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  • Writer's pictureKaren Buffier

Dolphin Adventures on a Port Stephens Holiday

Updated: Aug 8, 2020

Port Stephens is a haven of marine beauty located under one hour north of Newcastle on the NSW coast. Amazing it has taken me this long to write this post given that Port Stephens is one of our favourite Australian travel destinations and we have probably visited at least a dozen times.

Port Stephens
Port Stephens

Being within an easy drive from Sydney, Canberra and much of regional NSW, Port Stephens is an awesome weekend or school holiday destination and delivers the very best options for kid-friendly beaches in NSW along with the super popular dolphin cruises which Port Stephens is famous for. So here are all the details and helpful info to make your Port Stephens holiday a memorable one!

Accommodation Port Stephens

Accommodation in Port Stephens is plentiful with the town swelling in population over the summer peak. You can take your pick from fantastic Port Stephens caravan parks, resorts or private holiday rentals but if you are visiting during school holiday periods particularly in January I recommend booking early. Peak booking periods will see many of the great places book out up to 10-12 months in advance.

Port Stephens Caravan Parks

Port Stephens caravan parks are fantastic quality and a fantastic option for family friendly accommodation in the area.

We have all stayed in one of those musty old Aussie caravan parks that lurk back sometime in the 1980’s and hit you with the scent of mould and aged mattresses as you unlock the front door. Well fear not cause I am pleased to advise that we have stayed in almost all of the Port Stephens caravan parks and they have all been exceptional. All have undergone major upgrades and improvements to provide exceptional comfort combined with a host of family friendly features, and locations in the premier locations in Port Stephens.

Here are my reviews of the Port Stephens holiday parks:

Halifax is our favourite holiday park in Port Stephens for a few reasons but mainly because of its prime location and access to two of the very best beaches in Port Stephens - Little Beach and Shoal Bay. The park is only a fifteen-minute walk or five-minute drive from Nelson Bay town centre and Marina and has the local Soldiers Club at the end of the street which is one of the best places to eat with kids in Port Stephens.

The park has no swimming pool but perfect kid friendly beaches along with loads of good walking and jogging trails in the area.

I highly recommend the Beach Villas for families located in the quieter back section of the caravan park. Check the best prices and options for Halifax Holiday Park here.

Probably the most popular caravan park, Shoal Bay Holiday Park is as the name suggests directly facing the stunning Shoal Bay. Walk up Tomaree Lookout each morning and then relax on the beach with the kids. Featuring kids activities in the school holidays along with a half-court tennis and basketball play area this park is geared for families.

Tip: Shoal Bay Holiday Park is located on the main road in and out of Shoal Bay so it may be helpful to request a location tucked back in the park if you want a quieter stay.

Shoal Bay Aerial View
Shoal Bay Aerial View

Thou Walla Sunset Retreat (Soldiers Point)

Located on the tip of Soldiers Point I highly recommend Thou Walla Sunset Retreat if you are after a caravan park with a little more serenity. The sunset overlooking the bay from this park are breathtaking and with a lot less traffic this location will be more peaceful and relaxing than the first two.

Thou Walla has a swimming pool and games room to keep the kids entertained and there are local tennis courts across the road as well.

With accommodation types ranging from beautifully appointed cabins right through to safari tents the choice is yours.

Tip: Glamping in the safari tents gives you the most gorgeous sunset views.

This is the only park we haven’t actually stayed in but is a great option for those families looking for access to a surf beach. With much of Port Stephens being part of the sheltered Bay, beaches in general are calm and free of waves so Fingal Beach is the place for surf.

With a lovely lagoon pool, large kids playground and a large choice of accommodation styles consider Fingal Bay Holiday Park to be located right on top of patrolled Fingal Bay Beach.

