Australia & NZ

Port Macquarie: a not-so-sleepy surprise package

February 12, 2017
Tacking Point lighthouse Port Macquarie.

Port Macquarie has a reputation as a haven for retirees. A sleepy, slow-moving town on the mid-north coast of New South Wales that’s full of old folk who’ve escaped the big smoke of Sydney.

I’ve always thought of it as a stopover point on the way to Byron Bay or Queensland, not a place you’d want to linger for very long.

It’s not a destination I would have chosen for a short break or holiday but when my travel partner JJ had to spend two separate weeks working there I hopped along for the ride.

Sometimes having low expectations works wonders.

It turns out my 12 days in Port Macquarie was a wonderful surprise package. Not only did I discover two former favourite work colleagues who’d recently moved there, but Port proved to be a playground for adventure, fine food and wine, and a chance to meet some of Australia’s most-loved furry friends.

Here’s my pick of the best things to do in Port Macquarie, a 400-kilometre drive north of Sydney:

#1: Walk Port Macquarie’s 9-kilometre coastal track

Dog friendly Nobbys Beach in Port Macquarie.

Dog-friendly Nobbys Beach in Port Macquarie.

If 9 kilometres sounds a bit daunting, you can break the walk up into several smaller coastal strolls. I started out at Town Beach and wound my way all around to the endpoint at the Tacking Point lighthouse above Lighthouse beach.

It’s a decent walk and the track incorporates several historic sites, crossing through beautiful beaches like Flynns, the dog-paradise Nobbys and the nude Miners Beach, as well as through lush rainforest.

For the first part of the track, you walk close to the road which means you can stop off for a cool drink or a coffee. But once you pass Nobbys beach and head into thicker bushland the track feels quite remote and I hardly saw a soul.

I got a bit of a start and felt a little unnerved when I stumbled upon a nude man standing in the middle of the wooden walkway heading down to Miners beach but hotel staff had assured me it was safe to walk alone.

Make sure you take plenty of water, a snack, sunscreen, a hat and some money to catch the bus back into town from Lighthouse beach. Oh, and of course, your cossie!

#2: Adopt a Koala

Feeding time at the Koala Hospital.

Feeding time at the Koala Hospital.

I loved the Koala Hospital. As many as 250 sick and injured koalas are admitted there for treatment and rehabilitation each year. The koalas are mostly injured in car accidents and dog attacks or suffer from chlamydia. The hospital relies heavily on donations to carry out its work.

That’s where the adopt a koala program comes in. While you can’t cuddle a koala, for $35 you can e-adopt one. I shared in the e-adoption of Barrington Xavier for 12 months. For my donation, I received an e-adoption certificate via email. For a few extra dollars you can get a printed adoption certificate posted to you.

The koalas are fed at 3 pm every day which coincides with a guided tour where volunteers introduce you to the koalas and share their tales of woe. It’s a lovely experience.

#3: Get lost in the Bago maze

The lilly pilly maze at the Bago Vineyards.

The lilly pilly maze at the Bago Vineyards.

It seemed like a long, windy drive to reach the Bago Vineyards and maze. Once I arrived I was glad I went the distance. It was a beautiful oasis in the bushland where I simply sat in the shade of the trees beside the vineyards listening to a chorus of birdsong. It was so peaceful and relaxing, I could feel the tension seeping out of me. For the first time in a long time, I felt as though I had escaped the city. Utter bliss.

Apart from wine tasting and nibbles, Bago is famous for its lilly pilly hedge maze. It’s about two metres high and you can wander from one end to the other, getting lost as you uncover the maze’s hidden secrets.

#4: Dine at The Stunned Mullet, Port Macquarie’s best restaurant

What a discovery.

It’s a massive understatement to say we were stunned at how spectacular this restaurant was. The food was so delicious and innovative. The wait staff were very friendly and incredibly passionate about the food they served. We went back three times!

The go-to dish is the glacier 51 toothfish, a thick, buttery white fish that comes from icy Antarctic waters off the coast of Western Australia. Super yum.

