Where dol­phins come out to play

A coastal re­treat north of Syd­ney of­fers quin­tes­sen­tial Aus­tralian com­fort and charm

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PE­TRA REES

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

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