Until last October, the 9,200-strong community of Avalon, some 18 miles north of the city centre near the tip of the Pittwater peninsula, was best known as a surfing hot spot and the first place in Australia where inflatable rescue boats - or "rubber duckies" as they're known down under - were used by a surf life-saving club. Then the Baywatch juggernaut rumbled into Sydney for three weeks of filming, three days of which were at Avalon, and things haven't been the same since.
So taken with Avalon were the producers of Baywatch - seen by an estimated billion people each week in 141 countries - that they decided they'd like to move there permanently. An application to film during the winter months of April to October was lodged with the local council. It had the support of the surf club, which got a fresh paint-job out of last year's filming and is in line for substantial structural improvements if the deal goes ahead.
Not everyone was happy, though, as posters around town and a recently covered-over graffiti ("Baywatch f--- off") across the orange and sea- green surf club walls testified. An Anti-Baywatch Action Group was set up, drumming up a storm of protest before a public meeting held on 24 February, at which two thirds of those present (more than a fifth of the town's population) voted against Baywatch setting up there. Bill Bryson, if he is around, could not have asked for better material.
It now looks almost certain that Baywatch is destined to be filmed up the coast in Queensland, but it is easy to see why the show's producers were so keen on Avalon - even though the sand at Bondi and several other better known Sydney beaches is finer and more golden. Avalon's beach sweeps in a graceful curve from the rock baths at the southern end, where mums and toddlers splash, to the lofty, rocky outcrop, the Hole in the Wall, at the north. Norfolk Pines, sand dunes and the surf club, its Venice- Beach colour scheme now making it appear, as one resident so charmingly put it, "like an ice lolly on a stick", complete the picture. The crashing surf is also legendary. Adrian, blond and bronzed, is a real-life Baywatch lifeguard, keeping an eye out for surfers and swimmers in possible danger. "This is no place for inexperienced surfers," he warns, which counts me, and I suspect Bill, out. If you're handy with a board, Adrian recommends hitting the waves in the morning, when the wind is offshore, and preferably mid-week when there are fewer people on the beach.
A minute's walk from the beach, where Avalon Parade crosses Old Barrenjoey Road, a cluster of shops is the nucleus of the community. This is a seriously foodie place, where you can buy organic bananas or luscious mangos, freshly made pasta and award-winning breads and cakes. The petits fours from the patisserie La Banette are reckoned to be the best outside Paris, and there are more cafes than you can shake a surfboard at. There's a middle-aged bloke with a beard in one cafe, but it's not Bill.
In Searls health-food store, a family business for 33 years, Geoff Searls fills me in on local history. The community was given its name by Mr A J Small, who bought the bushland in 1918 for development. "He saw it as a retreat from the busy city, like Arthur saw Avalon as a retreat from battle," explains Searls. Avalon has been attracting city escapees and artists ever since.
Media attention is nothing new for Avalon, though. Hollywood dropped by with a giant squid for the B-movie The Beast several years ago, and as any self-respecting soap addict knows, Avalon is just down the road from the Palm Beach location of Home and Away. At the Avalon Beach Hostel, owner Craig used to run Home and Away tours, but not any more. "Let's face it, it's only popular in the UK," he says, giving me directions to the house used for exterior shots only, in the neighbouring community of Clareville.
Instead, I cross the road to another Aussie institution, the RSL. Returning Services League clubs started off like the British Legion bars in the UK, but these days make their money from gambling on the "pokkies" or fruit machines. Avalon's RSL has 67 of them, a mini-Las Vegas. "I've lived here all my life and I want to see it happen," says the girl pulling the numbers for the meat raffle. For her, Baywatch is Avalon's big chance for the jackpot.
Even if the Baywatch battalions descend, solitude in the bush and quiet beaches are never far away in Avalon. The Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, one of Sydney's favourite nature escapes, is across Pittwater. I hop on a bus up to Palm Beach and get off at the public wharf, from where hourly ferries make the rounds of three idyllic spots in the park. The first stop, The Basin (where there's a campsite), is the bay where the SS Lucinda anchored Easter weekend 1891, and negotiations began that would result in the Australian Constitution a decade later.
Returning to Avalon for a late- afternoon cuppa, I'm just disappointed not to have spotted Bill.
Express buses leave for Avalon from Wynard bus station (tel: 131 500). Sydney Harbour Seaplanes (tel: 1800 803 558) fly from Rose Bay to Pittwater.
WHERE TO STAY
Avalon Beach Hostel (tel: 0061-2-9918 9709) offers bunks in dormitories from A$18 (pounds 7) per night. Johah's (tel: 0061-2-9974 5599) offers double rooms from A$210 per night.