In any other country Port Stephens would be a national icon. But here in Australia, writes Quentin Long, the gorgeous bay and its beaches with thousands of things to do fly relatively under the radar. Lucky you.
Why come here?
Port Stephens is the goldilocks of holiday spots – nothing is too big, nothing is too small, it’s all just right.
The development has been mostly very careful and therefore gives the place enough to do without being either brash or boring. Oh yeah, and it just happens to be a gobsmackingly beautiful part of the world, with a superb kiddie-friendly beach at Shoal Bay and some supremely gorgeous surf beaches at Zenith and Wreck Beach. And that’s just the beaches…
What’s it known for?
Dolphins, fishing, dolphins, the Stockton Sand Dunes, dolphins and Tomaree Headland.
The area is by far one of the most naturally gifted and understated places for a summer holiday. Half the other coastal destinations across Australia (and the world) envy the very natural talents of Port Stephens. Photos of the area are gorgeous, but just don’t do the place justice. This is a destination that over-delivers.
Things to do in Port Stephens
Port Stephens is a very large area, more than double Sydney Harbour and therefore incorporates a huge range of landscapes and towns. Each town has a slightly different character despite almost all being on a series of consecutive bays.
There is the somnambulist Tanilba Bay, elegant Soldiers Point, family-friendly Salamander Bay and upmarket Shoal Bay. The most well known is, of course, buzzy Nelson Bay, where the majority of shops and facilities are.
Some intriguing tidbits: escaped convicts were found living with the local Worrimi People in 1795; North Arm was set to become a great city in 1918 when Walter Burley Griffin drew up a city plan for the town to become the main deep seaport of NSW; Tea Gardens was so named because Chinese immigrants tried growing tea there in about 1860. There’s no tea there now.
How to get there
Nelson Bay is 210 kilometres north of Sydney and about a three-hour drive. Most places around Port Stephens are about 10–20 minutes from Nelson Bay, except for Tea Gardens which is on the other side of the port.
What to do
What’s there not to do? Beaches are seriously great and can have anyone from kidlets to nannas in raptures. For the former, the pick has to be genteel Shoal Bay, which has a fairly narrow stretch of sand – so it’s not a long walk to the water or car.
For more wave-hungry beach bums, nothing beats Zenith Beach, the first of the three beautifully scythed stretches of sand south of Tomaree Head (the southern headland of the Port). All three are stunning and relatively underpopulated.
As there are more than 200 dolphins in the port area, there is a lively trade in dolphin (and whale, when in season) watching tours. For a simple one-and-a-half hour mosey around with likely sightings, try Moonshadow Cruises. They also have a cool boom net and waterslide feature. The slide deposits riders onto a boom net that is lowered into the water so you get dragged along after a slide.
Occasionally you can be lucky enough to have dolphins swim along with the boom net as well – pretty cool. But don’t opt for the lunch or dinner option; let’s just say the food is best left to the tourists.
(Moonshadow Cruises Dolphin Cruise: Adult $20.80, Child $10.80 Family $65.50, 02 4984 9388, moonshadow.com.au).
For a more energetic and closer view of the port (and hopefully dolphins), jump in a kayak. If you’re lucky, like we were, you’ll have a dolphin actually swim right up under your paddle.
(Port Stephens Eco Sports Tours 2.5 Hour Discovery Tour: Adults $45, Children 9-14 year $35, 0405 033 518, portstephenecosports.com.au)
The whole port area offers the best diving within three hours of Sydney. The Broughton Island dive is generally considered the pick of the bunch, particularly at the Shark Gutters where you’re bound to get up close and personal with Grey Nurse sharks.
(Feet First Dive, 02 4984 2092, feetfirstdive.com.au)
Fantastic snorkelling is found off Fly Point. Loads of fish, soft coral sponges and even turtles hang out in this marine life sanctuary. It’s dead easy to get to, too – park in the last spaces on Victoria Parade (the main road along the waterfront at Nelson Bay) past the turn off up to Shoal Bay. Then walk to the point and jump in.
If the dolphins, fish and turtles are the most attractive things in the water, then the Stockton Sand Dunes are the most attractive thing above it. They are not only huge and majestic, but hugely fun. A three-hour zoom around on a quad bike is awesome.
