Forget the sleepy town where you spent the summers of your youth because you’re not the only one who’s grown up since then. Today’s Port Macquarie is full of surprises – not least the hyper-local dining scene and bohemian Byron Bay vibe. By Emma Mulholland.
Could this be the perfect Sunday morning? As the sun comes up, I wander along a part of Port Macquarie’s nine-kilometre Coastal Walk, a meandering trail that takes in eight of the town’s 17 postcard-perfect beaches. Then I head back to Town Beach and take a quick dip before perching myself on the wooden deck at beachside café Salty Crew Kiosk, with a coffee and smoothie bowl in hand. In the distance, a yoga class stretches by the sand, while children splash in the gentle waves. Then I feel a little smug because, yes, I’ve found paradise.
“It’s like Summer Bay,” one local tells me, referring to the coastal town in Home and Away. He’d be right if we were talking about Port Macquarie circa 1990 – back when “Port”, as it’s locally known, was a sleepy town on every suburban family’s holiday radar. But to a blow-in like me, it seems like an unfair comparison: she’s like Summer Bay’s cooler, cosmopolitan big sister, with a bohemian vibe about her, as if she’s been crashing with mates in Byron Bay.
There are not one but two craft breweries, a handful of wineries, a food festival that draws celebrity chefs, a hatted restaurant and a small Italian wine bar. Recent stats show many visitors today aren’t families looking to get away from it all; they’re young couples looking for a good time. Roughly halfway between the Gold Coast and Sydney, Port is only an hour’s flight from the latter, which makes it the perfect weekend escape for thrill-seekers with one thing on their mind: food.
The Observatory, opposite Town Beach, is one of Australia’s very few carbon-neutral hotels. It offsets emissions by purchasing carbon credits and has 234 solar panels on the roof, plus eco-friendly amenities and a rainwater tank to help refill the heated lap pool and spa. But it’s no hippy hangout: the impressive green credentials would be lost on the uninitiated because, to a passer-by, it simply looks like a modern, surfside hotel, with sprawling balconies and sweeping ocean views. Choose from two penthouses, hotel rooms or one-, two- and three-bedroom self-catering suites. The café downstairs, Milkbar Town Beach, is a favourite detour for locals doing the Coastal Walk. The hotel is about a 10-minute stroll from the heart of town but there are a couple of good eateries nearby.
40 William Street; (02) 6586 8000
With a sub-tropical climate, lush hinterland and pristine river system, the Greater Port Macquarie area is the land of milk and honey – well, sheep’s cheese and cabernet sauvignon. Farmers produce everything from berries to avocados, oysters and duck (Burrawong Gaian, a free-range, heritage-breed farm, is behind Sydney chef Kylie Kwong’s lauded Peking duck). The community celebrates its bounty at the annual Tastings on Hastings festival, which includes a market day by the Hastings River. Don’t leave without a kilogram of Ricardoes tomatoes under your arm. Ripened on the vine, they’re sweet, juicy and crying out for some white bread and lashings of butter.
Head to the markets
If you can’t make it to the October event, head to the Foreshore Market. During oyster season (from October to November and April to May), keep an eye out for Port Oyster Company, which sells 52 small Sydney rock oysters for just $20. Second Saturday of each month; 8am to 1pm; Westport Park Buller and Parks streets
Hearty and rustic
For something more substantial, swing by Drury Lane Eatery – and don’t be fooled by the humble exterior. Husband-and-wife team Kate McCarron and Drury Woolnough produce hearty, rustic dishes, with vegetable sides that muscle their way into the limelight (case in point: a salad of charred cauliflower with curry spices, house-made chimichurri and nuts from nearby Lorne Valley Macadamia Farm). The commitment to local produce runs deep: they even offer a barter system, where backyard farmers can trade excess produce for coffee or bread baked in-house. Shop 5, The Garrison, 26 Clarence Street; (02) 6583 6628
Steps from The Observatory is the hatted diner The Stunned Mullet. Forget the name: this sophisticated restaurant has one of the best wine lists in the business (it’s 16 pages long!), curated by co-owner Lou Perri. The signature dish is Patagonian toothfish, a sustainably caught species from Antarctica’s Heard Island, found about two kilometres below sea level. It’s served in a shiitake broth with zucchini, dill and a black-rice wafer. 24 William Street; (02) 65847757
For something casual, try Bills Fishhouse + Bar, a new restaurant by the couple behind Salty Crew Kiosk. Here, the main event is the huge barbecued prawns – all smoky, scorched goodness – served with soya beans and chilli butter. 2/18-20 Clarence Street; (02) 6584 7228
For a night-cap or a glass of wine and some pizza, stop in at Bar Florian, a small Italian wine and cocktail offering, which does a mean Tuscan Mule. A riff on the classic Moscow blend, with a splash of Tuaca – an Italian brandy liqueur with orange and vanilla flavours – it nods to owners Gino and Marree Cunial’s Italian heritage. 6-14 Clarence Street
Visit local koalas
Between meals, make sure you get to the Koala Hospital, a five-minute drive from the town. Staffed by mainly volunteers, the facility rescues up to 300 koalas a year; most are returned to the wild but if it’s not possible, they spend their days in the hospital’s treetops. Entry is free and if you come at 3pm, you’ll get a tour. Corner Roto Place and Lord Street; (02) 6584 1522
Oyster and wine trail
Though there are 28 oyster farms on the Hastings River, getting shucked ones isn’t easy: farms tend to be all business. If you’re keen to visit one, your best bet is to book a half-day Divine Trio tour with Frankie’s Travel, which runs on Fridays but Saturdays can be arranged. After the oyster farm, there’s wine tasting and a behind-the-scenes tour of a craft brewery. Port Macquarie farmers grow the Sydney rock oyster, a labour-intensive species that takes three years to reach maturity (their Pacific cousins take just 18 months). The reward is the lingering aftertaste. Like Port itself, some good things are worth the wait.
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