#5: Stroll along the Port Macquarie breakwall and take a dip at Town Beach

The breakwall at Port Macquarie is colourfully painted with messages of love.

The breakwall at Port Macquarie is colourfully painted with messages of love, hope and happiness.

When you first see the breakwall at Port Macquarie it looks like it’s littered with colourful flotsam and jetsam. Look a bit closer and the rocks are actually hand-painted by locals with messages of love, lost loves, hope, happiness and fun. Sweet.

The breakwall is adjacent to Town Beach, an accessible and patrolled swimming and surfing spot, you guessed it, not far from the town centre.

#6: Learn to surf at Flynns Beach

If you’ve ever surfed in Sydney you’ll be familiar with crowds, chaos, a bit of aggro and a lot of testosterone. Head north. While the beaches around Port Macquarie aren’t empty, they’re a long way from being crowded.

Which means it’s a good place to learn to surf. There’s a surf school at Flynns Beach, a few kilometres out of town, and if you feel like picking up a fun new sport, this looks like a good user-friendly spot.

#7: Visit the Tacking Point Lighthouse and wander Lighthouse beach

Take a camel ride on Lighthouse Beach.

Take a camel ride on Lighthouse Beach.

A stunning beach ideal for long, therapeutic walks soaking up the sunshine and stunning scenery. Popular with surfers and local dog owners, the beach is quiet during the day. I stumbled upon a camel tour – not something you see on any Sydney beach – and loved the solitude and sheer expanse of the beach. It feels as though it goes on forever.

The Tacking Point lighthouse on the north end is accessible by stairs from the beach or by car. It’s a spectacular lookout.

#8: Lunch at the Sea Acres Rainforest Centre

Peeking out through the shade of the palm trees along the Sea Acres Rainforest walk.

Peeking out through the shade of the palm trees along the Sea Acres Rainforest walk.

It was a hot, hot day when I visited the Sea Acres Rainforest Centre. I relished walking the 1.3 km boardwalk track in the shade of the sub-tropical rainforest and towering palm trees. It’s an easy stroll and a good opportunity to learn a little about the history of the area. Refuel in the shade at the centre’s outdoor Rainforest café.

#9: Drop into the Billabong Koala and Wildlife Zoo

Kambala the beautiful snow leopard at the Billabong Zoo.

Through the looking glass – how close is Kambala, the beautiful snow leopard at the Billabong Zoo?

I’ve only seen koalas in the ‘wild’ a couple of times so it’s always a thrill to get up close with them. There are quite a few at the Billabong Zoo and while they spend most of their time sleeping you might be lucky to witness a bit of action i.e a little climb up the tree, a bit of scratch behind the ear, a chomp on a gum leaf.

The zoo is home to several snow leopards who were part of the captive breeding program in Australia. I stopped by for the midday ‘show’ but star attraction Kamala stubbornly hid beneath a large tree trunk, refusing to come out and strut her stuff. Never work with animals or kids! The crowd eventually moved on to see the big crocodile Shrek so I stayed put and was soon rewarded with a private show:  Kamala ambled around her enclosure, climbed on the rocks and sat down right below me under the glass. Wow, she was so close and so graceful.

#10: Taste wine at the local vineyards

The best-known and largest winery in the region is Cassegrain which now sits right on the highway. It has a large cellar door and restaurant which overlooks the vineyards, gardens, and carpark. The day I visited very noisy building machinery ruined any chance of a tranquil, relaxing lunch. I found the restaurant food overpriced and a bit ordinary.

In addition to Bago Vineyards, there’s also the Long Point vineyard and Art Gallery at Lake Cathie. It has a small sculpture garden, exhibition space to showcase local artists and delicious local produce. I scooped up some rhubarb, lime and ginger compote (perfect with muesli and yoghurt) and some beetroot and ginger vinegar for salads. More yum.

There may be many more famous locations on the coastline of New South Wales but don’t underestimate the appeal of Port Macquarie. There’s plenty to do for kids and adults, and it’s another stretch of stunning Australian coast that’s worth exploring.

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