There’s a reason locals refer to Port Stephens as their own ‘blue water paradise.’
Located around 2.5 hours north of Sydney, this northern coastal jaunt is more a region than a township. Its harbour is double the size of Sydney Harbour and surrounded with deserted beaches, national parks and wonderful wildlife.
And while there is an extensive amount of information out there on just how to fill your itinerary (see here for the best of the bunch), Port Stephens will convince you the best things in life really are free.
Whether you came to splash cash, or would rather spend nothing at all, the Tomaree Head summit walk should be at the top of your to-do list.
The walk provides sweeping vistas and jaw-dropping views, all spread among a 25 minute climb that will see you traverse 161 metres above the Port Stephens entrance. All in all, it’s a pretty moderate journey, but some scattered ladders and steep inclines make it a good one for those looking to work up a sweat.
From the top you can see Yacaaba Head, Cabbage Tree, Boondelbah and Broughton Islands at the northern viewing platform. From the south platform you get views of Zenith, Wreck and Box beaches, Fingal Island and Point Stephens Lighthouse. But there are just as many sights and sounds to marvel at on the trip to the top, so take your time.
2. Visit one of the many beaches
Port Stephens is a nature playground – this much we know for sure. Its home to some of the best beaches, foreshores and reserves in the country, all which can be accessed without spending a dime.
Birubi, Fingal and One Mile are the patrolled beaches in the area, which we recommend for families. Box Beach is a private oasis packed with rock walls and miniature pools to explore. Zenith Beach is the perfect location for a sunrise photo, walk or sand picnic. Shoal Bay is another popular choice, with its flat water favoured among kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders.
But it’s Stockton Beach that remains in a class of its own. At 32 kilometres long and up to a kilometre wide, this desert-like coastal dune landscape is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It is also the largest coastal sand mass in Australia – don’t leave before you see it for yourself.
The Tomaree Markets are held every second and fourth Sunday of the month and punters can expect to find stalls selling a range of flowers, food and vintage clothing. The community-run market is located at Neil Carroll Park in Fly Point. The wares aren’t free, but there’s plenty of community spirit and chilled Sunday vibes to absorb without cost.
If you find yourself visiting on an off week, stop by the Port Stephens Visitor Centre. The friendly staff will be able to let you know about any other local markets in the area.
We consider this one of Port Stephens’ most unfairly overlooked attractions. The Native Flora Garden is a great chance for people to experience a slice of the beautiful Aussie bush, right in the centre of town.
There are eight hectares of pristine nature to explore, featuring corkwood trees, red cedars, ferns, pam groves and plenty more.
The Tomaree Community Art Centre offers free entry to their gallery. Take your time admiring the beautiful works exhibited by local artists. The collection is constantly changing – which is a compelling reason to return every time you visit Port Stephens.
If you like what you see, take a seat at the volunteer-run café out the back overlooking the manicured gardens. There is also the opportunity to purchase some handmade gifts; the perfect souvenir for your time up north.
Standing at a height of 160 metres, the Gan Gan Hill is Port Stephens’ highest and most accessible lookout. It will also make you feel like you’re the King of the World – so be sure to bring a partner for some Titanic re-enactments.
From the top, commanding views span the whole of Port Stephens, with Newcastle to the south and the Myall Lakes to the north. Sunset lovers can also head here at dusk, as the panoramic views provide jaw-dropping hues for you to marvel at.
Though koalas hang out in much of Port Stephens’ bountiful bushland, a self-guided walk through Tilligerry Habitat is a great way to up your chances of a sighting.
Follow the well-marked trail along a boardwalk that loops alongside the nearby foreshore. Koalas aside, the reserve is also home to an extensive array of birdlife and native flora, including, orchards and bush tucker plants.
One of the region’s most lively attractions can be found in the heart of Nelson Bay. The d’Albora Marina is crammed full of beautiful yachts, cruisers and fishing boats – it really is a sight to behold. But it’s the many food outlets – and famous fish and chip shop – that attract the crowds almost every day of the week. Local fishermen supply the restaurants with freshly-caught seafood, so be sure to stop here for a taste of the region’s best.
On weekends and school holidays there is usually some outdoor entertainment kicking about. Or, if you’ve booked a water-based tour – including anything from a dolphin or whale-watching cruise to scuba diving, a deep sea fishing charter or water adventure activity – it will most likely take off from here.