Sun, sand and sea: it’s the great Australian holiday dream, and why Port Macquarie – just ‘Port’ to the locals – has been a favourite family summer holiday spot for decades. After all, the hordes of travellers that flock to this pretty coastal town an easy four-hour freeway drive north of Sydney each summer can’t be wrong, can they?
As someone who called the Port Macquarie area home for more than 20 years, I’m sorry to say that all those summertime visitors – the ones strolling down the breakwall with an ice cream, sunning themselves on one of the half a dozen beaches less than five minutes’ walk from the centre of town, or eating fish and chips on the Town Green beside the river as the stand-up paddle-boarders glide past – aren’t doing it right.
Maybe not doing it wrong, just doing it at the wrong time.
Reasons to love Port Macquarie
I’m the first to admit that there’s not much to dislike about long balmy days where it never gets uncomfortably hot, and beaches where there’s always room to find a place to spread your towel – and get a nearby parking spot – even on the busiest days. There’s also plenty to love about buzzy beachside bars full of happy people enjoying their week off by the sea. And who doesn’t love spotting dolphins on your morning riverside walk, catching a glimpse of a platypus in a rainforest creek, or having a unique encounter with a koala at the state’s only koala hospital or Billabong Zoo?
Go on a morning coastal walk and catch the sunrise.
Why Port Macquarie is better in the cold
But it’s winter when Port really shines. Not just a figure of speech, the weather really is better in winter; days are mostly dry and it’s not very often that morning temperatures dip to single figures (and when they do, they don’t stay that way for long). While many hardy locals swim all year round, the best time to take a dip in the sea is after Easter, because the water is warmest in autumn. If you really do want to rug up and enjoy the chill, the sub-alpine wilderness of Werrikimbe National Park is a short drive away. Part of the World Heritage-listed Gondwana forests, it’s an ethereal wonderland of misty snow gum woodlands carpeted in everlastings, gullies filled with giant tree ferns, and lush cool temperate rainforest. It flies completely below the tourist radar, so even in the middle of summer, it’s rare you’ll share the picnic area or campground with anyone other than the resident platypus, wallabies and lyrebirds.
My favourite winter treat is to pull on the walking shoes and step out on the two-hour coastal walk that links Lighthouse Beach to the centre of town via seven gloriously deserted beaches. Odds are you’ll see more whales than people at this time of year – the banksia-studded headlands are great whale-watching spots and the perfect place to soak up the winter sunshine while staring out to sea. The walk ends at the Town Green on the mouth of the Hastings River, where you’ll find several waterfront bars that do great cocktails: try The Beach House for breezy drinks, good pub grub and posh burgers on the veranda, or something a little more special beside the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of Zebu. Either way, the views are a knockout.
The banksia-studded headlands are great whale watching spots. (Image: Jodie Lowe)
The final string to Port Macquarie’s wintery bow is a slew of events. In summer it’s just too busy to hold events, so it’s autumn and winter when these take centre stage. Perhaps the one Port event to rule them all is ArtWalk, the area’s peak cultural festival held every June long weekend. An artists’ market, street performances, live music, workshops and illuminations take over not just the Port CBD but across the entire Port Macquarie Hastings region.
When you need an umbrella for shade in winter you know its where you want to be. Enjoy a Port Macquarie winter morning coffee at Salty Crew.
Where to eat in Port Macquarie
There was a time when eating out in Port was all about fish and chips. It still is, except in recent years some very talented chefs have catapulted fish and chips to the next level. The Stunned Mullet has won a swag of chef hats over the past 10 years, and the seafood served at Bills Fishhouse + Bar is always noteworthy; sister restaurant twotriplefour by Bills overlooks the rose gardens at Cassegrain Winery (they just won Australian Winemaker of the Year) and really puts the oomph into the paddock to plate. For more of a sand-between-your-toes beach vibe, head to the Salty Crew Kiosk on Town Beach, or turn your back on the sea altogether at the Black Duck Brewery – on Friday nights the shed rocks with a great line-up of local musicians.
Winter is also the best time to eat strawberries and tomatoes in Port. Anywhere else they’re strictly summertime treats, but Ricardoes Tomatoes & Strawberries are grown all year round, and are so packed full of flavour they’re like absolutely nothing you’ve ever had before – unless of course, you’re clever enough to grow your own. Farm tours are free, you can pick your own strawberries, and the Big Red Cafe does the world’s best strawberry shortcake, as well as a stellar plate of scones with strawberry jam and cream. The tomatoes should come with a warning though: once you’ve tasted these, you’ll never be able to go back to buying them from a supermarket again.
There are plenty of note-worthy places to eat in at Port Macquarie, like Little Shack.
Road tripping the Port Macquarie hinterland
Sure, the town’s beaches, bars and restaurants with their sea-forever views are seductive, but some of the real delights of Port aren’t actually in Port, and the hinterland is one of the east coast’s most underrated spots. Beechwood Hotel is rated the best country pub in Australia by Wotif, and the view from the deck of The Byabarra is one of the best. Walking trails in the rainforest on the Comboyne Plateau lead to hidden waterfalls and secret picnic spots (and its home, Boorgana Nature Reserve, is the second oldest nature reserve in NSW). See one of the largest single-drop waterfalls in the southern hemisphere at Ellenborough Falls, and head to Bago Winery to get lost in one of the world’s largest hedge mazes. Indulge in some seriously wallet-friendly retail therapy in Wauchope’s op shops and quirky boutiques; the local farmers’ market held on the fourth Sunday of the month is one of the best in the state, but if you miss it, you can always follow one of the district’s taste trails for an insider’s guide to local producers, providores and shops.
Head to Bago Winery to get lost in one of the world’s largest hedge mazes. (Image: Remy Brand)
If you really can’t bear to leave the coast, the 30-kilometre trip down Ocean Drive from Port Macquarie to Laurieton and Camden Haven is a sensationally scenic seaside route. Don’t miss Armstrong’s Oysters, where you can buy a dozen of the best direct from the farm on Stingray Creek, followed by a takeaway from Laurieton’s fishermen’s co-op, all eaten while the pelicans watch on as you swing your feet from the wharf.
Winter in Port Macquarie? Bring it on.