The sprawling national parks, crystal clear waters, white beaches and seaside accommodation of Port Stephens has long attracted Sydneysiders looking for a weekend getaway.
Port Stephens is a lazy three-hour drive north of the city.
Thrill seekers, families and couples of all ages will find a raft of activities to keep themselves busy. But the beauty of a pristine area like Port Stephens is that you relax and enjoy the coastal town, even during the colder months.
The magical sand dunes of Port Stephens are the largest in the southern hemisphere. Here, adventure seekers will board down the giant sand dunes, go quad biking or take sunset camel rides by the water.
But the rich national parks are a hiker’s dream, including the challenging trek of the Tomaree Head Summit Walk.
When you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with outstanding 360-degree views of Port Stephens as well as Hawkes Nest.
It’s one of the prime spots to see humpback whales breaching. Port Stephens, known as the whale highway, during May to September, you’ll see the whales even from the beach.
The region is home to more than 150 bottle-nose dolphins, and most providers will guarantee that you will see these majestic creatures. If you want to get up close and personal, you can also go on a wild dolphin swim – the only one permitted in NSW.
Organised by Dolphin Swim Australia, swim leaders will take guests through one of the most thrilling experience where you are so close to the playful dolphins you feel you are part of the pod.
It is also a fabulous escape for families with kids with sandy beaches, giant sand dunes, lots of activities for the young ones and wonderful, waterfront places to eat. It is a perfect weekend getaway.
There are 26 gorgeous-looking beaches in Port Stephens from sheltered bays to expansive ocean beaches where you can go surfing, kayaking or paddle-boarding. At the 2.5km, charming Shoal Bay beach, there are plenty of kayaks and stand-up paddle boards available for hire.
There’s also Fingal Bay, a lovely beach on the fringes of Tomaree National Park, known for its many coastal walks leading up to Mount Tomaree with absolutely amazing views over Port Stephens.
At the laid-back surf town of Anna Bay, there’s Birubi Beach, a great place for a swim or a paddle in rock pools and One Mile Beach, a semicircle bay with the softest sand and bluest water. It is also a popular surf hang-out.
At Nelson Bay, the main town in Port Stephens, you can hire a bike and cycle along the waterfront. The Bartlett cycleway is 5km one way from pretty Bagnalls Beach to Little Beach, near the historic, heritage-listed Nelson Head Lighthouse cottage which has a delightful café with gorgeous views of the water.
Port Stephens has a monthly market held on the fourth Sunday of the month. The popular community market at Salt Ash has great food, coffee and stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables, plants, clothing, jewellery and handmade blankets. The local market has a wonderful atmosphere with a free jumping castle to keep the kids entertained.
After the success his first hotel in Mollymook, celebrity British chef Rick Stein converted a run-down motel into a chic four-star hotel with a spa and of course, a seafood restaurant called Rick Stein at Bannisters.
Stein has written over 20 cookery books and made more than 30 cookery TV programs. He has also cooked for The Queen, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and French President, Jacques Chirac.
It is his ability to blend rich South East Asian flavours with good Australian staples like mussels, crabs and freshly caught fish that sets him apart from other chefs.
On the menu, there are stables like local Port Stephen oysters, mussels with yellow kroeung, a Cambodian spice past, sardines on toast as well as Rick Stein’s famous fish pie.
Another place to try is The Little Nel in Nelson Bay which serves healthy, local produce for breakfast and dinners including takeaways.
For Devonshire tea, head to the Inner Light Tearooms, also in Nelson Bay with some of the best water views over Port Stephens. Cakes and its famous scones are served all-day but the café also serves daily breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea.
There’s also the delightful Little Beach Boathouse in Nelson Bay with an amazing beachside setting, serving market fish with eggplants and pecorino ravioli, crispy pork belly with roasted chat potatoes and broccolini and miso-glazed salmon with roast pumpkin and mixed grain salad. A perfect place for a leisurely long lunch.
For stone-baked pizza, there’s Cheeky Dog on Soldiers Point where you can also watch the most beautiful sunset at the award-winning restaurant Point Restaurant.
To walk off the lunch, you can go on a guided tour to spot koalas in the wild at the Tilligerry Habitat, an eco-tourism reserve. Here you can see koalas eating young eucalyptus leaves and spot more than 100 species of birds including the endangered Regent Honeyeater.
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No doubt 2020 will go down in cruise history as the year of the pandemic – a once in a generation event. And this year’s Cruise Passenger Readers’ Choice Awards will reflect it.