Holiday Rentals Port Stephens

Holiday rentals in Port Stephens are in abundance and will cater to those families after some homely comforts or the option to bring their dog along for the holiday. When we have travelled to Port Stephens in January, we usually opt for a holiday rental simply because the caravan parks can be so heavily booked and a bit too hectic and crowded for our liking. Here are some lovely holiday rentals available in Port Stephens:

Located in stunning Shoal Bay this 2 bedroom apartment affords sweeping views, modern decor and comfort for the whole family. One of the best reviewed places to stay in Port Stephens.

On the pricier end but oozing luxury and beach house glamour. If nothing else take a look at this place to get inspired.

A pet friendly coastal themed house beautifully decorated.

Stunning views and next door to Little Beach - the perfect location for families visiting Port Stephens.

Port Stephens Resorts

Port Stephens continues to grow as a tourist destination and over the past ten years there has been a number of impressive, full-service resorts added to the accommodation market.

The Oaks Pacific Blue Resort located in Salamander Bay boasts the best family-friendly swimming pool in Port Stephens. We have stayed here on a couple of occasions and love the family friendly pool that wraps the entire way around the modern designed apartments. Kids will be entertained for hours and many of the apartments on the ground floor offer direct pool access meaning you can slip in straight from your own private garden or patio.

For families, opt for the self-catering apartments (there are also studio hotel rooms if not travelling with kids) which are fully kitted out with all the home conveniences and are spaciously designed for family holidays. In addition to the pool, families love the two synthetic grass tennis courts, the onsite gym and heated spa, and Splash restaurant offering modern Australian food overlooking the main section of the pool.

The Oaks Pacific Blue Resort is not directly on the beach which I think is its only drawback. Having said that the beach is literally only a two-minute drive away and getting about Port Stephens is super quick and easy.

The boutique Mantra Aqua Nelson Bay which offers two and three-bedroom apartments nestled around the resort pool. Located in the centre of town with elevated views over Nelson Bay this resort is a popular choice.

New to the scene a couple of years ago is the chic and coastal vibes of Bannisters Port Stephens. Targeted at the luxury visitors this hotel is beautiful and for those lucky enough to stay get amazing seaside vistas and premium dining options.

Check out Bannister Port Stephens for more information.

Things to Do in Port Stephens

Port Stephens Dolphins

According to Environment NSW figures approximately 90-120 Indo-Pacific dolphins live permanently in the Port Stephens waterways making it the perfect place for a dolphin watching cruise. The waters are relatively calm and clear so Port Stephens is a fabulous place to witness the playfulness of the dolphins.

There are a number of cruise operators from the Nelson Bay Marina that take visitors on two to three-hour dolphin cruises and we have tried most of them and found them to be good. Moonshadow and Imagine Cruises are the two bigger companies and have modern, comfortable vessels with great viewing platforms to see the dolphins from. Both these companies offer great educational components to their cruises with interesting insights into dolphin behaviours and the environment in which they live.

You can also plan a full day tour including both the Moonshadow dolphin cruise with a half day trip sandboarding the Stockton Sand Dunes.

For a more independent way to visit the dolphins read on below about hiring your own boat for dolphin sightseeing.

If you happen to visit Port Stephens between June to November keep in mind that you may also choose to join a whale watching tour as well to witness the migrating humpback whales.

Nelson Bay Boat Hire

After many years of visiting Port Stephens and taking many boat tours we recently opted for a private boat hire from Nelson Bay Boat Hire to head out on the water solo. Depending on the type of boat a two-hour hire starts from $90 so you can pack some sunscreen and drinks and start exploring with ease.

Nelson Bay Boat Hire
Private boat for dolphin watching in Port Stephens

The boats you can rent without a boat licence only putter along at fairly slow speeds but give you great flexibility to find your own adventure. By late morning we were fortunate in reaching the middle of the marine park right on the time that the big tourist boats were heading back in from their morning dolphin cruise. This meant that we had a pretty good indicator of where the dolphins were, having watched the large boats cruising about in the same spot for half an hour. By the time we arrived all other boats were gone and we got to spend a fabulous hour alone with literally dozens of dolphins diving and playing on every angle of the boat around us.

