Port Stephens and Nelson Bay are only a few hours drive from Sydney, and are home to an abundance of wildlife and waterways that will put everything into perspective.
Two fat kookaburras sit in a spotted gum tree, puffing out their feathered chests before breaking into synchronised laughter. A magpie and her chick—soft grey feathers poking haphazardly out of what will soon become smooth black plumage—forage for worms. The chick is squawking while the mother jumps about, head to one side to zero in on any movements in the dirt.
We walk further into the dense bushland. The timber boardwalk twists off to one side so that the houses disappear on our left and only glimpses of boats on the bay can be seen to the right. That’s when the side of a tree moves and the rough dark bark seems to slide upwards. I jump back to one side as a part of the tree seems to move again. Then a goanna’s eyes focus on me, his dinosaur-like body as rough as the tree trunk. I keep walking as the goanna reaches out its clawed feet and pulls itself another metre higher.
It’s quintessential Australia in these parts. And when a flock of cockatoos swoop above the treetops, squawking at one another as they break up the huge expanse of bright blue sky, I have to smile. You don’t get more Aussie than that. All I need to see now is a koala chomping on gum leaves. Which is not uncommon around these parts. We’re staying at Koala Shores Holiday Park, right on the water at Lemon Tree Passage. We’ve booked one of the park’s deluxe spa cabins tucked away at the end of the park in the bushland.
The walk from the park to the township of Lemon Tree Passage takes you through the stunning bushland of Tilligerry Peninsula. The park and its surrounding walking trails are home to koalas, goannas, possums, kookaburras and an abundance of birdlife (over 106 species). So it’s not only a magnificent walking track for those after some fresh sea air and exercise, it’s a birdwatchers paradise. In fact, four-hour bird-watching sessions can be booked, where twitchers explore and have breakfast while documenting the wildlife.
The boardwalks – built primarily by volunteers with assistance from Tafe students, Port Stephens Council and various land care groups – meander through the nine-hectare flora and fauna reserve, giving visitors easy access to the fascinating eco-systems. The construction of them involved careful planning to minimise disturbance to the native vegetation, water flow areas, fauna habitats and life cycles.
At the trail’s end, which is only a half hour walk from Koala Shores Holiday Park, you find yourself in the little hamlet known as Lemon Tree. There is one place in town that anyone who is serious about their food and wine makes a beeline for…
A taste of France at The Poyer’s in Nelson Bay
It might sound like an unusual name for a restaurant, and it is. It’s actually the surname of the husband and wife team who had a long-held dream of owning a restaurant on the water, before hitting the jackpot.
Ludovic Poyer is the French chef and co-owner, and his Australian wife is the pastry chef. Everything—from the hollandaise sauce and sourdough served up at breakfast, to the pastry used for the Peking duck spring rolls, the croutons in the salad and the gnocchi that melts in your mouth like whipped butter—is made from scratch by the talented duo.
The Poyer’s is literally hovering above the water on Albatross Marina. Seated at a table by the floor-to-ceiling windows, or perched on a stool on the rustic wooden deck, you could not be more immersed in the achingly beautiful seaside scene. Drinking in the views—with a glass of Veuve or one of the many fine wines sourced from Australia and New Zealand’s top regions in hand—is the time when you realise that the world has actually, properly, slowed down. Paddle boarders glide past, yachts silently slip by on the mouth of the inlet, and children are silhouetted as they leap off the pontoon, breaking up a glassy reflection of the sun sitting high above the harbour..
Tapas is the way to go. Ludovic always has a range of dishes inspired by the abundance of local seafood at his fingertips, not to mention the organic produce from nearby regions such as the Hunter Valley. From the Garlic croquettes of escargots and the truffle-doused oysters, to the mouth-wateringly well marinated salmon (lime, honey, ginger), the sumptuous baby octopus (with the best garlic aioli this side of Sydney) and something the French will always do well—cheese and charcuterie boards—it’s easy to curb the jealousy caused by seeing the lamb cutlets, sautéed prawn risotto, duck Pappardelle and lobster ceviche being carried out to the other tables. Well, not really, but you’ll feel lucky to have what you do, no matter what your tapas degustation delivers.
