The national parks, beaches and seaside stays of Port Stephens have long attracted Sydneysiders looking for a weekend getaway, writes Teresa Ooi.
Thrill-seekers, families and couples of all ages will find a raft of activities to keep themselves busy in Port Stephens. But the beauty of the pristine area is that you can relax and enjoy the coastal towns even during the colder months.
The magical sand dunes of Port Stephens are the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Here, adventure seekers can board down the giant dunes, go quad biking or take camel rides at sunset.
The region's rich national parks are a hiker's dream, including the challenging trek up the Tomaree Head Summit Walk.
When you reach the top, you'll be rewarded with 360-degree views of Port Stephens and Hawkes Nest.
It is one of the prime spots to see humpback whales breaching. After all Port Stephens is on the whale highway, and from May to September you'll see the whales even from the beach.
The region is home to more than 150 bottlenose dolphins, and most providers will guarantee that you will see these majestic creatures. If you want to get up close and personal, you can also go on a wild dolphin swim - the only one permitted in New South Wales.
Organised by Dolphin Swim Australia, swim leaders take guests on this most thrilling experience where you are so close to the playful dolphins you feel you are part of the pod.
The destination is a fabulous escape for families with its sandy beaches, giant sand dunes, lots of activities for the young ones and wonderful, waterfront places to eat. It makes a perfect weekend getaway.
TeThere are 26 gorgeous beaches in Port Stephens, from sheltered bays to expansive ocean beaches, where you can go surfing, kayaking or paddle-boarding. At the charming 2.5-kilometre Shoal Bay beach, there are plenty of kayaks and stand-up paddleboards available for hire.
There's also Fingal Bay, a lovely beach on the fringes of Tomaree National Park, known for its many coastal walks leading up Mount Tomaree with absolutely amazing views over Port Stephens.
At the laid-back surf town of Anna Bay, there's Birubi Beach, a great place for a swim or a paddle in rock pools, and One Mile Beach, a semicircle bay with the softest sand and bluest water. It is also a popular surf hang-out.
At Nelson Bay, the main town in Port Stephens, you can hire a bike and cycle along the waterfront. The Bartlett Cycleway covers five kilometres from pretty Bagnalls Beach to Little Beach, near the historic, heritage-listed Nelson Head Lighthouse which has gorgeous views from the headland of the water.
The Port Stephens Markets are held on the fourth Sunday of the month. The popular community event in Salt Ash has great food, coffee and stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables, plants, clothing, jewellery and handmade blankets. The local market has a wonderful atmosphere with a free jumping castle to keep the kids entertained.
After the success of his first hotel in Mollymook, celebrity British chef Rick Stein converted a rundown motel into Rick Stein at Bannisters, a chic four-star hotel with a spa and, of course, a seafood restaurant.
Stein has written over 20 cookery books and made more than 30 cookery TV programs. He has also cooked for the Queen, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and French President Jacques Chirac.
It is Stein's ability to blend Southeast Asian flavours with good Australian staples, like freshly caught mussels, crabs and fish, that sets him apart from other chefs.
On the menu, there are staples such as local Port Stephens oysters, mussels with yellow kroeung (a Cambodian spice paste), sardines on toast, as well as Rick Stein's famous fish pie.
Another place to try is The Little Nel in Nelson Bay which serves healthy, local produce for breakfast and dinners, including takeaways.
For Devonshire tea, head to the Inner Light Tea Rooms, also in Nelson Bay, with some of the best water views over Port Stephens. Cakes and its famous scones are served all-day but the cafe also serves daily breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea.
There's also the delightful Little Beach Boathouse in Nelson Bay, serving market fish with eggplants and pecorino ravioli, crispy pork belly with roasted chat potatoes and broccolini, and miso-glazed salmon with roast pumpkin and mixed grain salad. The beachside setting is perfect for a leisurely lunch.
For stone-baked pizza, there's Cheeky Dog at nearby Soldiers Point where you can also dine at award-winning The Point Restaurant and perhaps catch the most beautiful sunset.
To walk off lunch, take a guided tour of the wild at Tilligerry Habitat, an eco-tourism reserve over at Tanilba Bay. Here you can see koalas eating young eucalyptus leaves and spot some of the 100 bird species of the area, such as the endangered Regent Honeyeater.
Drive: Port Stephens is a 2.5-hour drive north of Sydney and just over five hours' drive from Canberra.
Tour: Swim with dolphins on this four-hour tour from Nelson Bay. Just six guests are towed through the water by catamaran in this up-close experience. Priced from $329. Visit dolphinswimaustralia.com.au