Explore like a local on your next Port Stephens trip, from pristine snorkelling sites to coffee with a view.
Perspective is a funny thing. Growing up in Port Stephens, I knew it was a lovely place to live but I also took it for granted. Massively. As a teenager it was the lack of a major shopping centre that annoyed me, then in my early 20s it was the lack of nightlife. And why must everything close so early?!
It’s been nearly a decade since I left. In that time I’ve lived in a few different places and travelled to many parts of the world. And now with a bit more perspective, I count my lucky stars that I can still call Port Stephens home. Australia has lots of beautiful little seaside towns along the east coast, but in my (slightly biased) opinion none are as special as Port Stephens.
When you visit Port Stephens you’ll get a generous dose of small town charm and a big list of things to see and do. With 26 beaches, expansive sand dunes, hidden walking tracks, protected marine parks and headlands offering panoramic, too-good-to-be-true views over the water, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Here are 10 of my favourite things to do in Port Stephens.
1. Have a coffee at The Little Nel
There’s no shortage of cafes in Nelson Bay, but my favourite pick is The Little Nel. I never spend a weekend at home without stopping in for a coffee. It’s not just for coffee lovers, but foodies too. The meals are delicious and made from local, seasonal produce so the menu changes frequently. The food is well-priced, fresh and beautifully presented.
Being located in the heart of Nelson Bay, after coffee I often stroll through the little boutiques in the main street or head down to the marina for a walk by the water.
2. Walk along the breakwall
If you’re looking for an easy yet scenic walk, this one’s perfect. From Nelson Bay marina you can walk along the breakwall and be treated to a different view of the town from the water. Nelson Bay is an old fishing village, so the marina is full of quaint old fishing trawlers taking a rest before heading back out to sea.
The breakwall is a popular spot to go fishing, which also attracts lots of pelicans and seabirds hoping to score an easy lunch. It’s also a common spot to see dolphins and fairy penguins, so keep your eyes out for them while you’re walking. You’ll pass the local fish co-op along the way, which is a good place to pick up some freshly caught seafood.
3. Stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking at Little Beach
Around the point from the town centre you’ll find Little Beach. With big grassy areas and several public BBQs, this is a great spot for lunch. It’s often protected from the wind, so it’s also an ideal place to take out your stand-up paddle board, kayak or swim.
On one corner of the beach is a lovely cafe and restaurant, the Little Beach Boathouse, with a wooden deck overflowing out over the water. It’s a picture-perfect place for a morning coffee or a late-afternoon drink as the sun goes down.
There’s a big camping ground right near the beach that has powered and unpowered sites for tents, caravans or cabins.
4. Snorkelling at Halifax Reserve
Nestled between Nelson Bay and Little Beach is Halifax Reserve. You’ll find sweeping views across the bay set against a backdrop of native bushland and a steep, rocky cliff face. But it’s what you’ll find underneath the water that is the real drawcard, and most people wouldn’t even know it’s there.
Halifax Reserve is a protected marine park, home to many different species of fish, octopus, blue gropers, wobbegongs and bright-coloured seagrass. I’ve even seen a seahorse there, plus the odd turtle and pods of dolphins cruising past in the deeper water. It’s best to go at high tide so you don’t have to waddle along the rocks in your flippers for too long.
If you’re into diving, you can do this at Halifax Reserve too. Not far out from the shore there’s a steep drop off, opening up into much deeper water that attracts divers from all over the country.
5. Nelson Bay Lighthouse
Nelson Bay Lighthouse is positioned on the eastern point of Little Beach, up the top of a windy road that starts from the boat ramp. Although there’s no dedicated footpath, you can easily walk up here too. It’s not like a regular tall, white lighthouse. Instead, it’s a sweet little cottage that’s now been converted into a cafe and small museum.
If the incredible view over the bay and headlands isn’t enough to get you up there, I assure you the home-made scones with jam and cream will be.
6. Tomaree Headland
No visit to Port Stephens is complete without a walk up Tomaree Headland. There’s a reason why it’s on all the travel material for the town. Mt Tomaree and its neighbour across the water, Mt Yacaaba, form ‘the heads’ which work together to welcome boats into the bay. They’re probably the most iconic part of Port Stephens.
After a 30-minute climb you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree views of the town and its expansive waterways. The walk up, while steep at times, isn’t difficult and is mostly paved. If you’re an early riser, the viewing platforms are a magical place to watch the sunrise. Thanks to the lovely Australian bush and scattered viewpoints along the way, the journey to the top is an enjoyable experience in itself. Keep an eye out for echidnas, goannas, koalas, and the odd tree snake on the way up.
A lesser-known walking track is the one around the headland, instead of up it. At the base of the mountain you can walk or ride your bike along the water all the way around the point. It’s an easy, flat walk with huge grassy areas for a picnic by the sea.
7. Fingal spit and lighthouse
Fingal Bay is an ocean beach popular with surfers. A must-do while you’re there is a walk across Fingal Spit. This is the area of sand that leads from the northern point of the beach across to Fingal Island, however there’s deep water on either side. At high tide, this sandy path to the island is completely covered. Unsuspecting tourists have been lured over to the island at low tide, only to come back down and find their path back to the beach is gone.
So if you’re keen to do the walk, you must check the tides and only venture over when it’s low and the surf isn’t rough. At low tide you’ll have plenty of time to walk up the island and see the historic ruins and old lighthouse, along with a panoramic view over Fingal beach and the ocean. When low tide is early in the morning, walking across to the island at sunrise is a truly memorable experience.
There’s another big camping site by the beach here which also offers a mix of tent, caravan and cabin sites.
9. Have lunch at Murray’s Brewery
Murray’s Brewery is located on your way into Port Stephens (there’s only one road in and out, so it’s hard to miss!). It’s a 20 minute drive from the town centre, and there’s a mini shuttle bus that does the trip from the tourist information centre most days in summer.
When you get there, jump on a tour to learn about how the local craft beer is brewed and taste some samples along the way. The Whale Ale is a local favorite. The brewery offers great, well-priced meals for lunch and there’s often a band playing outside in the sunshine which makes for a relaxing afternoon.
10. Get the ferry to Tea Gardens
To really experience Port Stephens you need to get on the water. One of the best (and cheapest) ways to do this is to get the local ferry from Nelson Bay across the water to Tea Gardens. This is one of those activities where it’s just as much about the journey as the destination. The trip over takes about an hour, and you’re almost guaranteed to see pods of dolphins along the way.
There’s not a huge amount to do at Tea Gardens, but that’s the charm of it. There’s a much-loved pub right on the waterfront which is a great place to sit back, relax and enjoy a few drinks and a pub meal before heading back to Nelson Bay.
Like most coastal towns, Port Stephens is at its busiest during the December and January school holidays. I’d recommend visiting a bit earlier (in October/November) or later (March/April) to avoid the crazy crowds.
Want more places to camp and things to see and do while you’re out there? Download the free CamperMate app and start exploring.