When someone as well-travelled as Andrea Black says she has discovered the “best little town in Australia” then we take note, especially when that little town is our Ulmarra.
The river port village of Ulmarra might be tiny but it’s well worth lingering here.
When the jacarandas are in bloom, and Spring wildflowers are galloping across the banks of the Clarence River, there’s an abundance of colour in Ulmarra, 15 minutes by car from Grafton in the north of New South Wales.
I’m perched riverside under the violet haze, with grass underfoot and cold beer in hand at the Federation-era Ulmarra Hotel. This could be one of the best beer garden views to enjoy a generous serve of chicken parmigiana or wagyu sausages and mash in Australia. Across the way, egrets poke around in shallows and the free ferry makes a crossing from the big smoke.
But it’s not just this grand 1906 hotel, with its ironwork and wide verandas that makes this riverport village so appealing. Just across the road, Ulmarra Books could be the finest second-hand bookshop I have visited, and deserves a couple of hours of fossicking to find exactly what you didn’t think you had to own. Shelves are so stacked that piles have had to be relegated to the floor, but there’s a certain order, the well-versed owner is aware of the Dewey Decimal System. There’s aisles of Australian and international books on art, history and politics and first edition Australian literary classics, and all are half price.
One might leaf through the book on the region from 1900 entitled Picturesque Clarence and find that Ulmarra was once a haven for Scottish immigrants. The book describes Ulmarra houses as being surrounded by trees, possibly reminding residents of home and their own Robert Burns who wrote:
‘Where hanging beech and spreading elm, Shaded by stream sae dear and cool’
Coldstream Street, the main drag, offers up more gems with art galleries, including renowned artist Peter Hill’s gallery P.J Art and Coldstream Gallery where works by local artists and artisans are on exhibit.
They say visiting Ulmarra is like walking into Australia a century ago, it’s been perfectly preserved and served as the filming location for TV mini-series Fields of Fire. This is cattle and cane country, of houses of tin and timber. In the early 1900s when sugar cane was established and dairy farming introduced, and the best way to transport goods was by the river, the town was booming. It once had four blacksmiths, a general store, a hospital, two hotels, two schools and three policemen. You can take a heritage walk of the area and spot The Old Butter Factory dating from 1922, the old sugar mill built in 1870.
Named after the local Aboriginal word meaning ‘bend in the river’ Ulmarra is easy to miss.
The Pacific Highway now bypasses the village but it’s an easy 150 metre detour and perfect for a pub lunch or a coffee from the mobile van called ‘The Little Local Café’ on Big River Way. It’s also a haven for the antique aficionado.
I hit the jackpot at Old Codgers Antiques and Ludo’s Old Wares, both sprawling spaces on Big River Way. There’s racks full of vintage frocks, shelves of colourful glassware, picnic hampers from the 50s still unused, and at Ludos, two rooms full of records. For any record collector, this is the stuff of dreams, many were unplayed jukebox copies of 45s, untouched for decades. I made a pact to return and two months later I was back browsing the stacks again. Yet another reason why Ulmarra is the perfect rest stop on a road trip between Sydney and Brisbane. You might want to stay the night, or longer.
Written by Andrea Black.