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The Top Things to do in Port Stephens

Port Stephens answers the call of those looking for a sea change with beautiful beaches, pristine waters and once in a lifetime encounters with dolphins and whales… all within 2.5 hours of Sydney. When you aren’t busy learning how to surf, swimming with dolphins or sand boarding down the largest moving coastal sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere, Port Stephens provides the perfect backdrop for a relaxing coastal escape.

The Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens, NSW

The central coast of New South Wales remains a criminally underrated travel destination in Australia, boasting some truly beautiful stretches of coast and waterways without the crowds or over-commercialisation that many of the larger and more famous holiday spots encounter.

Perhaps chief amongst these is Port Stephens, which sits roughly 1 hour north-east of major city Newcastle and is a haven for beach-goers and marine enthusiasts as well as a quality getaway for families.

Renowned for its vast sand dunes and expansive main harbour/bay area brimming with marine life, the Port Stephens area hangs its hat on a combination of great overall weather and outdoor-oriented focus that make it an excellent choice for those looking to unwind from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

Add to all of this the ability to indulge in numerous adventures both on and off the water – including high quality wineries inland, famously fresh and reasonably priced seafood, and a range of walks and drives that lead to wonderfully scenic outlooks comprising a myriad of colours – and you've got a spot that is just begging to be experienced before its popularity explodes.

To ensure you get the most out of your trip to this sunny spot on the NSW central coast, here's our list of the Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens & surrounds.

The Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens, NSW - Quad Biking with Sand Dune Adventures

1. Quad Biking with Sand Dune Adventures

At the peak of the dunes, you'll be able to soak in outstanding 360 degree views of the surrounding area, which brings even more of a sense of scale to how big they truly are.
The Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens, NSW - Sandboarding with Port Stephens 4WD Tours

2. Sandboarding with Port Stephens 4WD Tours

Zipping down the sides of dunes ranging between 30 and 40 metres high is something that never gets old!
The Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens, NSW - Dolphin Cruise

3. Dolphin Cruise

Location: 3/35 Stockton St, Nelson Bay

Being a port town, it might seem obvious that aquatic adventures would play a large part in what there is to do in Port Stephens, but what most who haven't visit don't expect is just how beautiful the waters of this part of central NSW truly are.This is one of the main drawcards for those relocating to Port Stephens from various other parts of the country

The lack of overpopulation and pollution make the waters around Port Stephens some of mainland Australia's prettiest, and there are numerous ways to get out and enjoy their clarity and cleanliness from kayaking, to jet boating, to diving or simply having a swim. Combine this with the quantity of marine life that can be found within easy reach of the shore, and the aquatic sightseeing options are numerous here.

In particular, Port Stephens is renowned Australia-wide for its dolphins, boasting one of Australia's highest populations of resident Bottlenose dolphins numbering roughly 140 and giving the region the de-facto title of “Australia's Dolphin Capital”.

Visitors to Port Stephens wanting to get up close with these intelligent and beautiful creatures thus have a variety of choices for getting an encounter – both on top of, and in, the water. Your choice of which option you take will likely depend on two main factors: the amount of energy you are looking to expend, and how confident a swimmer you are in the water.

The large quantity of dolphins in the area makes for a 99% dolphin sightseeing rate, and for extra peace of mind a free return trip is offered on those rare occasions where none are spotted.

Those ready to brave the waters and get truly “within arm's reach” of Port Stephens' dolphins can join a tour with operator Dolphin Swim Australia, who offer New South Wales' only permitted dolphin swim experience. Dubbed by many to be one of life's true “bucket list” items, swimming with dolphins takes advantage of the animals' inherently inquisitive nature to make for a unique and rare interaction with these wild creatures.

As they're wild animals and need to be respected, it's up to the dolphins whether they want to approach the vessel; once they decide it's time for socialising, participants are equipped with wetsuits, harnesses and snorkel/mask combos then descend into the water attached to a rope between the hulls accompanied by a dive master.

It's an incredible feeling to be able to stick your head under the water and be surrounded by a pod of these beautiful mammals, and while the trip is much harder work than an on-board cruise, it's well worth the effort albeit at an increased price.

Regardless of your choice of methods, it's hard not to come away entranced by the character and liveliness of the dolphins of Port Stephens, making an encounter with them a true must-do on any itinerary in the region.

The Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens, NSW - Gan Gan Lookout

4. Gan Gan Lookout

Location: 2 Lily Hill Rd, Nelson Bay

Nearly every region in Australia has its own iconic lookout point – whether it be a tower, hillside or viewing platform – and Port Stephens' own wonderful answer to this is Gan Gan Lookout, a 160m-high viewing area on the outskirts of Nelson's Bay that offers a commanding panorama of Port Stephens itself all the way through to Newcastle.

