The landscape of this sleepy NSW region is vastly different to the one planned for it a century ago, and that’s a great thing.
At the turn of the 20th century, the cool, quiet and classic seaside region of Port Stephens was destined for great things. World-scale great things.
It was to be the site of a new capital named Port Stephens City, designed by Walter Burley Griffin. The future city was described in local papers as ‘the New York of Australia’. Ambitious plans included two railway stations, a CBD, federal and state office sites, an industrial district, wharves, parks and playgrounds. Alas, despite the carving out of roads and subdivision and sale of land in the 1920s, Griffin’s company went bust and the city never came to fruition.
Today, Port Stephens plays a very different role to the one imagined a century ago. This seaside region is the epitome of living life blissfully in the slow lane.
For decades, holidaymakers have flocked to the hubs of Nelson Bay and Shoal Bay for simple sun-soaked days of fish and chips, sandy toes and natural beauty. And while the area retains an uncomplicated lifestyle many crave, the past couple of years have seen change happening for this coastal bolthole. With a steady influx of cool – from luxe accommodation to innovative dining to considered shopping experiences – we think it’s destined for great things again.
Here, our pick of the best spots to spend your time in Port Stephens.
Premium Australian brands reign supreme in this Nelson Bay store. You’ll find fashion labels such as Sass & Bide, Tigerlily and P.E Nation; skincare by Sydney-based Theseeke (pictured), which handcrafts natural and vegan-friendly products; candles and perfumes by Melbourne-based Sohum; as well as shoes, handbags and sunglasses. Little ones are covered, too, with uber-cool organic and sustainable Huxbaby clothing and a range from Halcyon Nights, which features vibrant Australian artist-designed prints.
A hidden gem, in every sense of the phrase, The Little Nel is easily overlooked, tucked away under The Nelson Resort. Be sure to find it, as this cafe really packs a punch. It has a large sun-dappled courtyard, almost everything on its seasonal menu is made from scratch, the coffee is (dare we say it) the best in town, and the regulars aren’t going to be happy we’re writing this.
The Breakfast menu includes usual suspects such as smashed avo and B&E roll, or choose something a little different, but equally satisfying, such as sambal chilli scrambled eggs with coconut yoghurt or a Middle Eastern shakshuka.
A breath of fresh ocean air for the small town of Shoal Bay, Salt is a family-friendly holiday home that doesn’t compromise on luxury. Just a stone’s throw from the beach, Salt comprises two self-contained levels and a freestanding cottage, all crisp, light spaces made warm and chic with premium timber, stone, linen and jute furnishings.
Sleeping between six to 11 guests, each swoon-worthy accommodation has a full kitchen, bathrooms stocked with Grown Alchemist products, and a fireplace for the cooler months. Salt one on the upper level is the hero, with floor-to-ceiling windows that frame breathtaking Shoal Bay, and Tomaree and Yacaaba headlands. you won’t want to leave.
Perched on the waterfront at the old Little Beach Marina, Little Beach Boathouse has been a local fave since it opened in 2013. The elegant upstairs restaurant has a focus on fresh seafood, featuring Hervey Bay scallops, blue swimmer crab house-made dumplings and house-cured Atlantic salmon, while the later addition of Below Deck, a cafe and bar downstairs, provides a more casual setting. The deck is the ultimate spot for a sundowner, with a menu of bar snacks to enjoy as the sun sets over the bay. Breakfast and lunch are also available.
Port Stephens is known for its natural beauty – from the summit of Mt Tomaree, which boasts panoramic views of Port Stephens, to the sugar-white sands of Zenith Beach, to the colossal Stockton Sand Dunes further south. This area is prime picnic turf! Pre-order a gourmet platter box from Sharp + Co (options include cheese, ploughman’s, salad, sweet and more) and make the most of this gorgeous landscape.
This old dame has a history dating back to the 1930s, and just last year it was given a new lease on life, after a stunning $6 million renovation. Sporting a chic 1950s-style look designed by Luchetti Krelle (think pastel colours, vibrant wallpaper and patterned tiles), Shoal Bay Country Club has become the place to go.
Aesthetics aside, the club comprises a retro diner that serves a yummy, fresh breakfast, a light and airy bistro that offers classic pub grub, and several areas to have a beverage. Sip on a spiced-rum mule in the old-world Cane Lounge, share the house sangria with friends on the sun-drenched patio with ocean views, or enjoy a few schooners in the alfresco courtyard where there’s live music every weekend.
This leafy green oasis in Nelson Bay is a delight to enter, if only to breeze through its large selection of indoor and outdoor plants, from desert cacti to tropical palms (part-owner Tass is a horticulturalist).
You can also browse garden tools and homewares including indoor and outdoor rattan furniture, macrame wall hangings, and a range of gorgeous hand-formed, hand-painted ceramics by Angus and Celeste. We especially love the plantable gift cards that can be returned to the earth instead of collecting dust.
Take up the relaxation a notch with a visit to Spa Bannisters. Located at luxury boutique hotel Bannisters Port Stephens, the spa is a tranquil oasis that looks as good as the pampering feels. The space was beautifully designed by interior whizz Romy Alwill with a subtle nod to Palm Springs in the soft pink and nude tones, and timber, brass and rattan elements.
There are five treatment rooms in all, where guests can indulge in a massage or facial, performed using organic products from Organic Spa and KORA Organics.
They say never shop on an empty stomach (or at least they should) and at The Home Interior there’s no reason to. This Hamptons-style homewares store is paired with the In House Kitchen cafe in the same building, so you can fill up on a delicious all-day breakfast (most of which is made from scratch right here) before heading next door to browse a range of coastal Hamptons-style furniture and decor that is sourced from around the world.