6 Days in Port Stephens Paradise

There’s no doubt about it, the New South Welshmen (and women) are spoilt for choice when it comes to great boating destinations.   When we decided to leave the cold climes of a late Victorian winter and head north with the boat to do a bit of research about some of their boating locations, the biggest difficulty came when we tried to work out exactly where we would go.   If you have a look at a map of the NSW coast, you will see that the coast is fractured with numerous estuaries, rivers and bays, most of which provide great opportunities to go exploring in a boat.

As it turned out the freezing weather down south, (best snow season in years), helped make up our minds.  Instead of working our way up the coast, we decided to start at Port Stephens and work our way back south from there.   So two days after leaving the Mornington Peninsula, and an overnight stop at the Gundagai Hotel, we arrived at Nelson Bay, Port Stephens, booked into the Halifax Caravan Park and started planning our expedition of discovery.

As is always the case when arriving someplace new, you have no idea where you to go or what you should do to get the most out of your limited time at that location.   The very next morning we set about getting some information and went straight to the headquarters of the NSW Marine Rescue in Port Stephens which is based on Nelson Head at the heritage classified inner lighthouse station.

Some of the team at Marine Rescue showing the spectacular views over Shoal Bay

OK, you might be thinking that’s an odd place to start but who better to speak to about the best and most popular boating places in and around the port which is actually two and a half times larger than Sydney Harbour.   And, as it turned out, when we got to the Marine Rescue HQ there was a sign actually encouraging visitors to come up to the watch tower and talk to the volunteers.

Sure enough, the guys there were all avid boaters and we got some very helpful information from them.   High on the list of ‘must visit’ locations we were recommended were;  Fame Cove, Broughton Island, the Myall River, Myall Lakes and Lemon Tree Passage.   Happy to say this information was repeated by several locals at the caravan park, and we explored them all.
The largest town in the Port Stephens area is Nelson Bay which is situated on southern side of the bay.   Other towns in the area include;  Anna Bay, Boat Harbour, Shoal Bay, Fingal Bay, Salamander Bay, Soldiers Point, Karuah, Winda Wopper, Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest.   Nelson Bay is by far the largest and most popular tourism town.
There are 8 boat ramps (not including beach launch areas) on the southern side of Port Stephens and six on the northern side.   On the southern side, ramps can be found at Shoal Bay, Little Nelson Bay (Little Beach), Nelson Bay, Salamander Bay, Soldiers Point, Taylors Bay and Lemon Tree Passage.

On the northern side you will find ramps at Allworth and Karuah (on the Karuah River) and Winda Woppa, Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens (2 ramps).   These  four ramps are on the Myall River.

The best boat ramp on the southern side of the waterway is the Soldiers Point boat ramp.   It is worth noting however that all the ramps become extremely busy during the peak of the summer holiday season.   Soldiers Point is about 11 km west of Nelson Bay and even though it is not the closest ramp for offshore access, (this would be the Shoal Bay boat ramp), it provides the best launching especially for boats over six metres or boats with a deep draught.   (refer to boat ramps link for further information) Boat Ramps

The boat ramp at Soldiers Point

Day 1

After a late start leaving Soldiers Point we headed straight to Fame Cove which is on the northern side of the bay and is an excellent all wind anchorage with five permanent moorings available to whoever gets there first.   Scattered throughout the Port Stephens waterways are moorings referred to as ‘courtesy moorings’ which can be used by anyone free of charge.   They are pink which makes them easily identifiable as public moorings as opposed to private.   The only problem with these moorings is that there is not enough of them.

When we arrived in Fame Cove which is a short 10 to 15 minute cruise from Soldiers Point, we found four out of five of the moorings taken which made us think we had better grab the last one in case we missed out for the night.   (We could have anchored there)   This made it an early afternoon stop but what a beautiful place to have to be.   A very sheltered cove which is surrounded by bush and had several pairs of sea eagles cruising around the little cove.   Word of warning though, the cove is NOT the ideal place to swim as it is believed to be a breeding area for several species of shark including great whites.

How’s the serenity as the sun sets on Fame Cove

Day 2

The next morning we had a choice;  go offshore to Broughton Island or up the Myall River to check out Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest.   The decision was made by the weather, or more particularly the swell which was dropping from a massive 6 metres to 2 over the following two days.   After watching the Marine Rescue boys tow a yacht back from Broughton Island after the crew became completely incapacitated from sea sickness in the 6 metre swells, we opted for a nice quiet cruise up the Myall River.

NSW Marine Rescue towing a boat back into port

The little towns/villages of Winda Wopper, (has to be a story about that name), Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens are situated just inside the entrance to the Myall River which like much of the Port Stephens estuary system, is home to many oyster leases.   Port Stephens is reputedly the largest oyster producing area in the country.   The channel is well marked, but the area is very tidal and straying outside the marked channels would be a mistake unless you have good local knowledge.
We stopped for coffee at a great little café restaurant on the river at Tea Gardens called the Boatshed Café and moored the boat right on the doorstep at their jetty.   The coffee was great and the view across the river even better.
The Myall River beyond (inland) of Tea Gardens loosely parallels the ocean beach and for the majority of the journey along the river you can hear the surf breaking in the distance.  It is 92 km long and flows out of one of three connected lakes called the Myall Lakes.   It is a long cruise up river because there are many 4 and 8 km speed restrictions intended to minimise bank erosion and protect the flora and fauna in what is mostly a national park called the Myall Lakes National Park.   There are numerous sections which are also marine sanctuary where no fishing can occur.
Aerial view of the Myall River looking south to the islands offshore from Port Stephens.   The river loosely parallels the ocean until it reaches the first of the Myall Lakes.
The river is about fifty feet wide and probably averages at three metres deep although on low tides it gets down to 1 metre and you will have to pick your way through the deeper areas on the bends to avoid touching the bottom which is mostly sand and mud but beware there are stretches where small rocks can be found.   Fortunately in the shallow areas, you can see the bottom even though the water is tannin stained.

After travelling for over one and a half hours and not seeing a soul, we came across a small wooden landing at a location called ‘Black Oaks’.   Perfect for our overnight stop.   We put our deck chairs on the small landing, opened the bar and watched the river change colour with the dying sunset.   This place could be in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t see another person from the minute we left Tea Gardens to the minute we arrived back there the next day.