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Palm Beach, NSW

Beautiful, chic destination at the northern limit of Sydney's beaches.

In theory Palm Beach is the northernmost coastal suburb of Sydney. In practice is it an independent destination removed from the city by the winding Barrenjoey Road and its location at the end of a peninsula which lies between Pittwater (a pleasant stretch of quiet water) and the Tasman Sea.
Historically it has been separated from Sydney and consequently it has attracted artists and writers (the late Bob Ellis, his wife Anne Brooksbank, the film maker David Elphick, the cartoonist and artist Tony Edwards have all lived there) and very wealthy business people of whom the most famous was probably the late Kerry Packer. On the Pittwater side Palm Beach feels like part of the Central Coast and the ambience of the ocean side, with its houses gazing eastward over the Tasman and Barrenjoey headland glowering down, is one that seems far removed from Sydney suburbia. Certainly when the bus leaves Avalon and winds around Barrenjoey Road you feel as though you are entering a place far beyond Sydney.


Palm Beach is located 44 km from Sydney via the Roseville Bridge and Narrabeen. 


Origin of Name

By the 1790s the district had become known as Palm Beach as a result of the large numbers of cabbage tree palms (livistona australis) which grew in the area. Remnants can still be seen at Hordern Park. In 1816 the original Palm Beach Estate - an area of 400 acres which stretched from Palm Beach down to Newport and included Whale Beach - had been granted to James Napper. Governor Phillip named Barrenjoey Head. It is believed that the Aboriginal word "barrenjoey" meant "a young kangaroo", hence "joey". The stretch of water was named Pittwater after William Pitt who was Prime Minister in England from 1783-1801.


Things to See and Do

Ferry Trips from Palm Beach Wharf
There are a range of excellent ferry trips from the Palm Beach Wharf on Pittwater. The ferry trips include journeys across Broken Bay to Ettalong and Wagstaff on the Central Coast. This is an ideal way to see Lion Island from a number of different angles. It is also a pleasant way to view Barrenjoey Headland and Lighthouse from the north.
There is also a delightful  trip to The Basin and Great Mackerel Beach which crosses Pittwater, passes Bennetts Wharf and Bonney Doon Wharf and stops at The Basin - a wonderful landlocked lagoon with a spit of sand. Even in summer it is rarely crowded and with lots of trees it is ideal for picnics and the lagoon is safe for children swimming.
The ferry does a circuit. It continues past Currawong Beach and around to Great Mackerel Beach where there are rows of wheelbarrows at the end of the pier so people don't have to carry their shopping to their houses and where the ferry terminal building has a number of paperbacks so those who miss the ferry can relax and read while they wait. There is detailed information about times and prices on the official website at https://www.fantasea.com.au/palmbeachferries-timetable. The ferry company also offer a limited number of whale watching cruises departing from the Palm Beach Wharf in July and October.

Barrenjoey Lighthouse
Walk to the northern end of the beach on the Pittwater side of the Palm Beach isthmus and you'll see two steep tracks (it takes 20 minutes or 35 minutes according to which track you take) up to the Barrenjoey lighthouse which offers panoramic views of the isthmus and across to West Head and Lion Island. A customs station was established on the headland in 1843 because it was suspected that the entrance to the Hawkesbury and Broken Bay was being used by smugglers. By the 1850s the Hawkesbury had become a major supplier for the colony in Sydney and consequently Pittwater, Broken Bay and the Hawkesbury had become an important shipping area. In 1855 a fire was raised in a basket to help sailors in bad weather. 
By 1868 two suspended lanterns were hung in two wooden buildings known as Stewart Towers. They were built at either end of the headland. These were replaced in 1881 by the current lighthouse, built from Nepean sandstone, which was designed by James Barnet. It had 700 candlepower with four oil wick burners. Today the light stands 113 metres above sea level, can be seen 19 nautical miles out to sea and it was automated in 1932. For a detailed history of the lighthouse check out http://www.lighthouses.org.au/lights/NSW/Barrenjoey/Barrenjoey.htm.
There are three main tracks up to the lighthouse. They are all described in great detail (and accompanied by a map) on a sign at the base of the headland which notes that:

The Kings Highway - Service Road - 700 metres
This road was built to service the lighthouse. Built before the advent of motor vehicles, the road was designed for horses and horse drawn transportation. The road has been built from on-site materials with massive sandstone block kerbing and dirt infill. George VI was crowned King in 1937 and during his reign, had planned to tour his Australian Colony including a visit to Barrenjoey. In anticipation of this event, authorities began to build a special 'motor road' from Palm Beach to the top of Barrenjoey Headland  ... the tour was cancelled because the King had developed tobacco related arterio-sclerosis ... it was never completed.