Gan Gan Lookout makes for an ideal first port of call for first-time visitors to Port Stephens as it provides a wonderful overview of the region's overall layout, which can help visitors to get their bearings on where each significant surrounding point is located.

Accessed at the end of Lily Hill Road reached via a short diversion off the main road to Nelson's Bay, the ability to drive up to the top of Gan Gan Lookout makes it highly accessible as long as you've got your own private transport – although the drive up the hill is quite steep and tight.

The lookout has been recently renovated to provide wheelchair accessibility, while having plaques added that detail the history of both the lookout and Port Stephens as a whole, which helps add some extra context to the area for first-timers.

A second viewing platform was also added, which is a credit to the great work by volunteers from local clubs to keep the lookout in top condition while operating with limited resources.

The spectacle awaiting at the top is well worth the minimal effort to get there; the aqua-blue waters of the bay as well as the various islands dotting the waters look truly spectacular on days with good weather, and photographic enthusiasts will be hard-pressed to find a spot that produces better snapshots.

Late afternoon is perhaps the best time of the day to visit for photography, and during the Spring time the local flora and fauna are at their peak and add both an extra dose of colour and life to the backdrop.

Gymea lilies feature prominently here, and their bright red-pink colouring helps to add more dashes of brightness to the thick greenery.

If you're planning to visit Gan Gan Lookout, it's ideally best to go during the week as on weekends it gets quite crowded and the viewing platforms are of limited size. Time your visit just right, and you'll have the lookout – and all the best spots for photos – to yourself.

Port Stephens' first and best experience also comes with the benefit of being absolutely free, so if you're visiting the area there's no reason NOT to pay a visit to lovely Gan Gan Lookout.

The Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens, NSW - Port Stephens Surf Lesson

5. Port Stephens Surf Lesson

Location: Hannah Parade, One Mile

The easy access that Port Stephens' many beaches grant to the water coupled with its generally sheltered nature make for a great destination to try your hand at one of Australia's most popular national pastimes – surfing.

Home to over 30 kilometres worth of beachfront that offers the potential for some surf adventures, and this number of spots to choose from comes with a range of difficulty levels to appease surfers of all kinds.

Regardless of if you're looking to take your first steps to acquiring this enjoyable life-long skill or are a more seasoned surfer looking to refine your abilities further, Port Stephens Surf School offers a high standard of lessons across the board that all ages are welcome to participate in.

Group lessons here are divided up into adults and kids classes – with private lessons also available for that extra personal touch – with the initial aim of the friendly instructors to instil a sense of confidents in all participants, no matter their age given some people's understandable initial fear of the ocean.

Lessons are conducted at four different beaches throughout Port Stephens including One Mile Beach (located just 400m from Wanderer's retreat and widely acclaimed as the region's best surf beach that comes with spectacular views to boot), Birubi Beach, Dutman's Beach and Fingal Bay Beach with first-timers starting off in shallow water and learning a beginner-friendly technique to master the art of standing up.

Regardless of if you're a beginner acquiring this enjoyable life-long skill or are a more seasoned surfer, you can refine your abilities with a surf lesson in Port Stephens.

Safety here is also paramount, and plenty of advice and guidance is given on how to read the waves and recognise rips and other potential hazards on the water, with substantial personal attention given to each student even during busier group lessons.

All surf boards and wetsuits – provided as part of the free – from Port Stephens Surf School are in top-notch, near new condition, reflective of the pride taken in providing the best possible service.

You'll initially start out on a more stable longboard and stick to the whitewash which will allow confidence to build before branching further afield and heading “out the back” once a sufficient level of skill has been achieved, but there's never any pressure or rush put on by the patient staff.

One of the purest and simply enjoyable ways to take advantage of Port Stephens' wonderful marine aspect, surfing is a skill that will stay with you for life and can soon become an entirely healthy addiction – and there are few better and more scenic places to do just that than such an idyllic region.

The Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens, NSW - Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounter

6. Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounter

Learn about Australia's delicate ocean ecosystem and get hands-on with an array of marine life at the Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters.
The Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens, NSW - Oakvale Wildlife Park

7. Oakvale Wildlife Park

Their famous tagline is see, touch, feel at Oakvale Wildlife Park with close encounters with all your favourite Aussie animals encouraged here.
The Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens, NSW - Camel Rides with Oakfield Ranch

8. Camel Rides with Oakfield Ranch

Location:Birubi Point Public Carpark, James Paterson St, Anna Bay

There is a wide range of options for enjoying the lovely beachfront stretches that Port Stephens have to offer, and one of the most unique is by one of the oldest methods of transport available to man – the humble camel.

