What do the soft white sands of Cabarita Beach in New South Wales, the isolation of Tasmania's Maria Island, and the banks of a river 170 miles from the nearest coast have in common? They were all on Thursday named among Australia's top 10 beaches for 2020.
Ranked No. 9, the inland Wagga Beach stands out on the list, as it's located 170 miles from the nearest coastline.
Selecting it for the annual list of Australia's best beaches, opens a Pandora's box, said Tourism Australia's beach ambassador Brad Farmer. Until now, his list has recognized only coastal locations.
But a tip-off about a great beach in the New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga — an indigenous word meaning "crows" — led Farmer to check out Wagga Beach for himself.
"It's a beautiful grassy spot on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. There are barbecues; I saw dogs, people playing cricket, and everyone from kids to army recruits swimming," said Farmer, who first visited the beach incognito to ensure the experience was authentic. "There was a wide demographic engaging in that space."
A long-time advocate of the Australian coasts, Farmer has been formally ranking the country's beaches since the publication of his 2012 book "101 Best Australian Beaches," a project that he'd been contemplating since 1984 when he journeyed to 3,000 of Australia's 11,761 beaches to write an Australian surfing guide.
By designating Wagga Beach — and another notable pick, Fraser Island's Lake McKenzie — Farmer is shaking up what constitutes a "beach" in Australia. Adding a riverbank and a lake to his annual list also changes the total number of recognized beaches.
"From today, the number of beaches just increased," said Farmer.
After his visit to Wagga Beach, Farmer was also surprised by what he found in the vicinity.
"Wagga Wagga is an impressive town," he said. "It's clean, green, vibrant and groovy."
Tourism is becoming an increasingly important part of Wagga Wagga's local economy. Visitor numbers were up 7% in 2018, with most guests averaging a three-night stay.
While some choose accommodations in the center of town — like International Hotel Wagga Wagga — many visitors bunk down in renovated shipping containers at Belisi Farmstay. Located fifteen minutes outside of Wagga Wagga, this luxury two-bedroom cottage offers up to six guests everything from a stone bathtub to equine therapy.
Like Wagga Beach, Belisi is attracting plenty of interest: It was recently included in a popular Instagram campaign #stayinthebush, which called on Australians to support drought and fire-affected regional areas.
A regional experience is not simply about getting away from the city — it's also a chance to connect with the locals.
Where better to do that than at the pub? At the Thirsty Crow Brewing Company in the center of Wagga Wagga, not only is the brewing process visible from the front bar, but the brewers themselves are usually up for a chat.
Not a beer lover? Thirsty Crow also offers wines, boutique spirits and coffee from independent roasters. Food options range from cheese boards to hearty steaks which can be enjoyed during Thursday night trivia competitions. The establishment offers free brewery tours on weekends at 2 p.m.
Those indulging in one too many cheese boards or craft beers will appreciate that Wagga Wagga offers several locations to ride off the calories. The town's bicycle lanes were recently upgraded, which better connected the region for cyclists.
Short cycling routes exist in the town center, however mountain bikers usually head to Pomingalarna Reserve, a bushland reserve that regularly hosts endurance races. Visitors keen to explore the surrounding countryside without the adrenaline rush can cycle the 26-mile Wiradjuri Walking Track loop.
Recognition of Wagga Wagga's beach will be no surprise to the local Wiradjuri people, who have lived in the region for thousands of years. To connect to the countryside through their eyes, Mark Saddler of Bundyi Cultural Tours offers tours to learn about the language and culture of the Wiradjuri people.
For Farmer, the importance of Australia's inland waterways in this drought-affected region is just one more reason that justifies Wagga Beach's inclusion on this year's list of Australia's best beaches.
"In regional areas, water is gold as both an irrigation and fire-fighting resource," he said. "But it's also gold for social connection."
Wondering where else made the list of Australia's best beaches for 2020?
The full list names 20 beaches; here are the top 10:
1. Cabarita Beach (New South Wales)
2. Currumbin Beach (Queensland)
3. Minnamurra (New South Wales)
4. Maria Island (Tasmania)
5. Cape Tribulation (Queensland)
6. Brighton Beach (Victoria)
7. Bettys Beach (Western Australia)
8. South Port Beach (South Australia)
9. Wagga Beach (New South Wales)
10. Lake McKenzie (Queensland)