Lee Atkinson enjoys the scenery and serenity of a former prime minister's summer playground.
Wedged between the ocean and where the Myall River spills into the sea on the northern entrance of Port Stephens, the twin towns of Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest are your classic summer beach holiday territory - just ask former prime minister John Howard, who holidayed here every summer for more than 20 years. It's the place to go to kick back and relax, eat fish and chips on the water's edge, and generally do not much at all.
What it's known for?
Beyond the beautiful beaches, lakes and waterways, the area is home to a large colony of koalas and you can often see them prowling around backyards and wandering along the top of fences. There is a koala reserve on the corner of Ibis and Kingfisher avenues in Hawks Nest, just after you cross the bridge.
What you didn't know
The bridge over the Myall River does more than just connect the two towns. When the wind blows the right way (from the south-west), the railings vibrate like a wind harp producing musical sounds, earning it the nickname of the Singing Bridge. You can often see dolphins in the water below the bridge, which is also a favourite fishing spot with locals.
Jimmys Beach Holiday Park has recently reopened after a major upgrade, with a new camp kitchen and amenities, and free Wi-Fi. There are three new permanent beach tents complete with en suites, queen-size beds and two bunk beds, kitchens, lounge rooms and verandahs. Beach tents start at $125 a night, but there are also cabins, camping and caravan sites. You can bring your dog outside peak holiday season. Coorilla Street, Hawks Nest. 1800 662 209, northcoastholidayparks.com.au.
Hawks Nest is at the southern end of Myall Lakes National Park and the scenic drive from Hawks Nest to Mungo Brush makes for a great day trip as it spears through the bush, lakes to the left, ocean to the right - although to get to the beaches, you'll need a four-wheel-drive to get over the sandy dunes. Mungo Brush is an ideal place for a picnic, with plenty of shade, electric barbecues and picnic tables, and it's right beside the lake, a great spot for a kid-friendly paddle in the shallows. Take the car ferry across to Bombah Point and follow the dirt road through the forest to the "Grandis", an 84-metre-high flooded gum thought to be the tallest tree in NSW. You'll find it about 100 metres east of Stoney Creek Road, with a viewing platform at its base. Hook up with the Pacific Highway at Bulahdelah to get back to Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens. All up, the loop drive is about 85 kilometres.
Where to eat
The Tea Gardens Boatshed is on the river and does great seafood (110 Marine Drive, Tea Gardens, (02) 4997 0307, open daily for breakfast and lunch, and dinner Wednesday-Saturday during peak holiday season in January). Also in Tea Gardens and right on the waterfront, Tillermans cafe restaurant is a good spot, with local seafood and produce given a French makeover. However, it's not open in winter (July to October), when the owners escape to France for a few months (77 Marine Drive, (02) 4997 0138, breakfast at weekends, dinner Thursday-Sunday but hours vary, so phone ahead). In Hawks Nest, Benchmark on Booner has ocean views and good wood-fired pizza, as well as offering more-traditional bistro meals (corner Booner and Bennett streets, (02) 4997 0941, lunch and dinner daily). Best takeaway fish and chips is from Hook N Cook in Tea Gardens (71 Marine Drive, open daily).
Where to stay
Boathouse Resort in Tea Gardens overlooks the river and has one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, starting at $130 a night. Facilities include undercover parking, a heated pool and bike hire. boathouseresortteagardens.com.au.
How to get there
Hawks Nest is 216 kilometres north of Sydney via the F3 Freeway and the Pacific Highway, about a 2½-hour drive, depending on the traffic.