Trolley Track
The Trolley Track shares part of its route with the Kings Highway and deviates to the north. It is regarded as an engineering masterpiece ... "The track's foundations are large hewn stone, parts of which support the present day access road. The road is made of hardwood in 3 metre sections. The wood was fastened by hand-forged spikes driven into the sandstone. The track was used to bring all the building materials from the Customs jetty up to the site, except for the stone itself, which was quarried on the top."

Smugglers Track - 500 metres
"This track was built by five convicts as an access track to Barrenjoey Headland. It was used by the Customs Station which was established at the bottom of the headland ... When the Customs Station was established, ships were required to report before entry into Broken Bay, so a watchman was posted to observe vessels arriving and departing. The Smugglers Track is steep and narrow with panoramic views of Pittwater and the coastline south from Palm Beach."

Palm Beach - The South and North Ends
The main ocean beach, which is 2.3 km long, is ideal for walking, jogging and surfing although the sand, particularly along the duneline, can be soft and difficult. At the southern end there is a 35 metre rock pool which is suitable for both children and those who like calmer water or want to swim laps. There is a surf club in the middle of the beach which provides life saving facilities. The beach is used by everyone from anglers to parachutists, surfers and joggers although, even in summer, it is never as busy as Sydney's eastern suburbs beaches. The northern end of the beach is popular with experienced surfers and is recommended as offering the best surf. See http://www.surfthecoast.com.au/PalmBeach for more information.

Hordern Park
Hordern Park, which covers only 0.68 ha, is located at the southern end of Ocean Road. It was donated to the local council by R.J. Hordern. Although small it has an interesting lizard sculpture near the roadway and the steep path into the undergrowth reveals fine stands of cabbage tree palms and dense tropical rainforest complete with spectacular flowering undergrowth. The excellent Bushland Inventory (see http://www.pittwater.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/5531/Hordern_text_north1998.pdf) notes that the vegetation includes: "Spotted Gum (Corymbia maculata) and Cabbage-tree Palm (Livistona australis) which grades to a stand of Cabbage-tree Forest. Associated tree species include Rough-barked Apple (Angophora floribunda). The small tree and shrub layer includes Cheese Tree (Glochidion ferdinandi), Lilly Pilly (Acmena smithii), Blueberry Ash (Elaeocarpus reticulatus), Coast Banksia (Banksia integrifolia), Bolworra (Eupomatia laurina), Breynia (Breynia oblongifolia), Sweet Pittosporum (Pittosporum undulatum), Rough-fruit Pittosporum (P. revolutum) and planted Cedar Wattles (Acacia elata).
The fern-dominated groundlayer includes False Bracken Fern (Calochlaena dubia), Kangaroo Grass (Themeda australis), Blady Grass (Imperata cylindrica), Kidney Weed (Dichondra repens) and Scurvy Weed (Commelina cyanea), and the climbers Snake Vine (Stephania japonica ssp. discolor), Water Vine (Cissus hypoglauca), Native Rasberry (Rubus arvifolius), Scrambling Lily (Geitonoplesium cymosum), Glycine sp. and Golden Guinea Flower (Hibbertia scandens).
The Cabbage-tree Palm Forest is considered a significant community which has a limited distribution in Pittwater, and the conservation status of the Spotted Gum Forest, is considered significant in NSW.


Other Attractions in the Area

Walking to West Head
West Head in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park offers one of the finest panoramic views in Sydney. Stand at the well-maintained West Head Lookout and you can see Patonga across the Hawkesbury River, Ettalong and Bouddi National Park across Broken Bay, Lion Island standing like a sentinel, Barrenjoey lighthouse and headland, the Palm Beach isthmus and, looking south, boat-dotted Pittwater all the way to Careel Bay. It can be accessed from Palm Beach by catching the ferry to Great Mackerel Beach, walking north along the beach and following the path which edges Pittwater and eventually ascends to the Lookout.

