The Sydney Morning Herald: Ten ways to make the most of the last free Opal weekend

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald on September 1, 2016

Online: smh.com.au/…/ten-ways-to-make-the-most-of-the-last-free-opal-card-weekend-20160704-gpy9gs

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This weekend is the last chance for Opal card users to take advantage of free trips.

For 19-year-old student Emma Lucas, it means from next week she might not be so quick to tap on and tap off.

From Monday, cardholders who have reached the eight paid trips in one week will have to pay half-fare for Friday and the weekend instead of it being free.

Ms Lucas said that she’ll be less likely to use public transport once free Opal trips stop.

“If I want to do something on the weekend like go to Manly, I normally wouldn’t because of the ferry costs, but if I’ve got free trips I’m encouraged to do those things,” she said.

“I’m pretty aware of my carbon footprint, so the last thing I want to do is use my car, but cancelling free Opal trips means that I will use my car more or not go out as much. It takes away the encouragement to use public transport.”

A uni student with a part-time job two days a week, Miss Lucas reaches the eight trips quota just getting to class.

She said that once free trips stop, she’ll be too worried about how much she’s spending to take extra trips.

“I’ve got auto top up as well, so it takes the money straight out of my account. I won’t want to use my Opal as much because I want to save money on it,” she said.

“It’s going to be a much bigger thing to worry about on the minds of people who don’t have a car or a full time job.”

This weekend is the opportune time for Opal travellers to get out of town and explore outer-Sydney for free.

Boundaries of Opal travel extend as far South as Bomaderry, as far west as Bathurst, and as far north as Dungog, so cardholders could in theory travel through most of NSW without paying a cent.

These are our top 10 destinations for cardholders to visit for free this weekend, according to the locals.

1. The Blue Mountains (two hours from Central Station)

The Blue Mountains is one of Opal card’s top four most-frequented destinations for weekend travel. Ramon Rathore, owner of UpBeet Juice and Espresso, attributed this to the uniqueness and beauty of the place.

“We have some of the most pristine wilderness within region view of pretty much everywhere in the mountains,” he said. “It’s unique on every front – spiritually, visually, geographically, everything.”

The train journey is especially stunning when there’s snow on the mountains. Visitors can follow one of the many walking tracks to see breathtaking views of the Three Sisters, or stroll through the town of Katoomba – a man-made oddity in the centre of bush. Mr Rathore is afraid that Opal travellers who frequent his cafe will stop coming once they no longer have free trips.

“Anything that is going to effect the efficiency of tourism up here does have a direct effect on our business,” he said.

2. Manly Beach and North Head (approx 45 min from Central)  

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Catch the ferry over to Manly from Circular Quay. The seabreeze is always pleasant and passengers get a great view of North Head’s sandstone headlands. Once visitors arrive at Manly Beach, they can amble up to the headlands on a number of walking tracks. The paved Fairfax walk is ideal for taking along the kids. It starts at the end of North Head Scenic Drive and loops around the top of North Head, passing Q Station – a quarantine station active in 1833 – and other historical sites. All the sites are marked by information boards that give insight into North Head’s past.

Deb Randell, a tour guide at Q Station which is free for the public to enter, said that North Head’s history, scenery and close proximity to Sydney set it a part from other places.

“Q Station’s third graveyard is up at North Head. It’s the only graveyard out of our three that still has all its headstones, so it’s very much intact,” she said.

“The whole place just comes alive once you start to hear all the fascinating stories that have gone on here and some of the characters that have passed through over time.”

3. Terrigal, The Central Coast (approx. 2 hr from Central)

Take a trip on the Central Coast train line and view the Hawkesbury River, bobbing boats, oyster farms, ocean and bush. Hop on a bus from Gosford Station to Terrigal, where you can walk from the end of Terrigal Lagoon, along the beachfront, and up to the Skillion lookout across from Terrigal Haven.

Mardi Love, a patrolling member of Terrigal Surf Club for 14 years, said that Terrigal is always a great destination for visitors, regardless of the weather.

“Of course the beach is the best thing about Terrigal, but there’s also a number of coastal walks that are gaining in popularity,” said Ms Love.

“You can always find a nice little place to dunk in the water or play on the beach. One of the other great attractions is the food and cafe culture.”

4. Kiama and The Blowhole (approx. 2 hr and 15 min from Central)

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Kiama may seem like a bit of a trek to most Sydneysiders, but Ray Thorburn, 81, has lived in the area since 1975 and said it’s well worth the trip.

“I would suggest that it is better than Sydney,” said Mr Thorburn.

“Aesthetically, it’s so far away from Sydney that it isn’t funny, but it’s close enough to the smoke to really go up there whenever you need to. It’s the best of all worlds, I suppose you could say.”

Visitors can get off the train at Kiama Station and walk the 10 to 15 minutes up to the famed Blowhole, which is the largest in the world, and the Kiama lighthouse, which was established in 1887. Take along some hand reels and fish off the harbour.

