From swimming with wild dolphins and seeing whales up close or hiking to the top of Mt Tomaree through bushland brimming with wildlife, here are the top things to do in Port Stephens.
If Byron Bay and Narooma had a love child, it would be Port Stephens. In addition to wildlife encounters, you’ll find this extraordinary coastal town two and a half hours’ north of Sydney is blessed with natural beauty and has a laid-back coastal vibe. At the heart of it is great accommodation – from fairy-tale treehouses to beach shacks – bolstered by all the best elements of nature. Get ready to dive into the best ways to spend your time in Port Stephens.
1. Swim with wild dolphins
Tumbling into crystalline waters off the coast of Port Stephens on a wild dolphin swim tour is, for city dwellers, a profoundly moving experience. Dolphin Swim Australia runs responsible wildlife adventures that are all about respecting the local marine life and their habitat. The company emphasises eco-friendly practises, with each swim dependent on the dolphins’ decision to be near to the guests in the water.
Swimming with dolphins in Shoal Bay is dreamy. (Image: Destination NSW)
2. Go quad biking in the Stockton Sand Dunes
Book a tour with Sand Dune Adventures to see the highest sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere. As you’re burning around the area on quadbikes, your Indigenous guide will scout out middens, where some 18 clans of the Worimi Nation feasted on fish and shellfish. Part of your payment for The Aboriginal Culture Sandboarding and Quad Bike Tour is invested back into the local Indigenous community and protection of the dunes.
Stockton Sand Dunes are the highest sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere.
3. Experience some of the best shore diving in NSW
Whether you’re an experienced scuba diver or have never donned a snorkel, you will find a dive to suit within the Great Lakes Marine Park in Port Stephens. There’s Fly Point in Nelson Bay, famous for its nudibranchs, and the Pipeline, a must for macro divers. The Looking Glass off Broughton Island is another dive deemed noteworthy as it takes divers through an arch in the rock that you will share with a grey nurse shark. You can also learn to free dive with Salty Pilgrims in Nelson Bay.
Learn to free drive in Nelson Bay. (Image: Destination NSW)
4. Ride a camel around Anna Bay
Riding camels along Anna Bay is one of the most popular things to do in the area as visitors can enjoy the hypnotic blue of the Pacific while plodding along a huge slab of empty sand. The best time to visit Anna Bay is at the first pink glimmering of daylight when you can climb onboard a camel to enjoy the landscape in a relaxed and meditative way. Sahara Trails also runs horseback tours.
Morning is the best time for a camel ride at Anna Bay. (Image: Destination NSW)
5. Hike to the top of Mt Tomaree
You will find another world on the outskirts of Port Stephens when you turn your back to the beach and fixate on getting to the summit of Mt Tomaree. The Tomaree Head Summit Walk is only 2.2-kilometres return. But clambering up the steep sections on this Grade 5 walk requires a modicum of fitness. The best time to tackle the walk is between May and October, when you may be able to spot the plume of a whale spout from the summit.
The steep walk is worth it for the views. (Image: Jarryd Salem)
6. Enjoy a whale-watching cruise
Port Stephens is known for its excellent whale-watching season and Moonshadow-TQC and Imagine Cruises both offer eco-friendly cruises. The tours, which run for about three hours, give guests the opportunity to spot humpback whales performing pectoral slaps and body rolls. The 360-degree viewing deck also offers every guest a vantage point to see whales breaching, bringing their considerable bulk out of the ocean for the money shot.
Port Stephens is one of the best places to go whale watching. (Image: Destination NSW)
7. Learn to surf or SUP
Port Stephens is blessed with some of the best surf breaks in the country. But if it’s your first time surfing or SUPing around the area you should sign up for a few sessions with Port Stephen Surf School instructors who will take you to places a little more off the radar. It’s how they roll. Whether you want to hone your technique or learn to stand up on a board for the first time, the bronzed instructors will find discreet, uncrowded breaks where you can hang ten to your heart’s content.
If you’ve never been stand-up-paddleboarding before, now is your chance.
