Where dolphins come out to play
A coastal retreat north of Sydney offers quintessential Australian comfort and charm
JUST as old couples grow alike with time, Peppers Anchorage and the NSWmid-north coast community around it have settled into a cosy relationship.
This is no cutting-edge hotel pushing the bounds of taste and sensibility. This is a place that is overwhelmingly comfortable and relaxed. It is, after all, at Corlette, Port Stephens, just across the water from former prime minister John Howard’s old favourite holiday spot at Hawks Nest. And nearby Nelson Bay is a picnic spread of middle Australiana: kids with ice creams, fish and chips galore with extralarge tartare sauce, middle-aged weekend bikies checking out the Jet Skis, and well-looked-after 40-something women hunting for a decent coffee.
I drive up from Sydney on a Friday afternoon with my daughters, expecting it to take a mere 21/ hours via the F3.
2 Naively, we haven’t counted on the fact that several thousand others would be heading north at precisely the same time. So it is almost four hours and a whole box of Jatz crackers later that we reach Peppers Anchorage in the dark.
The resort entrance is lowkey, without the pretensions of a grand lobby; the focus is on the outlook to the water, with rooms fronting on to a boardwalk and marina packed with gleaming white craft rocking gently against their moorings.
There is a nautical theme, too, to the decor, with rope-like trimmings on the lampshades and framed black-and-white photographs of old sailing scenes. There’s a choice of feather and foam pillows and fresh, white linen, but the most attractive feature is the aspect, with glass doors opening to a wooden table and chairs and a path leading to the water just metres away.
Our Captain’s Suite is roomy enough for three with beds made up in the lounge. The ensuite bathroom is dated, with terracotta floors, noisy spa jets and a white-framed shower; a clue to the era of the fit-out is found on the base of a brightly hand-painted pottery bowl inscribed 1998. The feeling is homey and familiar, just a little well worn.
It is a few minutes’ drive next morning to the holiday hub of Nelson Bay. There’s a big sign down on the docks that trumpets loudly in season: ‘‘The whales are here.’’ And indeed thousands of humpbacks migrate north along the coast from late May to early August and then return to the Antarctic from September to November. Tours by boat to observe the whales take about 31/ hours.
2 We take the 90-minute dolphin-spotting tour leaving from the same docks and are rewarded with playful pods metres from our boat, several surfing the slipstream and weaving across the bow like disco dancers cutting across the currents. We have lucked on a glorious winter’s day — too cold to swim in the net that’s trailed behind the boat in warmer weather, but just right for clutching a cup of tea at the bow and taking in the sparkling water, low-hunched coastal shrubbery and crystal air.
That afternoon I venture out for a beach walk and discover a well-trodden path through a grassy public reserve between unfenced houses and the water. Galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets scoot overhead but the stickybeak fascination lies in peering into the lives of those lucky enough to have homes butting up against the coast. It’s flyscreens and flat screens here, double-brick mansions and fibro units, low-set weatherboards and giant balconies with planter boxes full of vegetables.
Back at Peppers Anchorage we dine at the locally acclaimed Merretts restaurant, enjoying dishes such as melt-in-themouth seared tuna and crepes with ginger ice cream ( $55 for two courses). Staff are friendly and attentive; the mood upbeat.
After the next day’s buffet breakfast, including an alarmingly popular bread and butter pudding, it’s back to the F3 crawl. Perhaps next time a midweek trip is called for because there’s plenty more in this region to explore. My bouquets for Peppers? Glorious morning noises of birds and boats, watching sunset from the breakwater, a delicious roomservice mezze plate, massages and beauty treatments on site. Petra Rees was a guest of Peppers Anchorage.
Peppers Anchorage is perfectly placed for a nautical time