Incredible for dolphin spotting – Port Stephens is also a top spot to watch for whales, surf down giant sand dunes and go for a wander around Worimi country.
With beaches, nature, wildlife and sunshine in ample supply, Port Stephens on the NSW North Coast is a destination worth putting a pin in.
An easy 2.5-hour drive from the Sydney CBD and a short drive from Newcastle Airport, the area has a laid-back halcyon days feel about it, harking back to holidays spent on the sand and in the water, accompanied by a summer symphony of cicadas, and warm nights under the stars.
But it also has a resolutely modern and sustainable outlook for the future, one that involves nurturing and protecting all of the elements – from its natural wonders to its enviable lifestyle – that make it so incredible.
Meet (and swim with) the dolphins of Port Stephens
The residents of Port Stephens have a reputation for being genuine and welcoming, and the 130 or so Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins that call the waters in Port Stephens home are no exception.
With most instantly recognisable from their distinctive markings and characteristics and known by name, the cheeky locals gently bob and dive through the waters of the Great Lakes Marine Park oblivious to the thrill they elicit in those looking on.
There are a number of eco-certified, locally owned cruise companies that will help you get as (responsibly) close as possible to the dolphins as you can, including Imagine Cruises, Moonshadow-TQC Cruises, both inducted into the Ecotourism Australia Hall of Fame in 2020, and Dolphin Swim Australia, which offers the only permitted wild dolphin swim in the state, and the first of its kind in the world.
Natural wonder: A regular dolphin census is conducted in Port Stephens to document pod numbers and the locations the marine mammals frequent in order to assist the Marine Parks Association’s research and conservation efforts. You can volunteer to take part in the census by visiting marineparksassociation.org.au.
Whale watching on land and water in Port Stephens
The coastal waters off Port Stephens form part of a ‘humpback highway’ that sees both humpback and southern right whales migrating to warmer waters between May and November to give birth, before eventually heading back to Antarctica with their calves.
There are ample whale-watching opportunities during this time, on a dedicated cruise with eco operators such as Imagine Cruises and Moonshadow-TQC Cruises (visit its website to see all of the spectacular sightings from the 2020 seasons) or, armed with binoculars, from headland outlooks in Tomaree National Park.
Sleep with Ports Stephens’ koalas
Having opened its doors in September 2020, Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary offers visitors the irresistible opportunity to get up close to our cutest marsupials, and assist in their survival in the process.
Tucked into eight hectares of lush bushland, visitors enter past the Fat Possum Cafe and meander through the informative Sanctuary Story Walk, a 250-metre trail populated by giant koala sculptures named Kasey, before reaching the Newcastle Airport SKYwalk, a circuitous elevated walkway that looks down into the enclosures – and up into the trees – of rescued koalas that, due to their injuries or illness, are unable to be returned to the wild.
The sanctuary also boasts a new state-of-the-art koala hospital where rescued animals are treated with the hope of returning them to their natural habitat once well enough.
Natural wonder: You can spend the night at Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary to gain privileged access to its furry inhabitants.
With a collection of 4-star glamping tents dotted throughout the sanctuary, guests can relax in style during the day, sleep in comfort through the night (listening out for distinctive koala calls in the inky darkness) and then wake early for a guided tour during the morning feeding routine (when the koalas are at their cutest and most active.)
Surf the Worimi (Stockton) dunes
Heading out from Birubi Beach at Anna Bay, the 4200-hectare Worimi Conservation Lands is managed by the local Worimi Traditional Owners in partnership with the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service, who are passionate about safeguarding their traditional lands while generously sharing their ancient history.
Home to the largest moving sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere, one of the most evocative ways to see this ever-changing natural wonder, which morphs in shape and size according to the shifting winds, is from the back of a camel.
But you might want to consider joining a beach driving tour for a truly up-close exploration of its rugged coastal beauty.
With the roiling waters of the Tasman Sea marking out a natural barrier, the wide beaches possess a desolate beauty that is punctuated by a sighting of lone fishermen hoping to make a catch and all manner of birdlife, including majestic sea eagles.
A stop at Tin City, a collection of huts fashioned together from whatever was available, tells a fascinating tale of recent history; it was originally home to shipwreck survivors before becoming a small village during the Depression. Meanwhile, the many middens scattered with mud whelk and cockle shells hint at the rich ancient history and traditions that played out across the landscape here.
A spot of sand surfing down the vertiginous slopes of the dunes is the culmination of any trip into the Worimi Conservation Lands (it is a soft landing as the sands are powder soft).
Natural wonder: Sand Dune Adventures, owned and operated by the Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council, offers exclusive access to Aboriginal Lands where culture combines with the exhilaration of riding a quad bike through the amazing cultural landscape (further south on the dunes at Williamtown).
Stay in a rainforest in Port Stephens
Wanderers Retreat takes its idyllic position – sitting lightly on 1.2 hectares of melaleuca rainforest – very seriously. Its accommodation collection includes a beach house, treehouses snuggled into the greenery, and a selection of eco cottages that have been built to ensure minimal impact on their surroundings.
During the construction process, all old-growth melaleuca trees were identified and preserved and, as a result, elevated walkways lace their way around wide trees to reach the cottages.
Extensive work has been done around the property with: the planting of native trees and shrubs; the use of 100 per cent carbon-neutral electricity; and the installation of dry composting toilet waste management systems in the cottages.
All waste on-site is separated for recycling and composting; there’s a worm farm to feed the gardens; and the property is electric-car friendly, with a 20-amp recharging point arranged on request. The only thing guests need to worry about when in residence is not missing the regular koala and possum sightings (as well as spotting the occasional kangaroo and echidna).
Discover a hidden gem to two in Port Stephens
While the region’s headlining towns and villages of Nelson Bay, Shoal Bay and Fingal Bay have myriad allures, there are hidden gems aplenty to discover here. Across the Tilligerry Creek sit the townships if Mallabulla, Lemon Tree Passage and Tanilba Bay.
The later boasts the Tilligerry Habitat Reserve, a nine- hectare reserve proliferating with flora and fauna. A favourite feeding spot of koalas, and home to all manner of wildlife, from bearded dragons to black cockatoos, you can explore the reserve on a self-guided walk or join an organised tour with a local guide.
Eat and drink in nature in Port Stephens
Take a water taxi with Koala Ferries to Lemon Tree Passage to enjoy lunch at the family-owned-and-operated waterfront restaurant, The Poyer’s, where you can choose from a menu featuring an abundance of locally sourced seafood.
After lunch, spend the afternoon at Lemon Tree Passage Distilling. The locally owned and operated Lemon Tree Passage Distilling produces crisp, clear gin and vodka utilising locally sourced ingredients and native Australian botanicals.
While you try a gin tasting and purchase a little something to take home with you, another drawcard of visiting this small bar, located at the end of the Tilligerry Peninsula, is its ever-changing menu of cocktails, which is conjured up using spirits distilled nearby. Order a cocktail, sit at an outside table in the sunshine and take in the water views, before catching a (water) taxi home again.