A Port Stephens holiday with kids is a fantastic way to unwind and spend quality time together as a family. It’s one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in New South Wales, two and a half hours north of state capital Sydney, and it’s a great place to go dolphin watching, so when one of our family invited us to spend a week with them in a beachside cottage, we jumped at it.
Our location at Soldiers Point – a peninsula on the harbour 10 km inland from the open sea – meant we could spend as much time on the beach as we wanted, while also going on a short drive every day to sample some of the other Port Stephens activities on offer. We had visited Port Stephens several times before our little man joined us, and this was his first trip to the area, so this was our first time exploring the many things to do in Port Stephens with kids. So here’s our guide to the best things to do on your Port Stephens holiday with kids.
Port Stephens Beaches
Port Stephens has some outstanding beaches, both within the harbour and along the southern coast of the peninsula. We stayed in a cottage in Soldiers Point with a stunning view out to sea, with the entrance to the harbour guarded by Yacaaba Head to the north and Tomaree Head to the south, and a lovely narrow strip of beach no more than ten metres away. So with a small fellow with a strong aquatic disposition in tow, we were always going to spend a lot of time on the beach and in the water. And so we did.
There seemed to be a regular daily pattern with the weather, with the water very calm and flat early in the day, and the north-easterly wind gradually picking up through the day, so that by late afternoon it was sometimes too rough for the little man to stay in there. Whenever this happened, we gave him a further swimming fix by taking him for a short walk to the other side of the Soldiers Point peninsula to Sunset Beach, next to the Marina and its restaurants. The water here was calm throughout our stay, the land providing shelter from the prevailing wind. The view from the beach of the sun setting behind the many boats in the harbour is also pretty special.
We also sought out more of the best beaches in Port Stephens, making a conscious effort to see some that we hadn’t visited before. Our favourite discovery on this trip was undoubtedly Fisherman’s Beach, on the south coast of Port Stephens, a tiny sheltered beach with low rocks and rock pools, the sort of beach environment our inquisitive little fellow loves the most. It was also quite shaded in the late afternoon, some nice respite from the reflected heat at nearby Stockton Dunes.
We didn’t get to these on this trip, but on previous visits we’ve especially loved Zenith Beach and Fingal Beach – both are breathtaking.
As for what to do on the beach, we’re lucky with our little man in that we can give him a bucket and spade and he comes up with a plot for a full submarine action movie in about thirty seconds. He spent a lot of time in the water, slowly but surely learning to swim, and also making up lots of his own games, including a wonderful teddy bears picnic.
We also spent a lot of time meticulously building sandcastles – or at least I did, while he flooded them all with seawater, which was great fun. There are some great snorkelling Port Stephens locations along the shoreline for older, more advanced swimmers – Fly Point Aquatic Reserve, on the corner of Little Bay beach, is one of the best known. He also had his first few goes at fishing, but none of the local marine life obliged, even for a photo opportunity.
Dolphin Watching Port Stephens
For many visitors, top of their list of what to do in Port Stephens is a cruise to see some of the famous Port Stephens dolphins. If you’re planning to go dolphin watching Nelson Bay is the place to go, as several operators depart from there. Many cruises go out for between one and a half and two hours, and some even offer a guarantee of a dolphin sighting or your money back. The pod of over a hundred dolphins has been resident in the harbour for a long time, and the dolphins often like to come along and play with the boats, swimming alongside. Kids love to see the dolphins, and older children can hold on in the boom nets that sometimes hang from the back of the boat, and get even closer to the dolphins.
This time we went out in a boat ourselves on our own Port Stephens dolphin cruise, and it didn’t take us long. Our guide said that they often congregate close to Winda Woppa, a beach and sand dune close to the mouth of the Myall River, and he was spot on. We spotted several swimming close to the beach during our trip – sadly the little man had nodded off a few minutes before, and missed them.
However, he was jumping with excitement when he spotted several dolphins frolicking in the water from the beach outside our cottage. They stayed around for fifteen minutes or so, barely a hundred metres from the shore, and he loved every moment of it.
Whale Watching Port Stephens
Another of the more popular Nelson Bay activities is taking a Port Stephens whale watching cruise. The whale watching season lasts from May until mid-November – autumn to spring – when humpback whales migrate northwards to warmer waters, returning to the Southern Ocean later in the year. Between autumn and spring it’s common to see whale watchers with binoculars along the New South Wales coast trying to catch a glimpse of these amazing creatures. These trips usually last three hours, going out further into the ocean, and you should wrap up well for the cold wind – but for a child seeing a whale is a great privilege, well worth the effort.