Dolphin watching Port Stephens
Dolphin watching Port Stephens

As a bonus we spotted a huge old sea turtle swimming beside the boat on our way back to the Marina as well.

Soldiers Point Marina also offer boat hire and is a great alternate to explore the mangroves and tucked away coves in the inner waterways of Port Stephens.

Best Beaches in Port Stephens

Little Beach Nelson Bay

I have already mentioned in my post Little Beach just outside of Nelson Bay is our favourite beach in Port Stephens for kids with its gentle lapping, crystal clear waters and regular visits from dolphins who venture right in close to the beach. The beach itself is a small cove of white sand bliss within easy walking distance of many great places to stay. There is a grassy bank with some large trees so you can escape the sun on particularly hot days and plenty of good sand play areas for the younger kids.

Little Beach also has a kids’ playground at one end, barbecues and picnic tables and a kiosk within easy striking distance at the Halifax Holiday Park. A short walk towards the point offers good fishing as well for those dads out there.

The best beach to bring some floating tubes and drift an afternoon away looking out at the sea!

Shoal Bay Beach

Shoal Bay is a close second for beaches in Port Stephens. Arced gracefully in a half moon, the picturesque Shoal Bay is postcard spectacular with Tomaree Headland perched at the southern end. With gorgeous blue waters and clean white sands this is a sure-fire family favourite as well. Depending on the tides we do find that blue bottles can sometimes be a problem at Shoal Bay so on those days just head around to Little Beach instead which seems to not have the same problem.

Zenith Beach

Located off a short trail head at the start of the Tomaree Head Summit Walk, Zenith Beach is a beautiful beach that offers some waves and a little more ruggedness than the protected bay beaches. The walk itself is very pretty and a great beach to visit and explore. Note, Zenith Beach is not patrolled.

Zenith and Wreck Beach Aerial View
Zenith and Wreck Beach Aerial View

Wreck Beach

Following Wreck Beach Trail or Track off the top of Shoal Bay residential streets there are some great bushwalks, one of which takes you to secluded Wreck Beach. A nice walk and spot for a swim particularly early in the morning as the sun is low on the horizon.

Fingal Bay Beach

If your family loves some surf then the safest option is to visit patrolled Fingal Bay Beach. Also with an adjoining playground and café this is a fun spot to spend an afternoon.

Sunset Beach Soldiers Point

Sunset Beach is not so much a swimming beach but the best place to watch the sun go down in Port Stephens. Located at the Soldiers Point Marina, this west facing beach is lovely at low tide to go for a late afternoon stroll and wander out on the jetty for photos. Kids will love exploring all the shells and creatures in the low tide as well.

Bagnalls Beach

If you are travelling with a dog then Bagnall’s Beach is the local pet friendly beach and lovely options for walks.

Tomaree Head Summit Walk – Tomaree National Park

When not in the water our family’s favourite place to explore in Port Stephens are the trails around Tomaree National Park.

The most popular hike in Port Stephens is the Tomaree Head Summit Walk, a short but pretty steep climb to a most impressive lookout. The return loop is only 2.2km but much of the walk is heavy stair climbing and hills so your muscles and lungs get a great workout. Park at the trailhead at the far end of Shoal Bay or many people staying in Shoal Bay add the scenic boardwalk to and from the town centre before stopping for breakfast at a local café when done.

Tomaree Head Summit Walk
Tomaree Head Summit Walk

If you want to explore further then the Fort Tomaree Walk is slightly longer but less strenuous providing an insight into the significance of the headland as part of the World War II military heritage.

For those not up for climbing you can also trail around the front of the care home at the base of Tomaree Headland to reach the peninsula along a wide, well formed trail. This is a great bike ride or scooter option with young kids and ends at the rocky outcrops looking out through the mouth of Port Stephens.

