This post was updated after my latest visit to Port Stephens in March 2022
Like many Sydneysiders, I’ve been on the lookout for things to do in Port Stephens for years. In fact, my very first getaway from Sydney was a camping adventure in Nelson Bay almost 20 years ago. And one of my most memorable research trips was to survey sea birds on Little Broughton and North Rock islands just outside the mouth of Port Stephens exactly 10 years ago, to the day.
This summer, a friend invited me to visit him in Anna Bay for a few days, and since overseas trips are off the table this year, I channelled all my trip-planning energy into researching all the things to do in Port Stephens. And there is a lot of ground to cover!
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 a string of beautiful bays: Anna Bay, Fisherman’s Bay Fingal Bay, Shoal Bay, Nelson Bay and Salamander Bay on the south side and Hawks Nest, Tea Gardens and North Arm Cove on the north side.
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.
Here is a map of Port Stephens to get oriented.
There is so much to explore in this stunning part of Australia. But, of course, most of us don’t have months to spend on a holiday. So here is the pick of the crop. Based on local knowledge and personal experience, here are the 50 amazing things to do in Port Stephens.
To prevent this post from becoming a multi-volume edition, I will stick to nature-based activities only and leave golf courses and shopping malls for another day.
This is going to be a long post anyway, so if you’d like to jump to a specific part, use the table of contents below.
Concider the animals before engaging in wildlife-based experiences
I will state at the onset that I do not endorse experiences that involve compromising the wellbeing of animals for the sake of tourists’ entertainment. There are a number of experiences offered in Port Stephens that involve keeping animals in captivity and displaying (or downright exploiting) them for ‘educational’ purposes with a hefty price tag.
Sadly, this includes the new Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary that cost $9 million to build and is overwhelmingly focused on the glamping experience rather than on the lived experiences of koalas kept at the sanctuary. This is evident in the contrast between the barren enclosures where the koalas are kept and the luxurious human accommodations next door. I do not question the need for a rescue centre for injured koalas, only the idea of turning it into a money-making enterprise at the expense of the animals. If you would like to see koalas, consider visiting Hunter Botanic Gardens, Tilligerry Habitat or try your koala spotting skills along the roads leading to One Mile Beach and Samurai Beach.
Another disappointing facility is one that houses both: Tinny’s Butterfly House and the Underwater Cafe and The Shart and Ray Rescue Centre (1/686 Marsh Rd, Bobs Farm). If you imagine Costa-Rica-like Butterfly Garden, you will be bitterly disappointed – the Butterfly House is a single room the size of an average bedroom in Sydney with butterflies sitting on the plants provided in the room, as well as on the floor where visitors unwittingly trample over them. The Shark and Ray centre is a collection of industrial-scale barren tanks filled with juvenile animals of various ages.
And there is the very popular camel ride experience at Birubi Beach. Spend some time watching the camels from the viewpoint at Birubi Point above the dunes and make up your own mind whether they are enjoying the experience of carting people around on their backs for hours on end in the exposed heat of the beach.
Things to do in Port Stephens on the water
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. There are three main operators that offer whale watching cruises from Nelson Bay’s d’Albora Marinas: Imagine Cruises, Moonshadow TQC, and Aquamarine Adventures. There are multiple departures throughout the day.
Dolphin Watch, 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 dolphin-watching cruise. While the whale watching cruises head out to the open ocean, dolphin watching 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 this trip (October 2020) 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. The dolphins were visibly excited swimming fast around our boat, jumping out of the water as they raced past.
On a previous trip, I encountered dolphins inside the port and they were much more relaxed. They rode the bow wave of our boat and stayed around the boat probably out of curiosity. There are two main companies that offer dolphin cruises from Nelson Bay’s d’Albora Marinas: Imagine Cruises and Moonshadow TQC. 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.
Keep in mind, that the behaviour of wild dolphins is unpredictable. If the dolphins are relaxed and happy to hang out, you could have a few 5-10 min swims with them. Or, if the dolphins are keen to move on, you may only have a chance to have one short swim with them. If a swim with wild dolphins is at the top of your bucket list, you can book it here.