The Basin
It is almost too idyllic to describe. Catch a ferry across from the Palm Beach Wharf and you will arrive at a place that is as close to perfection as any place can reasonably aspire. On the easterly side there is a narrow strip of beach under large trees which offer perfect picnic shade from the summer sun. On the western side, connected by a narrow stretch of water, is the lagoon which is suitably shallow, a little warmer, and perfect for people who want to just paddle or those who want a quiet swim.

Home and Away Tour
Palm Beach, known as Summer Bay to viewers of the TV show Home and Away, has been used as the outdoor location for the popular series. This is a simple celebration of the locations around Palm Beach which Home and Away enthusiasts will immediately recognise. The trip, which starts at the Museum of Contemporary Art near Circular Quay, includes the Summer Bay Surf Club, The Pier, Alf's Bait Shop, the lighthouse and the beach. It then leaves Palm Beach and travels down the coast to Manly. It arrives at Manly around 5.15 where travellers can catch the Manly Ferry back to Circular Quay. For more information and bookings check out http://www.officialhomeandawaytour.com.au.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was home to the Garigal people from the Guringai Aboriginal language group.

* Although Captain James Cook did not enter it, he did name Broken Bay which lies immediately to the north.

* The first European into the area was Governor Arthur Phillip who, on an early exploration of the coast north of Sydney Cove, sailed into Pittwater on 2 March 1788. He was looking for land suitable for food production. It is recorded that they made contact with the local Aborigines at the time and the contact was friendly. 

* By 1790 the agricultural potential of the Hawkesbury River had been well established and boats sailed from Sydney to the Hawkesbury carrying timber and grain.

* In 1804 Patrick Flynn established a garden on the isthmus to provide vegetables to the passing ships.

* In 1806 the local Aborigines rescued a sole survivor from a shipwreck in Broken Bay.

* By 1808 settlers had moved into the area and were growing vegetables for the Sydney market. 

* In 1816 the original Palm Beach Estate - an area of 400 acres which stretched from Palm Beach down to Newport and included Whale Beach - had been granted to Surgeon James Napper. 

* By 1825 a former convict, John Howard, had built a cottage on Barrenjoey Headland.

* By the 1830s fishermen were living along the coast, often in caves, and making a simple living from what they caught. 

* A decade later the district had a reputation for smuggling. Cargoes arriving in Sydney but trying to avoid government scrutiny and taxes were landed on the Pittwater side of the headland. 

* In 1843 the government established a customs office on Barrenjoey headland just below the present site of the lighthouse. It continued to operate until the 1870s. 

* In 1855 a navigation light had been established on Barrenjoey Headland.

* By 1863 some Chinese had moved into the area and established a fish-drying business near the present site of the Palm Beach wharf.

* In 1881 the government purchased the headland and built a stone lighthouse.

* In 1893 a local school was built.

* The area was subdivided in 1911.

* The district remained isolated from Sydney until the 1920s when the road from Newport was completed and the track which is now known as Barrenjoey Road was upgraded, improved and bituminised.

* In 1932 the Barrenjoey Lighthouse was automated.

* In 1937, as part of a planned visit by King George VI, a special road up to Barrenjoey Lighthouse was begun but the visit was cancelled and the road was never completed.

* In 1988 Palm Beach started to be used for outdoor scenes in Home and Away.


Visitor Information

There is no visitor information site. Check out the noticeboards at the Palm Beach Wharf for some local information.


Useful Websites

The official Sydney website has a good overview of the area. Check out http://www.sydney.com/destinations/sydney/sydney-north/palm-beach.

Got something to add?

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2 suggestions
  • The Youth Hostel at Towlers Bay, across Pittwater at the back of Palm Beach, is the second oldest Youth Hostel in Australia and has been visited by many famous people, some of them when they were young and could only afford the minimum hostel rates.Originally it was the home of Mrs. Isles, a Hawkesbury region character. It still attracts a regular stream of overseas visitors who want to savour the feel of the Australian bush without straying too far.

    P.M. Turnbull
  • Regarding the most famous wealthy resident of Palm Beach, the late Kerry Packer may now be superseded by a bearded, trucker-hat-donning tech titan: Mike Cannon-Brookes of Atlassian fame.