Sandcastles and tree houses

Part escape, part adventure: Lance Richardson samples two kinds of weekends in one at Port Stephens.

Much can be seen from Tomaree Head lookout in Port Stephens: to the north are Hawks Nest and the small islands of Boondelbah and Cabbage Tree; to the south, a sickle strip of beach leading to a tiny lighthouse with Fingal Bay beyond. My friend sees whales where I see only shadows and the occasional fishing boat. Originally, Fort Tomaree was a radar station meant for sighting enemy vessels sneaking in from the ocean during World War II. Now travellers climb its meandering steel walkway to gaze out over their holiday destination.

Looking at sea, sand and bush and carrying around memories of boisterous family trips to similar locations, I see two types of weekend written in the landscape.

The first is a luxury escape from the city. Work ends for the week and a 45-minute Aeropelican flight to Newcastle is followed by a quiet drive to One Mile Beach. Here is Wanderers Retreat, an eco-resort nestled among the eucalypts of a koala habitat. Birds chatter in the trees as we ascend to lodgings styled as a tree house, with double spa and champagne waiting. A large pane of glass faces dense foliage - all the benefits of nature without nocturnal visits from curious animals.

Things continue slowly in the morning, with coffee by the moored yachts at the d'Albora Marina in Nelson Bay, as a flock of cockatoos sweeps past. Then a change of pace: a session of parasailing, taking turns to soar off the back of a boat with the help of a parachute (ocean dunk optional). Or maybe we'll move straight to the culinary section of proceedings and hit Port Stephens Winery, the oldest on the peninsula; or the adjacent Murray's Craft Brewing Co, with its popular beer scones and unusually named beers. Downtime, after all, means never having to make a decision harder than whether to choose Whale Ale or Murray's Sassy Blonder - a ''misunderstood'' beer, the label says, although it's hard to imagine how anyone could misunderstand the winking lady on the bottle.

The other holiday I can envisage here is for the inner child (or family, if the child happens to be real). Again, we head to Wanderers Retreat but instead of tree houses we stay in one of the two-bedroom cottages, each sleeping up to five people. Fully contained with a kitchen and covered verandah, these cottages are perfect for groups wanting to make their own way with little fuss. The self-composting toilets are sure to come up as a topic of conversation when the first person goes to flush but tell the kids they're saving the bush as well as supporting an establishment with worm farms, natural cleaning products and careful attentiveness to energy consumption and water usage. Then distract them with the in-ground pool or the other ''tree house'': a small wooden box for Oliver and Lisa, the resident possums.

In the morning it's Sahara Trails. We pull on helmets and Driza-Bones for a ride through casuarina forest on horses retired from a life on the racetrack. Following the river past paperbark trees and patches of mangrove swamp, my steed, Pedro, proves a reliable ride in comparison with a horse two down the rank. ''Why is it always wanting to eat and drink?'' squeals a girl as her mount stops to munch another flower. Kookaburras laugh in the distance.

A trek through the swamp suits an absolute beginner - my partner has time to braid the horse's mane - but there's something to entertain everyone here. The tranquillity of the forest is a welcome balance to the bustle of Nelson Bay.

On either of these holidays - private couple's retreat or energetic family romp - the afternoon destination looks the same from wherever you stand. With 32 kilometres of moving sand dunes, the biggest attraction in these parts is also the strangest.

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We pull into the car park just off Birubi Beach, where half a dozen windsurfers are launching from waves in weightless dance. Newcastle is a speck in the distance and between it and the windsurfers the sand stretches like a surreal desert fantasy - especially when a camel steps past a line of miniature concrete pyramids and sits down to wait for passengers.

The dunes at Stockton Beach are the largest in the southern hemisphere, at some points soaring to more than 47 metres and stretching a kilometre inland as they roll over the forest just beyond the horizon. Most beaches are losing sand but Stockton gives it away (think Waikiki Beach, Hawaii) and still manages to grow every year.

As a playground for residents, tourists and time, its ever-changing valleys conceal and reveal a history of use. With a permit from the service station, virtually any vehicle can take a spin, find a camping stop or get bogged (as the case may be). Protected from the raging winds in a four-wheel-drive, we pass indigenous middens - dumping grounds of shellfish thousands of years old; and Tin City, a squatters' settlement of reclusive fishermen. And those pyramids, it turns out, were tank traps meant to stop a Japanese invasion. Elsewhere, tangles of barbed wire bloom from the sand, the remnants of a front-line war defence for NSW. Now they're little more than play equipment for the red-capped plovers.

Port Stephens 4WD Tours takes in all these sights as the knowledgeable guide pulls history from the sand like an archaeologist. Then he shifts gears and smiles. ''Have you got your seatbelt on?''

''Is there a reason you're asking?'' a passenger asks with panic, moments before we plummet down the side of a mountainous dune. I find that child inside me screaming with excitement and again as we stop to repeat the descent on little more than a plank of wood. Sandboarding is a popular pastime here and the guide gives me a gentle nudge into a personal sandstorm.

By the time we reach the famous shipwreck further down the beach - the Norwegian Sygna that washed up in 1974 - both adult and inner child have found what they were looking for.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Port Stephens Tourism.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

One Mile Beach in Port Stephens is about three hours' drive north of Sydney. Aeropelican flies from Sydney to Newcastle's Williamtown Airport in 45 minutes, fares priced from $132, one way.

Staying there

Wanderers Retreat at One Mile Beach has a variety of accommodation. For couples, luxury spa tree houses are self-contained and cost from $195 a night for two people. This includes champagne and chocolates on arrival. A larger bush spa cottage costs from $215 a night for a couple.

For groups and families, two-bedroom eco cottages can sleep up to five people and cost from $135 a night for two people. Additional fees for extra guests and on weekends. Phone 4982 1702, see www.wanderersretreat.com.

Playing there

Port Stephens Parasailing has solo flights ($84) and tandem ($139 for two people flying together). Weather permitting. Phone 4982 2808, see www.portstephensparasailing.com.au.

Sahara Trails in Anna Bay has daily one-hour Aussie Bush Trail horse rides that cost $50 a person. Phone 4981 9077, www.saharatrails.com.

On the dunes, the three-hour Sygna Shipwreck Tour with Port Stephens 4WD Tours departs at 2pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and every day during school holidays. Cost is $78 for adults, $43 for children and $199 for a family. Phone 4984 4760, see www.portstephens4wd.com.au.

Murray's Craft Brewing Co. in Bobs Farm runs brewery tours daily at 2pm. Beer and wine tastings also available daily, see www.murraysbrewingco.com.au.

For more information, see www.portstephens.org.au.