Port Stephens is one of my absolute favourite destinations for a getaway from Sydney. There are so many things to do in Port Stephens, and so much to see that you find something new each time you visit.
For a while, a friend of mine lived in Anna Bay, writing a book in his beach house. And each time I visited, I explored a different corner of the harbour. I’ve put together this guide to help you plan your Port Stephens adventure.
Getting oriented in Port Stephens
Port Stephens is a huge natural harbour. At 134 square kilometres, it’s almost three times as big as Sydney Harbour and for a nature buff, it is three times as beautiful.
The Harbour is made up of strings of beautiful bays. On the south side, you have the low-key Anna Bay and Fisherman’s Bay, the upmarket Fingal Bay, Shoal Bay, the buzzing Nelson Bay and down-to-business Salamander Bay.
And on the north side, there are the laid-back Hawks Nest, Tea Gardens and North Arm Cove. A ferry trip to Tea Gardens from Nelson Bay is a fun and inexpensive thing to do in Port Stephens.
About 150 bottlenose dolphins live in Port Stephens harbour and more than 30,000 Humpback whales cruise past it on their epic migration twice a year. The view from the summit of Mt Tomaree is an idyllic dream and the beaches are out of this world, all 26 of them.
Where to stay at Port Stephens
When it comes to beautiful luxury hotels in stunning locations, The Anchorage Hotel & Spa is hard to beat. Located in a secluded spot on Corlette Point waterfront, this beautiful property looks out onto a private marina and the ocean beyond.
The nearby Rick Stein’s fabulous Bannisters at Soldier’s Point is another luxury option and guess what… it has pet-friendly rooms! The ground floor Ocean Deck and Luxury Suite dog-friendly rooms open out onto the garden and offer easy beach access for an afternoon stroll.
If it is a wilderness retreat you are looking for, then check out Wanderers Retreat at One Mile. While it is just a 5-minute walk from the beach, this is not a beach-side property, instead, it is set in 1.2 hectares of rainforest and offers luxury tree-houses and eco-cottages with ultimate privacy.
If you prefer to spend your pennies on adventures rather than on creature comforts, a superb budget option to consider is the Samurai Beach Bungalows, Port Stephens YHA. This secluded Bali-style backpackers retreat is set amongst the tropical rainforest and has a swimming pool and a fully-equipped bush kitchen. Plus, it’s only a 10-minute walk from One Mile Beach.
Post Stephens Beaches
Port Stephens is home to an incredible 26 beaches each more beautiful than the next. There are surf beaches, secluded beaches and then there is 32-km long Stockton Beach!
Zenith Beach, Shoal Bay
Of all the 26 beaches in Port Stephens, Zenith Beach is probably the most picturesque. It took my breath away when I first saw it. Lying at the foot of Mt Tomaree, this little, secluded beach is an incredibly beautiful and tranquil spot. It is sheltered by two headlands so the surf is quite gentle here, perfect for a swim. And the aquamarine-brilliant colour of the water is instantly inviting.
To get to Zenith Beach, take the Zenith Beach loop road off Nelson Bay Rd and park at the top. It is a short walk down to the beach via a very pretty lookout.
Shoal Bay Beach
Shoal Bay Beach is a beautiful, calm, harbour-facing beach that curves 2.5km from Nelson Head to Tomaree Head. The calm waters of the bay make this beach perfect for swimming, kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding. The water is so clear here, that you can see the bottom from your kayak. And to top it all off, the sweeping views of the pristine bay are mesmerizing.
I am entirely biased towards Fingal Beach because I walked along the entire length of this stunning stretch of sand to reach Fingal Spit which was at the top of my things to do in Port Stephens list. The beach is at least a kilometre long, but the patrolled section of it is much smaller.
Most of the length of the beach is actually not great for swimming – the bottom drops off very suddenly and very close to shore. But it is achingly beautiful.
There is, of course, plenty of space for swimming at Fingal Beach and enjoying the stunning view of Fingal Island and Fingal Spit in the distance.
One mile beach, Boat Harbour
One Mile Beach is a little wilder in comparison to bay-facing beaches because of the striking rocky coastline that frames it. It is a popular surf beach but it’s good for swimming. On one of my earlier visits to Port Stephens, I caught some stormy weather and under the apocalyptic sky, One Mile looked truly dramatic.
Stockton Beach, Anna Bay
Stockton Beach is epic even by Australian standards. It stretches for 32 kilometres from Newcastle to Anna Bay and backs onto an equally epic expanse of Stockton sand dunes – the largest moving coastal dunes in the Southern Hemisphere.