While it might be a sight more typically associated with Western Australia's Broome, Port Stephens' camel rides are a fun sightseeing adventure in their own right, and the large amount and size of the region's sand dunes are the perfect environment for camels to show off their skills.

Operated by Oakfield Ranch – a family-run business who are experts in all-things-camel – these tours provide a unique spin on the standard look-and-see tour experience, and can be done as both a brief sightseeing trip or an extended, 1 hour ride to soak in the area's characteristically beautiful sunsets right on the water.

During the rides, camels are ridden in 2-person-per-camel denominations and the camels themselves are calm and very docile so that first-time riders don't have to be overly concerned about safety, with helmets also provided for an extra dose of reassurance.

Throughout the ride, you'll encounter the beautiful sand dunes that are characteristic of the Port Stephens region, venturing into the heart of them – to the point that it gives the impression of being isolated in the desert rather than being near a major settlement of civilisation.

These camel ride tours gives the impression of being in an isolated desert as you travel through the beautiful sand dunes of the Port Stephens region.

The rides come with a generally positive, joking and upbeat attitude from the staff, who serve as knowledgeable and friendly guides who provide plenty of information on the local area as well as the habits of the attitudes of the camels themselves.

Despite the brevity of the journey, you'll no doubt form a kinship with the camel you get assigned to as their generally laid-back natures make them highly approachable creatures.

The shorter ride choice travels from the initial carpark departure point, to the sand dunes, along to the beachfront and back to the carpark again, and feels much more epic than the actual distance covered. Along the way, riders are also given plenty of time and opportunities to dismount and take photos with the camels and of the surrounding scenery, while the staff are always willing to take pictures for you – so be sure to bring your own camera along for the trip!

In all, camel rides are a great value and distinctive way to do some sightseeing in the Port Stephens region that will make for some great photo opportunities to show your friends and family afterwards.

The Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens, NSW - Toboggan Hill Park

9. Toboggan Hill Park

Location: 16 Aquatic Cl, Nelson Bay

The Port Stephens region isn't all beaches, sunshine and dolphins; those looking for a dose of family fun will also have plenty to do here, with one of the more unique child-oriented attractions the area has to offer its popular Toboggan Hill Park in Nelson Bay, located “across the bay” from Port Stephens.

A kind of miniature amusement park, Toboggan Hill provides visitors with the chance to take part in a range of additional activities in addition to its signature toboggans themselves, although these remain the undoubted highlight of the attraction.

Toboggan Hill park is set within a section of wilderness typical of Aussie bush land, which makes for a peaceful and pleasantly cool backdrop for the fun to be had within. That fun all starts, obviously, with the toboggans themselves, and the attraction's main toboggan track stretches an impressive 1 kilometre long with numerous bends and turns along the way.

Riders hop on their own individual toboggan (which can be shared between a parent and their child) and make their way down the track at speeds of their choosing.

Riders hop on their own individual toboggan (which can be shared between a parent and their child) and make their way down the track at speeds of their choosing – sit upright and you'll go slowly and be able to take in the scenery; lie flat on your back and speeds of up to 50 kilometres per hour are achievable!

Once you've had your fill of toboganning goodness, there's a fair amount of alternative fun to be had at Toboggan Hill Park, too depending on how much you're looking to pay. As pricing here is charged on a per-activity basis, you'll have your choice of which of the activities interest you and be able to customise your length of stay and entertainment choices accordingly.

Miniature / putt putt golf – always a favourite – can provide good bang for the buck depending on how you pace yourself (and your level of putting skill!), while more energetic options such as skating on a rink (not made of ice – it's dubbed “hot” ice skating which uses synthetic surfaces to achieve the same effect), wall rock climbing, and an outdoor maze all provide their own individual charm.

Train rides are also on offer which take you on a relaxed pace through the scenery, while those wanting to travel on foot can enjoy a bush walk instead.

One thing to note is that there are no real options for proper food here, so be sure to either bring some along for the trip or grab a bite to eat at Nelson's Bay beforehand (or travel before/after lunch time).

Toboggan Hill Park is a great choice of entertainment options for cooler weather periods and on those times when you don't feel like hitting the beach, and it stands out as one of the best ways to spend 2 – 3 hours if you're travelling to the Port Stephens region with kids. They'll no doubt want to ride the toboggan more than once!

The Top 10 Things to do in Port Stephens, NSW - Fighter World

10. Fighter World

Seeing the likes of Mirages and the F-111 in person is impressive due to both the aircraft's craftsmanship and their scale, and it doesn't take a particular passion for aviation in order to come away impressed by the attraction.