If you were thinking of ideal places to live, you could make a list of the things that appeal. OK, the budget may be limited, so perhaps Bora Bora is out of reach. Anyway, they don't have a Bunnings.
But keeping it real, most of us would choose somewhere not too hot and not too cold as a good start. Near the water would be nice. Long sandy beaches, plenty of good fishing spots, a few top restaurants. Not too far from a big city, but not too crowded. You get the idea.
Well, I might have found the ideal location that ticks all these boxes, and it's only around three hours out of Sydney.
Port Stephens is a natural harbour stretching 24km westward to the mouth of the Karuah River and fronted by the imposing Tamari and Yacaaba Headlands at the entrance. Covering 135 square kilometers and with a boundary of 113km, there is an abundance of secluded places to explore. And yet despite its undeniable charm, the population is only around 35,000 for the entire sprawling area, so it's still uncrowded, especially if you visit in the quieter times away from the peak summer holidays.
Europeans first sighted Port Stephens when James Cook sailed the Endeavour up the Coast in 1770. He named the opening after his mentor Sir Philip Stephens, Secretary to the Admiralty and noted the sheltered stretch of water offered protection from all wind directions. Before that, the Worimi people called it home and for millennia enjoyed the rich bounty of the sea and a mild climate suited to their lifestyle.
In colonial times escaped convicts found it an ideal place to hide out and because of this, one of the first official settlements was set up to house a government outpost at Soldiers Point. It’s a name that continues today as one of many small towns snuggled up close to the water.
The soil on the low lying plains isn't particularly fertile, and initial agricultural pursuits met various levels of success, but farming continued as the main activity up to the 1950s when folk from Sydney and Newcastle bought up cheap land for holiday houses. Some of these basic homes still exist, but these days almost the entire shoreline from Shoal Bay at the mouth to Soldiers Point has been covered with pricey modern architecture. But because Tilligerry Creek dissects much of the eastern peninsula on which most development has taken place, there are scattered settlements that have avoided most of the relatively frantic building pace of the last 10 years.
Shallow shoals inside the port have saved the area from significant development. As far back as 1812, Governor Macquarie visited and declared that the harbour was too shallow for large ships to be considered as a major town for the new colony. And because the highway runs well to the west, most travellers speed past to destinations further afield without realising the attractions to be found here.
Large tracts of land in national parks and recreation reserves maintain a very natural ambience, helping retain the area’s appeal. You can book into one of the caravan parks or many motels and in a short drive be sunning on a beach with no one else in sight.
The inlet was formed as a sunken valley millions of years back and had spectacular volcanic hills that offer incredible views from their summit. The natural beauty of the surrounding bush meets stunning secluded beaches, rocky headlands and a marine environment replete with whales, dolphins and all manner of fish.
It’s the combination of ocean access, sublime waterways, pristine bushland, close offshore islands and picturesque mountains that make Port Stephens unique on the NSW coast. Some places have some of these features, but none combine them all in such an extensive natural playground.
Tourism sits alongside the needs of local retirees and young families who populate the region as the main business drivers. Accommodation ranges from basic bed and breakfast establishments to several luxury resorts and a dozen caravan parks.
The heart of Port Stephens is the area around Nelson Bay with high-rise apartments, a small business centre and the marina complex where recreational and charter boats share space with a dynamic fishing fleet. Here you will find a range of dockside dining and fresh seafood, virtually straight from the ocean, including takeaway that boasts the best fish and chips in NSW.
Monster game fishing boats live here and at another marina a few miles further inland, because the waters off Port Stephens are famous for record-breaking catches of marlin. Each year the port host the NSW interclub game fishing event, the largest in the state.
Hire boats will get you out for estuary fishing, and several charter boats target offshore species around Broughton Island or on the inshore reefs.
Lighting the way
I’ve been to the area many times and I never tire of the view from the Nelson Head Heritage Lighthouse Cottage and Rescue Station Reserve. It takes a shorter time for the quick drive up the hill than it does to say it but this is a real must and an easy and rewarding way to greet the sun as it struggles over the horizon at dawn.
The 53m hill houses the 1875 lighthouse complex, which now serves as a museum and headquarters for the local Marine Rescue. There’s even a cafe in you fancy a meal with a view, but it doesn't open until 9am, so you will have to take your own coffee for sunrise.
Marine park protection
The 980 square kilometre Port Stephens–Great Lakes Marine Park takes in the sprawling waterways of the port, the Karuah River, Myall Lake, Smith Lake and all their creeks and tributaries, the ocean beaches and three miles to sea. The Park was gazetted in 2005 to protect the rich marine biodiversity. Visitors need to make themselves aware of various restrictions on fishing and boating particularly in sanctuary zones. Maps can be downloaded from the Department of Primary Industries website (dpi.nsw.gov.au).
Port Stephens is boating heaven as seen by the hundreds of trailer boats peppering every street in town. The enormous tidal waters of the port, and the direct safe access to the sea, open up all styles of fishing from scooping a prawn to landing a giant pelagic.
