A Port Stephens boat tour that doesn't break the bank

Fountain of knowledge: Koala Ferries owner, Captain Al Donnelly, with one of his vessels at Karuah at the west end of Port Stephens. Picture: Jim Kellar
Fountain of knowledge: Koala Ferries owner, Captain Al Donnelly, with one of his vessels at Karuah at the west end of Port Stephens. Picture: Jim Kellar

There’s nothing average about Al Donnelly, the captain and owner of Koala Ferries in Port Stephens.

He’s been in business in Port Stephens since 1996, running a small ferry service (24-passenger limit), a tourist boat if you like. His boats are not as big as others, and he doesn’t advertise, but he knows his business.

He has the voice of drill sergeant, easy to hear above the roar of the boat as he’s traversing from Soldiers Point Marina to Karuah or Lemon Tree Passage, providing a running commentary of history, geography, geology, wildlife and general anecdotes.

Captain Al’s personal tour on one of his ferries (former Sydney Olympics ferries) runs for about three hours, starting at Soldiers Point marina and running west to Karuah and often including Lemon Tree Passage. He can also deliver a group to Tahlee (for history tours), or arrange an entire weekend including accommodation.

By tourism standards, he services the punter market, pushing the value and values of the west side of Port Stephens, away from the busy east end.

For $30 a visitor gets a three-hour boat tour, to which you can add $11 for lunch at the Karuah RSL and at least $12 for a dozen oysters straight from the Cole Brothers oyster shed in Karuah.

The side visit to Cole Brothers oyster barn adjacent to Longworth Park in Karuah is almost worth the trip itself. Prices start at $12 for a dozen unshucked medium oysters. They are plump and salty, direct from their Karuah River leases.  Country-friendly Paula Cole can talk and shuck at the same time without blinking an eye.  

 “We start at 10am, deliver you back to Soldiers Point by 1pm,” Captain Donnelly says of his tours. "You learn something. You get to have a conversation about some interesting things, you get to have nice reasonably-priced tucker and you can get some lovely fresh oysters.” 

Donnelly has the gift of talking, weaving stories about history, local landmarks, even pointing out a sea eagle’s nest in a pine tree at the boat harbour in Tahlee. He can talk about weather, tidal conditions, property prices, fishing. Nothing seems to be off limits – including singing sea shanties. 

You learn something. You get to have a conversation about some interesting things, you get to have nice reasonably-priced tucker and you can get some lovely fresh oysters.

Koala Ferries 0401 424 738. 

(The writer was a guest of Koala Ferries.)