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.
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), 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.
Hire a kayak or a paddle board
Sea kayaking in Port Stephens is an incredibly tranquil experience. Probably the best beach for kayaking is Shoal Bay beach – it’s is sheltered, the waves are very gentle and the brilliantly coloured water is so clear, you can see the sandy bottom from your kayak. There are even some small fish you can see in the shallows.
If you prefer a paddleboard, you can hire the board at Shoal Bay Beach as well. It would be the perfect place for a beginner, it is that calm. You can hire a single or double kayak or a stand-up paddleboard for $30 at Port Stephens Paddlesports in Shoal Bay.
Guided kayaking adventure
If you would like a more serious 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 hrs and costs $60 ($50 for a child 8-14 years).
Hit the surf
Port Stephens is a well-known surf spot. There are plenty of surfing beaches in the area suitable for both experienced surfers and novices. If you are a complete beginner, there are many established surf schools in the area and stunning locations for your lessons.
The most popular surf spot is Fingal Bay – it faces the Pacific Ocean and gets decent waves. Another popular surf beach is One Mile beach in Boat Harbour. The waves are not as high here, so it is suitable for the less experienced surfers as well.
In Anna Bay, there are ocean-facing Buribi and Stockton beaches that seem to stretch forever. Both beaches are patrolled seven days a week.
The brilliant-blue waters of Port Stephens are part of the protected Port Stephens- Great Lakes Marine Park, which is home to a wealth of marine species from colourful fish to turtles and dolphins. Not surprisingly, snorkelling is pretty good in the area. You can hire snorkelling gear in Nelson Bay and head to nearby Fly Point. This rocky inlet is one of the best snorkelling spots in the area.
Wade in a couple of meters from the shore and you’ll find yourself in some of the most extensive sponge gardens along the east coast of Australia. The gardens attract a wide variety of aquatic invertebrates and fish, including tropical species like butterflyfish, damselfish and lionfish in the warmer months.
Go scuba diving
The crystal clear waters of Port Stephens- Great Lakes Marine Park are fantastic for diving. The main diving areas are off Broughton Island for grey nurse sharks and Fly Point for a variety of marine life. Let’s go Adventures in Nelson Bay offers a range of different dives including shore dives, Broughton island dives, seahorse gardens and a combination of local island diving sites.
You can also learn to dive while on holidays by taking the PADI Open Water Diver course with Let’s go Adventure. Throughout the course, you’ll make at least five pool dives and four dives at local dive sites under the supervision of your PADI Instructor.
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.
Hire a boat
If you are keen to explore the white sandy beaches, do your own personal Dolphin Watch, cruise the stunning coastline at your leisure and spot turtles, penguins, sea eagles and other sea creatures, hire a boat and spend a couple of hours exploring the mesmerizing waters of Port Stephens independently. You don’t even need a boat license.
Places like Nelson Bay Boat Hire have a variety of vessels for hire, from tinnies ($95 for 2hrs) to 25 ft cruisers (experience is essential for the cruiser; $230 for 2hrs).
If you are looking for a luxury experience that captures the spirit of Port Stephens, you can’t go past a sailing adventure. Just imagine sailing through the pristine waters of Port Stephens, exploring the sheltered waterways and secluded beaches on a luxury sailboat with a glass of champagne in hand. Not to mention dolphins, sea turtles and sea birds that you could spot as you sail along.
Port Stephens beaches
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, 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 drop-offs 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 and 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.
Things to do in Port Stephens on land
View Port Stephens sand dunes from Birubi Point
Before you start exploring Port Stephens Sand Dunes, get a birds-eye view of the area from Birubi Point. Park your car at Birubi Point car park and walk over to the viewing platform for a sweeping vista of Stockton beach, Oakfield camel rides base, the undulating sand dunes and the 4WD Track through the dunes.