Another brilliant outdoor activity in Port Stephens is renting a paddleboard or kayak from Shoal Bay Paddle Sports. With a shopfront in Shoal Bay you can be paddling out in no time.

If you are a little unsure or perhaps want to venture further they also provided guided paddles. We did one of these tours with the kids when they were little and had a fun trip exploring the different coves and beaches close to Nelson Bay.

Bike Riding Port Stephens

Shoal Bay Bike hire in the centre of Shoal Bay village hires bikes to cater for the whole family. There are a number of great off-road cycleways around Port Stephens namely the foreshore trail around Shoal Bay and out to Tomaree Headland. If you want to head into the bush a little then head south from Shoal Bay along the fire trail between Shoal Bay and Fingal Bay. The hire shop can provide maps and further advice on some other nearby places to bike ride.

Opening in late 2020, excitingly Port Stephens is getting its own koala sanctuary to assist in the rescue and care of sick, injured or orphaned koalas. Koalas in Australia are becoming critically endangered and Port Stephens is a vital koala habitat so the local council have partnered with local rescue organisations and businesses to fund this wildlife program. Keep following my site as I update on the progress to this opening!

Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary
Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary

Fighter World Museum – Williamtown

Just twenty minutes from Port Stephens is the Williamtown RAAF Base and home to Fighter World, run by volunteers who have put together a museum to preserve the history of military aircraft in Australia. The two hangars house some interesting artefacts and planes and kids can sit in several of them.

Depending on the day you visit you may also get to watch current military jets take off and land from the air base via the back viewing deck. A visit to Fighter World only takes about an hour or two and is $42 for a family ticket.

Stockton Sand Dunes

A short drive from Port Stephens are the impressive Stockton Sand Dunes reaching heights up to 30 metres and angles of more than 60 degrees. Fun awaits as kids can climb to the top and either run or slide to the base of the giant dunes. If you would like to experience the sand dunes for organised sand-boarding along with a family friendly ATV tour you can click here to book with a local tour operator at a discounted rate.

Best Restaurants Port Stephens:

I will be honest - I don’t normally like club food that much but this place is a fantastic exception. The food in the Bay Brasserie is excellent quality, well priced and they do the yummiest roast. Kids meals are also pleasantly varied and offer some healthier options which is a pleasant find.

Mod Thai serves up your staple thai offerings in a convenient location. We haven’t eaten in here but it always seems busy and we find they are a good takeaway option if looking for some Asian food.

The name is a little deceiving with this one as the Shoal Bay Country Club is located beachfront in Shoal Bay affording the best views over the water of an evening. Sprawling over two floors and offering plenty of live music this place is the ‘trendy’ option for eating out in Shoal Bay. It has a great vibe and a good pub menu making it a great place to eat in Port Stephens with kids.

Twilight Dinner Cruise – Moonshadow

For something different head out on the water for dinner with the Moonshadow dinner cruise. The highlight of the cruise are the sunset vistas but the food was pretty good as well with lots of fresh options. A little warning though not to expect too much ambience. We were seated on a table with random strangers and the busy-ness of the experience can be a little detracting particularly as it is a buffet. We ate our dinner and then enjoyed the scenery on other parts of the boat away from the dining area.

The Bluewater Grill inside the Nelson Bay Golf Club has really tranquil outlook across the rolling green hills and bushland and is a lovely spot for family dining. They even offer a kids play room adjacent to the restaurant.

So what are you waiting for? Port Stephens awaits those families looking for outdoor fun and exploration. With picturesque beaches and stunning natural wonders Port Stephens is the perfect summer family destination whether it be for a weekend visit or a longer school holiday break.

If you would like to stay in touch with ongoing ideas for family travel destinations and new travel deals please subscribe today.

Looking for other great holiday ideas in Australia. Check out my article on Tasmania with Kids.

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