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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Nature’s playground: Discovering Port Stephens

It's sea, sand and surrounding nature at this NSW destination

Reading Time: 5 minutes 

As we continue to seek out holiday spots close to home in these pandemic times, this issue we explore a gem destination in our own backyard, Port Stephens in NSW.

Located 2.5-hour drive north of Sydney, this patch of paradise has almost everything to attract modern-day holiday makers of all ages – loved-up couples, young families, older travellers. The offerings include high-quality accommodation outlets, trendy restaurants and cafes, boutique shopping and a host of things to see and do.

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At the very outset though, let’s get one thing straight – Port Stephens is the name not of a town or a single seaside spot; it is actually a shire embracing many closely knit seafront neighbourhoods.

While Nelson Bay is its exciting hub, others of visitor importance are Anna Bay, Shoal Bay, Fingal Bay, Soldiers Point and Salamander Bay.

Key attractions of this region are the sea, sand and surrounding nature.

Anna Bay
Anna Bay

READ ALSO: Cruising on the Murray River

With 26 beaches, a bay twice the size of Sydney Harbour, two lakes and a myriad of rivers, creeks and estuaries, the 98,000-hectare Port Stephens Great Lakes Marine Park is something to behold. While the adjoining waters present a sanctuary for the local marine life such as dolphins, the turquoise blue bays and glistening beaches welcome visitors to surf, swim, sunbathe, jet boat, paddle in the rock pools or humbly walk along the coastline. Shoal Bay and Fingal Bay are ideal venues for these.

While in Port Stephens, one of the most popular activity is to cruise the neighbouring waters to spot Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins throughout the year. For the adventure-minded it’s even possible to swim alongside the dolphins described by many as an experience of a lifetime. The big humpback whales though, can be seen between May and October, when they migrate in large numbers from their cold hideouts in Antarctica to warm, shallower waters for calving and mating.

Nelson Bay Marina
Nelson Bay Marina

Nelson Bay has a thriving marina from where the cruise boats depart daily at regular intervals, some having an itinerary to drop anchor at some pristine isolated islands to give visitors the true escape from a busy urban life.

Alongside sea obviously comes the sand, but not many know that Port Stephens is home to the monumental Stockton Bight Sand Dunes – the largest of their kind in Southern Hemisphere. Stretching over 32 km along the coastline with some dunes reaching a height of 30 metres with slopes up to 60 degrees, they offer a range of bucket-list-worthy experiences from sandboarding and quad biking to bashing over the sandy mountains on a four-wheel drive.

An adrenaline-charging adventure is to move along the sandy slopes on a camel like Lawrence of Arabia, and to enjoy a spectacular vista particularly during sunrise and sunset. Anna Bay is the place to visit for these sandy encounters. While exploring the dunes it’s possible to come across many sites of cultural and historical significance for the indigenous Worimi people to whom the land belongs since time immemorial.

READ ALSO: Hello, New Zealand: A 10-day itinerary for your next trip

Playing with the sand
Stockton Bight Sand Dunes

Nature’s wonder doesn’t cease with sea and sand, but extends into stunning greenery of coastal bushlands and forests. Tomaree National Park provides many exciting walking trails and hiking opportunities. For an Insta-worthy vista of the entire region, many visitors don’t mind the 2km one-way trek to Tomaree Head Summit at Shoal Bay. The 360-degree view from the top is regarded as one of the top ten scenic encounters in Australia. If hiking is an issue, a nice panorama can be captured from Gan Gan lookout near Nelson Bay, easily accessible by car.

Many Sydney siders go to Port Stephens for the day. However, a day trip doesn’t do total justice to the destination as it offers many other interesting attractions beyond the sea and sand to keep visitors leisurely busy for a few days. This includes a relaxing ferry ride up the Myall Lake to Tea Gardens, learning more about the sea giants at the Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters, and visiting Koala Sanctuary to see sick and injured koalas rescued by the locals and being cared for with love.

While the favourite for the kids are foot-golfing, go-carting and fun at the water park, keen golfers always make time to go through the greens at one of the many golfing arenas. Some by choice don’t do anything other than simply relaxing. During the day they may go for an easy stroll or possibly sit in the balcony of their seafront hotel room, read a book or aimlessly watch the rolling waves while sipping a cocktail. After sundown locals and visitors alike dive into the lively dining scene. Port Stephens boasts of many top-rated restaurants and cafes serving the best of local produces.

“After all, life is all about collecting moments not things,” states the visitor guide brochure on Port Stephens.

I am sure visitors will agree wholeheartedly.

Sting Ray at Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters
Sting Ray at Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters

Travel Notebook

Getting There By road from Sydney, 207km; from Brisbane, 778 km.

Stay No shortage of accommodations to suit style and budget. The Mantra Nelson Bay, close to the restaurants, cafes, foreshore and the marina is a good choice.

Recommended Restaurants All located within easy distance from the centre of Nelson Bay: Sandpipers Restaurant; The Point Restaurant Soldiers Point;

The Nelson Resort & Little Nel Café; Shoal Bay Country Club; Taj Tandoori Indian Restaurant.

Recommended Tour Operators Moonshadow TQC Cruises for dolphin and whale watching; Port Stephens 4WD Tours for Sandboarding, Beach & Dune explorations; Oakfield Ranch for camel rides across the sand dunes

More Info Check www.portstephens.org.au

READ ALSO: Kangaroo Island reborn


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Sandip Hor
Writing is a passion for this culturally enthused and historically minded globe trotting freelancer

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