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Shoal Bay Serenity
David Thorndike escapes the city and discovers a relaxing weekend escape in beautiful Port Stephens staying at the Ramada Resort Shoal Bay

If you are looking for the perfect family getaway within three hours of Sydney, then take a look at Shoal Bay in Port Stephens. Home to a large number of water activities including swimming, fishing, sailing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and much more, the region has been a popular holiday destination for years.

The main town is Nelson Bay, with the well-known d’Albora Marinas – home to a number of restaurants and specialty shops – drawing in visitors aplenty. We chose to stay next door in Shoal Bay only a few minutes further along, as it backs onto Tomaree National Park giving easy access to unspoilt beaches and beautiful bushwalks.

A room with a view
The Ramada Resort Shoal Bay looks out across the water to Hawks Nest on the northern shores of Port Stephens, and out over the Pacific Ocean to the east through the headlands. The reception area, restaurants and shops are situated at shore level, and the majority of the accommodation is built on the rise behind, affording almost every apartment spectacular water views.

We stayed in a two-bedroom Seaspray apartment which is modern and comfortable with plenty of living area. It has a large kitchen, ensuite off the main bedroom, spa bath, and a huge north-facing balcony, perfect for enjoying breakfast while watching the sun come up over the headland.

If spending time making breakfast isn’t your thing on holidays, you can enjoy the full or continental breakfast offered downstairs at Sandyfoot Café. With alfresco dining looking out over the beach it’s a great way to start the day.

Adventure and relaxation
After breakfast, hire a bike from reception and enjoy a ride along the waterfront esplanade, or if you’re after the best views in the district take a 10-minute stroll east along the foreshore to the foot of Mount Tomaree and enjoy the 360-metre climb to the top lookout platform. The track is well formed and the steepest parts have stairs and rails installed. The return walk is approximately 2km and takes about 30 minutes to reach the top. Be sure to take the longer track on the way down and visit the old WWII gun placements guarding the passage into Port Stephens.

Back at the resort the kids decided it was time to check out the pool area while mum went to look into the onsite Lattouf Hair & Day Spa and see what pampering treatments they offered. The resort pool is family friendly with a separate shallow pool perfect for little ones, right next to a sandy beach area.

The kids splashed around for well over an hour until mum came back from the spa looking totally refreshed. She had been treated to their Lattouf Signature Candle Massage, which pampers the body from head to toe with an oil of the same fragrance as the candle you choose. The spa is luxuriously appointed and is well equipped with a lap pool, hair salon, spa, sauna, mineral pool and six massage rooms, with the pools in the day spa designated as adults-only, with access a standard inclusion for all accommodation bookings, making this a wonderful parent escape.

Downhill thrills
The afternoon found us at Toboggan Hill Park in Salamander Bay. Kids eight and over can do the toboggan run on their own, while seven and under get to sit in front of mum or dad for their downhill adventure. The track is fast and the experience exhilarating, especially around corners, and the smiles didn’t leave the kids’ faces for the rest of the day. The park also offers a tractor train ride, a walk-through maze to be explored and conquered, indoor rock climbing, hot ice skating, mini-golf and an indoor amusement centre with games, remote control boats and ride-on cars for the little ones.

Back at Ramada Resort Shoal Bay we decided to have dinner at SeaRock, which is the most informal of the three restaurants on site. It is attached to the Country Club or ‘the pub’ (as everyone at the resort refers to it). There is live music playing as we enter and the atmosphere is friendly and inviting with the bistro-type setup. Orders are taken over the bar, with the food arriving promptly. Fifteen minutes later our empty plates are testament to the menu on offer.

Thar she blows!
The next day had us up early and exploring the region by water courtesy of Imagine Cruises. We boarded the magnificent 15.8-metre catamaran for a two-hour whale watching cruise. Captain Yves Papin has been leading these tours for many years and is a wealth of information on local landmarks and marine life. With microphone in hand, it wasn’t far into his commentary that he cried out, “There she blows”, as a spray of water was seen off the starboard bow. We were soon within good viewing distance and spent the next 40 minutes enthralled by a mother and calf as they continually broke the surface, sending up water sprays and occasionally showing their tails as they dove under the water again.

Already counting ourselves as extremely lucky to get such a good show, we were then treated on the way back in to a pod of dolphins playing in the breakers close to the shore of a nearby island, as well as spotting three New Zealand fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks a little further along.

Close encounters
Back on shore, we decided to continue the marine animal theme with a visit to the Australian Shark and Ray Centre. Here we had a hands-on experience, being given a bucket of prawns and fish pieces to feed the sharks and rays by way of a short plastic grab tool. Best of all, you can put on a wetsuit and hop into the pools (under supervision of course) to pat the sharks as they swim around you, as well as the biggest stingray you are ever likely to meet, Raspy, the 20-year-old Smooth Ray. The kids were a little apprehensive at first, but quickly warmed up thanks to our friendly guide, Shiara, who was extremely informative and genuinely enthusiastic about these giant marine creatures. After everyone had an opportunity of meeting Raspy, we moved over to the next pool and were introduced to an eight-foot Tawny Nurse Shark called Mr Fluffy. With all five of us standing in the pool (albeit separated by a two-foot-high net) we were given the opportunity to both feed and pat this gentle giant which was an amazing experience. All the kids received a certificate at the end that stated they were officially ‘Shark Wranglers and Ray Wrestlers’ so that they could prove their credentials to school mates the following day.

If you are staying for more than a few days there is plenty more to do and see in Port Stephens including Oakvale Farm & Fauna World and Fighter World at Williamtown. Of course, the beaches are the real drawcard in summer and the reason families return to Port Stephens year after year.

REPORT CARD
Information: www.portstephens.org.au

Getting there: Port Stephens is a 2.5-hour drive from Sydney. Shoal Bay is located a few minutes to the east of the main town, Nelson Bay.

Stay: Ramada Resort Shoal Bay - www.ramadashoalbay.com.au

Thumbs up: The Australian Shark and Ray Centre - www.ozsharkandray.com.au
Lattouf Hair & Day Spa - www.lattouf.com.au

Do: The climb to the top of Mount Tomaree – the views are spectacular
Toboggan Hill Park - www.tobbogganhillpark.com

Eat: Port Stephens Country Club - www.portstephenscountryclub.com

 

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