You don’t have to go all the way to Rio to shake your bon-bons. You’ll be doing the samba when discovering Australia’s Copacabana, a little-known hamlet just over an hour north of Sydney and one of Australia’s best-kept beachside secrets writes Flip Byrnes.
“Her name was Lola, she was a show girl…”. Whenever cresting the hill into Copacabana, the imaginary maracas bust out and I can’t help but shimmy along to Barry Manilow’s Copacabana.
Even after 30 years, that precise moment, when the ocean and drowsy village burst into view below, is when fingers relax on the steering wheel, my heartbeat slows and those imaginary maracas get an extra little shake.
This reaction is, no doubt, some Pavlovian reaction to a lifetime of accumulated sunny recollections at my parents’ holiday house (hand-built back when ‘Copa’, as it’s fondly known, had no million dollar houses but vacant blocks going for a dime). In one sniff of ocean air, salt-soaked memories forgotten in the daily noise come to sit snugly beside me; sand between toes, skipping across melting bitumen in swimmers, tucking into hamburgers (with beetroot) perched on the car bonnet and falling asleep to the lullaby of crashing waves.
It was school-time summers that never seemed to end with all the hallmarks of a free-range beach childhood and rites of passage. If I have a spiritual home, this is it.
And now there’s a new chapter, with our baby and toddler undergoing their own Copa Induction. Is it the perfect place for the Next Gen? Oh yes, it is.
Don’t be fooled by the bold and brash namesake – the four-kilometre-long Copacabana couldn’t be more different from the other one. The land called Tudibaring by Indigenous locals (meaning ‘where waves pound like a beating heart’) and subdivided in 1954 has lain mostly overlooked. If hunting music and passion it’s never been in fashion here, you’ll need to follow cashed-up Sydneysiders to the nearby hot spots of chic Avoca and uber-developed Terrigal (where the seven-storey Crown Plaza Hotel dominates the landscape). In summer, while Sydney’s Bondi Beach is bursting and Terrigal experiences traffic jams, you never have to look for a parking spot at Copa.
Nothing much has changed. There’s a mini market, a hairdressing salon, a bottle shop, a date-night worthy restaurant, three coffee shops (Copacino does a smooth coffee) and a pharmacy. But it’s all you need for life in the slow lane.
But when with babies or toddlers, the days are full. There are dawn walks along the sand (yes, the coffee shop opens at 6.30am), spotting seagulls, watching surfers and chatting to fishermen. With the sun up, families’ beeline to Mavis Pool, a sheltered rock pool built in the 1950s by two local women (both named Mavis), perfect for shell hunting while older kids take on the surf between the lifesaving flags nearby.
We’re more fans of Cochrane Lagoon (the Nagoon as it’s named by smaller members of our family clan), demarking the boundary between Copa and McMasters Beach. The sandbar between Nagoon and beach is the site of cricket games, kite flying, SUP-ing and industrious sand castle building.
McMasters is the village that time forgot. It’s been development resistant (boasting one corner store) and the 900 odd homes, bordered by bush, beach and a coastal lagoon, is an enclave of families, retirees and weekenders. A week here will have you as relaxed as a year of Sundays.
Not nearly relaxed are the Nagoon ducks. Feeding them bread (at the park at Del Monte Place and Casa Place) can result in inadvertently recreating Hitchocks’ The Birds. You’ve been warned.
So, what to do when not succumbing to the coastal vibe? Surf the left-hand break at Copa Point, catch a humpback whale migration, or push a pram up the steep hill to Captain Cook Lookout to get Olympic-level fit.
There are also gems to tempt restless feet within a 20-minute drive. A Central Coast highlight is the daily 3.30pm Pelican feeding at The Entrance boardwalk, rain, hail or shine. If the few souls on Copacabana Beach are a few too many, follow the Maitland Track through bush (off the Scenic Highway) to unpatrolled and deserted Maitland Bay (no lifeguards). Or do a rock pool switcheroo to Avoca Beach (and the adorable weatherboard-house cinema). For shopping satiation, Hardy Bay’s Mooch Inside is an eclectic treasure trove of weathered wood chairs, stylish silver and billowing kaftans.
But then you’ll come back to Copa. And like us, with our babies, find quiet in the chaos. The lagoon sandbar is the place where I’ve stolen quiet moments to be nothing but a mother. To watch the sun set, create fresh footprints in smooth-washed sand and whisper nothings into my babies’ ears. More memories added, to the uncomplicated tapestry of Copa.
Copacabana does not have hotels. Airbnb and Stayz are the best resources for finding the perfect beach house.