Thou Walla Sunset Retreat
Set on the tip of Soldiers Point, one of the quieter of the 26 beaches and waterways that make up Port Stephens, this safari tent and villa campsite lives up to its name with glorious sunsets.
Port Stephens, a region rather than a township, is located some 190 kilometres north-east of Sydney or a 2½-hour drive. The harbour itself is more than twice the size of Sydney Harbour and has around a dozen beaches. Nearby are a handful of often-deserted ocean beaches, while the area is edged by national park. The hub is Nelson Bay, located 11 kilometres east of Soldiers Point.
Surrounded by the waters of the port, Soldiers Point (so named for a garrison built there in 1820) has the feel of an old-fashioned holiday town, with little infrastructure save a marina complete with coffee shop, cafe and upscale restaurant and a few shops. Its ideal location and safe beach, however, means it's naturally a popular summer-time holiday spot.
Thou Walla means "meeting place" in the Worimi language and the land on which the retreat is built belongs to the local indigenous Worimi people, although the retreat is owned and managed by Port Stephens Council.
A holiday park and campsite has stood on the site for many years. However, the opening of 10 new luxury tents in April has given the place a certain chic. While "glamping" may be the new buzz word in soft adventure, safari-style tents are still fairly rare in New South Wales and these are the only ones of their kind north of the upscale Paperbark Camp in Jervis Bay.
The site also contains 34 self-contained villas, some with hot tubs, tennis court, pool, barbecue facilities, amenities block and tour desk. Nearby are boat hire facilities (no licence required) and a day spa.
This is camping for those who hate the idea and can't stand the thought of venturing to the amenities block in the dead of night. Built to the same regulations as residential homes, these super tents are attractive, strong and functional and can withstand winds of up to 140km/h. While exceedingly roomy, they are designed for just two adults and, with an attached terrace perfect for sunset drinks, are downright romantic. The bedroom-sitting room is furnished with king or queen bed, bedside chest-of-drawers and table lamps, two lounge chairs and a small table. There is an electric fire for cool nights (also with a glow-only option to perhaps use on summer nights to create another romantic touch) and a fan, along with bar fridge and tea-and-coffee-making facilities. This is no digital detox experience as each tent comes with free Wi-Fi, plenty of power outlets and a huge flat-screen TV. Attached is a bathroom, which can be zipped off from the bedroom, complete with eco self-composting toilet, vanity and washbasin and the most space-age-looking shower-bath arrangement I've ever seen. Once you work out all the taps and buttons (You want music? Just flick a switch.), you're guaranteed free-flowing hot water and a decent soak (there's even a comfy head rest), although not if you're tall and need to stretch out. For those who yearn for a flushing toilet (and really, there's simply no need), each guest has a key to the ablution block and a small torch. While there is plenty here that is high-tech, when you head out, you link together three sturdy zippers and fasten them together with a padlock. The terrace also has table and chairs and a two-person cane "pod".
You are welcome to bring your own food and rustle up a barbecue, or the nearby marina has a corner store, casual cafe/bar and an upscale restaurant. However, we sampled a few of the cafes located in dress-circle waterfront positions around the waterway. Little Nel Cafe (littlenel.com.au) is great for breakfast, with indoor and terrace dining, the latter with view of Nelson Bay Marina and the bay beyond. The Acai mousse plate is a colourful starter with "coconut cloud", granola and berries of every hue, including sprinklings of frozen raspberry dust. Fresh barramundi is definitely on the cards at the cutely-named Cookabarra restaurant (cookabarra.com) and fish farm at the hamlet of Bob's Farm. There is no watery vista but the fish are jumping just metres away in the tanks. The simple whole baked barra with salad is perfect. Catch pre-dinner drinks on the deck of Little Beach Boathouse, located at the Little Beach marina, just a few kilometres east of Nelson Bay. After drinks, head upstairs for even better views of the Port and linger over seafood choices like bowls of clam chowder or steaming muscles or a serve of crisp pork belly (littlebeachboathouse.com.au). A tucked-away gem is Crest Birubi Beach. This cafe, attached to the Surf Lifesaving Club and perched at the eastern end of 32-kilometre Stockton Beach, is simply spoiled for views. The rolling surf and never-ending sand dunes are glorious, while the breakfast treat of mushrooms with marinated feta, truffle oil and dukkha was hard to go past. (crestbirubibeach.com.au)
There's plenty to do in Port Stephens but as the self-proclaimed "Dolphin Capital of Australia" a dolphin and whale-watching cruise (the latter during the season from June to October) is a must. Imagine Cruises' (imaginecruises.com.au) new high-powered catamaran Envision cuts through the water and cuts whale-watching trips down to 90 minutes for those with limited time. Its fleet mate, the sleek sailing catamaran Imagine, is ideal for more leisurely outings.
With kilometres of sand dunes right on Port Stephens' doorstep, it's no wonder several quad bike operators have sprung up. A good choice is Sand Dune Adventures (sandduneadventures.com.au), owned by the Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council. The company has 88 quad bikes, along with a few hummers for those who want to travel in groups. Bikes zoom over an expanse not far from Williamtown, with riders travelling in single-file convoys and tackling dunes as high as 20 metres on what is the largest moving coastal sand dunes in the southern hemisphere. With the added occasional attraction of a fighter jet from the nearby RAAF base screaming overhead, it's a great way to spend an hour or two.
With so much water about there are plenty of nautical activities, from kayaking with dolphins to sunset kayak trips, stand-up paddleboard adventures and two ferry services that run between Nelson Bay and Tea Gardens-Hawks Nest.
Active types will enjoy the two-kilometre medium-level walk to the summit of Mount Tomaree; the views of the Port and ocean are sensational and there are old World War II cannons and bunkers to explore.
The 10 new luxury tents are sensational and set in an idyllic position, which would best be booked for spring or summer to escape the holiday crowds. The retreat is run by friendly folk. Former non-campers will become converts overnight.
Tents start at $115 per night mid-week and $140 weekend in the low season from May to September (excluding the June long weekend); $170 (mid-week) and $199 (weekend) during the shoulder season from October to late December, and from February to April. Peak season (from December 26 to January 29) prices are $255 per night. There's a minimum two-night stay on weekends and seven-night stays in peak season.
Thou Walla Sunset Retreat, 2 Ridgeway Avenue, Soldiers Point. 2317 (02) 4982-7237 or 1300 600 204, see www.thouwallasunsetretreat.com
Glass of wine on the deck as the sun sinks slowly over the waters of Soldiers Point.
The retreat retains a bit of an old (or nostalgic) holiday-park feel, which may not appeal to hipsters.
Caroline Gladstone was a guest of Destination Port Stephens.