A quick trip out-of-town delivers a holiday feeling without having to pack your bags, writes Rachel Browne.
My head is quite literally in the sand. A spectacular face plant while sandboarding at Birubi Point at Port Stephens has left me with gritty granules in my mouth, up my nostrils and even in my ears.
Just as well the rush of a fast ride down a 15-metre dune was worth it. Sandboarding turns out to be surprisingly good fun.
It's one of the many new things I discovered while being a tourist in my own backyard, two girls aged seven and 10 in tow.
In search of a day trip to keep all three of us entertained, we chose an AAT Kings tour to Port Stephens which included the Australian Reptile Park, dolphin watching and the sandboarding.
With 47 people of various nationalities on board our coach, we left Sydney at the crack of dawn and snaked our way up the Pacific Highway towards our first stop, the Australian Reptile Park at Somersby.
I have driven past its distinctive dinosaur overlooking the Sydney-Newcastle freeway more times than I care to remember, but I have never set foot inside. The carpark is already packed when we pull up shortly after 9am.
The appeal for families is obvious. The park is small but punches above its weight: plenty of reptiles, as you would expect, but also lots of Australian mammals, marsupials and birds as well as more exotic creatures.
The girls were thrilled to be able to pat one of the koalas and feed a kangaroo. They were suitably impressed by the Galapagos giant tortoises and the Peruvian bird-eating spider although the collection of local creepy crawlies - including huntsmen, redbacks and funnelwebs - left them underwhelmed ("We have those under our house").
After a one-hour whip around the park, it's back on the coach for the trip to Port Stephens. While long drives and young children normally don't mix, the time passes quickly with the informative and entertaining commentary from our driver and guide, Henry.
He runs through the logistics of the tour but keeps up a running dialogue on the history of Sydney from pre-white settlement to Captain Cook's landing and beyond. There's even information about Sydney's economy, house prices and why everything is so expensive. Naturally, there is a lot of discussion about Australia's wildlife, the most dangerous of which might have to be a particular species of P-plate driver, after one just cuts him off on a busy stretch of road.
We arrive at Nelson Bay, on the southern side of Port Stephens, in plenty of time for lunch before boarding the Moonshadow, to watch the dolphins.
According to the brochure, there is a 99 per cent chance of seeing dolphins during the 90-minute trip and the animals obligingly appear, frolicking on cue to
the sound of a few hundred clicking cameras. While vessels are not permitted to get too close to the dolphins, they are allowed to come up to the boat and that they do, giving us a close up view of their aquatic antics.
The girls are less impressed by the dolphins than they are by the opportunity to ride in the boat's boom net. Only about a dozen passengers brave the chilly water. The girls report back that it was cold but fun.
After a short drive, we're off to our third and final destination which is Birubi Point, at the northern end of Stockton Beach. The sand dunes here are up to 10 storeys high but our guides, Port Stephens 4WD Tours, drop us at slightly less intimidating runs, including a small dune for less adventurous sandboarders.
A couple of rides later, we're exhausted, sweaty and have sand in just about every crevice but it's a great way to finish the day.
Most passengers spend the 2½ hour trip back to Sydney dozing or watching a video on Australian wildlife.
And that's part of the attraction of playing tourist. Having someone else handle the itinerary and do all the driving while we enjoyed the view makes a very pleasant change. Being introduced to novel family-friendly activities in our own region wasan added bonus.
The writer travelled courtesy of AAT Kings.
THREE MORE SHORT BREAKS BY COACH
THREE-DAY SYDNEY FOODIES' DELIGHT
Take in the best of Sydney from a cruise on Sydney Harbour then head to the Hunter Valley for a cooking class. Priced from $1075 an adult and $860 a child.
FIVE-DAY SOUTHERN CAPITALS
Stop at a working sheep farm for a barbecue lunch on the way to Canberra from Sydney, then continue on to Melbourne. From $1395 an adult and $1255 a child.
FOUR-DAY SYDNEY AND THE BLUE MOUNTAINS
Explore the Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Bondi Beach plus many more, then head to the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains. Priced from $795 an adult and $636 a child.
Lunch is an optional extra so you can choose to eat a buffet lunch with your fellow travellers or dine at one of the many restaurants and cafes at Nelson Bay, or pack your own picnic.
$185 adult; $93 child.
aatkings.com; phone 1300 228 546