8. Destination dining
What a weekend in Port Stephens will tell you is that you need to book a return visit to make time for some of the best restaurants with rooms in NSW. The waterways that curl around Port Stephens are what define the seaside village. So of course, snapping a selfie over a seafood platter while overlooking the water at Rick Stein at Bannisters, or the Wild Herring at The Anchorage, Port Stephens are the best kinds of souvenirs.
Rick Stein at Bannisters is a must-try.
9. Tour Tin City on a 4WD safari
Explore the sand dunes of Stockton Bight with 4WD Tours R Us. In addition to offering sandboarding adventures amid the colossal dunes of Stockton Bight, the operator takes in Tin City, one of the filming locations for Mad Max. The history of the cobbled-together corrugated iron shacks is fascinating: the shanty town originally built to accommodate shipwreck survivors soon expanded during the Great Depression to include more than 36 huts.
Visit the Mad Max location by 4WD. (Image: Destination NSW)
10. Discover the best beaches
There are many stunning stretches of sand near Port Stephens, which is one of Australia’s most-loved aquatic playgrounds. While adventurous types have the option of diving with a grey nurse shark colony off Broughton Island, those looking for something more sedate can walk Wreck Beach or fish at Great Lakes Marine Park. Competent surfers should follow the swell to Wreck, Box, Samurai and Zenith beaches while families will love Salamander Bay, Shoal Bay and Nelson Bay.
Shoal Bay, Zenith Beach and Wreck Beach are some of Port Stephens’s best beaches. (Image: Destination NSW)
11. Get your adrenaline pumping at Toboggan Hill Park
Good old-fashioned family fun is on the cards at Toboggan Hill Park, an action-packed park in Nelson Bay with activities for the whole family. The main attraction is the one-kilometre downhill toboggan run that twists and turns through bushland – you can go as fast or slow as you want, so even the littlest of adventurers can join in the fun. There’s also an outdoor maze to get lost in, mini golf, an indoor rock climbing wall and more.
The kids will have hours of fun at Toboggan Hill Park.
12. Swim with sharks and manta rays
Ever fancied cuddling a manta ray or snorkelling with a zebra shark? Here’s your chance. Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters has several experiences that allow visitors to get close to magnificent marine animals, from wading in a shallow pool to pet and feed rays to swimming in a lagoon with large sharks. Through its Sea Shelter program, the centre is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals, as well as research and education surrounding marine conservation.
Swimming with a stingray is a bucket list moment. (Image: Destination NSW)
13. Take a self-guided brewery and winery tour
Get a two-for-one tasting experience at B Farm by Murray’s, an independent brewery that shares a property with Port Stephens Winery, the oldest winery in the region. Sample the 100 per cent natural brews, several wines from around the region and enjoy a bite to eat at one of the three onsite dining venues. Oenophiles should also check out Wonganella Estate, which runs a sunset and vine experience with a mezze menu and wine tastings on weekends, and Tynan Wines, a boutique winery that produces small-batch drops and also makes chocolate, cookies and honey.
Dine at Restaurant William at B Farm by Murray’s.
14. Support the conservation of wild koalas at the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary
Port Stephens is home to one of the last remaining koala populations on the east coast, the Koala Sanctuary is doing important work to preserve koalas in the wild. It offers immersive experiences to educate visitors about koalas and their habitat, the opportunity to see the veterinary staff looking after sick and injured koalas through the viewing window of the state-of-the-art Koala Hospital, and to meander along a 225-metre elevated pathway suspended in treetops to spot koalas in their natural habitat. You can even stay overnight in the sanctuary’s luxury glamping tents, surrounded by eight hectares of bushland.
Cosy up with a koala. (Image: Destination NSW)
15. Have your Top Gun moment at Fighter World
Aviation aficionados should make the trip to Fighter World, a hands-on museum adjacent to the RAAF Base Williamtown at Newcastle Airport. Learn about the history of the Royal Australian Airforce, wander around famous aircraft including the first Vampire jet built in Australia, see the WWII Spitfire replicas, sit in the cockpit of a Mirage interceptor and Macchi jet trainer, and see one of the country’s best model aircraft displays.