Port Stephens: a nearby paradise

The welcome sign casts a shadow reminiscent of Arthur Boyd's Ned Kelly as Angus Jameson's four-wheel-drive mounts another crest to reveal Tin City, a post-apocalyptic, edge-of-nowhere, Mad-Max-type settlement amid the dunes of Stockton Beach.

The obvious question springs immediately to mind. Why does a place like this exist?

The answer, along with sand that constantly threatens to engulf the mostly corrugated-iron dwellings, is I'm sure a-blowin' in the wind, but the discovery is certainly a highlight of our morning's excursion with Port Stephens 4WD Tours.

For the record, Tin City emerged as a fishing village during the Great Depression and was rebuilt after World War II, though any expansion is now prohibited by a council moratorium on new construction.

I'd previously tasted the fringes of the dunes on camel, but to truly appreciate their expanse behind 32 kilometres of beachfront and their height of up to 30 metres, you need to be in a vehicle, or have much tougher and fitter calves than mine.

Angus is a knowledgeable and easy going guide, chatting confidently and accessibly about the history, nature and current usage of the dunes, while expertly and sensitively negotiating what is also known as the Worimi Conservation Lands. His regard for the environment he works in is obvious.

The pristine beach seems to go on forever, with just a few fishers challenging its desolation, and you might have to do some serious scrambling to find points of reference among the dunes.

It's only at the beach's extreme north-east, around Anna Bay, that people are attracted in any numbers by the car park, kiosk, camel rides and a magnificent, slippery slope of golden sand which is a magnet for thrillseekers, many of them apparently young Korean visitors undertaking their own rites of passage.

Our accommodation in Nelson Bay may be beachfront but that's definitely where any similarity with Tin City ends.

Amarna Resort truly is the epitome of five-star luxury - absolute waterfront location on Dutchmans Bay Beach, 25-metre lap pool and 10-person spa out front, outstanding views, luxurious furnishings and fittings.

Accommodation is all fully self-contained, with modern kitchens, large living areas, separate laundries and private en suite facilities and furnished balconies. The choice comprises one- and two-bedroom suites and three- and four-bedroom split-level penthouses.

Tariffs starting from $600 per night aren't cheap but do offer genuine value for what you get.

It's the sort of place you'll be quite happy not to venture away from, but Amarna is just a scenic 15-minute waterfront stroll along a well formed path to d'Albora Marinas, Nelson Bay's focal point for dining and nautical activity.

The other way it's just a short drive or slightly longer walk to Corlette Point, where Merretts Restaurant at Peppers Anchorage provides a spectacular location for breakfast, high tea, lunch or dinner.

Port Stephens and Nelson Bay are extremely attractive playgrounds and have much to offer visitors seeking passive or active holiday pursuits.

They provide some of the readiest access to the increasingly busy humpback highway that runs along our east coast from about May to November, and to pods of dolphins that enjoy Port Stephens' sheltered waters year round.

Several operators, Moonshadow Cruises and Imagine Cruises among them, regularly run trips of varying duration and with varying inclusions such as meals and music. They're mostly well worthwhile but I still have doubts about the value of the after-dark affairs. Port Stephens just doesn't have the bright lights of Sydney Harbour.

Other activities include snorkelling and scuba-diving; hunting - figuratively, of course - for koalas around Anna Bay, which has one of Australia's largest populations of the marsupial; visiting Nelson Head Heritage Lighthouse and Reserve; testing your fitness level by walking to the top of Tomaree Headland and enjoying the expansive views of Port Stephens and the surrounding islands; and parasailing over the dolphin-rich waters.

If you go: 

■Port Stephens Tourism, 1800808900 or portstephens.org.au.

■Amarna Resort 49811644 or amarnaresort.com.au.

■Port Stephens 4WD Tours 49844760 or portstephens4wd.com.au.

■Merretts Restaurant at Peppers Anchorage 49842555 or peppers.com.au/anchorage.

■Moonshadow Cruises 49849388 or moonshadow.com.au.

■Imagine Cruises 49849000 or imaginecruises.com.au.

■Port Stephens Watersports 0488827272 or pswatersports.com.au.

■Oakfield Ranch Camel Rides 0429664172.

John Rozentals and Sandra Burn White were guests of Port Stephens Tourism.

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