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 hippie Byron Bay vibe. Roughly halfway between the Gold Coast and Sydney, Port Macquarie is only an hour’s flight from the latter, making it the perfect weekend escape for thrill-seekers with one thing on their mind: food. There are several craft breweries (try Black Duck Brewery or Moorebeer), a handful of wineries, a hatted restaurant and a small Italian wine bar.
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 care-free vibe about her, as if she’s been crashing with mates in Byron Bay.
Where to stay
Mantra The Observatory, opposite Town Beach, is 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.
Where to eat
Drury Lane Eatery
Don’t be fooled by the humble exterior at Drury Lane Eatery. The hearty, rustic dishes, with vegetable sides, muscle their way into the limelight and the commitment to local produce runs deep.
The Stunned Mullet
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 31 pages long!), curated by co-owner Lou Perri. The signature dish is Glacier 51 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 cabbage, daikon and a black-rice wafer.
Bills Fishhouse + Bar
For something casual, try Bills Fishhouse + Bar. The main event is the huge barbecued prawns – all smoky, scorched goodness – served with soya beans and chilli butter.
For a nightcap 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.
Things to do
Visit local koalas
Between meals, make sure you get to the Koala Hospital, a five-minute drive from the town. Staffed primarily by volunteers, the facility rescues an average of 250 koalas a year; most are returned to the wild but if it’s not possible, they spend their days in the hospital’s treetops. Make sure to pre-book your visit online.
Drive to Coffs Harbour
For the chance to spot some whales at the Solitary Islands Marine Park, or to immerse yourself in nostalgia with a visit to the Big Banana Fun Park, plan a day trip – or extend your holiday – to Coffs Harbour, less than two hours away by car.