Tuck into local oysters and craft beer, ride through the dunes, and unearth Mad Max sets on the coast.
Daryl Braithwaite-style horse riding on the beach, sand-boarding at breakneck speed down enormous dunes, boating alongside breaching whales — you can pack this all into one weekend. Port Stephens is only two-and-a-half hours' drive north of Sydney, yet feels like some exotic, faraway, nature adventurer's dreamscape.
The 1000 square-kilometre bay, its entrance marked by spectacular Tomaree Head, is twice the size of Sydney Harbour. There are 26 beaches, as well as numerous waterfront villages, where menus are crowded with just-caught fish, local oysters and Hunter Valley wines. Whether you're contemplating a stop on the Legendary Pacific Coast drive or an easy weekender from Sydney, here's your guide to the best of Port Stephens.
Every local you meet will ask if you've topped Tomaree Head Summit yet. The 45-minute walk is steep, but rewards you with epic views, taking in local islands, and seemingly endless coastline. Another heart-pumping way to get your bearings is a Port Stephens Mountain Bike Adventure with Michael Shaw. He'll organise a route to suit your ability, whether you want to take it slow on waterfront shared paths or conquer Tomaree National Park's single trails.
Next up, it's time to brave the water. There are more whale sightings from Port Stephens than anywhere else on Australia's East Coast, so jump aboard a cruise with eco-warriors Imagine. Their Envision fast cat holds just 18 people, so it feels more like a private adventure than a touristy experience. You can also whale watch from the shore in Port Stephens, check Wild About Whales for the best vantage points. In between chasing breaching humpbacks, sneaking up on Australia's northernmost fur seal colony and finding dolphins, the skipper will take you close to Cabbage Tree and Boondelbah Islands, the only nesting sites in the world for the threatened Gould's petrel. Go at sunset if you can — the views on the return journey are magical.
On the surf side of Port Stephens' southern peninsula, some hair-raising escapades are to be had at Stockton. Been hankering for a horse ride ever since you read Black Beauty? Book a beach adventure with Sahara Trails. If you're a beginner (or scared), your guide will stick to a casual stroll. Alternatively, try some trotting or even a canter through the surf.
Behind the beach are the Stockton Sand Dunes — the biggest dunes in the entire Southern Hemisphere. Meet Anna from Sand Dune Safaris in the car park, strap yourself into her 4WD and, as soon as the surf is out of sight, you'll feel as though you're exploring some remote desert. Sand boarding involves sitting or standing on a plastic board and sliding down super steep slopes — guaranteed to be the most fun you've had since you threw yourself down a grassy hillside as a kid. Extend your safari with a 25-minute drive over the sand to Tin City, which you might recognise from Mad Max (1979). This 11-shack, inhabited village, started in the late 1800s and expanded during the Great Depression, is off-the-grid. We're talking no power, no water and no sewage.
Little Beach Boathouse.
EAT AND DRINK
The quintessential Port Stephens feed is a long lunch at Little Beach Boathouse, overlooking Little Beach, Nelson Bay. Watch local pelicans glide and soar, as you tuck into local oysters with lychee and white soy granita, or miso glazed salmon with wombok and cashew salad, matched with Keith Tulloch Semillon. The Boathouse folks also own Sandpiper's Restaurant, found in town. Here, award-winning chef Luke Cameron whips up all kinds of seafoody wonders, from scallop arancini with crisp pancetta and truffle parmesan aioli to sizzling garlic and paprika prawn hot pots.
For the ultimate sunset drink setting, make tracks to The Point Restaurant, Soldiers Point. You'll be tempted to stay on for dinner, starting with one of the best laksas you'll find outside of Singapore, followed by market fish with potato fondant, leek cream sauce and broccolini.
Murray's Craft Brewing Co.
Come breakfast, hit Little Nel Cafe. This local favourite has a cosy indoor space and a sunny outdoor terrace. The coffee beans come from cult Newcastle roasters Suspension, while the extensive brekkie and lunch menus are packed with fresh, local ingredients. Try the garlic mushies with baby spinach, creamy fetta, basil pesto and artisanal sourdough, or the Italian-style doughnut packed with Nutella. Meanwhile, for a dash of history and an old-school Devonshire tea with panoramic views, swing by the Inner Light Tea Rooms.
On nearly every drinks list you meet, you'll notice Murray's craft beers. Opened in 2006, this quirky brewery has won much love in Port Stephens and further afield. Staples like Whale Ale and Moon Boy Golden Ale have well and truly displaced mainstream beers, and, nearly every week, a new, left-of-field drop emerges. Past hits have included passionfruit white beer, Easter Egg beer and pumpkin ale. Drop into Murray's HQ for tastings, lunch and a brewery tour, held 2.15pm daily.
The Anchorage Port Stephens is as waterfront as it gets. Nearly every suite comes with its own, north-facing balcony or terrace, giving you dreamy views of the bay, foregrounded by the Anchorage Marina and backdropped by Corrie Island. The spacious interiors take their inspiration from The Hamptons. Think crisp, white linen and pale timber furnishings, splashed with blues and oranges. There's a variety of rooms on offer, from anchorage rooms to one- and two-bedroom loft suites to villas.
The pool's right on the water, too, and comes with a dedicated Veuve Clicquot bar, letting you sip between dips. But, for a serious wind down, book yourself a signature 'Effective Touch' massage in the day spa. Get there an hour early to kick back in the jacuzzi and sauna.
Breakfast is served in the form of an Olympian-sized buffet in the Anchorage's poolside Kitchen Galley. Say yes to eggs-cooked-to-order and the house-made bread and butter pudding. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, too.
Jasmine Crittenden travelled to Port Stephens as a guest of Visit NSW.