Bannisters' much anticipated arrival at Soldiers Point, a sleepy bayside hamlet on the southern shores of Port Stephens, has been as welcome as the southerly change after a long, hot summer's day. The resort is about three hours' drive from Sydney, or a 30-minute drive from Newcastle (Williamtown) Airport, where there are daily direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra. Most rooms look out over the calm waters of the Karuah River, while others offer bushland vistas.
Bannisters has transformed a down-at-heel retro motel into a four-star luxe retreat for foodies in this relaxed coastal hotspot. It has 78 rooms and is Bannisters' third boutique hotel in NSW (the other two are at Mollymook, on the South Coast). It is also the first new hotel for the region in five years. Seven million dollars has been spent re-imagining the former Salamander Shores, which was managed by Accor. It now includes four Hamptons-inspired suites; a penthouse; and 50 rooms with dreamy sea vistas, created by architect Tony Freeman, interior designer Romy Alwill and landscape designer Will Dangar – the team responsible for Bannisters' South Coast properties.
Bannisters Port Stephens has a similar look and feel to its Mollymook sibling (the original Bannisters is also a converted retro motel), the hotel by celebrity chef Rick Stein, his bubbly wife Sass and business partner Peter Cosgrove. It boasts an airy lobby, infinity pool (which is compact but lovely), a sunny terrace bar, pub style venue and signature restaurant with splashes of Stein's trademark blue.
We stayed in an ocean deck room and, while not anything to write home about, the views are mesmerising. This room category is offered across four levels with better views, obviously, offered on the higher floors. While the 30 square metre room is clean, comfortable and brand spanking new, it's also a little bland. If you value the room as much as a hotel's location and facilities, opt for a suite, or if the budget extends, the penthouse.
BBQ King Prawns with a Split Tomato and Currant Sauce at Bannisters Port Stephens. Photo: David Griffen Photography
The quality of local seafood and proximity to the Hunter Valley and its wines sold Stein on the location for his third Bannisters property. King prawns, sand whiting, snapper and blue trevally star, while Sydney rock oysters are sourced from local growers a mere 600 metres away. You can't get more local than that. There are two distinct food offerings: The Terrace Bar fronting the pool offers casual bites such as steamed bao buns, fish tacos, grilled barramundi, tasty burgers and Archie Rose gin-and-tonic cheesecake (a winner). Downstairs, the Rick Stein Restaurant is a more upscale affair. Stein worked closely with head chef Mitchell Turner on the menu, which features his oysters Charentaise, fish and shellfish soup, Madras curry of blue eye trevally, and ever-popular fish pie. Keeping it local, Bannisters collaborated with Brokenwood Wines on a signature blend for the restaurant, while East Coast Gin from Murray's Brewery and Nelson Bay's Two Bobs sourdough by Rob Daniels (ex Iggy's Bread in Sydney) are also on offer.
Take a walk along the foreshore on the Mariners Walk Heritage Trail and keep an eye out for dolphins. You can walk all the way to Nelson Bay on the scenic trail, which would take about an hour. The best spot for a swim is to the left of the hotel at Kangaroo Point. Coffee and brunch at the Little Nell in Nelson Bay is always a good idea, as are sunset drinks on the deck at the Little Boathouse Bar.
Bannisters is a fabulous new addition to Port Stephens with terrific food, a lovely pool and warm, friendly staff. I plan on becoming a regular.
From $249 for a Paperbark Room with bush views, including breakfast. See bannisters.com.au
The food, the food, the food. Hang on, did I mention the food?
Rooms are on the no-frills side, however bay-facing rooms offer gorgeous water vistas. Balconies offer limited privacy (there's a perforated screen) which means you can see and hear your neighbours.
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Bannisters.