And if you bring your own boat, the opportunities for exploring and fishing are almost endless in this area. You could cruise the Karuah River and beyond or spend weeks of discovery on the meandering Myall River all the way through virgin wetlands to Myall Lake.
No boat? no problem
Take a one-hour ferry ride to the quaint and friendly Tea Gardens on the Myall River and see dolphins and a variety of birdlife on the way. Hire a kayak, have a round of golf or enjoy an extended lunch at one of the many cafes or restaurants. Return journeys depart every couple of hours even in winter, and return fares are $26 for adults.
The colder months see a migration of humpback whales offshore as they travel north for the breeding season in southern Queensland then return close to shore at a leisurely pace to their Antarctic summer feeding grounds.
Like many places along the coast, the area offers a variety of day trips on charter boats that happily don't have to travel too far to get amongst the action.
If you aren’t keen on heading to sea, then whales can be seen from shore, and they often come quite close. We spotted three groups of whales from the Birubi headland as they frolicked about half a mile from us.
I’m told that at least 100 dolphins inhabit the port and there are tours that not only track them down, you can even swim amongst them from the sailing catamaran Imagine in the open ocean.
Broughton Island Cruise
Tours also take a day trip to Broughton Island allowing you to explore secluded coves, birdlife habitat and nostalgic fishing huts at this 120ha island, about fourteen kilometers northeast of town. The island has sheltered snorkelling in gin-clear waters of Esmeralda Cove, and there are limited camping sites if you want to spend a few days away from it all.
Not far to the south is the Worimi Conservation Lands with access for four-wheel drive vehicles to 22km of Stockton Beach and the largest moving coastal sandhill complex in the Southern Hemisphere. The Conservation Park is managed by the local Aboriginal Lands Council and includes many important cultural sites in the Stockton Bight Sand Dunes. Beach driving is permitted and highlights include walks into the historic humpy village of Tin City, the Aboriginal middens, or the 30m-high dunes that have hosted movies such as Reckless Kelly. Entry is at Anna Bay, and a three-day permit will cost $33. Those without a suitable vehicle can hop aboard several 4WD buses that run tours that include sand boarding on the steep hills.
Say what? Yes, you read it right, and why not? These ships of the desert are a natural accompaniment to sand, and you can jump aboard for a 20-minute ride (adults $30) through the hills at the entry to the Worimi Lands.
If camels aren't your thing then perhaps a squirt around the specially licensed sand dune area on a quad bike might appeal. An hour’s ride will cost $85 for adults and includes safety gear and instruction.
Because of the many volcanic remnants and the rugged rocky shoreline, there are so many picturesque and historical walks, it's hard to know where to start, so let's kick off with the easiest.
A drive up to Gan Gan Lookout on Lily Hill Rd leaves only a 200m steep walk past the locked gate up a tarred road to the summit where you can enjoy wonderful views over suburbia to the ocean and west across the water to Karuah. Sunset was colourful and serene, and the many emerging Gymea lilies were a bonus.
A short coastal walk at Birubi Point staring at James Patterson St leads past a historic cemetery with graves dating back to 1897 then through coastal heath and expanses of pigface to a headland where we found a sizeable Aboriginal midden and views south across the sand dunes.
Longer walks take you to the summit of Tomaree Headland, Stephens Peak and Quarry Hill, but the most rewarding trek is along the Fingal Spit at low tide and out onto Point Stephens.
It's a 6km round trip, and you will need to be aware of the water covering the sandbar on your return trip. When the sandstone lighthouse was built in 1862, the spit was covered in scrub 5m above high tide, but a gale in the late 1800s washed the spit away, leaving the low crossing we see today.
Williamstown Airport is home to The RAAF's Air Combat Group including squadrons of F/A18 Hornet aircraft, often heard making a noisy pass low overhead at any time in the Port Stephens area.
Lovers of technology, young and old, will enjoy the volunteer-run museum attached to the base with displays of fighter aircraft going back to WWI.
Exhibitions include F-111, Mirage, a Sabre, full-size replicas of a Sopworth Camel, Messerschmitt 109 and an Mk 8 Spitfire and more than 400 hand-built timber models.
It’s been a long day, what with walking to the summit of every hill and trying to find the more than 230 birds frequenting the peninsula. I think it’s time for a quiet beer at Murrays Brewery which claims its Whale Ale is Australia's Best Craft beer.
The Brewery also has a 35ha vineyard and some selected varieties available to taste or take away. My choice would be a couple of Whales for the road and a visit back to the marina for that award-winning fish and chips. What a way to end the day.
Summer is peak season but Port Stephens is an all-year proposition if you can forego a swim in the decidedly cold winter ocean. Cooler months mean less visitors and lower accommodation costs and also offer clear skies and a chance to encounter the growing number of migrating whales.
For anyone travelling the coastline between Sydney and Queensland, it’s only a short hop into town and I’m sure you will discover plenty on offer whatever time of year you visit.