When the cold starts to make its presence known down in Victoria, it’s the ideal time for those of us down south to chase some winter sun and milder conditions.
Queensland, of course, is the default winter destination, but a shorter trip, with just as much to see and do, will take you to Port Stephens, just north of Newcastle in NSW’s Hunter region. I recently spent some time in Port Stephens and found it to be a fantastic holiday destination – a bit more “real” and a bit less “touristy” than the usual holiday spots, - offering the sort of essentials and amenities you’d want, with plenty of outdoor and off-the-beaten-track options, too.
Discover Port Stephens
If you’re familiar with the Port Stephens area and own a four-wheel drive, you’ll already know this region’s biggest attraction – the drivable sand dunes at Stockton Beach. If you’re not familiar with Port Stephens, it’s a stunning part of NSW and offers far more as a holiday destination than just an epic expanse of sand-driving.
With a bay area twice the size of Sydney Harbour, there was just as much at Port Stephens for visitors like me to experience on the water as there was on land, with fishing, diving, swimming, boating, kayaking and even parasailing opportunities within the expansive port itself, as well as more fishing, boating and surfing on the oceanside beaches.
“Port” is probably a bit of a misnomer, as it makes the area sound like it’s all cranes, docks and cargo ships, but Port Stephens is far from that, and is much more of a natural wonderland, with the area forming part of the Great Lakes Marine Park.
Already a popular summer destination, I reckon Port Stephens shouldn’t be overlooked as a winter escape, either. Over winter, there are less crowds, plus more campsite space and accommodation options. With less traffic, exploring the region during this time is more leisurely, too, with the added bonus that May to November is the whale migration time, so offshore whale watching charters are active.
Stockton – Dune Heaven
For four-wheel drive owners, the big draw with Port Stephens is the beach driving to be had on Stockton Bight Sand Dunes. Part of the 4200 hectare Worimi Conservation Lands, the dunes at Stockton Bight cover 32km of amazing beachfront driving.
Up to 30 metres high with 60 degree slopes in some areas, the dunes at Stockton “move”, too, but don’t worry, they’ll still be there for your trip! The natural movement of the sand, through wind and erosion, means the dune area is actually creeping north and is recognised as the largest moving sand mass in the southern hemisphere.
Driving the dunes is a pretty awe-inspiring experience, and really is a “must do” for any keen off-roader. Most of the regular trails are capable of being handled by novices, while being such a popular spot with off-roaders means a tow is never too far away if you get into trouble.
Tag-along tours are also available for those with limited beach driving experience, while Stockton Bight has a number of tour operators running 4x4 experiences on the dunes for those that came to the region sans 4x4.
Vehicle entry to the dunes is controlled by the Worimi Conservation Land (WCL) management and does require a permit, so respect the traditional owners and make sure your permits (which are just $10 for a 3-day pass and $30 for a 12-month pass and can be purchased from a number of locations in the region) are in order before tackling the dunes.
The area is significant to the Worimi people, who are the region’s traditional owners, and it’s through their generosity that access is granted. Driving outside the designated areas means you could be interfering with the traditional owners’ historical sites, including camps, middens and burial sites, so please respect this history and stay within the marked driving areas. This will ensure Stockton will continue to be available to off-roaders in the future.
If a 4x4 isn’t your thing, there’s a 350 hectare ‘RVA’ section in the south of Stockton Dunes that’s set aside for recreational vehicles, so you can run quad bikes and some motorbikes here. A WCL permit is also required here, all vehicles must be conditionally registered (with specific criteria on what can and can’t be registered – for example, dune buggies are not permitted) and night-time riding in the RVA is not permitted.
You can also “surf” or sandboard down the steep dunes, but if even this is a little too fast-paced for your tastes, there are horse-riding and even camel tours along this beautiful stretch of beach.
When travelling on Stockton dunes, make sure you check out the fast-disappearing wreck of the Sygna. A landmark tourist attraction for years, this bulk coal carrier ran aground at Stockton Bight in 1974, but thanks to the ravages of the sea, very little is left now. A major storm last year saw the last prominent part of the Sygna hulk collapse, so get up there and see what’s left before it all disappears beneath the waves!
Also for Off-Roading
Stockton gets all the attention, but you can also get your sand-driving fix at Samurai Beach, just north of Stockton. Only a couple of kms long and more navigable, Samurai can be a good starter option for the amateur sand driver. Low tyre pressures are essential here and families should be aware that Samurai includes a clothing-optional (ie. nude) beach section.
North of Port Stephens, just beyond the Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest area, there’s Bennetts Beach, which is around 8km in length, with two access points and challenging, softer sand. Much less crowded than Stockton, Bennetts is a better option if you’re looking for a quieter drive, but dropping your tyre pressures, travelling in a group and carrying recovery gear is essential here.
