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Nature’s playground: The best of Port Stephens

DANIELLE LUCAS and her children discover a nature lover’s paradise in Port Stephens

A sleepy koala at Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary
A sleepy koala at Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary

Koala Sanctuary in Port Stephens 

I gaze up into lush greenery, the sun gently filtering through the treetops high above us. It’s blissfully quiet, bar the melodic chirping of the native birds flitting about. “Oh, it’s so cute!” exclaims my daughter, Brooke, pointing to the fork of a nearby eucalypt. We’re on Worimi Country, at the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary, and she’s just spotted one of the local residents. “That’s Maree, she’s very sweet,” says Lois, one of the volunteers. Maree, we learn, is a small, blind koala who ended up here following a car accident.

We’re on the Newcastle Airport SKYwalk, an elevated pathway and viewing platform that gives us the sense that we’re in the wild with the koalas. My children are captivated. They move along the path, excitedly chatting about koalas they spot, with names like Solstice and Galloping Jax. I’m equally impressed by the educational offerings. Signs inform us about the lives, habitat and threats to this iconic native animal. “We’re very much about conservation by education,” says the sanctuary’s manager, Zahee Girjes. “By 2050 they won’t be in the wild if we don’t intervene.” It’s a sobering thought.

An onsite Koala Hospital treats the injured, and visitors can watch clinics via a viewing window. Fully rehabilitated koalas are returned to the wild and those with ongoing issues make the sanctuary home. A percentage from every experience here including tickets, sales at the Fat Possum Cafe, koala adoptions and accommodation goes to the hospital. As we wander back past the impressive glamping tents and resort-style pool, each embracing the natural surrounds, I recall a comment Lois made: “It’s such a calm, tranquil place.” She isn’t wrong.

Moonshadow TQCs Splash Slide Dolphin Cruise. Image Destination Port Stephens
Moonshadow TQCs Splash Slide Dolphin Cruise. Image: Destination Port Stephens

Splash & Slide Dolphin Cruise with the bottlenose dolphins

We head to d’Albora Marina at Nelson Bay for the next part of our adventure with Moonshadow-TQC Cruises. It’s slightly overcast as we board the MV Spirit, but the stunning turquoise water beckons and we set sail on our Splash & Slide Dolphin Cruise. Skipper Rob is midway through his introductory spiel when a call goes out. Often highly elusive, the popular aquatic mammals have been spotted already! My son, Connor, jumps from his seat and rushes to the railing. “Wow, there’s one right there,” he says, pointing, as a tail near us disappears into the blue. Pure joy is spread across his face.

Dolphins in Port Stephens. Image Destination Port Stephens
Dolphins in Port Stephens. Image: Destination Port Stephens

Around 160 bottlenose dolphins live in Port Stephens and, over the course of the next hour, we see many. Sometimes it’s just a fin gliding gracefully out of the water, while some come close, playfully bow-surfing alongside the catamaran. The kids move back and forth between decks to get the ultimate vantage point. “Look mum!” squeals Brooke with delight, pointing as a baby dolphin leaps in the air repeatedly, showing off. We cruise to different parts of the bay as the skipper points out distinctive landmarks and tells us about the dolphins and other wildlife often spotted, including seals and penguins.

Connor and Brooke boom netting on the Dolphin Cruise in Port Stephens. Image Danielle Lucas
Connor and Brooke boom netting on the Dolphin Cruise in Port Stephens. Image Danielle Lucas

We soon pull up in a sheltered bay and a large boom net is lowered from the side – it’s time for some fun! The kids climb down, tentative at first as they dip into the cool water, but they’re not letting this opportunity pass by. A short time later the crew set up the waterslide – a thrilling drop straight from the top deck into the bay. This time I can’t resist, and we have a blast.

We’ve worked up an appetite, so back on shore we head to the popular Shoal Bay Country Club. The Kitchen Bar & Patio has received a lockdown revamp and is looking divine. Gazing out at the water, we devour delicious woodfired pizzas – what a location! Brooke, who considers herself a pizza connoisseur, declares this is one of the best she’s had, and I declare that we’ll be back – I need to sample more from the extensive menu, and some of those cocktails too!

