Comedian and architecture geek Tim “Rosso” Ross has a new show in his Man About the House series that’s all about the motels of his (and my) childhood in the 1970s and ’80s.
Once-upon-a-time, Bannisters by the Sea was one of those places, quietly tucked away on the left-hand side of the Princes Highway as you passed through Milton on the way to Ulladulla, about a four-hour drive south of Sydney.
It was an era of 50 shades of brown, with a riot of colour provided by the bedspread, soaps in plastic bags, towels impersonating sandpaper and toilet paper with a sticker on it as proof of cleanliness. The fondness of nostalgia is forgiving. One amusement of modern life is witnessing those who’ve moved with the times versus those still trapped in previous eras for all their shortcomings.
Bannisters by the Sea is a champion of the former category on a coastline where many will know the latter when looking for a bed in the area at night.
And part of what makes this seaside place stand out now was it was a ’70s motel that understood the value of location back when no one was really interested in coastal property outside of Sydney. It became Bannisters in 2002, sitting on the Bannisters Point headland at Mollymook like a lighthouse, yet hidden discreetly behind foliage so the whitewashed three-level property isn’t Gold Coast-style visual pollution when viewed from the surrounding beaches.
Over the intervening years, Bannisters has morphed into resort elegant without pricing itself into extravagance. Ok, with rooms starting at $420 a night, it’s no longer at highway motel prices, but the value is excellent and it all feels so luxurious without breaking the bank.
The brand added the nearby purpose-built Bannisters Pavilion to the portfolio in 2015, and most recently transforming a 50-year-old motel in Port Stephens into its newest luxury property in partnership with British chef Rick Stein and his Australian wife, Sarah.
Stein’s eponymous seafood restaurant is reason alone to visit the location, but my wife and I, nowadays only mildly acquainted with each other between work and raising two children, wanted a weekend away together to check whether we’re still friends (yes, as it turns out). The spectacular Longitude 131 at Uluru was one thought, but a $6000 price tag to spend two nights in a tent, Bannisters was the more viable option.
The NSW south coast has always held a magical appeal for me. One side of my family hails from further south at Narooma and coastline is dotted with stunning, often empty beaches, drystone walls, dairy farms, lush bushland, rolling hills and fishing towns. Over the last two decades, the Shoalhaven region’s had Sydneysiders apply the holiday house lipstick to its seaside towns without losing its simpler times charms.
You can just flop by the infinity pool at Bannisters by the Sea and read if you want, hit the day spa for a massage, facial and manicure, or get out and explore because there’s plenty to see.
Nearby Milton is a pretty heritage village bisected by the highway with decent cafes, antique stores and one of the state’s finest regional restaurants, St Isidore.
A little further on, the highway closes every Easter Sunday at Ulladulla for the annual blessing of the fleet festival. And if you’re old enough to remember when Pam Burridge ruled the waves is the 1990s as a pioneering women’s surfing world champion, she now runs a surf school on Mollymook’s waves.
Rooms at Bannisters by the Sea start from $420 a night for a 28m sq Ocean Deluxe room (which can sleep 3), while a Courtyard Suite at $470pn is more than double the size at 70m sq, and includes a double spa. There are other more expensive suites, higher up and overlooking the ocean, as well as a 90m sq Collette Dinnigan-decorated penthouse for $890.
A confession: we’ve known Rick and Sarah Stein for many years during my time as a restaurant critic. They’re wonderful hosts, and we’d booked an Ocean Deluxe room knowing long walks on the beach lay ahead, but what happened when we arrived was took our breath away on several fronts.
We were given a complimentary upgrade to the Pinnacle Penthouse, a massive, luxurious private getaway that’s bigger than our house in Sydney.
The room is as stunning as the ocean views, adorned with large 1930s Max Dupain photographs of beach life. There are two bedrooms, a main lounge with fireplace, a cinema room, private office, double bath, hamman steam room, outdoor showers, a long balcony with daybeds and so many bells and whistles that surprise and delight. You can admire it in the photos below. The internal space is 243m sq. We ran around the place squealing with excitement and wanting to starfish all over it.
That night, after dropping by the pool bar for cocktails – the negroni with Four Pillars gin and Lillet rouge is seriously good – we were so enthralled with out room that rather than go out, we stayed put, ordered a massive $110 seafood platter from the restaurant and dined in our bathrobes, accompanied by champagne from the in-room wine fridge.
The full moon created a liquid mercury path on the ocean. We flopped in the other lounge room to watch TV.
Breakfast the next morning in the restaurant was an incredible buffet combined with a range of hot options – even kippers if you fancy them. We sat out of the balcony enjoying the sunshine, fresh air and birdsong.
We filled the day with beach walks, daydreams of properties in local real estate windows, shopping at the excellent fashion and jewellery store Miss Moss in Milton before a superb lunch at St Isidore overlooking the surrounding farmlands. An afternoon nap on the massive, pillow-strewn lounge back in our room followed.
Before dinner at Rick Stein’s in-house restaurant, we went down to Bannisters Pavilion for a drink. It’s about a 10 minute walk there, or a courtesy shuttle van between the two venues. Shiny and stylish, it’s the upmarket date night alternative to the golf club down on Mollymook’s southern headland.
