The rich coast of New South Wales offers an overabundance of sleepy retreats. The coastline, running for over 2000 km, is no doubt then, one long sandy festoon, bedecked with a string of pearls. Starting all the way with Byron Bay from the north, the pearls in this necklace take the guise of Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour, Newcastle, among many others, to arrive midway at the large pendant of Sydney, then continues beyond to Wollongong, Jervis Bay, Bateman’s Bay , Narooma and Eden. Each pearl is unique, shining with its own kaleidoscope of colors. And I have been lucky to get bedazzled by the iridescent beauty of most of these. But if I were ever asked to choose the first among equals, my difficult choice would be Port Stephens. Of course, my answer as a Sydneysider will be biased by proximity to the city, but even then, its amazing combination of gargantuan sand dunes, endless beaches, hidden alcoves, marine lakes, sandy cays, tropical-like blue waters along with the modest but polished urbanity has charmed me immensely.
Like most places along the eastern coast of Australia, Port Stephens owes its name to the father of Australian taxonomy – Captain Cook. He named the place in 1770 after Sir Phillip Stephens, a personal friend and a high ranking civil officer in the Royal British Navy.
As I had written in an earlier essay, Port Stephens looks – with some Dali-esque imagination – like the head of a rhino, with its ears and snout and horns forming multiple bays (Baywatch gets a different meaning here!) We had put up at the Halifax Bay and to reinforce the cornucopia of beaches and bays here, let me recollect my conversation with the lady at the reception when I asked here which would be a good beach to head to.
Lady: It’s a bit windy today, with a chilling westerly!
Lady: So, if you can brace the winds, head to the west facing Nelson Bay or even go up to Salamander Bay
Lady: Or head to the east facing Shoal Bay, but the waters may still feel cold from the winds…
Lady: So, you can head further east to the Wreck beach. or even go all the way to Fingal Bay – they are all within 5 minutes driving distance
My local map was soon filled with black circles made by my guide to tell me of the multiple options I had. Welcome to Port Stephens!
Armed with so much information, when I walked out, my friends asked me what would be best. The lazy me looked across the road, saw the nice inviting beach of Nelson Bay, and led my friends to slump there, taking in the charming views while complaining all the while that the flock of pelicans nearby looked so lazy. They were just not moving or flinching at all!
Until it actually started feeling a bit windy. So we wound up from the beach and Bay-hopped onto the next one. We found a small alcove all to ourselves where we peacefully spent a large part of the afternoon. A long walk on the golden sands later, we had one beautiful sunset – slow, steady, and graceful in accepting the inevitable. In a last display of its grandeur, the sun gave a Midas touch to the skies atop the bay, turning it to gold. There’s something about a sunset, I must admit – primeval, grand and majestic. And whether we realize or admit it or not, it touches us humans. In that moment, we let go off most of our random myopic thoughts and seem to plunge in the silence of the dusky reunification.
When night fell, we rode up a nearby hill to head up to the Nelson Bay Lighthouse. It was dark, and empty but from its elevation gave a modest but good view of the sparkling lights of the town centre nearby. On the other side, the waters were dark, save for a few lights twinkling across the harbour on the other side.
Staring at the darkness, I tried imagining the huge harbour – larger than Sydney’s and once home to the Worimi tribe who must have led peaceful lives with the rich bounty of the lands. Peaceful enough that when the first European convicts managed to escape here, they were taken in by the Worimis, and happily integrated with the tribe. Sadly the reverse never happened.
From the convict-led history of the country, the geography of Port Stephens was mildly important as well. When the British tried setting up isolated convict spots far away from Sydney, Port Macquarie was established while soldiers were garrisoned here at Port Stephens to prevent escaped convicts from returning further south to Sydney and nearby.
Having thought enough of history, the late night made us think of gastronomy as well. We enjoyed a hot barbeque dinner in the midst of the chilly winds while happily making plans to get up early at 5 the next day for a sunrise on the seas…For the beauty of Port Stephens, it was a small price to pay…