Things to do in Port Stephens: 20 reasons to visit Australia's dolphin capital

From cycling along coastal tracks to whale watching, here are 20 of the best reasons to visit Port Stephens.

1. SURF THE DUNES

The largest moving coastal sand mass of its type in the southern hemisphere, the Worimi Conservation Lands (Stockton Bight Sand Dunes) – stretching 32 kilometres to Newcastle – are like one huge, fun sandpit. You can explore by foot, in your own 4WD, ride a quad bike or sand board down dunes towering 30-50 metres high. A Port Stephens 4WD sandboarding tour will have you whooping, as you rollercoaster your way out to the dunes – before flying downhill on a sandboard. Even small children can master the steep runs. Wear plenty of sunscreen in warmer weather, and keep an eye out for migrating whales along Stockton Beach.

2. WHALE WATCH OVER BREKKIE

After you've gratified your inner sand demon, head to Crest at the very northern end of the Stockton Bight. Many surf clubs have a kiosk and cafe attached these days, Crest however is in another league. Located within the Birubi​ Point Surf Life Saving Club in Anna Bay, fantastic breakfast and lunch dishes (try the avo smash with feta or the Fat Yak beer battered flathead and chips), plus good coffee are on offer with impressive views and a passing dolphin and whale parade thrown in. If you've just come from a swim at the beach, never fear you can still buy burgers and milkshakes from a kiosk window.

3. CALLING ALL TOP GUNS

Fighter World's two large hangers are packed with history, boasting an extensive collection of fighter aircraft including the likes of Mirages and the F-111. It's surprisingly hands-on. Visitors have the chance to sit inside some of the aircraft – great fun for kids and fighter-pilots-at-heart - providing an appreciation for the complexity of instruments that the pilots had to deal with. Each aircraft is well curated, while highly knowledgeable staff are on hand to share information on both the aircraft and respective historical periods. Fighter World's proximity to the RAAF base means you can also watch aircraft from an observation deck. It's incredibly loud, but unbelievably impressive.

4. HAVE AN ALE OR TWO

On the way to the bay proper, stop at Murray's Brewery and Port Stephens Winery and taste your way through owner Murray Howe's fantastic range of boutique brews. Settle on a favourite, team your choice with one of the delicious pizzas or beer scones, take a seat in the sun, and watch the kids play on the rolling green lawns. There's an outdoor toy box, bocce, chickens and a bird aviary. Live music is held on weekends, while pub tours take place daily at 2.15pm.

5. TAKE A HIKE

Tackle the short (one hour tops), but steep walk up Tomaree​ Headland near Shoal Bay, five minutes form Nelson Bay. Once you've reached the summit, panoramic vistas of the Port Stephens coastline and north coast lay on either side of the mountain. Zenith Beach, at the foot of Tomaree Head, is a beautiful, pristine stretch of sand where you can take a dip afterwards in the placid waters of Port Stephens. Another short walk is to the deserted 'secret' Wreck Beach, tucked away behind the houses at Shoal Bay and reached through lush coastal angophora forest. Or visit the recently renovated GanGan Lookout to learn about the local history and soak up the 360-degree views. 

6. G'DAY FLIPPER

More than 140 bottlenose dolphins call Port Stephens home, so it's little wonder it's regarded as Australia's dolphin capital. You're almost guaranteed a sighting with Moonshadow Cruises (who boast a 99 per cent success rate in season). Sometimes the dolphins chase the boat, or swim off the bow. Cool off in the huge boom net, which is lowered into the water at the stern or watch the dolphins via an underwater video camera. Dolphin Swim Australia also offers a remarkable experience (an Australian first), which takes humans as close as possible to swimming with dolphins. The wild dolphin encounter sees swimmers attached to a cable between the twin bows of the catamaran, Imagine, as it sails along at a safe 5km/h, enabling participants to interact with these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.

7. SEE A KOALA IN THE WILD

Many Australians have never seen a koala in the wild, but in Port Stephens they're spotted regularly, often in front of cabins and holiday houses, or along the beautiful One Mile and Taylors Beach. To guarantee seeing one, take a guided walk (10am and 2pm daily) and spot koalas, plus learn about the Worimi Indigenous tribe and their plants and animals, at the Tilligerry​ Habitat Reserve. 

8. PAY THE FERRY MAN

Hop aboard one of the traditional timber ferries that ply the waterways between Nelson Bay and Tea Gardens. A Port Stephens Ferry trip takes in the history of the Myall River, Winda Woppa​ and beautiful Port Stephens Harbour, allowing passengers to spot resident bottlenose dolphins. On the other side, enjoy fish and chips at the local pub, or a picnic on the riverbank.

