Lee Atkinson finds there's more on offer than just fabulous beaches at this coastal destination.
Port Macquarie has, according to the CSIRO, the best climate in Australia, with mild winters and gentle summers, and water warm enough to swim in for most of the year. Thousands of holidaymakers who flock here each summer to bask in the sunshine on a string of beautiful beaches agree. Tear yourself away from the coast, though, and you'll find a hinterland of rainforests, waterfalls and views.
What it's known for
Sun, sand and surf are the main attractions. The Hastings River spills into the sea beside the Town Green (the place to eat fish and chips or a sunset ice-cream) and 10 beaches are within easy driving distance from the heart of town. Pretty much all of them are great for swimming and surfing, and they seldom get really crowded. Whale season is May to November and there are numerous good vantage points around town, or you can get a closer look on a whale-watching cruise.
What you didn't know ...
The gumtrees in and around town are home to one of the largest koala populations in the state but, even so, they can be hard to find. The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital is the only one of its kind in the state and volunteers care for up to 250 sick and injured koalas each year. Feeding sessions are at 8am and 3pm, and coincide with the twice-daily free Feed, Walk and Talk tour. The hospital is completely reliant on donations and you can help the cause by adopting a wild koala for $50 a year.
Billabong Koala Park has been a family favourite for years (kids love having their photo taken patting a koala), but in recent years the wildlife park has expanded its menagerie to include monkeys, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, cassowaries, quolls, crocodiles, lizards, snakes and birds. The newest critters to call the place home are two snow leopards. They are among the most endangered big cats on the planet, with a wild population estimated to be fewer than 4000. Billabong is one of only five zoos in Australia where you can see them. It's open daily and entry into the park costs $22.50 for adults, $13 for kids. Also new is Australia's first outdoor vertical wind tunnel, Extreme Velocity at Port Macquarie Airport, where you can get a taste of free-fall skydiving without the need to jump out of an aeroplane. "Flights" for adults start at $55.
Sea Acres Rainforest Centre is the second-largest coastal rainforest reserve in NSW, and a 1.3-kilometre boardwalk lets you walk through the rainforest without harming the sensitive ecosystems. Two tours reveal the rainforest in a new way: a 90-minute Aboriginal guided coastal walk and yoga in the rainforest with "walking meditation". Don't leave town without stepping out along the two-hour beach-to-beach walk from Lighthouse beach to the centre of town. Nowhere else will you find deserted beaches and such wild, windswept headlands this close to a large town.
Where to eat
Chef Lindsey Swab worked in some of Sydney and London's best restaurants before making his sea change to Port Macquarie and his eatery, Fusion 7, is the best restaurant in town, even though it doesn't look like it from the outside. (124 Horton Street, (02) 6584 1171; open for dinner Tues-Sat). Good for lunch is The Restaurant, which overlooks the roses at Cassegrain Winery (lunch daily) and more casual again is the charming Little Fish Cafe under the jacaranda tree at Innes Lake Vineyard (lunch daily). You'll find the best scones and strawberry jam on sale at Cafe Red at Ricardoes Tomato Farm (daily, 9am-3pm).
Where to stay
The Macquarie Waters Hotel and Apartments and The Observatory have water views. Rooms start at about $140 in both hotels. The waterfront cabins at the Sundowner caravan park in the heart of town are a great family option; two-bedroom cottages sleeping four start at about $130. Facilities include a playground, kids' club and free in-house movies.
How to get there
For more information, see portmacquarieinfo.com.au