Past Bennetts is Mungo Beach. Another soft-sand beach, the driving here is challenging, but it also doesn’t get the crowds of Stockton. Driving instructions for off-roaders are as per Bennetts, and while there’s no on-beach camping, a number of campsites are close by, within Myall Lakes National Park.
Away from the beach at Medowie (also north of Port Stephens), the Wallaroo National Park has a range of trails (mostly old fire trails from when the park was a state forest) to tackle, as well as swampy bog holes and an old quarry for a bit of rock crawling fun.
For a change up from the sand, a day or two spent here is definitely recommended. Travelling in a group, or bringing a full set of recovery equipment is also recommended here.
With all these options, access permits and restrictions (like no open fires in some camp areas), do apply, so check the NPWS website or contact the Nelson Bay Information Centre for what’s required and what restrictions apply before making further plans.
Camping – Lux or Rough
At Stockton Beach, there’s no camping permitted within the dunes or the Worimi National Park area, but plenty of campsites and holiday parks are within the Port Stephens area, with more located north of the port, just a short drive away. These include Mungo Brush, Dees Corner and Korsman’s Landing in the Myall Lakes National Park, catering for camper trailers, caravans and tents in most instances.
But for the real ‘Robinson Crusoe’ experience, the Broughton Island campsite is a must. Only accessible by boat and limited to just five sites, this stunningly beautiful island seems isolated, but is only a couple of kilometres offshore. Camping within the island’s active seabird colony site is ‘tents-only’, conditions apply, and as you can imagine, bookings are essential.
If you’d rather leave the “roughing it” part of your trip to the actual driving, there’s plenty of luxury hotel and resort-style accommodation available.
In Nelson Bay, there is an abundance of accommodation options, from motels and holiday parks, to B&Bs and the aforementioned resorts, with backpacker accommodation available for those on a budget.
With all its facilities, Nelson Bay is the ideal hub for your exploration of Port Stephens. The town has the region’s main information centre, so call in here to find out essentials like park closures and access restrictions, as well as coming events.
Plan your trip for this June and you can check out the Blue Water Country and Blues Music Festival, which runs from 9-12 June. Taking place at venues throughout the region, this year’s festival even includes a ‘Progressive Country Music Luncheon Cruise’ - I might head up there just to find out what that actually is!
Water, Water Everywhere
If you’re as keen a boater or watersport enthusiast as you are an off-roader, there’s plenty at Port Stephens to fill your holiday, too.
Within the broader Great Lakes Marine Park are 26 individual beaches, including those at Myall Lake, so it’s no wonder that the area is known as a ‘blue water wonderland’.
After swimming or kayaking the calm, crystal-clear waters of Shoal Bay, Zenith Beach is just a few minutes’ walk away (and great for surfing), or you can head west to encounter Little Beach, Dutchman’s Beach, Bagnall’s Beach and Salamander Bay on the way to Soldier Point.
A 140+ community of bottlenose dolphins makes its home in Port Stephens, with sea turtles to be seen by swimmers, too, while koala habitats ring the shore.
Within the port’s waters, there are wrecks for divers to explore, with the calm water lending itself to more leisurely snorkelling, especially at the likes of Fly Point and Halifax Park.
There are abundant fishing opportunities, as well as plenty of river and blue water cruise options, but for the ultimate view of Port Stephens, a parasailing ride is a must. Trust me, I know!
If you’d rather catch fish than look at them, there are a number of boat ramps around Nelson Bay to set off from, with further options to the west, like Taylors Beach and Mallabula, so you can wet a line or just explore the port at your own pace and time.
Flathead, whiting and kingfish can be caught from the shore. Offshore, the likes of mahi mahi and even marlin can be caught during summer, as the region is world-renowned for game fishing.
Further south, you’ve got the likes of Fingal Bay, Samurai Beach, One Mile Beach and tiny Kingsley Beach for more fishing and swimming opportunities before you reach the Stockton dunes.
Find Out More
I’ve only really scratched the surface of what Port Stephens has to offer for four-wheel drivers and general holidaymakers alike, so if this has given you the desire for your own Port Stephens winter holiday adventure (I want to go back already!), start planning your trip via the following contact points.
Port Stephens Visitor Information Centre
60 Victoria Parade, Nelson Bay
Ph: 1800 808 900
Also see the above for details on water sports activities, dolphin swims, snorkelling and other water sports activities.
NPWS Hunter Region Office
(National Parks access and camping permits, Stockton Beach vehicle permits)
12B Teramby Rd, Nelson Bay
Ph: (02) 4984 8200.
Worimi Conservation Lands
c/o NPWS NSW
Ph: (02) 4984 8200