5. Thirroul (approx. 1 hr and 15 min from Central)

If passengers are lucky, they’ll not only have the ocean to their left on the train ride to Thirroul, but mist rolling down the hills on their right. The seaside suburb of Wollongong features a one kilometre long beach that faces east and picks up swell from most directions, so it’s a good surf spot. Before heading to Thirroul Station, visitors can get off at nearby Scarborough and wander across to the Scarborough Hotel, then head upstairs to take in the stunning views of the ocean below.

Ellen Austin manages the Scarborough Hotel.

“We’ve got such a beautiful view here. There’s nothing else like it,” she said.

“It’s a really relaxed area and everyone’s really nice. I don’t think anywhere else comes close to here.”

Ms Austin recommends people walk the 10 minutes to Sea Cliff Bridge, the 665 metre highlight of Grand Pacific Drive. Other coastal towns, Austinmer and Coledale, are dotted along the road and are within a couple of minutes train or bus trip.

6. Windsor (approx 1 hr from Central)

Windsor is a town in Sydney’s west known for its heritage and historical value. Founded in 1810, Windsor still has its traditional country charm that attracts people away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Vicki Burns is a supervisor at Australia’s oldest pub, the Macquarie Arms Hotel, which was built in Windsor in 1815.

“There’s a lot of old buildings that are still standing. We’ve got a couple of old churches, and really old graveyards dating back hundreds of years,” she said.

“People like it because it’s a little country town. We have markets through the mall with all local produce on Sundays.”

Visitors can get off at Windsor Station, which is on the main street of the town – George Street – and amble past sites that seem frozen in time, including St Matthew’s Anglican Church (built in 1817) and Windsor Court House (built in 1822).

7. Richmond (approx. 1 hr and 15 min from Central)

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Passengers enjoy the bucolic scenes from the train window as Richmond nears; farm animals are a welcome site outside the norm of urban life. Get off at Richmond Station and wander across to the old-style oval over the road. Buy a quarter chicken and fresh salad from a store opposite the oval and grab a coffee from the same strip on the way back.

Graham Smith, 78, was born and bred in Richmond and has lived there his whole life. Mr Smith said he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“I wouldn’t like to live anywhere else. I’m very happy living in the area,” he said.

“If you lived in the city, I think Richmond is a lovely place to visit.”

Mr Smith named historic buildings, cafes, antique stores and the Royal Australian Air Force Base – where you can watch the planes take off and land – as main attractions.

8. The Hawkesbury River, Brooklyn (approx 1 hr from Central)

The Hawkesbury River offers some of the most pristine views in Sydney, and with the station right in the centre of town, the one hour train trip is definitely the best way to get there.

Catherine Pigneguy owns the local Riverboat Postman, which does day trips during the week and weekend cruises, and also runs the Teahouse at Brooklyn.

“It’s such a tiny little village surrounded by national park, so it feels like a town on its own but it’s still a part of Sydney,” said Ms Pigneguy.

“The cafes here are brilliant and the fish and chips are pretty much straight out of the river. It makes the perfect day trip that’s absolutely totally different from what you’ll see anywhere else.”

Like Mr Rathore from the Blue Mountains, Ms Pigneguy is concerned about what the cancellation of free Opal trips will mean for the town and business.

“The train relieves parking issues in small towns like ours, so if they reduce the incentive to use the train, people will just drive and make parking availability worse.”

9. Newcastle and Merewether (approx 3 hr from Central)

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If you go from one end of Newcastle to the other, you’ll come across a whole range of scenes; from the urban jungle of the city, to the oddly industrial waterfront, to the nostalgic fronts of picket-fenced cottages, to the long stretches of beach. Visitors can get off the train at Hamilton, hop on a bus into town and peak into the trendy pigeon hole cafes, or head down to Merewether Beach.

Rebeccah Warwood, sales and events manager at Merewether Surfhouse, said that visitors love the place because it offers city, surf and suburbia.

“It’s a different, relaxed vibe out here compared to the CBD of Newcastle. It’s a good middle ground between all the buzzing areas,” she said.

“We see dolphins and whales frequently, on most mornings, which is beautiful.”

Ms Warwood said that Newcastle is an ideal spot for Sydneysiders to take a break and relax over the weekend.

10. Moss Vale (approx 1 hr and 45 min from Central)

Sandra Menteith, 65, helps run the local Farmers Market in Moss Vale. She said that her favourite thing about living in a rural town is the country way of life, but new, ‘younger’ business is making the area a lot more interesting.

“In Moss Vale, you can see a lot more traditional things and the way of life living in a regional area, that are perhaps lost when a place gets too developed,” said Ms Menteith.

“There’s a lot of new business and activities emerging in the area – especially ones around food. It’s appropriate, because Moss Vale was traditionally the agricultural centre of the Southern Highlands.”

Ms Menteith said that if people from Sydney tasted Moss Vale’s local produce, they wouldn’t settle for anything less again.

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