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Nature and nurture in Port Stephens

Ideally located for a weekend getaway, Port Stephens’ beautiful bays, beaches, rainforest, and abundance of wildlife make it the perfect place for families to get back to nature, writes Aleney de Winter.

The decision to visit Port Stephens was an easy one to make. Only two-and-a-half hours from Sydney and chock full of family friendly fun, it was the obvious destination for our long weekend. But, when weekending with a small boy, where to go is just as important a consideration as where to stay. A two year old needs space (at least mine does). And embracing, as Rafferty is, the ‘terrible’ part of his two’s with great gusto, so do his parents.

Nesting with koalas

Samurai Beach Resort in sleepy Anna Bay, only 10 minutes from the heart of Port Stephens, proved ideal. Our villa style accommodation was spacious and surprisingly private, which was handy for neighbouring holidaymakers, as an excitable Raff’s off-switch appeared to be broken for the whole weekend, mostly due to the excitement of his new house and its enormous spa bath, which he would have happily spent the entire weekend splashing about in.

The resort boasts tennis courts, bush golf, and a lagoon style pool and spa, beautifully integrated into eight hectares of bushland. Nestled on the edge of the Samurai Beach sand dunes and surrounding wetlands, wild koalas are frequently spotted in the resort.

A marker pointing out one of the furry critters was being placed under a tree near our villa as we arrived – a perfect start for our weekend plan to get our little man back to nature. Ironically, the resort is the former site of a nudist colony, and though you can’t get much further back to nature than that, thankfully, these days, it’s purely clothes on.

The spaciousness of our accommodation became more than just a convenience when we woke up on our first morning to the sound of heavy rain, our plan of frolicking on the beaches falling by the wayside. Raff was distraught, but a few toy cars and plenty of space to play with them soon had his dreams of exploring nature’s sandpit forgotten while we hatched a new plan.
About five minutes from Anna Bay was Dizzyland – not exactly getting back to nature, but providing a perfect short term solution to entertaining a small boy on a rainy morning.

Sated by an hour in the amusement park’s huge indoor area – packed with dodgem cars, bouncing castles, rocket rides, mini ferris wheel and even a mini pirate ship – we were ready to get back on nature’s track at one of Port Stephens’ most unique attractions: The Australian Shark and Ray Centre.

Close encounters with the fishy kind

To say my little boy loves sharks is an understatement, so this place, where we fed “tiny, little sharks” with prawns and squid and patted silky little stingrays, was nothing short of a winner. The centre, with over a dozen species of shark and ray, is a great place for toddlers to have a closer look at creatures of the deep in a safe and fun environment. Dressed in matching wetsuits, hubby and son ventured knee-deep into the big tank to meet a 100kg black ray and two-and-a-half metre shark called Mungo.

You can’t visit Port Stephens without going dolphin spotting. The dolphin capital of Australia, Port Stephens, is a waterway two-and-a-half times the size of Sydney Harbour and calls itself home to over 100 resident bottlenose dolphins.

With the weather improving, we headed out on beautiful Nelson Bay with Moonshadow Cruises to meet some more wet and wonderful friends. We were happy to sight more than one pod of dolphins. Still, Raff, though fascinated by the fins sliding gracefully in and out of the water around us, was his far more interested in pointing out the dolphins on the boat’s carpet to some friendly Japanese visitors.

Back on shore, a sixty-second walk found us stumbling across a fantastic children’s playground and gentle sandy beach, perfect for paddling. With the sun bravely fighting through the clouds, we let our little tike run wild until dinner.

Sahara down under

Our last day in Port Stephens saw the sun return, so it was off to Stockton Beach and its mighty sand dunes. The awesome dune system is 32 km long and covers 4000 acres. As we bumped along with Port Stephens 4WD Tours through a Sahara-like desert of sand, the surreal sight of a train of camels disappearing into the sand made us all look twice.

The dunes at Stockton Beach, which runs between Newcastle and Nelson Bay in NSW, are adventure central and perfect for sand boarding – an adrenalin rush for any age. With our squealing boy tucked securely between our legs on the supplied boards, we took turns surfing down the sandy slopes of the “really big sandpit” to demands of more, more, more! The only drawback: is the muscle-straining climb back up.

Covered in sand and ready to head home, we made one last stop at Oakvale Farm & Fauna World, at Salt Ash on the outskirts of Port Stephens. An endless menagerie of Australian native and domestic farm animals wander about for kids to feed, pat and walk with. Camels, sheep, horses, alpacas and donkeys made our acquaintance, but it was the kangaroos on the property that got our boy excited. As we fed the friendly roos, our little loon bounced around joyously after them – the lure of the playground, and several baby goats who had taken up residence in it, were the only thing that could tear him away.

Our long weekend in Port Stephen’s has left us wanting more. There are still whales to be met, camels and horses to be ridden, beaches to be seen, and sand to be surfed, so a return trip is definitely on our family agenda.

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