I’m currently sat in a very instagrammable café in Wollongong, NSW, the seventh stop on what I’m now referring to as my ‘Eat Pray Love road trip’ up the East Coast of Australia. Why the Liz Gilbert reference? Because I’m having a me holiday to heal myself after my recent breakdown, alright? You don’t want me to get into it, trust me, but if you know me in real life you know I haven’t exactly been shy about all my problems as of late and I really need a time to start enjoying life and travelling again. That’s what this trip is.
So far I’ve been to Melbourne, the Mornington Peninsula, Phillip Island, Wilsons Promontory, Jervis Bay and Morton National Park. My plan was to only stay in Wollongong for two days but here I am, on my fourth day in Wollongong and I don’t want to leave.
It’s funny because I can’t describe exactly what it is that I like about Wollongong. Maybe because it’s the first city I’ve been to after Melbourne and I’ve figured out I might me more of a city gal than a nature person. Maybe it’s because I’ve only talked to Melbournites and they all tell me Sydney’s the worst place in the world and I’ve been stalling till I have to go there. Maybe it’s because Wollongong is a small city, less overwhelming than Melbourne but less lonely than the quiet beach towns I’ve been to previously. I don’t know what it is. All I know is that Wollongong feels like the place to be right now.
I arrived in Wollongong after sunset and needed to get myself to a gym to shower after almost falling into the Australian wilderness from the top of Belmore Falls. The kind lady at the gym told me about a seven day free trial the government was doing that I should sign up for. Yay! Free gym!
The next day, I parked in the city centre and as I was trying to figure out the ticket machine for parking a man shouted out of his car, “parking is free on Saturdays.” Yay! Free parking!
I went to a vegetarian café I found on Happycow called Coco’s Coffee. I came to the conclusion that Happycow might be a dying app as it took me to the wrong place and described it as ‘vegetarian’ when really it was completely vegan. This isn’t the first time Happycow has failed me, either. Luckily, the walk down to the café was an interesting one.
I passed Wollongong’s art gallery, a beautiful café called Lili-J (the one I’m sitting in as I type this!), a little house that sold succulents in the garden ‘1 for $3 or 4 for $10. Leave the money in the mailbox’. How cute! Did I need to buy a succulent? I have no money and I’m living in a van. I decided against it.
Coco’s Coffee was a cute little place in a strange location. It was situated next to a gym in an industrial estate and they let me sit in the gym to charge my laptop. I ordered a cappuccino, a mini mac burger with fries and a caramel milkshake. I got a cookies and cream cupcake too. Hey, I was using their outlets for about four hours, it was the least I could do in return.On the way back to my van, I decided to go to the art gallery. It was free. Yay! Free art! Did I mention I love Wollongong? The art gallery was large and had an extensive collection with a really trippy temporary exhibition with pink and purple plants. I loved it. Better yet, as I left the gallery, I followed the signs to the art precinct and saw some impressive street art. Wollongong has to be one of the most beautifully decorated cities I’ve been to. Whereas the street art in Melbourne sometimes feel chaotic and messy, Wollongong is perfectly meticulous and selective.After all that art, I drove to the botanical gardens. I’m a big fan of botanical gardens and always try to visit them in any city. Wollongong’s botanical collection was huge and I especially loved the succulent garden. I regretted not giving my money to the little house-selling succulents. I know I have no money and I’m technically homeless but I reeeeaallly want a succulent.Next, I drove up to Mount Keira to see the lookout over the city. From there I watched the sunset. Wollongong may not be the most beautiful city from above but it certainly has a charm that I adore.The next day I decided to do everything I missed on the first day. I drove down to the Nan Tien Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in the southern hemisphere. I’m not particularly a religious person but I’d never been to a Buddhist temple before and visiting was like taking a daytrip to another continent. The temples were gorgeous and everywhere you turned was a statue of Buddha smiling in the grass. I learned a lot about Buddhism whilst I was there, even though this wasn’t the temple’s purpose. The majority of the visitors were real Buddhists there to pray, not curious tourists looking for a place to get cheap, easy, vegan food.In one temple there was an alter with pineapples, rice parcels, candles and flowers. I learned that people offer different things to the Buddha to achieve happiness in different areas of their lives. Again, I’m not a religious person but now I really wished I gave $3 for one of those succulents so I had something beautiful to offer the Buddha in exchange for some personal happiness. Hey, it’s worth trying. I’m on my Eat Pray Love Roadtrip after all.I ate at the upstairs dining hall in the temple. It was cafeteria style and everything was vegan. They even sold vegan dried shrimp jerky. Why? I think that kind of thing only makes sense in a Buddhist temple in Wollongong. I didn’t buy it. I did, however, buy a cute meal consisting of four vegetable dishes and rice. Oh, and the woman on the counter managed to upsell me two spring rolls so I had those too. It was extremely tasty and heavy on the fake-meat. Usually I’m more of a vegetable gal than someone who’s willing to try fake prawns, fake octopus, fake whatever kind of meat is cool that week, but it was delicious.After the temple, I drove back to the centre of Wollongong to see the lighthouses on the beach. I struggled to get parking at first so had to park near Coco’s Coffee and walk for half an hour till I reached the beach. Turns out it was match day, hence the hectic car park situation.The beach was nice enough, although not worth spending all day at. It was getting cold and the rainclouds were threatening ahead. I returned to the van to settle down for the night.The next morning I had planned to have a coffee at that gorgeous coffee shop, Lili-J, I had past on the first day. They did soy and coconut milk and even had a couple of vegan brunch options. See, this is another reason I think Happycow might be a dying app, missing out on not-so hidden gems like this one. Unfortunately, the only thing they didn’t have were outlets so I took myself to the library to write a couple more blog posts. I ended up staying a lot longer than I planned. Coffee then Sydney was the plan. Coffee, then I’ll leave for Sydney.Nope. It’s the fourth day in Wollongong now and I’m trying to psyche myself up for Sydney. Can’t I have one more day in Wollongong? Can’t I pack it all in and just stay in Wollongong forever? Forget about the house I’m due to move into at the end of October in Melbourne. Forget about Melbourne completely. I want to stay here in this beautiful café and never leave. Wollongong is truly the hidden gem I needed here in Australia and I’ll miss it when I finally can be bothered to stop writing and hit the road again.
I know, I know, there’s plenty more beauty and gorgeous vegan eateries to experience all up the East Coast, but for some reason, I just know that nowhere will shine as brightly for me as Wollongong has. I feel like this is the place I’m supposed to be.