Get on board ... sandboarding on the Stockton dunes, Port Stephens.

Get on board ... sandboarding on the Stockton dunes, Port Stephens. Photo: Brent Mail

Hundreds of dolphins, thousands of whales and huge sand dunes. What's not to love, asks Lee Atkinson.

Why go?

With a natural harbour 2½ times as large as Sydney's, a string of ocean beaches and flanked by national parks, Port Stephens is an aquatic playground, less than three hours' drive north of Sydney.

What it's known for

Port Stephens claims it is the "Dolphin Capital of Australia" and the bay is home to a resident pod of about 150 bottlenose dolphins.

There are 10 operators offering dolphin cruises, but if you want to get really close, join a dolphin swim tour with Imagine Cruises. Just $229 buys you the chance to get into the water and ride the bow wave with the dolphins while tethered to the moving catamaran. Also try dolphinswimaustralia.com.au.

From late May to November, Port Stephens is a great place to see whales during the annual migration when more than 11,000 humpbacks swim by. Whale-watching and dolphin-watching cruises depart from Nelson Bay Marina.

What you didn't know ...

Stockton dunes, just south of Nelson Bay, are the largest mobile sand system in the southern hemisphere and the biggest sand dunes in Australia, with some more than 40 metres high.

Half buried by the constantly shifting sands at the northern end of the Stockton Bight is "Tin City", a small cluster of rusty tin shacks. Established as a squatter's village during the Depression in the 1930s, there are no roads, power or telephone lines or any other type of services, and the squatters pay no rent, land tax or council rates.

Port Stephens Council allows the shacks to remain but no new ones can be built.

If one of the huts falls down, it cannot be rebuilt and the buildings are accorded no official value, which means they cannot be bought or sold.

The only way to get your hands on one of these bits of beachfront real estate is to have it gifted to you.

You can explore the dunes on a range of tours, from quad bikes and four-wheel-drives to camels and sand-boarding adventures.

What's new

If you don't fancy spending three hours in a boat to see whales, try the new Heli-Humpback whale-watching tour.

The 30-minute helicopter flights cost $250 a person (minimum four people, shared flights are available) and give you a different view of the whale migration, although spotting a whale from the air is really just a bonus: the spectacular scenery steals the show. (02) 4965 1800, newcastlehelicopters.com.au.

Don't miss

Tomaree Headland is part of an extinct volcano that guards the southern entrance to Port Stephens.

The half-hour walk from the beach at Shoal Bay to the summit is steep but not as hard as it looks and the views from the top over the bay, beaches and offshore islands make the climb worthwhile.

During WWII a fort was built on the headland and you can explore the remains of gun emplacements and fortifications along the way.

Where to eat

Bub's Fish & Chips at the western end of Nelson Bay Marina is about as fresh as it gets - the local trawlers unload directly into the shop - but be warned, it's cash only.

For something a little fancier, The Wharf Restaurant above the seafood co-op also specialises in local seafood and is open daily for lunch and dinner. (02) 4981 0020.

The Point Restaurant at Soldiers Point also does great seafood and is a top spot to watch the sun go down. Closed Mondays (and Sunday nights during winter). (02) 4984 7111.

The Deck Cafe downstairs shares the same sunset view but is more casual. It's open for lunch and dinner daily. (02) 4919 1502.

Where to stay

You can't beat the Nelson Resort for location. It's opposite the marina in Nelson Bay.

Standard rooms with balconies and a small kitchenette start about $130 during the low season. Apartments start at $177. (02)49164600, nelsonresort.com.au.

The Shoal Bay Resort & Spa opposite the beach has a range of spacious rooms, villas and apartments, a pool, spa, health club and kids' club, and is a good family option. Rooms start about $170 in low season. 1800 18 18 10, www.shoalbayresort.com.

How to get there

The southern side of Port Stephens (Nelson Bay and Shoal Bay) is about 200 kilometres north of Sydney, via the F3, about a 2½-hour drive, depending on traffic.

More information

portstephens.org.au.