An easy day trip for travellers or an ideal weekend escape just 2.5 hours north of Sydney, Port Stephens is a place that sneaks up on you even if you are paying attention. A ‘goldilocks of holiday spots’, nothing is too big or too small – it’s all just right and with its gorgeous bay it is by far one of the most naturally gifted and understated places for a holiday any time of the year.
More than double the size of Sydney Harbour, its Great Lakes Marine Park, landscapes and towns each take on a slightly different character despite almost being a series of consecutive bays.
For the wave-hungry beach bums its Zenith Beach that the locals rave about, the first of three beautifully scythed stretches of sand south of Tomaree Head (the southern headland of the Port). Framed between two conical headlands, the 400m sun-kissed coastline is partly sheltered by Point Stephens. The waves average 1.3 meters in this stunning and secluded part of the world; its access is at the end of the Shoal Bay beach.
But if you lack the balance for a morning surf in the Port’s pristine waters, dive below the surface just off Fly Point (located west of Little Beach) and discover schools of yellowtail, bream and snapper. Boasting an aquatic reserve abundant with fish, soft coral sponge gardens and even turtles to hang out with, this marine sanctuary is the perfect place to familiarise yourself with snorkelling if you’ve never tried it before.
Just 20 kilometres from Port Stephens and perfect for experienced divers is the underwater world of Broughton Island; a treeless, windswept rocky island outcrop with a narrow channel that runs through the middle of the island. Discover the scuba diver’s paradise of Esmeralda Cove, complete with undersea caves, sandy gutters and overhangs that create aquatic cubby holes for marine life to play in. If diving during the warmer months, keep an eye out for the black rays and grey nurse sharks that flock to the area.
Part of the Myall Lakes National Park, Broughton is the largest offshore island in NSW and the only one on which visitors can camp among an active seabird colony. Enjoy the sunset on Providence Beach and return again later in the night to wait for the little penguins as they waddle ashore at about 8pm.
One day is all you need before you’re welcoming the escape from computers, phones and the humdrum of modern life. You’ll find yourself reluctant to leave and determined to return again soon.
If the dolphins, fish and turtles are all it takes to get you in the water, then the Stockton Sand Dunes in Anna Bay are definitely the most captivating reason to keep above it. Not only huge and majestic, but hugely fun too! The dunes appear to stretch on forever with 32km of yellow sand drifts that are at least 30 metres high and one kilometre wide (back to front). Looking more like the Sahara than coastal Australia, the monstrous dunes beg you to explore them on two wheels (dirt bike), four wheels (quad) or even four legs (horse).
What better way to experience the Southern Hemisphere’s largest moving sand mass than with an exhilarating quad bike tour with Sand Dune Safaris 4WD Tours? Follow experienced guides on an exhilarating 90-minute adventure as you ride to the largest visible shipwreck on the east coast of Australia, “the Synga”. Pounded and carried to its present resting location by one of the worst storms in Australian history, the Synga can be found without a guide, but it is recommended to take the tour.
Another way to experience the dunes is with the ultimate buzz of sandboarding, a popular sport that will have you angled at a dizzying 60 degrees on slopes reading as high as 40 metres. Just be prepared for burning thighs as you walk back to the top!
While not every holiday is blessed with the ultimate beach weather, the seaside can be just as wonderful in winter. Windswept and wild, the brooding beauty of Port Stephens offers a stark contrast to its vivacious summer mask but provides the ideal lighting for capturing the moods of the landscape on camera. Take a drive into Wallingat National Park where the magnificent view of the park’s eucalypt forests and 100km of coastline will have your camera full before you can say Woota Woota Lookout; one of the best, natural viewing platforms on the mid-north coast.
Winter winds or summer sun, it’s all about getting outside, exploring both old and new places and experiencing spaces in a different light. Connected by scenic drives, the place and spaces of the Great Lakes will take you right through the heart of the coast, lakes and hinterland. The Lakesway Drive winds its way beside the Myall, Smiths and Wallis Lakes for at least 80km, taking you through the Pacific Palms, national parks and the turn off for Seal Rocks, Coomba and Hallidays Point. With its spectacular scenery, there are numerous unique locations, lookouts and picnic areas to enjoy. Give yourself a day, whether heading north or south, this drive will leave you with some great road-trip memories.
Considered to be Australia’s dolphin capital with more than 200 dolphins calling the marine utopia home, there is a lively trade in dolphin (and whale, when in season) watching tours. For a simple one and half hour mosey around the Bay, with likely sightings, Moonshadow Cruises offers a Dolphin Cruise with an optional buffet lunch that departs from Nelson Marina at 10.30am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm daily. If the temperature is ideal, cool off in the huge boom net as it lowers you into the water at the stern and watch for dolphins chasing the vessel.
Before packing your suitcase and heading home, you can’t leave without gazing up into the grandis flooded gum, the tallest tree known in NSW that has survived so much. Set among the lush coastal forests on the western edge of the Myall Lakes National Park is a breathtaking introduction to the natural wonders of this beautiful park. Only a 10 kilometre drive along The Lakes Way before turning left onto Stoney Creek Road, you can find all 85 metres of the 400 year old eucalypt grandis; and if you’re feeling peckish then be sure take a picnic basket of gourmet goodies gathered from local roadside stalls along your way.