Shoal Bay - Australia's Mediterranean
Words by Peter Thorpe
Port Stephens - probably the best kept secret in NSW
In 1795, Captain W.R. Broughton turned the HMS Providence into Port Stephens and was shocked to find five white men living with the local Worimi people. They turned out to be five convicts who had escaped from Parramatta, near Sydney. They had been shipwrecked at Port Stephens and were welcomed into the tribe by the Worimi, who gave them wives and took them along on their wanderings. They were probably some of the first Europeans to discover the joys of this magnificent area.
Situated just two and a half hours drive north of Sydney, the Port Stephens area is probably one of the best kept secrets in NSW. Just north of Newcastle, it’s well known and well patronised by the Novocastrians as a great holiday destination and retirement haven. However, I’m sure hundreds of thousands of Sydney-siders drive past it every year heading north, not realising there’s such an outstanding getaway just up the road.
The Shoal Bay Holiday Park is situated directly opposite the beach
Port Stephens features a natural harbour, twice the size of Sydney Harbour. The shorelines are dotted with pristine beaches and quaint boutique villages, surrounded by volcanic bushland peaks. The scenery is outstanding and the whole area has a distinctly Mediterranean feel to it.
For our stay, we chose a very comfortable and roomy two-bedroom cabin at the Shoal Bay Holiday Park. It featured its own shower and toilet, air-conditioning, two televisions and a large sun deck out front with tables and chairs
Cabins are quite modern and roomy and staff were very helpful
The park has been recently upgraded and is well laid out, with plenty of greenery, including a profusion of superb dragon trees and palm fronds. It’s very well maintained and has all the amenities you could ask for, including a half tennis court and games room and it’s pet-friendly, too. However, without doubt, it’s best feature is its prime location. It sits directly opposite Shoal Bay beach and is just minutes’ walk to the picturesque local village, with its cafes, shops, clubs and a local pub.
Aussie Bob's Fish & Chip Shop - (see hot tips!)
The village itself is a real delight. Apart from all the basic needs like, an IGA, newsagent, chemist, etc., there’s a surprising selection of great places to eat. This includes a pizza place, Thai and Italian restaurants and the Game Fishing Club. There’s also a bistro at the Shoal Bay Country Club Hotel and their Mermaids Café, where we enjoyed a sensational breakfast overlooking the bay. Really great coffee and a killer bacon and egg roll.
If you’re not into fancy dining, I’d highly recommend Aussie Bob’s Fish & Chips. A no-frills, eat-in or take-away, Aussie style fish & chip shop.
HOT TIP: We had a really nice salmon and salad there for around $20 but later on, I was reading the local paper and saw they had a coupon for fish & chips for two for just $19. So, grab a copy of the local rag and check it out first.
Shoal Bay village from Tomaree Point (easy walk)
THINGS TO DO
The majestic Shoal Bay Beach curves 2.5km from Tomaree Head to Nelson Head with sweeping views of white sand and crystal clear waters. The bay is generally calm and perfect for swimming, kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding and there’s plenty of picnic tables and BBQ facilities in the beach side reserve.
If you’re into the fishing, you’ll love Shoal Bay. There are plenty of places to wet a line. You can fish off the beach right in front of the caravan park or if you prefer not to get the sand between your toes, there’s a large jetty off the beach where you can park yourself in your deckchair and fish in comfort. We caught two rays and two really nice pan-sized flounder off the wharf, just using frozen pilchards from the local IGA.
Of course, if you’re a serious fisherperson, there are plenty of fishing excursions you can book at the D’Albora Marina, just down the road at Nelson Bay. And, if you’re not into fishing at all, here you can also book a cruise of the bay or go whale and dolphin watching on the humpback highway (in season of course – May to November).
The Fingal Spit - "Where the bloody hell are you?"
Apart from the beach, there’s plenty of things to do in Shoal Bay. Visit the nearby Fingal Spit with its spectacular 900 metre long sand “bridge” that is exposed at low tide, between the main Fingal Beach and Shark Island. The spit was made famous in the 2006 advertisement for Tourism Australia, where Lara Bingle walked out of the water and asked, “So where the bloody hell are you?”
Note: It is possible to cross on the sand bar at low tide but this is extremely dangerous and can be unpredictable and hazardous.
Go koala spotting at the Tilligerry Habitat State Reserve. With easy to moderate walks, the longest taking 90 minutes, this is the perfect place for a leisurely afternoon stroll.
My personal favourite is the walking track at Tomaree Head. Situated at the eastern end of the beach in the magnificent Tomaree National Park.
Senior’s warning: This walk is not for the faint-hearted or people with dickie knees! It’s a climb. It’s only a kilometre to the top but it’s 161 metres above sea level and it’s pretty steep most of the way. However, the good news is, it’s paved all the way to the top and there are plenty of resting places with comfortable seats along the way. So, if you’re not in a hurry (and why would you be?) there’s plenty of pit stops along the way that offer respite and great scenery.
Plus, you don’t need to climb all the way to the summit to enjoy this walk. After a short while, you will come to a junction where you can continue on to the summit walk or branch off to the remains of Fort Tomaree – the gun emplacements that were used in the defence of east coast Australia during World War II. Here you will find spectacular views and also learn about the history of Australia during wartime and how this area played its role. There’s also a light house (light room actually) and museum along with a cafe and gift shop.
Confession time: The last time I did this walk, I was 30 years younger and made it to the top in a breeze. I’m afraid I didn’t quite make it to the top this time but it was still well worth the effort.
Footnote: The track can be slippery when it’s wet, so wear sturdy non-slip shoes. Also, take a water bottle to avoid dehydration in the warmer weather. And don’t forget your camera. Not only will you see some of the best scenery in Australia, you may also see the spray of a humpback whale or two. And, finally, if you’re really not up to steep tracks, at the same starting point, there’s a really nice walk around Tomaree Point, which is flat as a pancake all the way. It’s even quite manageable for people on walkers or a mobility scooter.
Details for SHOAL BAY HOLIDAY PARK