(Quad Bike King, 02 4919 0088, quadbikeking.com.au).
Alternatively, a 90-minute 4WD tour of the dunes is a must. You’ll visit the wreck of the Sygna, which crash-landed in 1974 and was never able to be completely removed, so now sits corroding on the shore. You’ll also see the kooky ‘Tin City’ – a collection of 11 shacks originally built to house shipwrecked sailors, which are now slowly being covered by the dunes.
And then for the real highlight – a good session of sand boarding. How the legs burn, getting back to the top of the dune.
(Port Stephens 4WD Tours: Adults $49, Kids, $29, Family $127, (02) 4984 4760, portstephens4wd.com.au)
For more exhilaration (minus the thigh burn) try Toboggan Hill Park, a mini-mini theme park with an indoor climbing wall, maze and other little activities – along with tobogganing. Try not to get too frustrated by the confusing pricing: the entrance fee is $8 per adult, $5 per kid and then an additional spend per activity.
(Toboggan Hill Park, 02 4984 1022, tobogganhillpark.com)
Australian Shark and Ray Centre is another great one for getting young’uns out of the sun – kids get to play, feed and touch sharks and rays. Great fun for the under 10s.
(Australian Shark and Ray Centre: Adults $29.50 Kids $19.50 Family $95, 02 4982 2476, www.sharkencounters.com.au)
Head up the Tomaree Headland for a walk/climb to one of the most gorgeous vistas in the world. Better still, you can also push a pram along the track, all the way to the old gun emplacements on the headland. It’s a lovely way to work up an appetite for the gorgeous meals you’re about to devour…
Where to eat
The eating options in Port Stephens punch way above the small population’s weight. The best local tip is Murray’s Craft Brewery. Easily overlooked because it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it on the road in from the highway, Murray’s offers a huge range of boutique beers – eight of which have been included in Australia’s Top 100.
Beer nerds from all over have been known to make a beeline here, in order to smack down a whole $5 for the brewery tour where they can ask such startling questions as “At what temperature do you brew your pilsener?”
Then there’s the crowd-pulling pizzas. The seafood pizza is the best in the country, in our opinion; topped with exquisitely tender morsels from the sea and a soupcon of cheese. There’s a great beer garden under the gums with live acoustic music, too.
(Murray’s Craft Brewing, 3443 Nelson Bay Rd, Bobs Farm, 02 4982 6411)
Bub’s Fish & Chips is another award-winning joint (although perhaps not the best in the state, as some have declared). Pick the sensible option and get your food to go – eating in offers views of the car park or an unattractive wharf.
Sit on the beach at Nelson Bay with steaming hot chips and any manner of fish fried in batter, crumbed or grilled. Or grab the Fishermans Basket for $15.90. Just be aware of a little trick Bub’s have going on – they only accept cash. You can get cash out at the Fish Co-Op ATM, which they also happen to own, which adds an irritating$2.50 charge no matter which bank.
(Bub’s Fish & Chips, 1 Teramby St, Nelson Bay)
Dinners can be as cheap or expensive as you like. The options are plenty but stick to these winners as the failures can be, well disasters.
For a great eat-in or take-out Thai you can’t beat Mod Thai in Nelson Bay. There are two Thai places on the same street – Mod Thai is in the same complex as the cinema. It’s classic Thai with some authenticity – simple, affordable, fresh and well done.
A favourite is the Nam Prig Pow: chilli jam with mushrooms, capsicums and shallots. If you want to eat in, make a booking.
(Mod Thai: E $7.20-$8.90, M $13.50-$18.90, Shop 12/25 Stockton St, Nelson Bay, 02 4984 4222, modthai.com.au)
Around the corner from our favourite Thai, Sandpipers on Magnus St do a more upmarket dinner and lunch. The menu is an interesting modern seafood Australian mix (plus a kids’ menu). The soft shell crab with a pineapple-and-mint salsa is worth a taste – a relaxed, unstuffy meal in a simple restaurant.
