A win­ter’s tale

From whales to bush­walks, Port Stephens of­fers plenty of at­trac­tions in cooler months

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - NEL­LIE BLUNDELL

THERE is some­thing won­der­ful about the sea­side in win­ter. Windswept and wild, it has a brood­ing beauty so dif­fer­ent to its vi­va­cious sum­mer self. The bronzed throngs have re­treated in­doors, and the beach be­longs once more to nestling flocks of seag­ulls, shift­ing in the sand.

Un­der a bright blue sky, we’re head­ing to Port Stephens, about 21/ hours’ drive north of Syd­ney. Along with beau­ti­ful win­try seascapes, we’re hop­ing to see hump­backs and south­ern right whales on their an­nual mi­gra­tion.

Just be­fore the sun goes down, we roll in to Marty’s at Lit­tle Beach, the per­fect base for a whale- watch­ing week­end. Five min­utes by car is Nel­son Bay, where we’ll board our whalespot­ting craft in the morn­ing. Even closer are two of Port Stephens’ most idyl­lic beaches, Shoal Bay and, of course, Lit­tle Beach.

A short stroll to the end of the road and we’re on the Lit­tle Beach jetty. With white sand and gen­tle waves, this is a gor­geous swim­ming spot in sum­mer. This af­ter­noon, though, its only in­hab­i­tants are a few fish­er­men clean­ing their catch and some im­pe­ri­ous pel­i­cans await­ing din­ner.

Shad­ows stretch across the shore to­wards the wa­ter, still sparkling in the af­ter­noon light, but out on the hori­zon, dark­ness looms.

The rain on the roof wakes us at dawn. Thun­der rolls by and rattles the bal­cony doors. There’s a mon­ster out there and we’re stay­ing right where we are, un­der the cov­ers. As much as we want to see whales, we’d rather not spend the morn­ing on a furious sea, queasy and drenched to the bone as the sky dis­solves into the ocean around us.

We batten down the hatches and make our­selves cosy in the big fam­ily kitchen. Re­vamped last win­ter, the 15 self-con­tained apart­ments and mo­tel- style rooms are bright and spa­cious with a fresh beachy feel. Af­ter a sod­den dash to Port Nel­son for in­gre­di­ents, our apart­ment is steam­ing up with lunch now sim­mer­ing on the stove. We snug­gle on the sofa with a pile of DVDs, drift­ing in and out of sleep as the rain pat­ters on the win­dow.

The next day, cu­ri­ous sea birds strut up the drive­way and shake out their wings in the crisp morn­ing air. The storm has passed. We con­sider a dip in the cute la­goon-shaped pool be­hind our apart­ment, but set­tle in­stead for break­fast un­der the palms. There’s a big bar­be­cue by the pool, and ta­bles and chairs for din­ing on sunny win­ter days or sul­try sum­mer nights. The wa­ter is too cold to­day, but there’s a fam­ily­sized spa bath in our apart­ment. So we turn on the hot tap, add bub­bles, blast the jets and sink down.

We may have missed our ap­point­ment with the whales, but we still have time to ex­plore To­ma­ree National Park. This bush­land back­drop to the towns and vil­lages of Nel­son Bay, Shoal Bay, Boat Har­bour and Anna Bay is shim­mer­ing with rain­drops. We head to the mag­nif­i­cent Stock­ton Bight sand dunes and hitch a ride on the res­i­dent camel train. Warm and soft un­der thigh, the beasts troop through the un­du­lat­ing dunes, and out along the empty beach. Then, all of a sud­den, some­one screams.

We fol­low their point­ing fin­ger to dis­cover two black blobs out be­yond the break­ers. The flick of a tail, the snort of a blow­hole, two almighty splashes and ev­ery­one cheers. Whales. They have found us in the end. Nel­lie Blundell was a guest of Des­ti­na­tion Port Stephens. port­stephens.org.au tam­boiqueen­cruises.com martys.net.au

The white sand beaches of Port Stephens, about 21/

hours’ drive north of Syd­ney

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