Port Macquarie is famous for its beautiful coastline, year-round sunshine and waterfront accommodation, though locals know there’s more to this well-loved holiday spot than surf, sand and sun. If you can bear to turn your back on those wave-washed curves, you’ll discover that some of the seaside town’s best bits are beyond the beach.
Practically all roads lead to water in Port (if you want to sound like a local, drop the Macquarie) but there aren’t many towns on NSW’s Mid North Coast where you can walk for three hours, beach to beach, with barely a building in sight.
Five golden-sand strips are linked by wooden walkways over rocky headlands; the pathway starts at Lighthouse Beach and finishes at Town Beach. Here, you can stroll along the breakwall to the grassy park known as Town Green at the mouth of the Hastings River. Do it in the afternoon so you can time your arrival at The Beach House bar and diner for a cold beer or cocktail at an outdoor table as you watch the sun sink into the river.
Town Green is Port’s heart and soul. It’s where everyone eats their fish and chips, families dangle lines from the wharf and kids ride scooters and chase seagulls. It’s almost mandatory to lick ice-cream while perusing the breakwall graffiti.
Billabong Zoo is another popular attraction with more than 80 species of exotic and Australian wildlife. Also worth a visit is the Koala Hospital, where volunteers care for up to 250 sick and injured koalas each year. Wander the grounds and check out the marsupials in its care or join the free tour at 3pm.
Hire a car and head into the hills. Twenty kilometres west is Wauchope, a former tough-as-nails timber town that is emerging as a retail and food mecca. The old-fashioned Hastings Co-op Department Store – which sells everything from furniture and cosmetics to lingerie – is a one-stop shopping destination.
There’s also a growing number of good boutiques: Three Little Birds (02 6585 1994) and Elements of Design (02 6586 0900), both on High Street, stock a carefully curated range of fashion and homewares. The real reason to come to Wauchope, though, is the antique and second-hand shops. You can spend hours fossicking through the charity stores on Cameron Street for retro kitchenware and household items.
If it’s the fourth Saturday of the month, make your way to Wauchope Farmers Market, particularly if you’re self-catering. Seek out Comboyne Culture’s washed rind cheese, Ewetopia sheep’s yoghurt and Ricardoes strawberries and tomatoes, which taste the way they should. If you miss the market, you can buy directly from Ricardoes, only a 10-minute trip north of Port Macquarie – Cafe Red, inside the shed, serves diet-destroying homemade scones smothered in jam made from their own fruit.
Drive about an hour south-west to Comboyne. Nearby is Boorganna Nature Reserve, one of the few places you can see rare stands of old-growth cedar. The five-kilometre walk to the plunge pool beneath Rawson Falls takes two to three hours return.
Detour to Laurieton on the way back to Port. The beaches in and around this coastal town are usually deserted and the views from the top of North Brother Mountain are worth a look. The Fishermen’s Co-op, in Mill Street, invariably has a queue of hungry locals out the front; the Art Deco cinema shows art-house movies – Baz Luhrmann’s father was a projectionist here – and Armstrong Oysters sells fat, creamy oysters from a riverside shed. Ocean Drive hugs the coast for the entire 40-kilometre drive back to Port.
There’s no shortage of fish-and-chip shops in town but the one to visit is Macquarie Seafoods (02 6583 8476) on Clarence Street. While service can be a bit abrupt at times, the fish is fresh and you can opt for grilled rather than fried if that’s your thing. Take it away and find a shady spot with a water view at Town Green.
If you can’t start your day without a decent cup of coffee, forgo the waterfront cafés and stop in at Social Grounds (0423 240 635) opposite the Growers Market on Gordon Street (the road that links to the highway). There’s no view or fancy fit-out but the coffee is worth the trek. If that’s too far to go on an empty stomach, Casualties Espresso, in the old ambulance station on Clarence Street, and The Corner Restaurant are both good choices in the heart of town for breakfast, brunch or a light lunch. The Corner is also a pleasant spot for dinner, even though the prices go more upmarket after dark.
It might sound touristy but there’s nothing tacky about a plateful of fresh oysters slurped on the floating pontoon of The Big Oyster Seafood & Cafe (02 6584 3803), especially if they’re washed down with a BYO bottle or two of the local Wicked Elf Pale Ale.
For a cheap and cheerful lunch (or dinner) with a million-dollar view, you can’t go past the aforementioned Beach House on the edge of Town Green. It’s pretty simple pub grub – sliders, salads, schnitzels and steaks – but there’s nothing between you and the water except a few promenading pelicans. Be warned: it can be a hard place to leave when the sun is shining.
Ten years ago, Innes Lake estate was situated on the rural edge of town; now it’s encircled by suburban backyards. Lunching on veal paupiettes or a Provençal tart beneath the jacaranda at the winery’s Little Fish Café & Vineyard, it’s easy to pretend you’re in France – until the kookaburras laugh.
Craving good Italian pizza? The Quattro Formaggio (four cheeses), classic Margherita and Calabrese at Bar Florian are a cut above the average – and the Sinful Chocolate Pizza with Nutella, white chocolate, hazelnuts and strawberries is reason enough to go. The wine list is solid, too.
Port Macquarie Breakwall Holiday Park, between Town Beach and the river, has one of the best locations in town. If you’re not up for camping, the self-contained cabins – while in need of a revamp – are great value for families or those wanting something a bit bigger than a hotel room. Most have balconies with water views. Alternatively, check online for good deals at Waters Edge, which offers no-frills riverside motel rooms that are clean and comfortable.
From the outside, El Paso Motor Inn is your quintessential mid-20th-century motel. In summer, Macquarie Waters Boutique Apartment Hotel is home to one of the country’s only “dive-in” movie theatres (where you can watch a film from the pool). Another hotel with a view, Rydges Port Macquarie is in a top spot at Town Green. Sister property Sails Resort Port Macquarie by Rydges is a short walk from the centre of town and it’s your best bet if quality pool time is high on your holiday wish list.
Almost all of the hotel rooms and apartments at The Observatory – Port’s most luxurious accommodation – have ocean views. At Sandcastle Apartments, stay during winter and you’ll not only pick up a good deal but you may even see a whale from your balcony. ￼
This article was originally published in 2016 and has been updated.