Only a small portion of Stockton Beach is patrolled in Anna Bay, the side closest to Birubi Beach. As an ocean-facing beach, Stockton gets decent waves, so it is a good surf beach.
Birubi Beach, Anna Bay (pet-friendly)
Birubi Beach is a patrolled beach that lies adjacent to Stockton Beach and is very similar to its bigger cousin, minus the sand dunes. There is no physical boundary between the two beaches. What’s different about Birubi is that it is a dog-friendly beach, so if you are travelling with a pooch, you can take it for a splash at Birubi.
Little Beach, Nelson Bay
Little Beach is probably the most family-friendly beach in Port Stephens. The beach is small and sheltered and there are plenty of picnic benches and tables on the lawn above the beach.
Local residents often head to the little beach during school holidays when the population of Port Stephens explodes by an order of magnitude. This beach is not well known by the holidaymakers so it stays relatively uncrowded.
Wreck Beach, Shoal Bay
Wreck Beach is a secluded little beach that can be reached by a walking trail through Tomaree National Park. It is the second beach you can see from the top of Mt Tomaree, the one that lies next to Zenith Beach.
If you are visiting Zenith Beach, you can take the Wreck Beach trail from the car park. The beach is 1.5km away along a medium-grade Shoal Bay East trail – there are a lot of hills and rough areas to walk over.
If you don’t fancy the walk, you can access Wreck Beach by a shorter Wreck Beach trail from Verona Road in Shoal Bay. These two trails meet at the intersection with Box Beach trail. From the intersection, you can either turn off to Wreck Beach or continue to Box Beach.
Box Beach, Shoal Bay
Box Beach is another kilometre away from Wreck Beach along Shoal Bay East Trail. It is the third beach you see from the top of Mt Tomaree and it is also the beach you see from Fingal Spit – it’s around a headland from Fingal beach.
Box Beach is a stunning and secluded spot and very much worth the walk. You can cheat, however, and drive almost right to the beach on Box beach road.
Whale and Dolphin Watching
Port Stephens coast is one of the best places to see whales in NSW and its harbour is home to about 150 bottlenose dolphins. So if you enjoy watching marine mammals, Port Stephens is the place to do that.
Whale Watching, Nelson Bay
Humpback whale migration is the most epic wildlife spectacle that takes place along the Australian coastline. More than 30,000 humpback whales cruise past Port Stephens between May and October, first on their way from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to their calving grounds at the Great Barrier Reef, and then on their return migration.
Humpbacks are fascinating animals to watch – they are considered to be the acrobats of the ocean. There aren’t many experiences more awe-inspiring than seeing a 40-ton giant leap out of the water, do a backflip and land with a thundering splash.
The south-bound migration (August to late October) is particularly fun because this is the first migration for the calves that were borne just a few months ago in the Barrier Reef. Mums often teach the youngsters how to breach so you often get duo breaches of mum and her calf.
So if you are in Port Stephens between May and late October, don’t miss your chance to see the whales.
Dolphin Watching, Nelson Bay
As I mentioned in the introduction, Port Stephens is home to about 150 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins and the best way to see them is on a Nelson Bay dolphin cruise. While the whale watching cruises head out to the open ocean, dolphin cruises take you around Port Stephens Harbour.
To find the dolphins the boat cruises between the known feeding spots of the dolphins and once the dolphins are located the boat will stay with them.
Dolphins are obviously wild animals and the encounters happen on their terms. On one trip, we came across a dolphin feeding frenzy just outside the mouth of the port. A huge pod of about 90 dolphins must’ve been chasing a large school of sardines.
On another trip, I encountered dolphins inside the harbour and they were much more relaxed. They rode the bow wave of our boat and stayed around the boat probably out of curiosity. The cruises depart twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon.
Swimming with wild dolphins, Nelson Bay
Want to get even closer to dolphins? Dolphin Swim Australia experience in Port Stephens is the only permitted wild dolphin swim in NSW. This experience does not take place in a net. Instead, you will be attached to a line strung between the bows of a catamaran and pulled through the water with dolphins swimming in front of you. You practically become a part of the pod as you travel with dolphins.
Starting from $329, this is not one of the cheapest experiences in Port Stephens (for comparison, snorkelling with seals in Narooma costs $110), but it is certainly one of the most unique; because you get to swim with wild dolphins and because the tour starts at 5 am! The reason for the early start is that the sea is at its most calm early in the morning.