(Sandpipers Restaurant, Tues-Sat lunch and dinner: E $17-$19, M $26-$33, 81 Magnus St, Nelson Bay, 02 4984 9990, sandpipersrestaurant.com.au)
The standout restaurant in the area has to be the hatted Zest Restaurant, less than a block from both Sandpipers and Mod Thai.
Chef and owner Glen Thompson has created an institution of elegant food in a sophisticated restaurant. The menu is fairly European with meat and sauces dominating. It’s great food, and the staff are excellent. Our only disappointment was the wine list – it’s a little light, particularly on good bubbles by the glass. But we are being fussy.
(Zest Restaurant: E $15, M $35, 16 Stockton Street Nelson Bay, 02 4984 2211)
As you would expect in a seaside town, there are loads of cafes. Right next door to Sandpipers is Baroque. Great pastries and decent coffee, the service needs work but the fitout is great. Grand opulent chandeliers, black and white décor… it’s a Parisian riot in Nelson Bay.
(Baroque Coffee House, 77 Magnus St, Nelson Bay, 02 4981 1159)
For a relaxed summer morning coffee, head to Shoal Bay Resort and the Sandyfoot Café & Bar. Simple café breakfast with a lovely view across the bay.
(Sandyfoot Café & Bar at Shoal Bay Resort and Spa, Shoal Bay Rd, Shoal Bay, 02 4981 1555)
Around the corner in a piazza between resort buildings, there are a couple more worthy cafes. The zany Gilligans bakery is decked out with Gilligan’s Island motifs and a TV that plays episodes all day, every day… And a menu of great classic café food.
(Gilligan’s Beachside Café, Shop 23/51 Shoal Bay Rd, Shoal Bay, 02 4981 4884)
Where to drink
If there is one weakness in Port Stephens, it is the lack of a great bar. However, aside from Murray’s, our pick is Shoal Bay’s Sandyfoot Café & Bar. It’s a great spot to spend a sunset.
Port Stephens Accommodation
Peppers Anchorage: Right on the point at the Corlette between Salamander Bay and Nelson Bay, the resort has its own marina. The gardens are manicured, the bars and public spaces are like a private club and the rooms have sumptuous romantic views of the water, with the bush acting as a protective barrier from the world.
Food is incredibly good and with decent spa facilities it is the quietest and most sophisticated resort in Port Stephens.
(Peppers Anchorage, Corlette Point Road Corlette (02) 4984 2555 peppers.com.au/anchorage)
Oaks Pacific Blue Salamander Bay: Ridiculously good value apartment resort in Salamander Bay. The big wow feature here is the lagoon pool, which circulates around the entire resort with apartments on either side. Most apartments have access to the pool from the room deck, so kids will be beside themselves with joy.
Families (and gaggles of girls with plastic wine glasses and a floating ice bucket) spend much of the afternoon wandering around and around and around. Incredible value for multi-generational holidays or big family trips.
(Oaks Pacific Blue, 265 Sandy Point Road, Salamander Bay, 02 4916 1200, oakshotelsresorts.com)
Shoal Bay Resort Right on the beach, get a room with a fab view over the bay and you’ll be set for the entire holiday. You can spend the entire time not moving more than 50 metres; wandering from breakfast to the beach, to lunch, to the spa, to a snooze and back to the bar for a drink and dinner….. But back to you.
It’s a great possie for families with the Kids Club kicking in on school holidays; circus classes, kids bingo, face painting – all the great stuff that let parents reintroduce themselves to each other. More active? Grab a bike and do some great rides to the surf beaches or do the Tomaree Headland walk. One downside is Shoal Bay was the first resort built in the area but the old girl still delivers.
(Shoal Bay Resort, 35-45 Shoal Bay Road, Shoal Bay, 02 4981 1555, shoalbayresort.com)
Jack’s Place Sometimes the best thing about a beach holiday is a beach shack and Jack’s Place is exactly that. Jack has given his shack a lick of paint, a tidy up, some of his favourite toys and nice landscaping.
The two-bedroom shack is mostly airy with a huuuuge TV that would make lazing around watching anything a delight… even the cricket. And being a seven-minute walk to the northern part of Shoal Bay, it’s a great spot. (Jack’s Place, 18 Achilles St Nelson Bay, 0404 582 751, portstephens.org.au)