For an idyllic family holiday on the coast of NSW, Port Stephens is not to be overlooked.
There are plenty of reasons to make Port Stephens your next holiday destination: friendly locals, boutique accommodation and a natural landscape that’s reminiscent of Hawaii’s laidback North Shore.
But it’s in the arena of family-friendly entertainment that Port Stephens really excels. Prepare to slide down towering sand dunes, swim alongside bottlenose dolphins and climb trails to windswept headlands. Here, a curated list of activities to satisfy the whole family.
1. Tomaree Head summit walk
The Tomaree Head summit trail rewards walkers with gorgeous vistas of Yacaaba Head, Cabbage Tree, Boondelbah and Broughton Islands to the north, and views of Zenith, Wreck and Box beaches, Fingal Island and Point Stephens Lighthouse to the south.
It will take you 25 minutes of leg work to arrive at the summit of Tomaree Head – if the sight of the coastline doesn’t slow you down that is. Kids will love exploring the historic World War II gun emplacements at the top. Pack binoculars for a chance to spot dolphins and whales swimming below.
2. Go dolphin or whale watching
Thanks to the year-round population of more than 150 bottlenose dolphins in the port area, there is an abundance of dolphin-watching tours to get you out on the water.
Moonshadow Cruises will take you on a leisurely one-and-a-half hour cruise around the bay, and it is highly likely to deliver numerous dolphin sightings. They also have a boom net and waterslide feature for kids – and more daring adults. The slide deposits riders onto a boom net that is lowered into the water for a close-up encounter with the curious dolphins who venture closer to the boat – or at the very least an exhilarating swim.
From May through to November the humpback and southern right whales migrate north past the Port Stephens coast and again on their return to Antarctica. You can watch these awe-inspiring creatures from a boat or try your luck from a number of vantage points on the coast. Locals recommend Boat Harbour and Fingal Bay.
3. Explore the sand dunes
The seemingly endless, undulating sand dunes of the Stockton Bight (stretching 32 kilometres between Birubi Beach and Stockton) are the longest in the Southern Hemisphere.
There are numerous ways to explore this mesmerising mass: besides sliding down these enormous, ever-shifting golden mountains on a sandboard, many attempt to conquer them in a 4WD (you need a beach vehicle permit) or on a quad bike, or by enlisting a trusty steed like a camel or horse to do the hard work for them.
The sand dunes are part of the Worimi Conservation Lands, an area that is full of Aboriginal cultural significance for the Worimi people. You can join the Sand Dunes Adventure Tour to learn more about the area through the eyes of the Aboriginal guide – while on a quad bike. Other tours will take you to the otherworldly Tin City, a community of tin shacks that first plonked itself in the sand during the Great Depression (and later appeared in Mad Max), and don’t miss the wreck of the ship Sygna that is wedged into the sand at Stockton Beach.
4. Toboggan Hill Park
Toboggan Hill Park is a mini theme park with plenty to keep kids entertained.
Inside, there’s a climbing wall, jumping castle and plenty more rides and activities to pique their interest. Venture outside to get lost in the huge maze, ride the tractor train, enjoy a round of mini golf, get wet at Splash Park – and then there is tobogganing, as the name suggests.
Kiosk facilities are located onsite, or the large, grassy picnic area is perfect for families who prefer to BYO.
5. Dive or snorkel the aquatic playgrounds
Searching for supreme dive sites within 3 hours of Sydney? You’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere better than Port Stephens.
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 is one of the most popular operators.
For snorkellers, Fly Point generally rewards with plenty of fish, soft coral sponges and even turtles to spot in this marine life sanctuary. It’s dead easy to get to, too. Park on Victoria Parade (the main road along the waterfront at Nelson Bay) just past the turn off up to Shoal Bay. Then walk to the point and jump in.
6. Sip on a local brew
While there are plenty of impressive eating options in Port Stephens, few punch above their weight as well as Murray’s Craft Brewery. Blink and you’ll miss this hidden haunt, tucked off the road on the main highway.
For the adults, Murray’s offers a huge range of boutique beers – eight of which have been included in Australia’s Top 100.
For kids, there’s the crowd-pulling pizzas. The seafood pizza is arguably the best in the country, topped with exquisitely tender morsels from the sea and a soupcon of cheese. There’s a great beer garden sheltered by gum trees and, more often than not, a live acoustic music act to enjoy.
7. Oakvale Wildlife Park
Spend the day among the animals on 25 acres of bushland in the Oakvale Wildlife Park.
The Australian-owned and operated park is home to an endless menagerie of Australian native, domestic farm and exotic animals, including koalas, kangaroos, Tasmanian devils, goats, sheep, rabbits, alligators and ostriches.
There are plenty of opportunities for kids to get up close and personal, with chances to attend a keeper talk, or hand feed the animals. And don’t forget about the Splash Bay Water Park – another chance to cool off and have fun with the kids. It’s also open all year round.
8. Tomaree Markets
There really is no better way to discover the true essence of Port Stephens than by visiting the Tomaree Markets.
Held at Neil Carroll Park in Fly Point, you and the kids can visit every second and fourth Sunday of the month.
Whether you’re looking to stock up on flowers, food, vintage clothing or perhaps you just want to surround yourself with good ol’ fashioned community spirit, the Tomaree markets has plenty of it to go around.