Brooke and Connor feeding stingrays at Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters in Port Stephens
Brooke and Connor feeding stingrays at Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters in Port Stephens

Educational and fun at the Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters

The wildlife theme of our day continues with a visit to Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters at Anna Bay. We’re only ankle-deep in the lagoon when we’re greeted by the curious and playful rays. One of them is Frizzle, a 180kg smooth stingray. We’re blown away to learn that females can grow to 400kg – the size of a queen bed. In our shallow encounter we feed and pat the rays – some are slimy, some coarse. Other experiences on offer include snorkelling with the rays and sharks, and a zebra shark encounter.

Senior keeper, Bronte, slaps the water calling out “Mungo, Jessica, Aerial, Houdini” – summoning the resident tawny nurse sharks who live in the lagoon along with other sharks, rays and a variety of fish. We watch as one effortlessly floats against a jet of water.

The kids check out the shark nursery while I learn about the mini marine biologist program, exciting development plans (including a big new lagoon), and about Sea Shelter, the conservation organisation involving the rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals. It’s definitely an educational experience, and topics like sustainable fish farming and shark myths form part of the visit.

An aerial view of Shoal Bay looking towards Tomaree Head. Image Destination Port Stephens
An aerial view of Shoal Bay looking towards Tomaree Head. Image: Destination Port Stephens

Tomaree Head Summit Walk in Port Stephens

Our final day begins with an invigorating walk. A short but steep hike to Tomaree Head rewards us with panoramic views. I gaze south towards a strip of land, framed by the calm waters of Shoal Bay on one side and the stunning coast on the other. Our biggest decision today is which of the 26 beautiful beaches we will cool off at after our descent. With so much on offer for families here in Port Stephens, one decision I’ve already made is that we will definitely be back.

The writer was a guest of Destination Port Stephens.

Getting to Port Stephens

Port Stephens is a 2.5-hour drive north from Sydney and just 30 minutes’ drive from Newcastle Airport, which has flights from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Dubbo, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Cairns, Ballina (Byron Bay) and Lord Howe Island. It will also begin flying to and from Adelaide in March 2022.

More Information:

portstephens.org.au

5 other things to do in Port Stephens with kids

1. Sandboarding, quad biking and 4WD tours at Stockton Bight

Dune buggies on Stockton Bight sand dunes. Image Destination Port Stephens
Dune buggies on Stockton Bight sand dunes. Image: Destination Port Stephens

Port Stephens is home to the largest coastal dunes in the Southern Hemisphere, some reaching heights of over 30 metres with slopes of up to 60 degrees. A range of fun tours is available.

portstephens.org.au

2. Toboggan Hill Park

Fun times at Toboggan Hill Park in Port Stephens
Fun times at Toboggan Hill Park in Port Stephens

Set amongst natural bush just off Salamander Way at Nelson Bay, Toboggan Hill Park features a 1km toboggan run, indoor rock climbing, roller skating, a tractor train and more.

tobogganhillpark.com

3. Oakvale Wildlife Park

A quokka at Oakvale Wildlife Park in Port Stephens. Image Destination Port Stephens
A quokka at Oakvale Wildlife Park in Port Stephens. Image: Destination Port Stephens

This Australian-owned and operated park has Australian native, domestic farm, and exotic animals including koalas, kangaroos, Tasmanian devils, goats, sheep, rabbits, alligators and ostriches.

oakvalewildlife.com.au

4. Sailing

Sailing at Port Stephens. Image Destination Port Stephens
Sailing at Port Stephens. Image: Destination Port Stephens

Blue Water sailing offers exquisite private cruises of Port Stephens and the surrounds in luxury Yachts

bluewatersailing.com.au

5. Fishing

Go fishing with Fish Port Stephens Estuary Charters. Image ATfish portstephens
Go fishing with Fish Port Stephens Estuary Charters. Image: ATfish portstephens

Port Stephens has one of the largest estuary systems in NSW. Depending on the time of year, you might catch bream, flathead, whiting, kingfish, salmon, or even a blue swimmer or mud crab. Fish Port Stephens Estuary Charters, owned and operated by local Paul Lennon, is Port Stephens’ only dedicated estuary fishing charter boat.

fishportstephensestuarycharters.com

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