By Roger ALLNUTT
Only 160km north of Sydney Port Stephens is a large natural harbour over twice the size of Sydney Harbour. It was named by Captain James Cook in 1770 after Sir Philip Stephens, the then Secretary to the Admiralty. Although it has some areas of deep water it never developed as a major port and in addition the surrounding land is of relatively poor agricultural potential. The Port Stephens – Great Lakes Marine Park covers 97,000 hectares of coastal waters, estuary, lakes and river systems.
Its proximity to Newcastle has made it a popular recreation and holiday area and with improved road access in the past 20 years or so is now developing as a burgeoning retirement community. The entrance to the harbour is between two headlands and the walk to the top of the southern Tomaree Head (171m high) is rewarded by dramatic 360 degree panoramas along the rugged coastline, over the Tasman Sea and to the many beaches both outside and inside the harbour.
A number of headlands extend into the harbour especially on the southern rim and these are now largely residential areas. On the north shore the small towns of Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest (well known as the summer holiday spot of former PM John Howard) can be reached either by a longish road drive or a short ferry crossing from the main town of Nelson Bay.
Port Stephens is noted for its water based activities ranging from cruises outside the heads on the Tasman Sea, scuba diving, snorkelling, surfing, kayaking, parasailing or for those wanting something a little lower-key you can just have a relaxing swim or leisurely cast a rod.
I joined Moonshadow’s Humpback whale watching cruise on the MV Spirit of Port Stephens – the season extends from around June to October as these magnificent creatures move north to Hervey Bay to give birth and then return to their Antarctic headquarters. Fortunately it was a calm day and the cruise ship progressed smoothly out to sea chasing a small group of whales that had been reported moving along the coast. The ship was full and sure enough we caught up with two or three (it is hard to judge how many you see) and the guests reacted excitedly when a mother whale breached within good viewing distance to the ship. Other breaches followed.
On the way back inside the harbour a small pod of dolphins entertained with a trademark display of leaps close to the bow of the ship. Cruises where you can swim with the dolphins are also popular especially in the summer months.
I was surprised by the number of Asian guests on the sand safari to the sand dunes and sandboarding near Anna Bay at the top end of Stockton Beach. Many visitors from South Korea and Singapore descend on Port Stephens 4WD tours often directly from Mascot. I was told that the excitement of sandboarding down the 60 degree slopes at Anna Bay is better known in Asia than in Australia.
Stockton Beach extends for about 30km down the coast from Anna Bay to the Hunter River. The sand dunes which are the largest mobile sand mass in the Southern Hemisphere are well back from the sea with fresh water pools forming a barrier to the dunes. The land is the traditional land of the Worimi people and there are reminders of the past with Aboriginal middens, skeletal remains of shipwrecks, whale bones, and World War Two tank fortifications. When I visited many years ago people used to collect large buckets of pipis from the sand at the water’s edge but this has been prohibited for some years.
Sightings of some of the estimated 100 bottlenose dolphins in the harbour are regularly made from the ferry link on MV Wallamba from Nelson Bay to Tea Gardens. It’s about an hour for the crossing which ends a short distance up the Myall River. Many people take the trip to spend time walking along the promenade at Tea Gardens. There are many excellent restaurants and cafes to have lunch at., Watch out for the pelicans eyeing off the fishermen for tasty titbits and even walk across the bridge to Hawks Nest and look for koalas at the Jean Shaw Koala Reserve.
My favourite beach is Shoal Bay just inside the Tomaree headland. The long sheltered and safe sandy stretch is great for walking. At the other end the lighthouse is worth visiting for more great views. You can visit the Marine Rescue station and hear about the work of volunteers monitoring and maintaining the safety of seafarers. The café there is a place for a relaxing snack.
There is a vast choice of accommodation at Port Stephens with numerous resorts, hotels, motels and caravan parks to choose from. I enjoy staying at apartments and stayed at the Wyndham property at Ramada Resort. It is beautifully situated at Shoal Bay with the sun streaming in through the balcony window. The BBQ allowed us to grill some juicy swordfish steaks straight from the fishermen coop places (choice of two) at the waterfront at Nelson Bay. Most of the selection was fresh and locally sourced straight off the trawlers.
There are many other attractions in the Port Stephens area catering to all the family. You can go horseback riding including safaris on the sand. Apart from the climb up Tomaree Head there are many more walking and cycling trails for the fit and active.
Williamtown Airforce Base in located about half way to Newcastle and next to the airport. Fighter World next to the entrance to RAAF Williamtown is dedicated to preserving Australia’s fighter aircraft aviation heritage. You can sit in a real jet fighter and watch the action of an operational air force base. While in the area fighters often scream overhead carrying out training exercises; there always seem to be two following slightly later by another one.
There are craft breweries and wineries and the local produce is worth seeking out. While I was there avocados were in season so I stocked up.
Port Stephens is a perfect base to explore a bit further afield. Newcastle is only 45km away by road and has many attractions. Maitland is similarly placed (the historic gaol at East Maitland is worth a visit) and of course the many vineyards of the Hunter Valley are great for picking up some wine or indulging in a gourmet meal at one of the many restaurants.
For me a highlight was a visit to the magnificent Hunter Valley Gardens at Pokolbin, ten different gardens with varying highlights throughout the year. If you are there on 8 October don’t miss Opera in the Vineyard.
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