Port Stephens is one of the East Coast of Australia’s (not so well kept) secrets. It doesn’t always feature on travellers plans when racing from Sydney to Cairns but Port Stephens is exactly the kind of place to show you why you need to slow down and experience everything Australia has to offer. This guide to Port Stephens will show you the best things to do and give you some serious travel inspiration!
Port Stephens is located just 2.5 hours north of Sydney and covers an area larger than Sydney Harbour. The region’s main town is Nelson Bay but you’ll find natural beauty everywhere; mountains seemingly rising out of the ocean, wildlife reserves, dolphins and the largest moving sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere.
I would recommend including Port Stephens on your East Coast of Australia itinerary if you’re heading up to Cairns or just simply taking a holiday here if you’re local. My wife and I visited as part of our (attempted) Lap of Australia and appreciated the hospitality of two Aussies we met a few months earlier at a campsite who let us stay with them!
In order to help you plan your visit to Port Stephens or, if you’ve never thought about visiting, to inspire you to head up the East Coast to this beautiful area, I’ve pulled together this guide to Port Stephens especially for you.
A VISITOR’S GUIDE TO PORT STEPHENS IN NEW SOUTH WALES
Dare I say it? Mount Tomaree might just offer some of the most spectacular views along the entire East Coast of Australia. Mount Tomaree rises incredibly out of the ocean, separating Shoal Bay from the open waters of the Tasman Sea, and forms a natural entrance to the Port Stephens Harbour.
If you only get chance to do one thing in Port Stephens, you have to climb to the summit of Mount Tomaree. If you’re able to climb stairs, you’ll be able to manage this steep 2km return walk. It’s not easy at times but the views will make it worth it I promise.
To the south you’ll see Shark Island and Fingal Bay and, to the north, the other side of Port Stephens Harbour with Jimmys Beach and even all the way up the coast towards Seal Rocks. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins in the waters below and, between May and October, you may well spot a whale or two on their migration.
Worimi Regional/National Park – Stockton Sand Dunes
The Worimi National Park is home to the largest moving sand dunes in the entire Southern Hemisphere (known as Stockton Sand Dunes) and these are another must-see on your trip to Port Stephens. The sand dunes cover approximately 32 kilometres and are responsible for some pretty epic scenes.
Whilst we would have loved to have visited at golden hour and walked into the dunes ourselves, we didn’t feel that adventurous so opted to book on a sandboarding tour which gave access deep into the dunes. This meant we could combine some high adrenaline fun racing each other down the dunes with some photography opportunities; just walk over a few dunes and you feel as though you have the entire place to yourself.
We parked at Anna Bay, at the northern end, and paid $30 each for a 4WD transfer into the dunes and unlimited sandboarding. You could return any time you wish with the shuttle buses running every ten minutes. Loads of fun but my god do your thighs hurt stomping back up the dunes! Port Stephens 4WD Tours
You are able to drive yourself over the dunes if you have your own 4WD vehicle but you’ll need a pass – more information is available on the official NSW National Parks website.
Sail with Dolphins
Between 90 and 120 bottlenose dolphins permanently call Port Stephens their home which means that you are absolutely guaranteed to see dolphins on one of the boats that cruise the bay. I’m not joking, Imagine Cruises offer a free return sail if you don’t see dolphins. We chose Imagine Cruises 1.5hr Dolphin Watch & Sail for just $38 per adult which amazingly offers the experience of riding through the water in the boom net (on the side of the boat but in the water!) as well as, obviously, a relaxing sail searching for a pod of dolphins. We didn’t see any dolphins leaping through the air but we loosely followed a pod out for their morning feed, leisurely swimming through the bay. I loved it.
They now also offer the only permitted wild dolphin swim in New South Wales for $349 per person which includes video footage of you underwater with the wild dolphins. That would be incredible!
Koala Spotting at Tilligerry Habitat
Not far from our base in Lemon Tree Passage, we were reliably informed by locals that we would almost certainly spot our first koala in the wild at Tilligerry Habitat. Were they wrong? No, of course they weren’t!
One of the best chances to spot koalas in the wild along the entire East Coast of Australia is right here in Port Stephens. The habitat itself is a 9 hectare nature reserve along Tanilba Bay and there’s a 2km boardwalk through stunning eucalyptus trees and back along the seashore.
Spotting koala’s in the wild is actually harder than you think but the team of volunteers at the hub will help with information about recent sightings. The centre is open 9am to 3pm but you can access the walkways at any time bearing in mind that koalas are more active at dawn and dusk!
Fingal Bay is a beautiful white sand beach south of Mount Tomaree with an infamous spit which, at low tide, connects the mainland with Shark Island. However, as beautiful as it looks, the ocean can be unpredictable and dangerous so it’s not recommended to walk across. Instead, there’s plenty of opportunity to relax on such a magnificent beach and swim in the ocean. We visited on a very windy day so we made our way back to the safety of the van quicker than we would ever have wanted to!
Nelson Bay is Port Stephen’s main resort town and I really enjoyed wandering the streets exploring boutique shops and relaxing by the marina. There are plenty of shops that wouldn’t look out of place in Byron Bay such as Bay Living & Garden and Homebody. I still vividly recall the smell inside Homebody thanks to a vanilla caramel candle from Glasshouse Candles; I’ve been constantly hoping / praying that they become available in England!
Tea Gardens & Jimmy’s Beach
On the northern side of the bay lies the sleepy village of Tea Gardens which feels as though not much has changed in decades but we found that added to its charm. There’s not much to do here but it’s lovely to relax on the edge of the Myall River with a coffee (try the Boatshed or Mumm’s on the Myall). The final stop on your Port Stephens adventure should be Jimmy’s Beach in Hawks Nest. Another picture perfect white sand beach but this time with unrivalled views back towards Nelson Bay, Shoal Bay and Mount Tomaree.
PLACES TO VISIT AFTER PORT STEPHENS
Given that we’ve visited the sand dunes at Stockton, it would be wrong not to visit New South Wales’ second largest city, Newcastle which actually is just a short ferry ride from Stockton itself. I love the North East influence around here with places such as Jesmond, Wallsend and Morpeth. Similar to the North East itself, Newcastle’s history was one of industry. However, you’ll find beautiful beaches, ocean baths and good beer at the many craft breweries in the city.
Myall Lakes Drive
If you’re carrying on your East Coast adventure, the drive through the Myall Lakes National Park is epic as is the camping. We stayed at the Banksia Green campground just behind the sand dunes which felt as though we were in the middle of nowhere; it was also the first place we had to be wary of dingos circling through the camp at night! The drive continues with a ferry crossing and through dense forest where the tallest (honestly it was huge!) kangaroo raced alongside us.
The Grandis – The Tallest Tree in New South Wales
A further 100km up the road (trust me in Australia this distance is treated as a quick jaunt out), you’ll find the tallest tree in New South Wales which, you guessed it, was pretty tall. This unique eucalyptus tree reaches 70 metres high up into the sky and is well worth a visit!