Port Stephens Ferry
The Port Stephens ferry runs regular daytime services across the harbour and up the Myall River to Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest, two small towns either side of a bridge. The coastline of the northern side of the harbour is much less developed than that on the Port Stephens side, but just as beautiful, with Winda Woppa and Jimmy’s Beach on the harbour side and glorious Bennetts Beach sweeping from Yacaaba Head at the entrance to the harbour to the Myall Lakes National Park to the north-east. The ferry ride gives you a great introduction to all of this, and you also get to see some of the amazing houseboats that make the run up to the Myall Lakes.
Stockton Sand Dunes
The Worimi National Park – sometimes also called the Stockton or Port Stephens sand dunes – is part of the traditional homeland of the local Worimi people, and is the largest moving sand mass in the southern hemisphere, a huge mini-desert of sand dunes and beach stretching all the way from Birubi Point to Stockton, at the mouth of the Hunter river, 32km or 19 miles away.
The dunes are an amazing environment to explore, and they could be your kids’ – possibly even your own – first taste of desert. You can take them on a Port Stephens 4WD tour, driving out to Tin City, a collection of fishermen’s shacks made out of scrap metal and whatever other material the owners could find. It’s also possible to drive there yourself if you have a 4WD vehicle, for which you need a permit.
You can try out some amazing activities in the dunes with older kids as well. Oakfield Ranch take groups out riding camels on the dunes four days a week, and you can also go sandboarding on some of the dunes.
Oakvale Farm and Fauna World
Oakvale Farm and Fauna World is one of the best Port Stephens attractions for kids, and here they can encounter a huge variety of creatures, from Australian wildlife favourites including kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and everyone’s cuddly favourites, koalas, and birds and reptiles. And of course they can feed farm animals and watch the cows being milked. You can also book closer encounters with some of the animals. If the kids still have energy to burn, the Splash Bay water attraction is the place to do it. A great place in all weathers, but a good fall-back option if the weather’s not so good.
Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters
Irukandji is a fascinating interactive aquarium where kids can get up close to some incredible marine life, including, yes, sharks and rays. You don a wetsuit and get in the tank with some amazing creatures, including the beautiful tawny nurse sharks. It’s suitable for all ages, and a wonderful way to meet and learn about marine life and ocean conservation for children.
Toboggan Hill Park
If your kids still have energy to burn, Toboggan Hill Park is a great place for them to expend some of it, with a variety of rides and attractions. The toboggan ride is a kilometre long, winding down through bush to the finish – children under 8 ride as passengers, so you control the speed for them. They also have tractor train rides, a jumping castle, and a game in which you can drench each other with water-filled balloons, something to which I am well accustomed. Indoors, they also have a synthetic ice rink.
Our little fellow is at the age where he is starting to take a strong interest in vehicles of all kinds, including fighter aircraft, and we’ll certainly be taking him here soon. Fighter World is at Williamtown, in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base close to Newcastle Airport. They have a huge collection of fighter aircraft dating back around a century to the early days of the Royal Australian Flying Corps, and others from around the world, including a MiG-21, a blast from the Cold War era.
Port Stephens Family Accommodation
There is a great range of Port Stephens accommodation, catering to all budgets and tastes, and most of it family-friendly. At the top end of the market, the likes of Anchorage Port Stephens and Marty’s at Little Beach are among the most popular Port Stephens hotels.
The Retreat Port Stephens offers something very different, with accommodation in cabins and bungalows in a beautiful bush environment a short walk from Stockton dunes.
Our cottage accommodation was ideal as a base for a Port Stephens family holiday, as we had the beach right outside, a playground a minute’s walk up the hill and shops only a few minutes’ drive away.
There many options for places to stay in Port Stephens, including several Port Stephens resorts, a number of Port Stephens holiday parks, a lovely youth hostel down at Samurai Beach, and plenty of Port Stephens camping options. Airbnb Port Stephens also has a good range of apartments and houses available.
Getting to Port Stephens
From Sydney, take the M1 Pacific Motorway then its continuation, the A1 Pacific Highway, turning off onto Tomago Road, which becomes Cabbage Tree Road, before joining the B63 Nelson Bay Road to Port Stephens at Williamtown.
From Newcastle, take the A43 Pacific Highway, then turn right onto Tourle Street and follow the road across industrial Kooragang Island, joining the B63 Nelson Bay Road and crossing the bridge over the Hunter River, continuing all the way to Port Stephens from there.
From northern NSW, the A1 Pacific Highway is again the best approach, and the most direct route via Medowie Road and Richardson Road to Salt Ash, turning left onto Nelson Bay Road.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times. His images are frequently used throughout the world by tourism bodies such as Visit Britain and Visit Wales.