Port Stephens has become a popular domestic travel destination for Australians.
The first time we went to Port Stephens on the NSW North Coast, we took long walks along the bay, ate seafood platters in quiet dimly lit restaurants, slept in and enjoyed the serenity the area offered.
Twelve years later, we’re back for 3 nights, but with a boot chock full of scooters, helmets, small suitcases filled with toys and buckets and spades, and 3 year old Energizer Boy annoying 9 year old Book Worm Girl in the back seat.
Has it changed much? From what I remember, not really.
It’s still a sleepy seaside town where the action is just around the corner - you just have to look for it.
But we’ve changed. This time, we’re here with 10 members of our extended family with ages ranging from 3 to 75.
We stay at the Mantra Aqua Resort and because we arrive mid-week, it’s nice and quiet.
On our first day, the weather is wet and windy so the ferry ride we planned to take is cancelled for the day, but not the Dolphin cruises - the show must go on!
So in the drizzling rain we book into the MoonShadow Dolphin Cruise at the d’Albora Marinas – which is pretty much what it was like 12 years ago – still the obligatory seaside shops full of resort wear, hats, shell crafts and restaurants touting fish and chips and seafood.
To find dolphins in that weather, the boat needs to go out further away than they normally would.
The rocky water makes the boat’s bow plunge into the sea again and again…and again… and then we see them - a whole pod of graceful, playful dolphins swimming in front and alongside our boat, jumping and cruising with beautiful ease.
We’d seen dolphins at SeaWorld at the Gold Coast, but I must admit, nothing compares with seeing them in their own natural surroundings.
Book Worm Girl was very tempted to jump in there with them!
Everyone is in raptures, and if I didn’t get sea-sick, I would’ve been too… all I remember is clinging on to the railings at the front of the boat (the kids wanted to be in the action) as it dived into the water again and again… and again… and Energizer Boy smiling excitedly at me saying “Mummy – this boat is just like a roller coaster – it’s awesome!”
Glad that the kids are enjoying this ocean ride, I retreat inside to close my eyes and stabilise my senses.
When we finally get back to shore, I find out that they also saw 2 penguins, which apparently doesn’t happen very often.
I’m also glad we didn’t opt for the lunch cruise which went on for another hour and a half after we disembarked.
On the following day, after another windy, wet and cold start to the day, the sky clears and the sun peeks out.
We drive to WaterWorld Central in nearby Salt Ash, close to the Oakvale Farm and Fauna World.
It’s a mobile water park with inflatable pools, slides and boats to suit the little ones, so the older family members relax at the resort.
Book Worm girl takes to it like…well like a duck to water, but Energizer boy isn’t tempted by this big empty field with huge, overwhelmingly bright, noisy, coloured inflatable things filled with water…until he spies bright little green and pink hand-paddle boats in a big pool.
So the day is spent productively going from inflatable pool to inflatable slides small, medium, large and super-duper, and back again.
Lunch is at Medowie Macadamia Farm, which gets a very favourable nod from everyone, even Energiser Boy, who is notoriously picky.
They have child friendly food and it’s also delicious, with the added touch of macadamias incorporated into most of the sauces and dressings.
There’s a little play area for the kids on the lawn but our little ones just run around the macadamia trees while we look on, sipping fantastic macadamia smoothies.
And of course we left with bags of salted, chili, natural, crunchy and chocolate coated macadamias.
To fill in the rest of the time, we take the kids scooter riding in a little reserve along Burbong St, which comes with fantastic water views, 2 pelicans, and play area.
And when it’s time to ‘rest’, we head back to the resort so the kids can swim in the pool and run around the little water play area.
The resort could do with a little spruce up.
Some of the pool umbrellas are broken, and the cushions for the sun lounges are wet and saggy from being left out overnight in the rain.
By this time, it’s the weekend and the resort is buzzing with extended families all enjoying their time.
It starts to feel a little crowded with everyone squeezing under the few working umbrellas and dry lounges.
Of course, that doesn’t bother the kids, they jump from the steaming hot water of the spa – “keep your head out of that water please!” into the cold swimming pool with ease and much noise and splashes.
Two weeks after we return home, my brother-in-law calls up to book us in for another trip to Port Stephens in the Easter holidays.
We’re planning to go for a swim in the beach as the water is still quite warm then, and to the Australian Shark and Ray centre at Bob’s Farm, where you can feed the sharks and rays.
Toboggan Hill Park is another possibility, along with bushwalking in the Tomaree National Park.
And if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll manage a quiet-ish walk along the bay.