A few months back we had the pleasure of spending two weeks exploring the area around port Stephens NSW- and we were kept pretty busy! Everywhere we looked there was a beach to enjoy, an attraction to visit or something interesting to discover. We had an absolute blast and have taken away some fond memories of our short but fun filled stay.
Port Stephens is the sheltered harbour that sits at the mouth of the Myall and Karuah Rivers. Located only 2.5 hours north of Sydney, the area is extremely popular with weekend holiday makers as well as yearly “regulars” who use the area as a base to explore or to just relax. Some of the great little towns that make up the region are Shoal bay, Fingal bay, Anna bay, Nelson Bay, Soldiers Point, Boat harbour and Lemon Tree Passage- all of which are worth a day-trip out for a look.
Firstly, accommodation options are plentiful- Port Stephens is a thriving tourism region and holiday makers and travellers alike are very well catered for. There a numerous motels, holiday apartments, resort style lodges and of course some of the best holiday parks we have seen. We had our Jayco camper with us and we bunkered down for our stay at the Halifax Holiday Park in Nelson Bay, located close to the water and not too far out of the CBD. We had everything we needed close by and the park was very friendly.
Shortly after arriving and after we had set up our camper we started to browse the local tourism brochure- I swear, our pen nearly ran out of ink circling all the things we wanted to see and do. At the top of my list was a visit to the famous Stockton Beach for a play in the sand dunes with the 4×4. We teamed up with a lovely couple we met in the park (Tony and Anne-Marie) and we made a day of it. It just so happened to be Father’s Day, I could not have wished for a better way to spend the day with the family. We grabbed our beach permits, let the tyres down and hit the dunes from the Anna Bay access road. Apart from playing in the sand dunes for a while, we did make it to southern end of the beach and enjoyed a lunch stop near the MV Sygna (1974) Shipwreck. The Norwegian bulk carrier was on its maiden voyage to collect a load of coal (50,000 tonnes of it) and was sitting, waiting off the coast of Newcastle to be loaded when a severe storm prevented it from moving out to sea for safety. The severe wind gusts forced the ship into the shallow waters off the beach and it hasn’t moved since. The beach was great fun but challenging in some places- a good reminder to go prepared and know your vehicles limits. Beach driving requires a fair bit of preparation and skill and it’s always a good idea to go with a second vehicle if possible.
Ok, so we crossed my “must do” activity from the list it was time for us to visit the Oakvale Farm and Fauna World. This was added to the itinerary by our 5yo son, Cooper. He saw the ad in the brochure and wouldn’t stop talking about it. Oakvale farm provides a great experience for kids who haven’t visited a farm before. At Oakvale Farm we were able to personally interact and hand feed most of the farm animals, cuddle a Koala and the highlight for us was watching Cooper milk a cow for the first time. Absolutely priceless! A tractor ride around the farm and a visit to the reptile exhibit were also rated highly by all of us. A great day out for the family but make sure you allow a few hours. Take a bbq lunch (bbq’s provided) or buy lunch at the kiosk.
Jane was more interested in spending time down by the water. Nelson Bay has plenty of great spots along the water’s edge and the marina precinct to just sit and relax and enjoy the views of Port Stephens. There were heaps of modern playground areas and little cafes scattered everywhere. I don’t know if it’s possible- but I think we might have nearly over-dosed on fresh seafood whilst we were there. There are quite a few fresh seafood outlets to visit but our favourite had to of been Fishermen’s Wharf Seafood’s and Bub’s fish and chip shop. We stocked up on plenty of calamari, fresh fish and local prawns. Yum! We love sampling the local foods and produce when visiting towns and we are suckers for seafood so we were pretty close to being in heaven! They did a great serve of fish and chips too- I guess that’s why they hold the honour of being awarded the “best fish and chips in NSW” 7 years running! Now that’s something to be proud of.
On the other side of Port Stephens is the little village of Tea Gardens and Hawks nest. We didn’t do this personally but you are able to catch a passenger ferry which will take you for a 1 hour cruise of the Myall River to the other side whilst listening to an informative commentary on the area. The ferry operators claim that Dolphins are spotted on nearly 90% of the cruises. That’s pretty good odds so take your camera! In tea gardens, there a plenty of waterside walks and spots to have a picnic, grab some lunch from one of the many cafes and make a day of it. We will certainly take the ferry trip next time we visit.
In such a relatively small area, there is so much to see around Port Stephens. We spent a few days day-tripping around the area visiting the coastal havens of Fingal Bay and Shoal bay. I could only dream of owning one of the holiday homes that make up a large percentage of the dwellings in the area. Fingal bay is very popular for families. It’s a near perfect, crescent- shaped bay that seemed pretty sheltered for swimming. It was a little too cold for us the day we visited to take a dip but the cold weather didn’t stop plenty of others braving the chill.
On the road back out towards Williamtown, is the RAAF Air Base. If you are lucky enough to strike the right time, you can park your vehicle in a stopping bay at one end of the runway and watch the FA-18 fighter jets take off and land. They scream overhead and I literally felt the ground shake. Those things are amazing. Take ear-plugs for the kids though. Understandably there was a rather large sign stating that photos and video over the Dept. of Defence Land area weren’t allowed so we took that advice on board.
In the summer months it would an idea to pack the snorkel gear- like I said earlier it was a little too cold for us to brave the water during our visit but we would have loved exploring the crystal blue waters off the coast and around the headlands. According to the locals it’s a real “underwater paradise”.
I finally got the fishing rods out and got to wet a line- although I didn’t have any luck with reeling in a “keeper” there seemed to be plenty of other fishermen presenting at the boat ramp with sizeable catches. Maybe I was using the wrong bait or maybe I had the hook on back the front??? Who knows but still, I had a good time.
I have to admit, the Port Stephen’s area was a lot bigger and busier than I first expected. Actually, all I expected were a few sleepy coastal towns with a few shops but I was far from being even close on that one. The Port Stephens area was bustling with tourists all there admiring the natural beauty of the place and getting amongst the activities on offer. The ambience of the area seemed very friendly and the local businesses were grateful of the busy tourist trade and made us feel very welcome.
Our top 5 ideas for families:
Sand boarding on Stockton dunes or hire a quad bike
Dolphin spotting from the headland or on one of the many cruises available
Visit the Australian Shark and Ray centre, Oakvale Farm and Fighter World
Play a round of mini golf, take a toboggan ride or try go-karting
Take a stroll on one of the many bushwalking trails in the Tomaree national park. Visit the lighthouse and enjoy plenty of scenic vistas
A piece of advice-make sure your camera is always handy and you have plenty of space on your memory card- a photo opportunity presents itself quite often around Port Stephens. Whether it’s a stunning sunrise, a dolphin frolicking in the bay or perhaps a chance scenic view from one of the many lookout points.
We hope you get to experience the area like we did one day. We have added it to our list as one of our favourite NSW destinations!
For more info on the area visit www.portstephens.org.au
Or check out the following websites
Oakvale Farm www.oakvalefarm.com.au
Fighter World www.fighterworld.com.au
Big 4 Holiday Parks around Port Stephens www.portstephens.nsw.big4.com.au
As per Whats Up Downunder Magazine Issue #5