THE BAY OF PLENTY

THERE’S NO SHORT­AGE OF AD­VEN­TURE TO BE HAD (OR NOT) AT IDYL­LIC PORT STEPHENS

The Weekend Post - Cairns Eye - - Front Page - WO R D S //

There’s a lot to be said for the hum­ble week­end get­away. Two or three nights away from the te­dium of rou­tine is an en­tic­ing prospect. With week­end sched­ules cleared and a thirst for ad­ven­ture, my part­ner and I hit the high­way on a Thurs­day night.

Des­ti­na­tion: Port Stephens, just north of New­cas­tle, with the prom­ise of whales and sand dune ad­ven­tures on the hori­zon.

With so much to see and do – on our way into town we saw ad­ver­tise­ments for paint­balling, div­ing, go-karts and SUPing – it is clear tourism is big busi­ness here.

But we soon dis­cov­ered the scenery, restau­rants and spas at Ra­mada Re­sort Shoal Bay are good enough to ig­nore all of that if you want to. From the bal­cony of a spa­cious Her­itage room, guests can soak up the vista of a calm bay filled with clear wa­ter, kissed by the win­ter sun and sur­rounded by moun­tain­ous islands and ter­rain.

Shoal Bay is just one of sev­eral beau­ti­ful bays in Port Stephens, but it is what lies in the open wa­ter that we were in­ter­ested in.

Depart­ing Nelson Bay twice a day, Moon­shadow TQC Cruises – one of two orig­i­nal whale-watch­ing op­er­a­tors and the largest in Port Stephens – has plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence get­ting tourists up close to the huge hump­back whales that pass the cen­tral NSW coast each year. It also runs dol­phin tours, pri­vate char­ters and twi­light din­ner cruises, the last of which would beckon us back to Nelson Bay the next night. But back to the whales.

“Over here,” some­one yelled from the star­board side of the Hinch­in­brook Ex­plorer, af­fec­tion­ately known as Dora.

Two huge, un­mis­take­ably whale-shaped lumps rose from the depths. The skip­per fol­lowed the pair for a few min­utes be­fore the hump­backs de­cided they had had enough, draw­ing “ooohhs and aaahhs” from those on the boat as they dove down with a flick of their tail flukes. Whale flukes, a vol­un­teer with the Whale and Dol­phin Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety told me later, are as unique as hu­man fin­ger­prints and of­ten used to iden­tify in­di­vid­u­als.

But it was the seals we en­coun­tered that were the real pleas­ant sur­prise. Cam­ou­flaged against the dra­matic rock for­ma­tions that make up the pop­u­lar dive spot Cab­bage Tree Is­land, the sleek loung­ing mam­mals lazily tilted their heads to­wards us as the 30-me­tre Su­per­cat came in close. Fast for­ward two days, laz­ing on a rock was some­thing the more con­ser­va­tive part of me wished I was do­ing.

In­stead I found my­self in con­trol of an ATV for the first time in about 10 years, perched on the edge of the steep wall of a sand dune. “Re­mem­ber, no brakes!” Sand Dune Ad­ven­tures’ lead tour guide Scott Newlin yelled as I psyched my­self up to take the plunge.

I had been in a sim­i­lar place the day be­fore, but I was not driv­ing a quad bike and the drop was not this big.

I was seated com­fort­ably on a sand­board supplied by Port Stephens 4WD Tours, and in slid­ing down the hill was taken back to child­hood camp­ing trips on Strad­broke Is­land.

This mo­ment, though, evoked feel­ings more rem­i­nis­cent of driv­ing a car for the first time – a heady mix of con­fi­dence, fear and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. But the guides were highly ca­pa­ble. I dropped down the dune, pick­ing up speed quickly as I kept my thumb on the ac­cel­er­a­tor, just as in­structed. What a rush; the best pos­si­ble way to end an hour travers­ing the largest mov­ing sand dunes in the South­ern Hemi­sphere.

Hold­ing a spe­cial place in Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture, the 4200ha Worimi Con­ser­va­tion Lands are a sight not to be missed – even pop su­per­star Bey­once in­cluded the dunes in one of her clips. But if sand is not your cup of tea, or you pre­fer to stay near town, take an evening walk to the sum­mit of the To­ma­ree Head­land look­out, be­tween Shoal Bay and neigh­bour­ing Fin­gal Bay. Pack a bot­tle of wine, and maybe a cheese plat­ter in a back­pack. Even if you are curs­ing this ad­vice as you sweat it out through the beau­ti­ful for­est track to reach the peak, the sun­set view is well worth the ef­fort. I prom­ise.

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