There are also some information displays that explain the significance of this area to the Worimi people, the Aboriginal landowners of Birubi. You could also grab some breakfast or lunch at the gorgeous Crest cafe next to the viewpoint (more info in the Where to Eat section). Birubi Point is also a great spot for watching sunsets, sunrises and the night sky at Port Stephens.
Walk on Port Stephens sand dunes
There are so many ways to explore the dunes, you could easily spend half a day here. But the simplest and freeway is to go for a walk through the dunes. You could either walk into the dunes from the beach or you could go for a walk alongside the 4WD Track.
The dunes get progressively taller as you walk further south, so you can decide how high a dune you wish to climb. And you’ll probably only want to climb one of the taller dunes – it’s pretty tough going climbing in the sand. If you are heading further into the dunes, keep an eye for any signs.
The area of the dunes is the land of the Worimi people and only parts of it have been set aside for recreational use. Please respect the wishes of the Aboriginal landowners and don’t trespass – there is plenty of space where you can explore the dunes.
Go horse riding on the beach
An alternative to the camel ride is a horseback ride on the beach. Horses have a better life than camels – after the ride, they return to their paddock where they spend the day doing whatever horses do. It is also a much more interesting experience for the rider.
The adventure with Sahara Trails includes a ride to the be beach through the sand dunes and then a scenic ride along the surf line of Stockton beach and costs $105 for 1 hour.
4WD on the sand dunes
Beach and sand dune driving is one of the Aussie favourite pastimes. And Stockton beach and the sand dunes are some of Australia’s best 4WD tracks. The track runs from Williamtown to Anna Bay and 22km of it is available for recreational driving. It’s a thrilling drive through the dunes some of which are 30 metres high and the views are superb.
Beach driving is quite different and requires a level of skill and know-how. For example, some sections of the beach may be impassable at high tide and it is not recommended to drive on the beach 2 hours before and after high tide.
Port Stephens Dunes are part of the 4200-hectare Worimi Conservation Lands managed by the local Worimi Traditional Owners, in partnership with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
You will need to purchase a permit before entering the track. It costs $33 for three days, and you can find all the information on where to buy it as well as some tips for driving on soft sand here.
Sandboarding is one of the most popular things to do on Port Stephens sand dunes. It’s like snowboarding on the beach. If you don’t have your own 4WD, a sandboarding tour is a perfect alternative for exploring the dunes.
The tours start with a 4WD ride over the dunes before driving on top of a particularly high one for a sand-boarding adventure. Basic instructions are provided, but the best thing about sandboarding is that you don’t have to stand on the board. You can have a whole lot of fun sitting on the board as you fly down a sand dune. You can book your unlimited sandboarding adventure for $28 here.
Quad biking on sand dunes
Quad biking on sand dunes Another alternative to driving your own 4WD through the dunes is a quad biking tour. These tours are guided and a hands-on introduction and familiarisation of the bike and a safety briefing are provided before heading out. So it’s a safe adventure for the entire family. The quad biking tour is run by Sand Dune Adventures located in Williamtown (2163 Nelson Bay Road) about 30 min drive from Birubi where all the other dune tours depart from. You can book your 1hr Quad bike adventure for $110 per person here.
Visit Tin City
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).
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.
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.
Take a guided walk to Paradise Beach, Shoal Bay
Tomaree Coastal Adventures temporary suspended their tours. Check their website for updates.
Looking for a guided hike in Port Stephens? Tomaree Coastal Adventures got you covered. Take your pick from a range of micro-adventures, half-day walks and full-day walks depending on the amount of time you have and your fitness level. One of the most popular walks is a 3hr guided walk to Paradise Beach in Tomaree National Park.
This varied walk starts with climbing Stephens Peak, a volcanic formation similar to Mt Tomaree, followed by a descent to the beach and then an adventurous rock scramble along the striking Port Stephens coastal cliffs towards a hidden Paradise beach. A moderate level of fitness is required for this walk, especially for the section of rock scrambling.
