Port Stephens is determined to stretch its reputation as a family holiday hot spot, becoming an increasingly sophisticated and sustainable destination for experiencing the best that nature has to offer.
The NSW North Coast region of Port Stephens has long excited the imagination of summer holiday goers with its offering of pristine beaches, sparkling waters and lots of fresh-air activities for families looking to commune without the threat of growing weary of each other.
The collection of pretty, laid-back beach towns and hamlets an easy 2.5 hours’ drive from Sydney could easily have survived on this tried and true formula, but in the last few years it has been stepping things up a little, with stylish accommodation offerings nestling comfortably into the landscape, bright and beachy cafes and restaurants offering up fresh and healthy dining options, heavy on the seafood, and a passionate focus on sustainability.
Port Stephens is a 2.5-hour drive from Sydney and a 35-minute drive from Newcastle.
Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary’s four-star glamping tents come with fixings for breakfast and exclusive access to the koalas’ morning routine.
The Anchorage Hotel & Spa is the grand dame of Port Stephens accommodation, with generous loft rooms clustered around the adjoining marina. The aesthetic here is refined waterfront chic, with lots of blues and neutrals used throughout. Book a treatment in the luxe spa.
What to do in Port Stephens
Camp out with Koalas
Arriving into the newly opened Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary, I get an uninterrupted view of some of the koalas for whom the sanctuary is also a home from home.
As the light fades into the kind of inky blackness that you can only experience when surrounded by nature, we snuggle in for the night, all the while listening for the koala calls we have been told you can sometimes hear as the neighbours become active during the wee small hours.
In addition to accommodation, the sanctuary, a partnership between Port Stephens Council and Port Stephens Koalas, offers guests the irresistible opportunity to get responsibly close to koalas, and assist in their survival at the same time. Tucked into its eight hectares of lush bushland expanse is a state-of-the-art koala hospital where rescued animals are treated with the hope of returning them to their natural habitat once well enough. The ones that can’t be returned, due to injury or illness, take up residence in comfortable enclosures where they are lavished with love and attention from a dedicated army of staff and volunteers.
The morning routine here includes feeding the koalas the exact gum leaves that they would have eaten in their native patch of bush, monitoring their condition and dispensing required medicines and treatment. Privileged access to this daily ritual, when the animals are at their most active, is afforded to overnight guests only.
Our guide Ross tells us heartbreaking stories of how they all ended up here, many involving car accidents and trauma. It breaks your heart, but there is also a positive here; the sanctuary is focused not only on saving and caring for the current residents but also educating those that visit on the perilous position koalas are in and the simple steps that we can all take to safeguard the future of the entire species.
I leave with a new determination to do whatever I can to make a difference; my 16 year old departs with a stuffed koala from the gift shop in the Fat Possum Cafe.
Take to the water
Having experienced Port Stephens’ bushland interior, it is now time to get out on its famed waters; pleasingly this offers up another opportunity to commune with the (wild) locals. The waters of Nelson Bay, part of the Great Lakes Marine Park, are home to 130 or so Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, any number of which can be seen (again at a responsible distance) from one of Aquamarine Adventures’ small boat tours.
The running commentary details how the dolphins are instantly recognisable due to their distinctive markings and characteristics – many of them are referred to by name. Such confidence in the identity of individual dolphins and knowledge of when they come and go comes as a result of the regular dolphin census that is conducted here. Volunteers record pod numbers and the locations the marine mammals frequent, with the data collected assisting in the Marine Parks Association’s research and conservation efforts.
Surf on the sand
With bush and water ticked off, the last typical Port Stephens landscape left to traverse is sand. And there’s plenty of it in the 4200-hectare Worimi Conservation Lands. Managed by the local Worimi Traditional Owners, who are passionate about safeguarding the lands while generously sharing their ancient history, the area is home to the largest moving sand dunes in the southern hemisphere. The best way to explore this ever-changing natural wonder, which morphs in shape and size according to the shifting winds, is on one of Ian Boicos’s 4WD beach driving tours.
Ian is a full-throated advocate for the natural wonders of this stretch of rugged coastline, where the crashing waters of the Tasman Sea and the low, scrubby dunes at the edge of the beach mark out a natural highway. There is an isolated, eerie beauty to the landscape, while above birds, including a proud sea eagle that launched itself into the air as we slowly approached, float this way and that on the breeze.
A stop at Tin City, a collection of huts fashioned together from bits and pieces, adds to the edge-of-forever feel: the shanties hint at a history of shipwrecks and Depression-era desperation. Ian points out a seemingly random scattering of mud whelk and cockle shells that is actually an ancient midden, left as if to stamp the presence of people here long before explorers came. The full stop on a trip into the Worimi Conservation Lands is a turn at surfing down the almost vertical slopes of the dunes.
Where to eat
The menu at this breezy Mexican pop-up at Bannisters Terrace Bar is designed to be shared, with bright ceramic bowls of roasted corn dip, house-made corn chips, tangy salsa and ceviche served up with crispy fish tacos and chargrilled T-bones.
A local favourite for the cheerful vibe and heaping servings of fresh salads, burgers and seafood all made in-house from scratch using seasonal ingredients.
Overlooking the water at Soldiers Point Marina, the menu here makes good use of fresh seafood and local ingredients. There’s a kids’ menu and the cardamom-spiced sticky rice pudding with rose water, coconut and pistachio should not be skipped.