The tiny seaside village of Austinmer has a secret or two I have to share. Even in late May and the sea is at least 23 degrees, crystal clear, and you’d be lucky to run into anybody else on the beach except for hardy locals who offer a friendly greeting to visitors. The half-moon bay is more densely populated in summer, when the surf is bigger. Autumn offers golden opportunities for less crowded swimming and a peaceful retreat. Only 2,200 people live here. It’s an easy hour’s drive from Sydney. Take the Helensburgh turnoff from the M1 on to the tourist route known as Laurence Hargreave Drive, which hugs the narrow, hilly coastline.
This narrow stretch between towering, brooding escarpment and the sea has a number of settlements, dotted with weatherboard character homes boasting spectacular ocean views. Increasingly, this area has become prized real estate, a workers’ commute to Sydney, and fertile territory for artists and writers. Austi (as it’s affectionately known) is arguably the prettiest beach, although nearby Coledale is more rugged and just as lovely. But that’s not all it has to offer.
Up a quiet side street on the way to the railway station, are exotic shopping gems. The first one I visit is Mala Beads, owned by Anousha Zarkesh who has a penchant for religious kitsch, Mexican flavours and beads from all over the world. The shop is crammed. It looks as though Anousha walked with with a huge bag and it exploded! If beads were currency, then surely this could be the central bank.
Anousha has an eye for eye-popping colour. She and mum Carole create an eclectic mix of necklaces and pendants using beads, medallions and silver artefacts from Europe, South America, the Middle east, Indonesia, Tibet, West Africa, North Africa and India. Mala Beads also has loose beads available so you can make your own jewellery. When Carole is working there, a sulphur-crested cockatoo which has adopted her, perches on the shop’s awning at exactly 4pm and looks down into the shop. He reminds her with a screech or two that it’s time to close up, walk across the street to her home and feed him.
Mala Beads prices are extremely reasonable. Strings of Buddhist prayer beads (containing the traditional 108 beads) are priced under $30. Everywhere I look is a riot of colour. People have been adorning themselves with beads for 30,000 years. Many are mini histories of tribes and cultures.
Statement pieces: Antique glass necklaces from Venice, glitzy creations from Israel, necklaces made from pale jade that Anousha found in the old quarter of Hanoi (centre in the picture below), large black and white African beads (below, right).
That’s a wedding necklace from Mali (pictured above), using recycled glass. Despite the treasure trove, I am restrained. I admire much and am about to leave empty-handed when WHAM, a Persian tile catches my eye and hangs on for dear life. Created by an artist in Western Australia, it’s now on the wall behind the bedhead, giving my drab little bedroom a much-needed splash of colour.
Across the road is Haveli Living, owned by Suzy Middleton and her daughter Jet. As well as homewares, Haveli stocks Indian kurtas and relaxed fashion knitwear, a large array of cotton and wool scarves, dupattas and wraps. I love these Vietnamese pouffes, $155 each, displayed on the footpath outside. They’re made from plastic tubing wound tightly around a wire frame.
Like Mala Beads, many of Haveli’s pieces are eminently affordable. Sarong style cotton scarves and cushions are priced from $39. Wool wraps are priced from $49. Suzy has been travelling to Rajasthan for over 35 years and her love of India’s textiles is reflected throughout the store.
Suzy is particularly fond of hand block-printed cotton, made in India, which is used for cushions, quilt covers, sheets and tablecloths. The designs are first drawn on paper, then pasted on to blocks of wood. The wood is then cut to the design with an engraving tool. The old dyes have been largely replaced by aniline colours. I’ve seen it done at a factory in Jaipur in central Rajasthan, and had a go at it myself. It’s exacting work. I brought home several block-printed bedspreads and the colours haven’t faded, despite being thrown regularly into the washing machine.
Suzy is one of the hardy locals who swims daily. The right-hand side of the beach has two saltwater pools fed by the ocean. “It’s unusually warm for this time of year,” she says. We swap brief remarks about global warming.
Back across the road is Wattlebird, an upholstery service and fabric supplier, which also seems to be a community hub, regularly offering craft and sewing classes. The shop features local designers such as Trunk + Orderly, Down to the Woods, Blink Designs and Lisa Corti. Wattlebird is funky, modern Australiana, and also sells recycled furniture which has had a spectacular makeover. I’ve spent so much time pottering about in Mala Beads and Haveli that I don’t get there before it closes for the day, so I’ll just have to come back. I’ve had a browse once before and the fabrics look very Australiana cool, featuring birds, native plants and flowers.
AUSTINMER CHECK LIST:
- About 45 minutes drive from southern Sydney. Take the Helensburgh turnoff from the M1 and wind your way down the hill, across the Sea Cliff Bridge and along the coast
- Haveli Living, 38 Moore Street, Austinmer. Tel: (02) 4268 6344 Open six days, closed Monday
- Mala Beads, 57 Moore Street, Austinmer. Tel: (02) 4267 5934 Open Thurs-Sunday
- Wattlebird, 55a Moore Street, Austimer. Tel: (02) 4268 0638. Open Wed-Sunday