The area of Port Stephens is about 3 hours drive away from Sydney. The major town in the area is Nelson Bay, and that is where we chose to base ourselves for a long weekend. Other choices included Anna Bay, Tea Gardens, Shoal Bay and the poetically named Lemon Tree Passage, but Nelson Bay offered the most accommodation options. We drove up late on a Saturday morning, and once we got away from the city, the drive was easy and relaxing.
When we travel, we like to have the option of cooking our own meals – it’s a way of keeping costs down and a good excuse to explore the produce aisles of the local markets, wherever we are. Of course, it also depends on how much time we have, and how packed our itinerary is, but a 3-day weekend in Nelson Bay with nothing to do but swim, watch out for dolphins, dive and kayak sounded ideal for also cooking our own food.
We chose to stay at the Nelson Resort, which has the bones of an 80s drive through motel but has clearly had some work done in recent years. All the rooms have been refurbished, and are modern, clean and comfortable. There is a heated pool, iPod docks in each room, flatscreen tvs and an outdoor barbecue set for guest usage. We booked a standard family room, which came with a kitchenette equipped enough for hot pasta meals and big fry up breakfasts. Service was warm, friendly and helpful and the location very central.
Our first day there was spent walking around the tiny town centre and taking a wander down to the marina. Families were out and about, tourists were boarding and disembarking dolphin/whale watching cruises, and buskers played along the waterfront. We bought some fish and chips and just chilled out, enjoying the atmosphere. On our walk to the end of the marina, we encountered pelicans, coming home to roost after a day’s fishing. They were regally preening, cleaning their feathers, or simply snoozing. I’d never been so close to one before and hadn’t realised what big birds they were!
We did some grocery shopping at the local Coles, stocking up breakfast provisions for the next day, then headed for dinner at Il Porto Trattoria. We felt like some basic, simple Italian fare and this establishment seemed to be the only Italian in town. If we’d done our research we would have gone elsewhere – as you should too, if you are thinking of dining out at Nelson Bay. The food was average, the prices steep, the atmosphere kitsch and very worn. The restaurant is currently rated #32 out of #33 on Tripadvisor.
The next day we went on a dolphin cruise with Moonshadow. The crowds tend to build up quite quickly and by the time we got to the loading dock there was already a queue. We were lucky to snag the last few seats on the top deck – due to safety reasons, the area is limited to a maximum amount of passengers.
We cruised to three different spots within Port Stephens (the bay is 3 times the size of Sydney’s harbour) before we finally spotted the dolphins. They were quite difficult to spot from far off, being so fast and so much smaller than whales, but there they were, breaking the water with their dorsal fins and when the pod spotted the boat, they swam towards us, much to everyone’s delight.
The cruises have a high rate of dolphin spotting, and offer a free return cruise if you don’t see them on a trip out. Given that the bottlenose dolphins of Port Stephens are locals, unlike the migratory whales that visit during specific seasons, chances are pretty good that you’ll see a dolphin or two while you’re in Port Stephens.
In the afternoon, we drove down to Birubi Beach, which is on Worimi Conservation Lands where the giant sand dunes of Stockton Bight crest towards the foaming waters of the Beach. 4WDs are tiny specks in the golden landscape, and a camel train casts long shadows. On the southern end of Stockton Beach lies the Sygna, a rusting hulk of a ship that ran aground in 1974. We spent some time walking along the coast, then headed back to Nelson Bay for dinner.
Determined not to repeat the previous night’s mistake, we went to Fishermen’s Wharf Seafoods, a local co-op selling incredibly fresh, just caught fish, crabs, lobster, prawns and oyster. There are also pre-marinaded swordfish steaks, squid rings, sauces of all kinds and drinks – everything you need for a seafood feast. If you purchase fresh seafood from here, you are given a free fish n’ chips meal from Bub’s, next door. We loaded up on stuffed crayfish, fish, oysters, and prawns, then trundled our treasure back to the poolside barbecue for a dinner that far surpassed the previous night’s.
On our last day at Port Stephens we were supposed to have gone diving at the Looking Glass with Feet First. However, the day before we’d gotten a voice message informing us that the dive had been cancelled, without any reasons provided. If you decide to dive at Port Stephens, book with Let’s Go Adventures instead – they were friendly and helpful when we visited their dive shop down at the marina later on in the day. They even gave us a discount on our logbook purchases.
Port Stephens is an excellent little weekend getaway from Sydney – the waters are as blue as they promise, and there are plenty of activities to do such as dolphin watching year round, whale watching during the migratory season, kayaking, bushwalking, sandboard, diving or snorkelling, and relaxing in the towns around the area. A visitor’s guide, written by the local tourism industry, is available for download here.
Disclaimer: I have not been paid in cash or in kind by any of the companies or service providers for my opinions about their products as expressed in this post.