crinis says the cafe is often praised by its constant stream of clients from the Illawarra and visitors to the region.
Aaron says Diggies is opening for dinner on Valentine's Day but bookings are limited.
9.30AM - The cruise south begins.
Brad and Jen meet Steve Melchior and climb aboard his Just Cruisin' Harley Davidson with sidecar, for a leisurely ride down the coast listening to Paul Kelly and Enrique Iglesias through loud speakers on the bike.
The seaside cruise takes them past picture postcard settings including Flagstaff Hill, Bombo Beach and Werri Beach.
Despite being a hot day and wearing leather jackets, the couple don't feel uncomfortable.
10.15AM - The gateway to the Shoalhaven Coast wine region.
Brad and Jen arrive at the Crooked River Wines, just south of Gerringong, to hear Brian Jackson talk about the popularity of his Romance wine series.
He describes it as an ideal treat for Valentine's Day.
"There is a lot of love in every bottle," he says.
Jen is particularly impressed with the sweet taste of Romance of Chardonnay, Romance of Verdelho and Pink Port.
She also enjoyed a sweet red wine made in 2003.
Brian explains how he has spent a lot of time producing softer red wines that are more palatable to women. He works on the theory that if you attract women you will get the men.
He says his wine is also proving popular with the Asian market.
Brad liked the white port because he associated red port with winter. He says white port had more of a warm weather appeal to it.
Brian says it is so popular people drive all the way from Sydney just to buy it and are very disappointed whenever the white port was not available.
He describes some of his sweet wine as Pyjamavino.
"You don't drink it unless you're in your pyjamas," he jokes.
Brian feels the quality of wine being produced on the former Willow Vale Rd dairy farm is improving year by year.
The cafe/restaurant area is also continuing to do a roaring trade on weekends.
"We get a 100 people here every Sunday for lunch and it is important they make a reservation," he says.
"We are starting to get a lot more people from Wollongong."
Around 50 per cent of Crooked River's business comes from the Illawarra and the rest is generally sourced from Sydney or Canberra.
The function room and cafe have become a popular wedding venue.
The annual stomping of the grapes on March 5 and 6 is attracting a lot of interest.
Crooked River expects to begin its annual harvest within a week and the winery will once again produce 20 different table wines.
11.15AM - Seven Mile sojourn.
It's back aboard the Harley for Brad and Jen where Steve tells them about his busy week. He provided scenic rides to a group of bank officials on a corporate bonding session at Jaspers Brush. And this weekend he has a wedding which involves picking up the happy couple from the Novotel Northbeach and transporting them to their wedding venue at Mt Keira.
Steve says Kangaroo Valley is one of the most popular destinations for Just Cruisin' tours, but he really wants to make hourly cruises down the Wollongong coastline via the new Lawrence Hargrave Dr bridge his specialty when the ocean bridge opens next year.
Cruising along another scenic coastal road, past Gerringong and Gerroa, the couple prepare for their next stop at Seven Mile Vineyard on Coolangatta Rd near Shoalhaven Heads.
The Harley heads down the coast road past Gerringong and Gerroa.
11.40AM - View the winemaking process.
While husband Eric Swarbrick tests grapes to try to determine the best time to harvest, Joan Swarbrick takes our couple on a tour of the cellar door and winemaking facility at the boutique winery which has struggled to keep up with demand for its red and white wine.
Seven Mile Vineyard is unique because wine is made within view of cellar door visitors.
"We are a very small winery so it is pretty easy to get a good idea of how it is made," Joan says.
Brad and Jen have visited wineries before but were never provided with a run-down on how wine is made and the differences in the process of making reds and whites.
They hear how half the work in a winery focuses on sterilisation and Jen learns how yeast is allowed to eat up all the sugar to make a dry red wine.
Dry wine generally means there is no sugar.
With white wine production they generally leave some residual sugar.
Jen took a liking to Seven Mile Vineyard's latest product - a fortified liqueur called Vin d'Orange with its distinctive orange aroma and flavour.
They originally made 100 bottles which sold out in less than 24 hours.
It is now being made in much larger quantities.
They also hear how Chambourcin is a perfect variety for the South Coast because it was developed to grow in areas with high humidity.
The vines at Seven Mile Vineyard were planted eight years ago and the cellar door opened two years ago.
