Two years ago while strolling down Bermagui’s waterfront main drag with my two primary school-aged daughters, as we approached the town’s only pub, I made an excuse to cross the street.
Wallowing in the out-dated beer ‘garden’ at the front of the iconic pub and sinking schooners were a number of barflies leering at passers-by. It was uncomfortable enough just to walk past, let alone drop in for a much needed cold drink.
A lot can change in two years, and this week, the yowie clan actually booked a table on that very same front deck which in the last two years has transformed into a family-friendly bistro with knock-out views.
Leading the charge of this make-over of the historic 1895 Bermagui Beach Hotel are a trio of young publicans, Yannis Gantner (aged 31), Luke Redmond (39) and his wife Lou (28).
While it is their first foray into the hotel business, both Redmond and Gantner have strong links with this charming seaside village.
Although raised on a farm in nearby Quaama, for Redmond, his childhood “was all about Bermagui”.
“Almost every afternoon dad would pick us up from school and take us straight to Bermie for fishing, diving and surfing,” reveals Redmond, who after living in Sydney for 20 years, couldn’t resist the opportunity to purchase the hotel with Gantner when it came on the market in 2017.
“It was a chance to get out of Sydney and raise our young family here in what really is paradise,” explains Redmond, whose wife, Lou, gave birth to their first child last year.
“People were surprised when we took over the pub and saw Lou who was pregnant at the time behind the bar pulling drinks,” says Gantner of Melbourne, who after decades of regularly visiting his grandmother, a Bermagui resident, admits to “always having a soft spot for Bermie”.
“I just love this town, but just needed a viable business opportunity to lure me here,” explains Gantner, adding, “the challenge to breathe new life into this iconic pub was irresistible.”
“We’ve opened the pub up, revamped the restaurant, moved the pokies to the back of the hotel and increased the range of drinks,” explains Gantner who admits the cellar may now be stocked with a little too much beer. “We got a bit carried away with the beer,” he muses, adding “we’ve now got 16 on tap, but hey we are a pub after all.”
The overhauled watering hole is only part of a wave of generational change in the town of 1500 people, creating an upbeat atmosphere the sleepy seaside village hasn’t experienced since several high profile visits by famed US game fisher Zane Grey put Bermagui on the map in the late 1930s.
And it’s not just the main street rocking a new vibe, one of the most sought-after addresses in town is Bunga St which, in the space of a couple of years has morphed from an industrial centre into a mecca for foodies.
Here, early risers have to brave regular queues out the door of artisan bakery Honorbread for sumptuous pastries, while a few doors up is Eastwoods Deli. The brainchild of Kelly Eastwood, who has cooked in the kitchens of Rick Stein and worked behind the scenes for televisions programs like My Kitchen Rules and River Cottage Australia, this little gem dishes up a range of delicatessen delights including gourmet cheeses, antipasto, pâtés and tasty cured meats. Oh if you want to replicate the same tastes at home, you can book into one of Kelly’s in-store cooking classes. She’s even cooked for Bill Gates (really!), so she must be good.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the street is Mister Hope’s retro espresso coffee bar (now with an evolving mini theatrette), where, despite churning out a steady flow of coffee for holiday-makers, Tia, the young barista takes time to chat to me about her town’s renaissance.
“It used to be full of old crusty fisherman, now it’s a younger generation, there's a real buzz, young people want to stay here” she says as she hands me my latte with a smile.
While Bermagui is undeniably diversifying away from fishing, everywhere you look are reminders of the ongoing significance of both commercial and recreational fishing to the prosperity of the area. This is especially the case at the Fisherman’s Wharf which overlooks a modest fishing fleet and where among a series of sculptures of fishing icons-past also boasts the best fish and chips in town. Oh, and Bermagui must surely lay claim to the only main street in Australia, where instead of park benches, interpretative panels describing the range of fish species (including the prized marlin) you can catch in surrounding waters line the footpath.
However, it’s back at the top of the main street, at the pub, where the real buzz is this summer. From late mornings to late evening the pub is doing a brisk trade, proof that generational change can be a good thing.