The Pavilion’s rooftop bar (which is centred around the rooftop pool by day) and restaurant was pumping. We sat at the bar and scanning the room and felt a little like parents watching their adult children go out to play. Life was never this classy when I was their age. A shandy was as close as it got to a cocktail back then. The restaurant menu is bistro-steakhouse – burgers, ribs, steaks with a Mediterranean influence. And if you have a sticky toffee pudding craving, you’re in luck.
If you’re after energetic fun, this is the place. We’re at the quiet opulence end of life, so the van came and took us back up the hill.
Stein’s restaurant has a beachy-keen vibe with a sort of Antipodean-Aegean feel in blue and whites. The menu starts with oysters from two locations on the South Coast. Try them both for the subtle revelations of difference.
The seafood menu appears to be influenced by the chef’s globe-trotting TV shows – some French, combined with Asian, South American and his English heritage – so alongside fish and chips there’s a flathead taco, ceviche of swordfish, an Indonesian seafood curry and a bouillabaisse.
I had to have Stein’s fish pie – salmon, snapper, blue eye, scallops and prawns with a creamy sauce with truffle and a crisp gratin of breadcrumbs and parmesan on top. Yes it was fun. And rich.
“Great motel restaurant” was oxymoronic back in the 70s. Forty years later, it’s still a rarity, especially regionally, unless you’re Dan Hunter’s Brae or The Lakehouse in Victoria.
Rick Stein at Bannisters is one of those lucky quinellas of great food that leaves you brimming with contentment on the short walk back to your plush pillows.
The next day we wondered if the children could successfully get themselves to school on Monday if we stayed another night. Computer says no.
On the way home we swung by Arthur Boyd’s gift to the nation, his historic property, Bundanon, on the Shoalhaven River. Standing in Boyd’s studio, his things still in place, surrounded by his art, listening to the stories of his life, it was a reminder that beauty is both found and created.
And escaping for the weekend with someone you love is a reminder that you too can make those moments.
Bannisters by the Sea
191 Mitchell Parade, Mollymook, NSW
Cost From $420 a night (min. two-nights Fri-Sat)
Our massive penthouse, The Pinnacle, is all of the top floor. Underneath are the other two major suites, including the Collette Dinnigan penthouse.
The Pinnacle’s lounge room has wonderful long couches to flop on
Our king bed in The Pinnacle’s main bedroom
There’s a pillow menu for your weary head
There’s another lounge area, the other side of the fireplace in the main lounge.
It’s just outside the 2nd bedroom and is where you’ll find the TV.
The 2nd bedroom in The Pinnacle penthouse
Watching the full moon rise over the sea, which turned into quicksilver, from our room was mesmerising
The Pinnacle’s mini-bar includes wine fridges with own personal wine cellar
I loved the Max Dupain photos in our penthouse. This is a shot he took at Sydney’s Newport sea pool in the 1930s – you’ll find it in the second bedroom
This massive print of Dupain’s surf race start at Manly is in the main room
The dining table in The Pinnacle penthouse can seat six, so you can invite some friends around to entertain, order room service from Rick Stein and have your own private dinner party
We loved clever details in our room much as this lamp made from old leather suitcases
The Pinnacle’s massive balcony also has a dining table and daybeds along with the amazing views up the coast
There’s a lounge on the balcony outside the main bedroom.
The incredible seafood platter we had as room service on our first night in our penthouse room.
That’s the reception downstairs from the entrance to our penthouse. You can see the 70s motel bones of Bannisters, now so glamorously updated.
The infinity pool at Bannisters by the Sea.
The day rooms down by the pool offer plenty of places to relax out of the sun
The pool bar, which opens at 5pm every day and serves pizzas and bar snacks, is on the right
The Bannisters pool bar makes a mean cocktail. This is the Oaxacan frother – mescal, agave syrup, egg white lime, grapefruit and chocolate bitters with a distinctive smoky and sour flavour
At night the trees around the pool are lit up adding to the natural beauty.
Plenty of the rooms at Bannisters look east out to sea
The entrance to Rick Stein restaurant is a reading room.
Along with books, you can also play games by the fireplace
The breakfast buffet offers an abundance of fresh fruit and pastries
The English breakfast – with black pudding!
We had Asian fish cakes as our entree at Rick Stein at Bannisters
Rick Stein’s fish pie with mushy peas. My wife had the Indonesian seafood curry.
The striking mix of tiles and pillows along the banquette that runs the length of the room puts a smile on your face.
This is Narrawalle Beach, which you can walk to from Bannisters – the resort is hidden among the trees on this headland
The long walk along Narrawalle Beach, north of Bannisters, is dotted with rockpools.
We found this garden in Milton, full of garden gnomes. We’re not sure if the sheep and lambs are in a cage to keep them from escaping or to stop passersby shoving a jumbuck in their tucker bag.
* Business Insider paid for the accomodation booked at Bannisters, but received a complimentary upgrade to the room featured in this review.
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