9. BREAKFAST WITH THE LOCALS

It used to be slim pickings in Port Stephens when it came to good cafes, which is undoubtedly why locals have made the Little Nell at Nelson Bay a firm ​favourite. The setting is laid back, with funky music and a leafy deck with views across manicured hedges to the bay. Wait staff are friendly, there's a terrific kid's menu along with a good selection of modern Australian dishes. Try the avocado on artisan sourdough with lemon, sweet basil and rosemary sea salt or the chakchouka​, Tunisian baked eggs. The coffee is also good. 

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10. HEAD TO THE FARM

Pat a koala, hand feed free-range animals, see emus, dingoes, cassowaries, camels, ducks, deer, sheep and lambs, plus heaps of other native and farm friends. Oakvale Farm is a well-run park with a brand new koala enclosure. Kids can bottle feed goats, milk a cow or take a fun tractor ride. 

11. SEAL OF APPROVAL

Take a day trip to Broughton Island or visit the local seal colony at Cabbage Tree Island. The reefs surrounding Broughton Island are famous for snapper and Jewfish, while Cabbage Tree Island, just north of the entrance to Port Stephens,

Is home to both a seal colony and a rare species of petrel. 

12. HAND FEED SHARKS AND STING RAYS

Touch a stingray (one of which is the biggest in captivity in the southern hemisphere) and hand-feed a shark at Irukandji, an interactive aquarium just inland at Bobs Farm. Participants get to enter the shark's world, touch them, swim with them and even feed the sharks. Ray Lagoon meanwhile is home to Southern Eagle Rays, Blue Spotted Mask Rays, White Spotted Sharks, Port Jackson Sharks and Australia's largest sting ray species; Smooth Rays. 

13. SITTING ON THE DOCK OF THE BAY

It's tricky landing that perfect combination of both terrific food and superlative views, but the new Galley Kitchen at the spruced up Anchorage somehow manages both. With 180-degree views of Corlette Beach and the Anchorage marina, nab a seat on the timber deck beneath the smart blue and white striped umbrellas. Chef Luke Carpenter heads up the former Merretts restaurant, crafting a menu packed with fresh local seafood and seasonal produce. Share plates are the order of the day. Try the hiramasa kingfish ceviche, grilled flat bread and avocado salsa with a glass of pinot Gris, and then take a stroll along the beach. 

14. SHUCK AN OYSTER

At Holberts Oyster Farm in Salamander Bay customers can view professional oyster shuckers at work through large windows then eat alfresco style on site overlooking the fabulous views of Port Stephens.

15. DIVE RIGHT IN

Fly Point Park, located on the headland between Nelson Bay and Little Beach, is renowned for its high degree of visibility and aqua coloured water that's generally protected from winds. Considered one of Australia's best shore dives, Fly Point offers a number of ledges and drop offs where schools of fish gather, while shallow sections of sea grass provide views of crustaceans, sponges and the occasional giant sea turtle. In deeper water Wobbegong sharks and soft corals can be found. There's plenty of fun to be had in the shallows as well, with snorkellers able to hand feed the surprisingly tame fish.

16. SEE THE LIGHT 

Visit the Inner Light Tearooms for afternoon tea from an old school blackboard menu. The tearooms overlook Nelson and Shoal Bay right out to the waterways entry to Port Stephens (the heads). 

17. ONE HUMP OR TWO

Typically a sight associated with Western Australia's Broome, Port Stephens' beautiful sand dunes are also ideal terrain for camels. Operated by Oakfield Ranch – experts in all-things-camel – camel tours venture into the dune's heart, giving the impression of being isolated in the desert. Upbeat guides provide information on the local area as well as the habits of the laid-back camels themselves.

18. WHET YOUR APPETITE 

With a sparkling bay two and half times the size of Sydney Harbour, try parasailing, standup paddle boarding, diving, surfing or snorkelling, or simply go for a dip in the string of beautiful beaches like Zenith, Little Beach and Fingal Bay.

19. ON YOUR BIKE 

With rugged mountain biking along coastal tracks to family friendly cycle paths, Port Stephens is a terrific place to explore by bike. The majority of tracks make their way along the coast providing views of some of Port Stephens' 26 plus individual beaches before heading into lush stretches of National Park. BYO bike, join an organised tour or hire one once you're there. 

20. FISH N CHIPS

Don't miss the iconic Bub's Fish and Chips next door to the marina at Nelson Bay, with seafood delivered straight from the trawler to their door daily. Afterwards take a stroll along the breakwall and say hello to the pelicans.

Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Destination Port Stephens.

For more information visit www.portstephens.org.au/

See also: Australia's other Great Ocean Road

See also: Why this Australian town is the world's most liveable

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