Hike in Boulder Bay
A less demanding guided walk with Tomaree Coastal Adventures the 3hr Boulder Bay walk in Fingal Bay. This walk flows a sandy trail in a remote and stunning part of Tomaree National Park from rocky viewpoints to boulder beaches. The beautiful Fingal Spit is your stunning backdrop and between May and November, there is a high chance of spotting whales as you walk along.
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 utterly apocalyptic.
Hire a bike
For a change of pace from walking and driving, why not hire a bike and whizz around the bays. There are two automatic bike hire self-service stations in the area that are open 24 hours every day, one at the Visitor Information Center in Nelson Bay and one at Fingal Bay Holiday Park on the bike path to Shoal and Fingal Bays. Here is a map of Port Stephens’ cycleways.
You can also hit the mountain biking trails. Tank Trail & Anna Bay Bore Line is an easy 5km trail that runs from Fingal Bay Sports Club to the Polyclinic.
Explore colorful rock pools at Boat Harbour
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.
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 that 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 moth 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.
See the views from Barry Park, Finga Bay
Bary Park in Fingal Bay is a great spot to view Fingal Spit. If you are not planning to do the 2km beach hike or walk to the top of Mt Tomaree, head to Barry Park (Marine Dr, Fingal Bay) to see the famous sand bar.
There are two lookouts at Barry Park. The upper lookout is a great whale watching spot and has excellent views of the bay. The lower lookout takes you down to the rock shelf with some rugged scenery and a colourful rock pool.
Watch 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 (for details see Where to Eat section)
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 minima. 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 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.
Spot koalas at Hunter Region Botanic Gardens
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.
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: goannas, wallabies, brushtail and ringtail possums, sugar gliders, bats and even a small group of resident koalas can all be spotted in the gardens.
See kangaroos at Nelson Bay Golf Club
The kangaroo tours are currently suspended until further notice. Check the gold club website for updates
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
As you explore Port Stephens coastline, keep an eye out for coastal birds. Australian pelicans are the most conspicuous representatives of avifauna on the beaches and at the marinas. I love seeing them in flight, they remind me of pterodactyls.
The rocky shores are also good for spotting sooty oystercatchers, great and pied cormorants, straw-necked ibises, white-faced herons and of course the seagulls.
Feed the fish at Fly Point
I already mentioned Fly Point as being a good snorkelling destination. But what not many people know is that you don’t even have to don your flippers to see some fish at Fly Point. You can just wade into about knee depth, throw a few pieces of bread in the water and watch the fish gather around you.
You may want to wear aqua shoes – the bottom is quite rocky here. Though I managed to walk barefoot, just very very slowly.
Have fish and chips on the beach
Once you sampled the finer dining options (for details see Where to Eat section below) spend an evening in a relaxed Aussie fashion with fish and chips on the beach. Fingal Bay Cellar Cafe makes amazing fish and chips and you couldn’t ask for a more picturesque setting than Fingal Beach. Alternatively, make your way to Barry Park – there are picnic tables at the lookout overlooking Fingal Spit and the ocean.
Take your pooch for a walk
Port Stephens is a pet-friendly destination. There are pet-friendly accommodation options (for details see Where to Stay section below), pet-friendly beaches and pet-friendly parks. So if you are travelling with a pooch, take it for a splash in the surf at Birubi beach. Technically, the ‘off-leash’ times are before 9 am and after 5 pm, but in the quieter times of the year, there is hardly anyone on the beach and you can always walk further towards Birubi headland where the beach is a little rocky and have some fun in the sun without anyone minding the dog’s presence.
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.
Spot whales from scenic lookouts
Port Stephens is one of Australia’s top 10 whale watching destinations and for a good reason – you see them while having lunch at a seaside cafe while walking coastal trails and of course from scenic lookouts. And the lookouts are truly scenic in Port Stephens. For the best views of the Pacific Ocean head to Zenith beach lookout, Barry Park, Birubi Point lookout or Boat Harbour lookout (on Blanch St) and see how many whales you can spot.