“A lot of our patrons this season are down from Canberra, and they demand a high standard of food,” says Gantner, as I tuck into a tender porterhouse steak.
“Our first challenge was to turn around the food – if locals eat here, then the tourists will come too,” he explains.
Despite their new family-friendly direction, Gantner and Redmond clearly don’t want to lose touch with the heritage of the landmark pub. One way they’ve ensured this connection remains tangible are the dozens of historical photos of past publicans they’ve tracked-down and lovingly framed and hung on the walls.
“That man is Bermagui Beach Hotel,” says Gantner pointing to a black and white photo near the entrance of the late Bill O’Shea, the hotel’s longest serving publican, and whose family ran the hotel for much of the twentieth century.
“Some even say they have seen his ghost wandering the hallways, but perhaps they’ve just had a couple too many [drinks],” laughs Redmond.
The annals of the Bermagui Museum report that during a severe drought in the early 1950s fresh water was brought to the hotel via steamers which docked at the wharf (demolished in 1971) opposite the hotel. According to local lore the ballast water of some vessels were pumped into tanks at the pub and sold to parched locals by the entrepreneurial Mrs O’Shea. Apparently for a period a schooner of water was more expensive than beer. Who’d have thought?!
Your Akubra-clad columnist can confirm that these days water is plentiful (and free) and with those 16 beers on tap, there’s very little chance of the Bermagui Beach Hotel ever running out of beer either.
Bermagui Beach Hotel: 10 Lamont Street. Hearty pub meals and a range of accommodation from a budget bunk house to top floor heritage rooms with drool-worthy views across Horseshoe Bay Beach to Gulaga (Mt Dromedary). Ph: 02 6493 4206 Web: www.bermaguibeachhotel.com.au
Don’t miss: The Bermagui Gelati Clinic at the Fisherman’s Wharf. When it first opened in an old veterinary clinic, its purposefully partly-painted over sign fast became one of the most photographed on the south coast. As for the gelati, the roasted pear and rosemary is to die for.
Look out for: At the top of town on Pacific Drive is a water tower, which, when recently decorated with a giant mural became an instant drawcard. ‘Spirit Dance’ by Joe McKenzie actually began as a bedtime story for Joe’s two sons in which two friendly spirits protected them while they slept. Now, colourfully adorning the tower the two spirits watch sentinel over the coastline, also marking the entry to the photogenic ocean swimming pool, Bermagui Blue Pool.
Don’t miss: Between 1880 and 1883, using only a pick and shovel nearly 250 kilograms of gold was unearthed at the nearby (7km north of Bermagui) Montreal Goldfield. It is the only goldfield in Australia that extends into the sea and these days for a small entry fee you can try your own luck. Fun for all the family. This goldfield also featured in the great unsolved Bermagui Mystery — the disappearance of a surveyor and four other men, but that’s a column for another day. More: www.montrealgoldfield.org.au
The lizard that lost its pattern
While Matthew Higgins, this column’s former regular Ainslie correspondent recently made a seachange to Bega, it hasn’t stopped the astute nature observer from submitting unusual sightings from his new neck of the woods.
Unlike most of his finds, Higgins’ most recent discovery wasn’t in the bush, rather a rare unpatterned blue tongue lizard lurking in his garage.
While walking with her two children along the ridge between Mt Ainslie and Mt Majura, Susan Pellegrino and her two children Millie (aged 9) and Lucy (aged 12) spotted “a terrifying lizard.”
Before taking flight herself, Susan managed to snap a photo of Millie and Lucy running from the long-tailed woody reptile.
Where on the south coast?
Clue: Not far from another pub.
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Ann Kelly of Gowrie as the first reader to correctly identify last week’s photo (inset), as ‘On the Perch Bird Park’ near Tathra. Incredibly, over 95 per cent of entries incorrectly suggested the location was at Birdland in Batemans Bay.
For the record, ‘On the Perch’ is at 343 Tathra Road, Kalaru and with more that 100 species on display is well worth the longer drive south. In fact, Ann and her husband Geoff were so impressed when they recently visited the park for the first time, that they “bought some season tickets”. More: www.ontheperch.com.au
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday January 5, 2019 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.