It's one of those ridiculously good-looking blue-sky winter days that seem to scream to the world "look how mild Australia's winters are!". As we stand on a rocky headland overlooking the Pacific Ocean, we spot a whale and its calf. Moments later we see another, and then another; their distinctive spouts alerting us to their presence. Excitedly, we rush inside our beach house at Fishermans Bay, little realising the show has only just begun.
Inside, the chic three-bedroom house looks out over an uninterrupted vista of sea, broken only by explosive surf breaks that pummel into the headland. As we explore our new abode, wandering from room to room, we cannot escape the whales – slapping their fins, streams of warm air puncturing the sky, occasionally breaching in a "look at me" kind of way. By sunset we've clocked at least 40 whales and haven't had to venture further than the 100-square-metre deck. It's like having dress circle seats along the humpback highway.
We arrived at our beach house, "Whataview", via Lemon Tree Passage on the premise of experiencing Port Stephens in winter. Located 2½ hours north of Sydney, Port Stephens offers old school holidays reminiscent of simpler times. Generations of Australians come for its natural beauty, abundant wildlife, oysters by the bay, safe swimming beaches and deep blue waters home to dolphins, and this season, whales in their thousands.
In summer, every man and his dog heads to "Port". Accommodation is scarce, everyone jostles for a table at local restaurants and you need to fight for a patch of sand. Winter is a different story. Despite the cooler temperature, blue skies, sparkling water and the great whale migration make it an inviting time to explore the 98,000-hectare marine park lying literally on our doorstep. Beaches are practically empty and it's easy to get a booking at hotels, holiday houses, cafes and restaurants. Our first stop on our three-day winter escape is Poyers Restaurant. Despite living just up the road in Newcastle, I'd never been to Lemon Tree Passage, and on arrival immediately wonder why. Poyers is a family-owned waterfront cafe, with a Mediterranean feel. French chef and owner Ludovic Poyer has created a menu that is true to his classical roots but with a contemporary twist. It's a real find.
We take a seat overlooking bobbing boats and Bull Island, as Ludovic's wife Mandy delivers water, menus and a glass of wine. The Poyers have made this quiet bayside village, built on oyster farming, their home and describe it as a "hidden paradise". "You have to really want to come here," says Mandy, referring to the fact that it lies off the main drag heading to Nelsons Bay.
Poyer first made his mark running the kitchen at the local boat club, before branching out with his eponymous restaurant. Dishes such as the duck a l'orange and garlic snails show off his French training. He also makes the most of local produce; working with fishermen who deliver seafood by boat, and sourcing local oysters.
After devouring their kids meals (no chicken nuggets here), our daughter Ella and her friend Marley head outside to play on the sand in the protected bay, returning only when the waft of house-made chocolate fondant and heavenly apple tart fills the salty air. We happily while away an afternoon and leave vowing to return.
After yet another whale show which we watch from bed the next morning, we prise ourselves away and head for the Tomaree Headland walk, at the far end of Shoal Bay. It's another beautiful winter's day and it seems everyone has the same idea of climbing the 161-metre trail to the summit. At the top, we take in the commanding views of Port Stephens and the North Coast all the way to Cabbage Tree and Boondelbah islands – the world's only nesting sites for the endangered Gould's petrel. From the south platform are impressive views of Zenith, Wreck and Box Beaches, Fingal Island and Point Stephens Lighthouse.
Feeling sufficiently pious we tuck into a fantastic breakfast at The Little Nell, lucky enough to score a waterfront table on the sun-drenched deck. Everything about this cafe at Nelson Bay is impressive: from the young friendly waiters in their smart denim aprons, through to the excellent coffee and creative dishes like zucchini and pea fritters, with streaky bacon, poached eggs, creme fraiche, pesto and relish.
Once a culinary desert, Port Stephens now boasts a plethora of great eateries, wine bars and cafes. Another good option is the Evviva Cafe and Bar, offering tapas, fine wines and craft beers. Nearby, Little Beach Boathouse, with its upscale seafood focused menu offered in a white dining room with polished floorboards and commanding bay views, is a must for a long, lazy lunch.
Downstairs, they've recently opened a bar offering a rustic, coastal ambience with raw timber and copper. The bar overlooks the jetty of Little Beach Marina and when we visit, it's crowded with locals and visitors cradling an ale, waiting for the impending sunset. "We always get dolphins about this time of the day, almost on cue," the bar tender says.
We choose instead to watch the sunset back on the deck of our glorious beach house, opening a bottle of wine as yet more whales play offshore. "Quick girls," we implore, "come and see the whales". But alas, the novelty has well and truly worn off. "We've seen hundreds already," comes the exasperated reply. It's true, we most certainly have and our nine-year-old daughter and friend don't quite grasp how incredible that is. For me, the sight of these magnificent creatures sailing past on their annual migration north, is one I will never tire of.
Whataview, a spectacular three-bedroom beach house with eclectic decor, three queen-size beds, an infinity pool and phenomenal ocean views, is priced from $1500 for a three to four-night stay in winter for six adults. A 20 per cent discount is offered on this property and others until September 23 when booked through the website. See holidaysportstephens.com.au
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Destination Port Stephens.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN PORT STEPHENS IN WINTER
Have a pre-dinner drink at the intricate new Hemmingsway Bar within the Hamptons-inspired Anchorage Port Stephens. Join a whiskey tasting in the tasting room followed by dinner in the Galley Kitchen. See anchorageportstephens.com.au
Join a camel ride with Oakfield Ranch over the vast Stockton sand dunes. The camels depart from Birubi Beach, the northernmost point of the 32 kilometres of Stockton Beach, the largest moving coastal sand mass in the southern hemisphere. Guides even walk the camels through the water along the shoreline, which is particularly fun. Rides operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. See oakfieldranch.com
En route to Port Stephens, a visit to the King Street Confectionery at Raymond Terrace for chocolate tasting and old-fashioned sweets will have you nostalgic for childhood. See kingstreetconfectionery.com.au
Crest, within the Birubi Point Surf Life Saving Club, offers hearty breakfast and lunch dishes (try the vegetarian big breakfast), good coffee and a passing whale parade in season. See crestbirubibeach.com.au
Join local oyster farmers, fishing families and foodie legends of Port Stephens at this year's Love Seafood festival. The month-long festival (August 1-31) includes cooking demonstrations, local wine and seafood pairings, signature dinners by guest chefs, oyster shucking competitions and much, much more. See portstephens.org.au/loveseafood