Port Stephens - Destination Review
WATERWAY: Port Stephens (Multiple)
Newcastle and the Hunter Valley are beautiful tourist areas, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, especially from the Sydney region. Situated less than 3 hours’ drive North of Sydney, Port Stephens is one of the largest waterways on the NSW coast. The pristine beaches, clear blue water and excellent fishing have made this natural waterway a favourite among the locals and interstate travellers alike. Each year at Christmas and Easter the population of Nelson Bay and surrounding areas quadruples with tourists from all over the country and the world.
One of the attractions of the Port Stephens waterway is the variety of different on-water activities that you can undertake in the area, from cruising Broughton Island, to magnificent whale and dolphin watching, excellent fishing both shore-based and offshore (Marlin) as well an abundance of small creeks, rivers and lakes to explore. Without a boat, this might be just another nice holiday spot, but once you're out on the water the options are endless, and it would take years to completely explore this huge inlet. Let's focus on a few of the real highlights of the area.
The main hub of Port Stephens, Nelson Bay, is home to the biggest marina in the area (d’Albora Marina – Nelson Bay). The harbour is used as a base for the multitude of dolphin & whale watching cruises, as well as fishing charters. The marina complex houses restaurants, bars and shopping venues as well as a working slipway and haul-out yard, run by Noakes. A fuel wharf and overnight marina stays are available, though it is advisable to call or book ahead, especially in the busier months. The town of Nelson Bay also affords great shopping venues, supermarket amenities and a cinema.
If you don’t have a vessel of your own, don’t worry! Nelson Bay is a great place to start your on water adventures on the Port Stephens waterway, with an abundance of hire outlets. There is kayak hire available, single seaters as well as tandems, small tinnies and runabouts, as well as Stand Up Paddleboards. Many charter boats operate from this area and you can find anything from a day fishing trip offshore to an overnight experience on Broughton Island.
Shoal Bay is just a short trip (5 minutes by car) from Nelson Bay, and provides many of the same amenities. There are no marina facilities here, but there are a number of courtesy moorings, and the sandy bottom makes anchoring here easy. One must watch the wind direction as large swells will move through the heads, often making Shoal Bay quite uncomfortable. The fishing is good, especially around the rocky headlands and outcrops, but nice Whiting can be found off the beach as well.
There are a number of small islands off the Port Stephens waterway, though most are small and rocky and offer nowhere for boaters to come ashore. The upside of the rocks however is the fishing can be excellent, providing you’ve got a seaworthy vessel and some experience. Broughton Island lies 14 kilometres from the Port Stephens heads, and is a beautiful island paradise for those lucky enough to experience it. The island has two main anchorages, one on the Northern side of the island, and a small narrow bay on the Southern side that provides excellent protection from the predominant North-Easterly breezes. Both are lovely to visit depending on the wind direction and swell, as one would expect. You can expect golden beaches, bushwalks over and through the island and not too much company.
Surprisingly camping is permitted on Broughton Island, so if you’ve got a smaller vessel, you can take the family out with some camping gear and stay ashore. Be aware that these campsites are monitored and run by the National Parks and Wildlife office, and as such there is a fee to stay. The campsites are also designated rather than setting up where you please, to reduce any impact on the local ecosystem. These sites are limited and must be booked through the local National Parks office (information can be obtained in Nelson Bay).
Tea Gardens / Hawks Nest
Nestled on the Northern shore of Port Stephens are two small communities, Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest. Tea Gardens is a quaint village, but the foreshore area is vibrant and active with many boats and fisherman utilising this side of the inlet. Access to the Tea Gardens waterfront is via the Myall River – a wide river that can be followed all the way to the Myall Lakes further north. The riverfront area provides restaurants, a pub and shops with hire boats and kayaks available.
Hawks Nest lies to the East of Tea Gardens, situated along the coastline and fronting onto a surf beach. This beach is great for swimming and surfing; however it offers little to boaters. However with local restaurants and pubs at your doorstep, a golf course and a very accessible boat ramp onto the river, Hawks Nest is great for a weekend getaway. While both Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest have public boat ramp access, these areas can become quite crowded on a Saturday morning!
The Myall Lakes, sometimes referred to as the “Great Lakes”, is an enormous area to the North of Tea Gardens, and accessed via the Myall River. Once you pass the Tea Gardens township, the river will narrow, however there is a clearly marked navigational channel that will lead you into the lakes area. The ride up the river is stunningly beautiful in places, windy and narrow with private houses or picnic & camping areas set on the riverbank. Once the channel widens onto the first lake, you can proceed further on where you’ll have to cross the path of a cable-driven vehicle ferry – don’t worry there are clearly marked signs on how to best navigate this. Again you’ll open onto the second lake and so on – a boater could explore here for weeks!
Majority of the lakes are freshwater, so the water colour and visibility will reflect the typical brown stain you find in any fresh waterway. The fishing can be good, but be sure you’ve done your research ahead of time on different species and know which tackle to be using and where. No major towns front onto these lakes, however for most; the idea of coming here is to get away from civilization!