It’s not just the whales, of course, that you can spot from these lookouts. I have also spotted Dolphins, White-bellied sea eagles, Peregrine falcons and Ospreys. It is such a relaxing experience staring out to the ocean picking signs of passing whales and seeing birds fly overhead.
Things to do in Port Stephens in the air
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.
Where to stay at Port Stephens
Anchorage Hotel & Spa
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. Mezzanine-style loft suites, exclusive villas and an absolutely indulgent spa – this is luxury accommodation at its finest.
Bannisters Port Stephens
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.
Shearwater Guest Cottages
For a budget-friendly and pet-friendly option check out Shearwater Guest Cottages in Shoal Bay. The property has 2 dog-friendly self-contained holiday cottages and the dogs are welcome inside.
Samurai Beach Bungalows, Port Stephens YHA
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, has a swimming pool and a fully-equipped bush kitchen. And it only a 10-minute walk from One Mile Beach.
Where to eat at Port Stephens
If you are organized enough to make a reservation about a week in advance, try to get a table at either Anchorage or Bannisters. Both hotels have superb restaurants with stunning views.
Crest, Buribi beach
I have to admit, I am totally biased toward the Crest cafe because it’s my friend’s favourite cafe in Port Stephens and because my visits to Port Stephens, lately, have been starting with a scrumptious lunch at the Crest. I have to agree with my foodie friend, the food at the Crest is some of the best in Port Stephens. You can check the menu here.
But it’s not all about food at the Crest. The views are drop-dead gorgeous too. And if that’s not enough, it happens to be an excellent whale watching location! Our conversations at lunch are always interrupted by whales breaching in the distance.
Little Beach Boathouse
Little Beach Boathouse is, by popular opinion, the best seafood restaurant in Port Stephens. The Below deck restaurant has a mouth-watering menu (check it here), and the beach-side views to match. You will have to book in advance here as well. The restaurant is only open Thursday to Sunday and these four days get booked out quickly.
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.
Sanuk Thai, Corlette
Another local favourite and a tip from my foodie friend is Sanuk Thai in Corlette (3/25 Sandy Point Rd, Corlette). It is a beautiful restaurant decorated in authentic Thai style. Food is delicious, to the western taste (check the menu here).
After living in Thailand for 5 years I find the western interpretation of Thai food to be Thai-like, rather than true Thai food. The chefs at Sanuk Thai are Thai, of course, but they cook for Australian clientele, like the vast majority of Thai restaurants in Australia. Sanuk Thai also deliveries if you would rather eat at home.
Long boat cafe, Fingal bay
This is a lovely spot at Fingal Beach with a relaxed atmosphere and yummy food (have a look at the menu here). I’ve had a couple of lunches here and loved the food. It is perfectly positioned for exploring Fingal Beach especially if you are planning to do the walk to Fingal Spit.
The Little Nel
If you are looking for a breakfast or lunch spot in Nelson Bay, perhaps before or after your cruise, head to The Little Nel on Government road. It’s a buzzing little place popular with locals and visitors alike. The food is lovely (sample menu here) and the place has a friendly vibe to it.
Holberts Oyster farm
For oysters and fresh seafood you can’t go wrong with the family-owned Holberts Oyster Farm – they grow their own oysters. Set in a beautiful seaside spot in Salamander Bay, Holberts Oyster Farm is a perfect place to have a cold bear with scrumptious fresh seafood on a hot afternoon.
Cookaburra Restaurant & Barramundi Farm
You may wonder why a fish restaurant is named after a bird. I did! But the name is actually a play on words: Cook-a-barra. And this place does cook a mean barramundi. The fish is as fresh as it gets – it is farmed right here on the property and the vegetables are grown at the hydroponic vegetable farm right next to the restaurant.
Tucked away on Bob’s farm (476c Marsh Road), Cookabarra is a modern restaurant with two dining areas (indoors and outdoors) that sits on a large property backing out onto a massive sand dune.
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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