The harbour of Port Stephens is incredibly beautiful and a good way to explore it, especially in summer is by cruising it’s aquamarine waters.
Fingal Island cruise
Take a cruise across the bay to the beautiful Fingal Island. This is the island that is connected to the bay by Fingal Spit – a sandbar that is only crossable at low tide (see Walk to Fingal Spit below for details). The island has a rich history and fantastic views of Port Stephens coastline.
Once on the island take a guided nature walk and climb to the top of Point Stephens Lighthouse. In the warmer months, go for a swim in a secluded lagoon and in the cooler months, try spotting whales in the surrounding waters.
Catch a ferry to Tea Gardens
For something different, catch a ferry to Tea Gardens on the northern side of the harbour. Tea Gardens is a small town adjacent to the north head of Port Stephens across the harbour from Nelson Bay.
It is believed that Tea Gardens was so named because Chinese immigrants tried growing tea there in about 1860. There are no tea plantations there now, but there are still pockets of 1950s charm – the town has seen very little development since then.
The historic ferry departs Nelson Bay’s public wharf at 11.30 am arriving at Tea Gardens at 12.30 pm. You’ll have two hours in town, enough time to have lunch in a historic pub, check out the galleries and go for a walk along the beach looking back at Nelson Bay. The return ferry departs the Tea Gardens wharf at 2.30m. Ferry tickets must be pre-booked; you can do that here.
Guided kayaking adventure
If you are looking for a kayaking adventure, you could take a guided kayak eco-adventure with Port Stephens Paddlesports.
This adventure will take you further offshore and give you an opportunity to spot dolphins and other Port Stephens wildlife. This tour is advertised as suitable for all skill levels, but keep in mind that it involves paddling long distances and going a fair distance from shore, so being a decent swimmer is a must. The adventure goes for 2.5 hours and costs $60 ($50 for a child 8-14 years).
Explore Broughton Island
If you are visiting in summer (Nov-Apr), and looking for a day of cruising, swimming and exploring you can’t go wrong with Broughton Island National Park Cruise.
About 14km northeast of Port Stephens, Broughton Island has a wild feeling to it. It is a world of beaches, volcanic peaks and windswept vegetation with spectacular views of Port Stephens coastline.
On the island, take a guided tour of wildlife habitat areas, see nesting shearwaters (mutton birds), and secluded beaches and if you have your own snorkelling gear, explore the marine life in the crystal clear waters around the island.
For a longer adventure, you can book a camping spot on the island on the National Parks website and spend the night under the starry sky listening to the hair-raising cries of sheerwaters. And if you don’t have your own camping equipment, Imagine Cruises offer a two-night camping experience on Broughton with all food and equipment provided.
Port Stephens Lookouts
Once you experienced Port Stephens from the water, make sure to see the beautiful harbour from above. Here are the three most beautiful lookouts in Port Stephens.
Get a bird’s eye view from Mt Tomaree
If you want to get jaw-dropping views of Port Stephens coastline, you’ll have to work for it. The Mt Tomaree summit walk is a steep, grade 5 climb to 160 meters above sea level. But trust me, as soon as you see the views, you’ll forget the effort it took to get there.
The skipper of the dolphin cruise boat claimed that this view has been ranked as one of the 10 most beautiful views in Australia. And while I haven’t found any official reference to this claim, on a personal level, I completely agree. The view from the top of Mount Tomaree is mesmerizing. I couldn’t tear myself away. You can find more details in my Guide to Mt Tomaree Summit Walk.
To get to the start of the walk, park at Mt Tomaree car park on Nelson Bay Road and follow the sign to Mt Tomaree Walk (the left-most Track). The walk is 1km each way and takes about 35-40 min on the way up and half that time on the way down. For this, this was the absolute top thing to do in Port Stephens.
Gan Gan Hill Lookout, Nelson Bay
Gan Gan Hill Lookout If you would love to see a bird’s eye view of Port Stephens, but can’t bear the thought of climbing the steep track to Mt Tomaree summit, head to Gan Gan Hill Lookout at the end of Lily Hill road in Nelson Bay. This lookout you can drive right up to.
There are two parts to Gan Gan Hill Lookout: the lower, where the car park is and the upper which can be accessed by a short concrete path. From the lower lookout, you see the green expanse of Tomaree National Park and One Mile, Samurai and Kingsley beaches.