Obviously, with a dessert queen married to a French chef inspiring the kitchen, The Poyer’s desserts are nothing short of sensational. With a choice of classics such as the Praline Parfait, Apple Tart Tatin and the Chocolate Fondant, you’ll be salivating while attempting to order. And for coffee lovers, thank goodness somewhere as small as this town does it so well. The coffee is ethically sourced from five single origin farms around the world and prepared and presented as well as the food.
Dolphin encounters in Nelson Bay and Port Stephens
Nelson Bay is a 45 minute drive from Lemon Tree Passage, and due to being the mecca of wildlife and waterways that it is, there’s something here that draws thousands of tourists to its marina all year round: dolphins. And if you’re in town from May til December, you can up the ante and make the migrating humpback whales the main aim.
Moonshadow Cruises has a range of offerings, including a twilight cruise if romancing your other half is the goal. But for those wanting to do some wildlife viewing on the water, and even get wet while doing it, the Dolphin Watch Cruise is a great choice, with a 99 per cent chance of seeing the friendly critters up close.
For those with children in tow, the boat, which has been owned by company founders Peter and Dianne Annable since 1981, has a waterslide off the back that spits thrill-seekers out into a boom net while the vessel is roaring along. The company has been the recipient of 28 local, regional and state tourism awards, so they certainly know what they are doing when it comes to mixing fun and relaxation.
There’s three decks on board, so although the cruises are busy (especially during peak season), there’s always space to be found if you don’t want to be in the midst of things. The dolphin spotting begins pretty much right after leaving the marina.
Seeing dolphins in the wild, leaping out of the water and playing in the boat’s slipstream, is something some of us take for granted, especially if we’re often on the water. But one thing is for sure – no one ever tires of seeing one of the most graceful creatures in the ocean, especially if they decide to venture right up close.
The whale watching cruise takes guests further afield, to the outer islands. The 30-metre super-cat is the largest of its kind, meaning even if the seas are a bit rough, guests usually get out to where the whale action is happening. Penguins, sea birds, seals, dolphins, orcas and other wildlife is usually a part of the deal, Depending on the time of the year you might get a big whale tail slapping session, with humpbacks breaching and leaping around the boat.
Scones with a view at the Inner Light Tea Rooms
The cruises dock at Nelson Bay marina, and from there, it’s a few minutes drive up a hill to one of the best views you’ll find on the coast of NSW, at the Inner Light Tea Rooms. The name makes the place sound like a shop selling crystals and incense, but it’s actually a simple café perched on a cliff’s edge with tasty food. The cafe is located in the Nelson Head Lighthouse Reserve. It’s also home to the local Marine Rescue radio base, and a fascinating maritime museum in the old lighthouse keeper’s cottage.
There aren’t too many cafes in Australia that boast these kinds of views – there’s Nelson Bay to your left, tranquil Shoal Bay to your right, and directly in front, Boondelbah Island. If it happens to be whale-watching season, sit back and enjoy a meal and watch some wild theatre courtesy of Mother Nature. Even if it’s stormy, the views are still breathtaking due to the enormous vista of unspoiled ocean and coast.
Family-friendly stay at Koala Shores Holiday Park
Back at Koala Shores, in holiday periods, the place will undoubtedly be packed to the rafters. But if you’re staying in a deluxe spa cabin, you’ll be sufficiently removed from the mayhem of holidaymakers sporting every big boy’s toy in the books. Kids will be kids, and they’re going to be up even after nightfall playing ‘spotlight’ if you stay in a holiday park, but that’s the beauty of Koala Shores—you can leave them to it. They’ll join the tribe of swimmer-clad kids on bikes and scooters, and you can kick back with some take-away, or make your own meals in the spacious kitchen.
The cabins have enormous, private deck areas with a dining table that seats eight, and a large, modern BBQ station that has views over Lemon Tree Passage inlet. In the evenings, with the sun setting over the water and the sea breeze whistling its way through the bushland of Tilligerry Peninsula, there’s a lot to be thankful for. And if you’re in need of another typical Aussie wildlife encounter, there’s a big chance that the possums will head down to your deck to check out what’s for dinner.
How about another dreamy escape not too far from from Sydney?