Joan, who previously worked in the IT industry, says this is the best job she has ever had.
Seven Mile Vineyard has become a popular spot for people interested in playing games like Petanque.
Joan says each vineyard has its own appeal and that is why more of the wine region's 15 cellar doors are being discovered by people with an interest in wine.
The greatest increase in visitation recently came from Shellharbour and Wollongong.
With 20 growers and four new vineyards about to come online, Joan says the region will soon reach the critical mass required for it to really take off.
12.30PM - Step back in history.
Steve kicks over the Harley to take our couple on the short ride to the historic and multi-award winning Coolangatta Estate.
Jen decides she prefers the side car and Brad enjoys the view from the back of the bike.
They are both surprised how smooth the ride is and are interested to hear Steve has access to other bikes and sidecars so several couples can tour together as a group.
Eileen Bishop is at the gate of Coolangatta Estate to meet the pair and take them back in time with a tour of the site which was the first white settlement on the South Coast.
Eileen's husband Greg is overseeing an early harvest.
Semillon and verdelho varieties were picked this week and the grapes for the estate's sparkling wine, two weeks ago.
In the cellar door Eileen shows Brad and Jen the range of award winning wine made from established vines on the estate.
With 534 medals, Coolangatta is the most awarded vineyard on the South Coast.
The couple try the Verdelho and Chardonnay that have won six medals each and a 2003 vintage port and are taken on a tour of the estate's historic buildings. It includes the Great Hall which dates back to the early 1820s when Scottish-born surgeon Alexander Berry and Edward Wollstonecraft first settled the area after obtaining a land grant of 10,000 acres and 100 convicts.
The estate's four restaurants and accommodation are housed in convict-made buildings originally designed to be stables, a blacksmith's shop, a coachman's house and a tinsmith's shop before coming to life in a major restoration project.
Once nearly bulldozed, today the village attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year.
Regular jazz events, old-world functions such as a monthly banquet in the Great Hall and the annual A Day on the Green are among the popular events that keep visitors from far and wide coming back for more.
Brad and Jen complete their visit with lunch in Alexanders Vineyard Restaurant where they enjoy organic chicken breast nicoise and chambourcin pie.
3.30PM - Return satisfied.
After a three-hour stop it's back on the bike for a leisurely cruise home, with some fresh air to help decide which restaurant should be chosen for Valentine's dinner.
Restauranteurs in the Illawarra report an increase in the amount of business they get from Sydney and Wollongong patrons who have spent a day touring the vineyards.
Our couple can't help but think about what Alexander Berry would have made of their modern mode of transport.
They also consider how and when they might explore other vineyards, such as Silos Estate, Nowra Hill Vineyard, Cambewarra Estate, Lyrebird Ridge Organic Winery, Bundewallah Estate, Kladis Estate Wines, Mopoke Ridge Wines and Yarrawa Estate, in the Shoalhaven Coast wine region.
Want to follow our tracks?
* Just Cruisin' chauffeured Harley Davidson solo and sidecar tours start from $75/hour. Standard tours last one or four hours but the business also caters for longer tours and large groups. Contact www.justcruisintours.com.au or call 0414 942 598.
* Diggies beachside cafe and kiosk is a contemporary/modern Australia cafe situated in the heritage listed North Beach kiosk building opposite the Novotel Northbeach in North Wollongong. It is open for breakfast from 7am to 3pm, lunch from 11.30am seven days and for dinner on Friday and Saturday. Signature dish is a breakfast called the Diggies Big One. Phone 4226 2688.
* Crooked River Wines, located just south of Gerringong on the Princes Hwy, opens its cellar door from 10.30am until 4.30pm daily and the cafe/restaurant is open from Thursday to Sunday from 11am to 4pm. Visit www.crookedriverwines.com or call 4234 0975.
* Seven Mile Vineyard is located a short drive along Coolangatta Rd from Shoalhaven Heads and is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 10am. Visit www.sevenmilevineyard.com.au or call 4448 5466.
* Coolangatta Estate, the site of the first European settlement on the South Coast, is located on Bolong Rd just south of Coolangatta. The cellar door opens from 10am to 5pm daily. Four separate dining areas cater for a variety of dining requirements and functions including weddings and conferences. There is accommodation starting from $90/night, a golf course, tennis court and croquet lawn. Visit www.coolangattaestate.com.au or call 4448 7131.