From the upper lookout, you get the sweeping view across Port Stephens all the way to Hawks Nest and beyond, Tomaree and Shark Bay headlands framing the mouth of the port and a birds-eye view of Kurrara Hill, Stephens Peak and Mt Tomaree.
Keep an eye out for White-bellied sea eagles that give this lookout its name, Gan Gan means a white-breasted fish hawk (sea eagle) in the indigenous Gathang language.
Inner Light Tea Rooms, Shoal Bay
The Inner Light Tea Rooms were a superb incidental discovery. It was pointed out to me from the dolphin cruise boat as we were sailing past. The ladies who have been holidaying in Port Stephens for close to 40 years were gushing so enthusiastically about it, that as soon as the boat docked, I called my friend and suggested we meet there for lunch. What a fantastic choice it was.
The cafe sits on top of a hill at the end of Lighthouse Road in Nelson Bay and has achingly beautiful views of Port Stephens, overlooking Shoal Bay Beach and out to Tomaree and Yacaaba Headlands. The food is lovely with plenty of salmon and avocado options (that’s me sold) and gluten-free bread and cakes. You can check the menu here. But that view…. Trust me, you’ll want to see it.
It’s not just us, humans, who enjoy the beautiful environs of Port Stephens. The region is home to a wealth of wildlife species. It’s not all about whales and dolphins – there are plenty of terrestrial wildlife species to spot.
Spot koalas at Hunter Region Botanic Gardens
One of the best places to see some wild animals is the Hunter Region Botanic Gardens at the end of Shoal Bay Road in Shoal Bay. The gardens themselves are quite pretty and there are plenty of things to keep the kids occupied.
But the best thing about it is the wildlife spotting opportunities: you can spot goannas, wallabies, brushtail and ringtail possums, sugar gliders, bats and even a small group of resident koalas in the gardens.
See kangaroos at Nelson Bay Golf Club
Once you’ve seen koalas, why not have a look at a mob of kangaroos at Nelson Bay Golf Club (Dowling Street, Nelson Bay). Almost 100 kangaroos live in the wild on and around the green and their sightings are so reliable that the golf club started running tours to see them. I am not a golfer, so a kangaroo tour is probably the only time I would find myself aboard the golf cart driving through a golf course.
Check whether the golf club is running the tour before heading there. They paused their kangaroo tours since the start of covid. If the tours are running, they leave at dusk and cost $20 (kids under 12 join for free)
See Coastal Birds
For something different to do in Port Stephens, take a trip to Tin City, a shack village secluded among the sand dunes. The sea around Stockton Beach has claimed a fair number of ships over the centuries. In fact, shipwrecks were so common at the start of the century, that the first two shacks in what was to become Tin City were built to provide shelter and provisions for ship-wrecked sailors.
During the great depression of the 1930s, more shacks were constructed in the dunes and Tin City grew to over 36 huts. Some of the shacks were converted to a hospital and ammunition storage during WWII. Miraculously, eleven of these shacks still stand today in what is the last legal squatter settlement in Australia. That’s right, the shacks are occupied despite having no water or electricity supply.
Such is the stark beauty of Tin City that some of the scenes from the 1979 Mad Max cult classic were filmed here. Curious? Then book your Tin City tour with Sand Dune Safaris ($70).
Coastal Walks & Hikes
Walk to the stunning Fingal Spit
Fingal Spit is as beautiful as it is dangerous. Created by two bodies of water crashing together, this sandbar between Fingal Beach and Fingal Island claimed at least 15 lives. The tempting sandbar invites you to walk over it to the island and then disappears under turbulent currents when the tide comes in.
The sand bar used to be a permanent access road to the island, with trees growing along it. But it was washed away by the Maitland Gale storm in 1898. Since then, the sand bar is constantly being built and washed away by the forces of the ocean and the wind.
While walking across the sandbar unaccompanied is Ill-advised, the walk to the sandbar across the stunning Fingal Beach is jaw-droppingly beautiful. To start the walk, park at Fingal Beach car park, walk out onto the beach, look North and you will see the sandbar about 1 km away. The walk is longer than it appears at first and it’s a good workout for your legs.
If I were to rate my experiences in Port Stephens, this stunning walk would probably be my number 2 on the list of things to do in Port Stephens on land.
