Anchored in Anchorage

Bruce Elder finds functional simplicity and a culinary surprise in a laid-back coastal getaway.

Port Stephens has largely avoided the gaudiness, fast-food franchises and frenetic pace that seem to be mandatory at coastal holiday destinations. This probably accounts for why Hawks Nest, on the northern shoreline, was a perennial favourite of John Howard's family. And this simplicity accounts for why we choose it for a "far from the madding crowd" weekend break.

For years now the best accommodation in the area has been Peppers Anchorage at Corlette on the southern shore. It's a classy understatement in timber, with elegant shutters on the dormer windows, and wooden balconies and boardwalks jutting into a 90-berth marina.

The interplay between the soft yellow rendered sections and the grey timbers works perfectly in what can be described as a low-key "New England cottage" style.

Like the area, Peppers Anchorage is artlessly simple without being ostentatious. The complex has 80 rooms (25 suites and 55 rooms) with private balconies. Most have views across Port Stephens and the resort's marina. Our room, on the ground floor, is large and comfortable with wooden shutters on the windows, a couple of photographs on the walls, a king-size bed, a flatscreen TV and a small table and chairs.

All the ground-floor rooms have balconies with chairs and tables, allowing visitors to relax and enjoy the view. There's not a hint of excess but, surprisingly, there is also no sense of luxury - the rooms and their bathrooms are decidedly functional.

The most luxurious parts of this elegant resort are the gardens, the palm trees and the walkways. Visitors are meant to enjoy the environs rather than luxuriate in their room. The resort's amenities include massage and beauty treatments, a large, heated outdoor pool and fishing from the nearby breakwater. The highlight, and the one concession to luxury, is Merretts Restaurant.

In an area where fish and chips and the Hog's Breath Cafe seem to dominate, it is a delightful culinary surprise to tuck into seafood bisque with crab ravioli and herb salad as an entree. Merretts's duck breast with orange served with vegetable chips and asparagus is perfectly cooked, with subtle, complementary flavours, and the dessert of apple and rhubarb crumble is a celebration of the chef's knife. The pricing is simple: one course $37, two courses $55 and three courses $70.

The menu may be modest but the preparation and presentation are outstanding and the setting - with views over the marina and, if you eat at the appropriate time, the waters coloured by the sunset - is about as good as it gets.

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The same applies to breakfast. Also served in Merretts, morning views across the marina and port are complemented by juices, muesli, croissants, pancakes, a range of hot dishes and, most importantly, excellent coffee.

The main town in the region, Nelson Bay, is five-minutes' drive away or a pleasant half-hour walk along the shoreline. It has a variety of eateries and attractions that are either free or modestly priced. Entry to the Nelson Head lighthouse, for example, is free (donations appreciated). Its museum is well stocked with lighthouse and nautical memorabilia and has panoramic views to Hawks Nest, Tea Gardens and Yacaaba Head.

The best pleasures here are free: bushwalking and beachwalking. For those seeking more adrenalin, the sand dunes at Anna Bay can be enjoyed on horseback (Sahara Trails Horse Rides has a 90-minute ride that costs $120 for riders over 16, saharatrails.com); by four-wheel drive (Sand Dune Tours has two-hour tours for $115 for families, portstephensadventure.com.au); and on quad bikes (Quad Bike King has tours from $110 a person, quadbikeking.com.au).

There is a lazy journey across to Tea Gardens by ferry (it departs 8.30am, 10am, noon and 3.30pm from the public jetty, $20 for adults and $10 for children return, book on 4984 3843).

Then take a brisk walk across the bridge from Tea Gardens to Hawks Nest and, if you're feeling energetic, walk south along the beach leading to a serious, and often confusing, climb up Yacaaba Head. If you are fit, the views areworth the effort.

There are a number of whale-watching trips out of Port Stephens.We choose the Imagine tour on a catamaran. It holds 45 passengers and, rare for whale watching, heads out every day of the year. It claims a 98 per cent viewing success rate.

Apparently, by the time the last whales can be seen heading north, the first whales are heading south. On the day we're out, at the height of the northern migration, we see more than 20 whales in two hours (cruises depart daily at 10.30am and 2pm, $60 for adults, $30 for children, $150 for a family, imaginecruises.com.au).

The joy of staying at Peppers Anchorage is a happy contradiction. While enjoying the classy accommodation and cuisine, you are based in an area where the simplest of pleasures are, invariably, the best options.

Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.

VISITORS' BOOK
Peppers Anchorage
Port Stephens
Address
Corlette Point Road, Corlette.
The verdict Great views, spacious rooms and an excellent restaurant.
Price Rates range from $215 a night for an Anchorage room at the weekend to $330 for a Loft Suite at the weekend.
Bookings Phone 4984 2555, see peppers.com.au/anchorage.
Getting there About two-and-a-half hours from Sydney via the Pacific Highway and Sydney-Newcastle Freeway.
Perfect for Families and couples wanting to relax around the pool and escaping holiday crowds.
Wheelchair access Yes.
While you're there Walk to Nelson Bay, catch the ferry to Tea Gardens, walk to Nelson Bay lighthouse, walk along the beach and sand dunes at Anna Bay.