This post features photos and information on Port Stephens, a seaside town in New South Wales two and a half hours drive north of Sydney. Port Stephens is bound by the Hunter River to the south, the inland suburbs around Wallalong, the bay of Port Stephens to the north and the Tasman Sea. The area is easily identified by its prominent volcanic peaks that rise up out of the water as headlands up to 200 metres (656 feet) tall, sheltering thirty kilometres of beautiful beaches like Zenith Beach, Wreck Beach, Box Beach and, of course, Shoal Bay. It is predominantly a resort town, which capitalises on its diverse waterways, beaches, National Parks and resident dolphins, giving Port Stephens the title of ‘Dolphin Capital of Australia’.
While coastal towns are usually associated with summer visits, don’t underestimate the benefits of visiting in the cooler months. Firstly, it is much quieter on the beaches and bushwalks, giving you more opportunity to appreciate the full beauty that surrounds you. The cooler climate also makes hiking and outdoor pursuits more comfortable.
Whale migration is anywhere from May to November but mostly concentrated around July to September. An added bonus is that most accommodation is at its cheapest in winter. For photography, remember that you need some cloud for those spectacular pink and orange sunrises and sunsets!
Shoal Bay to Nelson Bay
Picturesque Shoal Bay is located in behind Tomaree Head, which is guarding the southern entrance to Port Stephens. Governor Macquarie named it after the sand shoal present in the area. Nowadays, it is a quiet resort town just far enough away from Nelson Bay to remain quite sleepy yet still convenient. It is a great base for exploration of the area with the beaches of the National Park, Nelson Bay, Anna Bay and Soldiers Point all within a thirty minute drive.
Shoal Bay is home to the main sweeping crescent beach directly inside the bay of Port Stephens, at the foot of Tomaree Head. For photographers it is a great opportunity to watch the sun rise over the towering headlands and catch a glimpse of maybe a few of the resident bottle-nose dolphins enjoying a dawn frolic in the clear water.
The challenge of trekking the Tomaree Head Summit Walk will be well rewarded with outstanding 360 degree views across the bay of Port Stephens to Hawks Nest; south to Point Stephens and its lighthouse; and out to the island nature reserves of Broughton, Cabbage Tree and Boondelbah Islands.
After returning down through the gumtree and blackbutt bush a walkway on the other side of the car park leads to Zenith Beach. It will lead you over the dune at the back of the beach along a timber-slatted walkway lined by dune grasses. This is an amazing spot to have a rest or a swim while admiring the towering peak of Tomaree Head. Zenith Beach is considered a great surfing beach during a north east swell.
At the heart of Port Stephens, Nelson Bay features d’Albora Marina which is crammed full of beautiful yachts and cruisers alongside traditional fishing boats. There are food outlets and shops in this complex and if you head towards the breakwall you will come across the famous fish and chip shop, fresh seafood and restaurants all supplied by the local fishermen.
Fingal Bay is situated approximately three kilometres south of Shoal Bay and has a very similar shape to Shoal Bay, only with a southern aspect. It was originally known as “False Bay” as it was sometimes mistaken as the entrance to Port Stephens. Almost ninety percent of the suburb and beachfront is occupied by the Tomaree National Park, which incorporates beach, bush, headlands and a rugged island.
Fingal Beach is a stunning half-circle sweeping beach. The western section with its full east aspect is perfectly sheltered by the rocky outcrop of Point Stephens guarding the entrance to the bay.
If you continue eastward along the beach you will find both the surf and the landscape becoming more untamed as you enter into the National Park area of the bay. Coastal scrubland extends down onto the dunes, which then becomes more sparse as you near the end. This marks the beginning of Fingal Spit which joins the mainland to Point Stephens.
Stockton & Surrounds
Stockton Beach must be seen to be believed. Thirty-two kilometres long and up to a kilometre wide, it is a desert-like, coastal dune landscape with some dunes reaching forty metres (130 feet) high. It is also the largest coastal sand mass in Australia. It has long been a notorious stretch of coastline with many a ship meeting its demise, one of which is lodged securely near the shoreline eight kilometres from the southern end of Stockton Beach.
One Mile Beach
One Mile Beach is popular with all beach users. It has a nice wide beach and amenities, making it quite easy to spend a morning here with the family. At the northern end of the beach are some small dunes. All you need is a boogie board or large piece of cardboard to enjoy some dune boarding. Just past the rocky outcrop at the northern end is Samurai Beach, which has been designated ‘clothing optional’.
Anna Bay is the township at the north-eastern end of Stockton Beach and where there is 4WD access to the dunes and beach. There is a small shopping centre on Gan Gan Road, and the Anna Bay Tavern is a popular eating spot.
Within Anna Bay are a couple of smaller sections of Tomaree National Park and their associated beaches and boat ramps. Most are quite protected and therefore ideal for swimming, fishing and picnics.
Port Stephens North Shore - Hawks Nest & Tea Gardens
The northern headland at the entrance to Port Stephens, now known as Yacaaba, was originally named by Captain Cook in 1770 as Cape Hawke at the same time as Port Stephens was given its name. It is part of the Great Lakes Shire and although it’s within sight of Shoal Bay, many people favour one side of the bay over the other and barely know much about the other side. We have an article about Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens here.
Soldiers Point to Salamander Bay
The shores of Port Stephens to the west of Nelson Bay are a little bit quieter than the big tourist spots of Shoal Bay and Nelson Bay, yet with plenty of activities to tempt the explorer. We start at the peninsula of Soldiers Point and work our way to Salamander Bay.
Soldiers Point is a peninsula that extends into Port Stephens creating a small passageway between it, Boondabah Island, and the other side of the harbour. It is so called after the Corporal’s Guard that was stationed there. There is a long narrow beach with an easterly aspect, perfectly bathed in the rising sun to keep you warm on those early morning walks.
Salamander Bay was named after the Salamander, which was the first ship to enter Port Stephens. It is a sweeping crescent shape protected by Corlette Point to the eastern end.
If you drive inland through Corlette to Salamander Way, firstly you will find the large Salamander Bay Shopping Centre. All your necessities and more can be found under one roof. Turn east onto Salamander Way and continue towards Nelson Bay on Nelson Bay Road, then you will see the turn off for Gan Gan Lookout. Here you can enjoy the panoramic view over Port Stephens all the way out to the headlands guarding the entrance to the harbour. At sunset head back to Soldiers Point to photograph the sun dipping below the horizon from Sunset Beach, which is directly next to the marina.
The Tilligerry Peninsula extends north-east into the bay of Port Stephens by about ten kilometres. Although it is only three kilometres from Soldiers Point, it takes about half an hour to get there by road around all the waterways. Until the 1920s most of the peninsula was part of the orchard and vineyard belonging to Tanilba House. The Tilligerry Peninsula is made up of five villages: Lemon Tree Passage, Mallabula, Oyster Cove, Salt Ash and Tanilba Bay, and attracts families, nature and boating enthusiasts. The area has a marked emphasis on ecotourism and is best known for its large native koala population.
Lemon Tree Passage
At the tip of the Tilligerry Peninsula is Lemon Tree Passage. There is a marina and a large foreshore reserve with picnic and BBQ facilities as well as a fish and chip shop nearby. At the southern end of Cook Parade is the start of a pleasant boardwalk through koala habitat and wetlands. It continues all the way around the tip of the peninsula to Lilli Pilli Walkway. Many birds will grab your attention along the way and a flock of little corellas will often create a raucous and throw branches to the ground.