Anna Bay coastline walk
For some wild coastline vistas, take a walk along the cliff line at Anna Bay. The walk actually starts at Birubi beach and then climbs the headland and follows the coastal cliffs from there. The walk passes through Iris Moore Reserve and keeps heading towards Fisherman’s Bay. It’s an easy walk, with an occasional rock scramble, so you can walk as far as you like and then turn back once you had enough of coastal views. You really don’t need a guide for this walk
It’s a beautiful walk on a sunny day, but it is particularly stunning on a stormy day. One of my visits last year coincided with some stormy weather and the sky above the cliffs at Anna Bay lookout was utterly apocalyptic.
Visit Champagne Spa
Once you had your fill of stunning sandy beaches, head to Boat Harbour to explore its colourful rock pools, including one of the local best-kept secrets – the Champagne Spa. The spa is a rock pool with stunningly blue-green crystal clear water. When the surf washes in, it causes the water to foam and fizzle just like a glass of champagne.
To find the Champagne spa, drive down Blanch Street in Boat Harbour and park at the end of the street. Walk towards the whale watching platform and you will notice an unmarked path to your left running down the rocky slope. Climb down the slope and you’ll see the rock pool.
But be warned, the ‘Champagne Spa’ in Boat Harbour is located on a dangerous rock shelf and unexpected large waves can cause serious injury, which can result in drowning.
So when the surf is rough, take a walk along the clifftops from the car park and admire the view of vividly colourful water washing over honey-coloured rocks from the birds-eye-view perspective.
Watch the sunset on the beach
Everywhere you look in Port Stephens, there is a beach. So you’ll have no trouble finding a stretch of sand near you in the late afternoon to enjoy a sunset on the beach. Another option is to have dinner at one of the beachside restaurants. Some of the best choices are the Little Beach Boathouse in Nelson Bay and the stunning Anchorage in Corlette.
Watch the night sky
The night sky in Port Stephens is spectacular. There aren’t many street lights and hardly any offices that keep their lights on all night, so light pollution is minimal. Once the few thousand residents (well, 69.5 thousand as of 2016) turn in for the night, the place goes dark. One night I couldn’t sleep and walked out onto the back veranda of my friend’s house in Anna Bay and found the sky alight with an incomprehensible amount of stars. You would never see a sight like this in Sydney.
Watch the sunrise over the ocean
Sunrises can be even more striking than sunsets in Port Stephens. So if you are already an early riser, get up at dawn and watch the sunrise on the beach. And the best part is – during the busier times of the year, you can have the beach to yourself that early in the morning. So here is your chance to go for a dip in blissful solitude under a spectacular sky.
Go rock climbing
For the adventurers, there is an option to go rock climbing with Escape Trekking Adventures in Boat Harbour. You don’t have to be a mountaineer to join this tour, beginners are welcome. In fact, the local lady who recommended them to me had never climbed indoors or outdoors and had a fantastic time on the tour.
And when you are in a place as beautiful as Port Stephens, even the beginner-friendly cliffs are stunning locations with a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. And, don’t worry, you will be safely attached to a climbing rope while you are on the cliff. The 3-hour packages start at $120 per person.
Take a scenic flight over Port Stephens
If you can’t go parasailing, you could splurge on a scenic helicopter flight over Port Stephens with AeroLogistics Helicopters. At $449 per person, this is not a cheap adventure, but I am sure it will be one of the most unforgettable ones. I always try to take a helicopter flight at spectacular destinations, but scenic flights do tend to be quite pricey in Australia in comparison to other places.
How to get to Port Stephens
Many people visit Port Stephens as part of their NSW North Coast road trip. Along with the NSW South Coast road trip, this is one of the most scenic drives in Australia.
Port Stephens is approximately a 2.5-hour drive (207km) north of Sydney via M1. It is also possible to reach Port Stephens by public transport, but it will be a longer trip. You can catch a train from Central to Newcastle (approx 2.5hrs) and from New Castle catch 130 bus from Newcastle Interchange all the way to Port Stephens.
How to get around Port Stephens
Most places in Port Stephens are within a 20-minute drive from one another. If you don’t feel like driving, bus 130 connects Anna Bay, Boat Harbour, Salamander Bay, Corlette, Nelson Bay, Shoal Bay and Fingal Bay (check the schedule here). You can even ride this bus all the way to Newcastle and then catch the train to Sydney.
The local taxi service, Nelson Bay taxis services the entire area. The ride from Anna Bay to Nelson Bay is about $30. Ph: 02 4984 6699
Well, this is it from me. I hope this post gave you some useful ideas for things to do in Port Stephens. If you have your own favourite things to do in the area, share your tips in the comments below.
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