A family weekend in Port Stephens proves to be a step back in time, in the best way possible.
An easy two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Sydney, Port Stephens offers a harbour twice the size of Sydney’s, the largest sand dunes in the southern hemisphere and a plethora of beaches, waterways and national parks. It has long been a popular destination for family holidaymakers, and deservedly so – it’s impossible for kids to be bored here. Unlike many other beach-vacation destinations, where constant activity and sun-hungry hordes can mar that relaxed feeling, there are still spaces in Port Stephens that take you straight back to the beach holidays of yesteryear.
Walking along the deserted beaches around Port Stephens delivers a hefty dose of nostalgia for parents and a chance at discovery for children. There are whalebone graveyards here and no shortage of shells and rocks to pitch at the water. Set up the beach umbrella on sands where only locals and the odd tourist meander. And back in town, you’ll be relieved to know that the trip down memory lane doesn’t extend to drinking the kind of coffee one would have expected in 1990….
Where to eat
Breakfast: The Little Nel Cafe
This relaxed verandah café is a local favourite for its excellent locally-roasted coffee, kid-friendly attitude and a menu that covers the gamut of breakfast needs from French Champagne to superfood smoothies. Gluten- and dairy-free options are available as well as a dedicated kids’ menu. For a spicy kick to start your day try the sambal chilli scrambled eggs, whisked with sriaracha, green papaya and crushed cashews.
Lunch: Cookabarra Restaurant at Tailor Made Fish Farm
If you’ve ever ordered barramundi in Sydney, chances are it came from the Tailor Made fish farms. While you could simply enjoy a delightful meal of some of the freshest fish you may ever eat on the peaceful verandah here, we recommend taking time to tour the commercial fish farm.
Dinner: Little Beach Boathouse
Perched above the water on Little Beach, Little Beach Boathouse is exactly how a beachside restaurant should be. The service is charming, the menu is proudly local and if you get really lucky you might see a pod of dolphins splashing in the harbour out front. Try the Port Stephens Rock Oysters caught in Salamander Bay, and the twice-cooked pork belly for a porcine feast.
Things to do
Slide the dunes
Take a 4WD up to the top of the largest moving sand dunes in the southern hemisphere and marvel at just how peaceful it is to be surrounded by sand on all sides. Next step: slide down the dunes on a piece of perspex no bigger than a snowboard. Suitable for all ages and types; our group included a buck’s crew, honeymooners and a family with four-year-old child.
Ride the camels
Rumour has it they spit and don’t like to be touched, but Brian of Oakfield Ranch will convince you they are merely misunderstood as he guides you on to the back of a camel for a ride along the sand. Peaceful and ambling with a captivating view, you will love it.
Amble the beaches
There are so many beaches around Port Stephens: surf beaches, family-friendly beaches and secret beaches. Try Wreck Beach or Zenith Beach for a solitary experience; the beach at Anna Bay in front of the dunes is busier but also lovely. Around Shoal Bay the waters are placid and kid-friendly.
Where to stay
Ramada Resort by Wyndham Shoal Bay
If your intention is to swim in the beautiful waters of Shoal Bay, beach-comb the sands or hike up to beautiful Tomaree Head Summit, the Ramada Shoal Bay is the perfect spot to stay. It also works if you just want to sit on a balcony and watch the waves roll in. The Ramada offers studio-style hotel rooms through to fully functional apartments suitable for large families.