There are plenty of hidden gems in Australia – but not many of them are this close to Sydney!
For some reason, Port Stephens seems to have escaped a lot of the hype that other holiday destinations along the New South Wales coast can get. But there are so many things to do in Port Stephens that it’s certainly worth a trip.
I actually think it’s a bit confusing visiting Port Stephens for the first time because it has slightly strange geography. But, once you get your head around it, it makes it much easier to navigate.
Think of Port Stephens as a long thin peninsula that goes from west to east. To the west is Newcastle and the Pacific Highway, to the east is the ocean.
The southern side of the peninsula is a stunning coastline facing the ocean, the northern side is much calmer because it’s a harbour… called Port Stephens.
Does it make sense yet? If not, just look at the map and you’ll see what I mean.
Things to do in Port Stephens
What this all means for visitors is that you are constantly surrounded by water – and this is what makes the region so spectacular. On top of that, there has been very little major development so you don’t get big cities or mass tourism resorts.
In fact, the majority of the land here has been protected as national parks, so there are lots of things to do in Port Stephens on the land as well as in the water. In many ways, it reminds me a bit of Jervis Bay on the NSW South Coast.
Because of all this nature, you can do a trip to Port Stephens and just relax – hang out at the beach, sit by the water, go for a few walks. Or you can get involved with some of the outdoor activities in Port Stephens. There are heaps of options.
To give you some ideas for things to do in Port Stephens, I’ve put together this list. I hope it helps.
Let’s start at Fighter World, because you’ll probably see it as you drive in from the highway.
Just on the boundary of the air force base, RAAF Williamtown, Fighter World is a collection of military aircraft that are on display in two large hangars. Most of them have a connection to the base, having been flown from here over the years.
There are some standouts here – the F-111, the Dassault Mirage, the Gloster Meteor. Even for someone who is not an expert on aircraft, it’s an interesting museum – particularly because you’re able to get up close and touch many of them (and even climb into some).
You’ll hear the fighter jets from Williamtown taking off while you’re here and there’s an observation deck with an excellent view of the runway, to see them taking off and landing.
In 2021, Fighter World will be getting an F/A-18 Hornet, which is going to be very exciting for everyone!
Tomaree National Park
Fighter World is at the very western end of the peninsula. At the easternmost point is Tomaree National Park, one of the main nature reserves in Port Stephens.
It’s made up of peaks along the coast, with small beaches in between them. There are lots of walks you can do through the bush and, if you’re lucky, you may even spot some koalas up in the trees.
The most famous walk here is up to the Tomaree Head Summit. It’s a fairly easy path and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views across the water in every direction.
To learn more about the nature in the region, or discover some epic hidden spots, you can also do a guided walk with Tomaree Coastal Adventures. Amy will take you along some quieter tracks to special viewpoints. It’s a great option for everyone – but especially families.
Stockton Sand Dunes
The most dramatic natural attraction here in Port Stephens is the Stockton Sand Dunes, apparently the longest coastal dunes in the Southern Hemisphere.
The sand stretches out for more than 30 kilometres, undulating yellows and oranges, constantly being reshaped by the wind. It’s a beautiful sight – but also a fun one to explore.
There are lots of ways to experience the sand dunes here. You’ll find a few tours that leave from Anna Bay that show you different aspects. I would recommend Port Stephens 4WD Tours. They can also take you out sandboarding.
Sandboarding is heaps of fun and you can really get some speed up as you fly down the dunes. But it’s also very safe because the sand offers a natural cushion if you fall off. It’s just a bit hard constantly walking up and down!
There are also quad bike tours of the dunes that are a real blast. And you can also do camel rides along the beach (which I don’t see the attraction of, but they’re very popular).
If you would prefer to visit on your own, you can do that too. You can buy a permit to drive a 4WD along the beach, and there’s even a campground in the sane further along the beach.
Or there are several spots along Nelson Bay Road where you can park and walk through the bush of Worimi National Park to get to the sand dunes. You’ll likely be the only person in sight, which feels rather special.
Look out for Tin City, a rather strange little community in the middle of the sand. It started out as a couple of tin sheds in the late 1800s and grew a bit over the decades. There are still people who live there but no more sheds are allowed to be built.
Some of the tours from Anna Bay will take you there, so you can ask about that too.
So, now that we’ve covered the land (and the air, if you count the planes), let’s look at the water.
Firstly, Port Stephens is a good place to rent a boat and potter around on the water for the day, exploring different beaches, doing some fishing, or just finding some secluded swimming spots.
You don’t need a boat licence for most of the small ones and it is quite affordable (about $150 for half a day). There are quite a few places you can rent from, but try Nelson Bay Boat Hire.
Port Stephens is also a great place to see whales during the migration season as they go up the coast from April to July, and then come back down from around mid-August to November.
There are several different tours you can do to go whale watching in Port Stephens, but I would recommend this one.
For something a bit special, how about swimming with the dolphins at Port Stephens? There are about 140 bottlenose dolphins that live here and you can go out with a snorkel and play in the same water as them.
There are very few places in Australia you can do this and it’s something really special. Find out more details here.
You don’t need to have a motor to enjoy the water around Port Stephens, though. There are plenty of other things you can at your own pace.
For example, you can rent a kayak and explore the different bays and beaches by paddling around.
Stand-up paddle boarding has also become very popular these days and you’ll find quite a few places you can rent one.
The beaches on the coast have good waves a lot of the time, so you can grab a board and go surfing.
Or stay in the calmer waters with a snorkel and discover the world underneath the water.
Where to eat
Port Stephens has really expanded its range of restaurants in recent years – but there are still a lot of old favourites here. There’s a great mix of casual (but very good) food, and more upmarket options by the water.
For a nice breakfast at Soldiers Point, I would recommend The Boat Shed out on the pontoon.
The Shoal Bay Country Club has had a recent makeover and is an excellent option for every meal of the day – or even just for a drink.
The Little Beach Boathouse is a bit fancier with the food, but still has a very nice relaxed atmosphere for lunch or dinner.
These days, Murray’s feels like a destination in itself. The brewery still has an excellent selection of beers but the food menu has expanded to include woodfired pizza and BBQ. The large outdoor deck is perfect for an afternoon of eating and drinking in the sun.
Travel Australia Today was supported by Destination Port Stephens, inspired by nature.