Base yourself in Port Stephens – home to 30km of sand dunes, wildlife spotting opportunities and lovely eco retreats – and explore the smaller, boutique wineries of the Hunter Valley
After spending more than six weeks living in the smallest campervan imaginable, it was not a completely selfless decision when I booked a romantic tree house for my boyfriend’s birthday.
There are a number of eco resorts in Port Stephens, a natural estuary 180km north of Sydney, but Wanderers Retreat was the one that caught my eye. All of the accommodation in this quiet bush retreat is beautiful, but for couples it is definitely worth paying extra for one of the tree houses (from AUS $195). These are well-thought out, luxurious-yet-rustic hideaways with spa bath, private deck and barbecue. There are activities aplenty in the surrounding area and dolphin and whale watching boat trips are popular. Alternatively, if you want a more relaxed approach, the retreat is within walking distance of One Mile Beach with pleasant walks and surfing opportunities. The staff are also only too happy to point you in the direction of the nearest koala! The retreat is located in what is known as ‘koala corridor’ and we were lucky enough to see one very lazy and one rather pompous-looking koala staring down at us from their trees. We also received guests each evening on our deck in the form of a family of possums who, it must be said, were very cute.
Down the dunes
Port Stephens is also home to the Stockton Bight: 30km of huge sand dunes. Take the opportunity to go quad biking far out into the desert-like distance, or opt for the (unexpectedly) more energetic sandboarding. “Think snowboarding, but sitting down, and on sand!” said our 4WD driver as we bumped our way to a good spot. Or, sliding down a sand dune on a tin tray. It turns out that this is actually pretty exhilarating, whizzing down the huge dunes and trying not to spin off at the bottom. But beware: what goes down, must come up. Ski slopes have lifts, sand dunes have... people with giant leg muscles. The key is to get up a good momentum, or you will find yourself sinking backwards at every step and going nowhere! Having said that, the view at the top of bright blue sky and shining yellow sand for miles made it worth it every time. Port Stephens 4WD (www.portstephens4wd.com.au) offer various activities on the dunes, and unlimited sandboarding (as much as your legs can cope with) is AUS $23 for adults.
Wining the day away
For a more leisurely but scenic day, a tour of the lower Hunter Valley is perfect. While many visitors depart on tours from Sydney, it is both closer and cheaper to base yourself in Port Stephens or Newcastle and go from there. And no, you don’t have to be a wine expert to visit the Hunter Valley – all of the wineries we stopped at were refreshingly unstuffy and welcoming, and you even get to swallow the stuff! Hades Day Tours (www.hadesdaytours.com; $79 including door-to-door pick up and set down) is a great option for larger parties, while Leisa at Hunter Tours (www.huntertours.com.au) is the ideal guide for groups of up to seven people. Hunter Tours offer various options dependent on your wine preferences (ours being white, but every winery we visited offered equally palatable reds) and drive a 4WD Land Rover, meaning that more of the small boutique wineries are easily accessible. Tours start at $65 per person for their boutique wine tour. Here are four of our favourite small wineries around the Pokolbin area:
*Peterson’s Champagne House (www.petersonhouse.com.au) is a brilliant, friendly little place where every bottle is filled with bubbles! We tried sparkling white, rose and even red, all made using the traditional champenoise method, and bought a couple of bottles of their sparkling pink rose blush to enjoy later
*At Kevin Sobels (www.sobelswines.com.au) you’ll probably be welcomed by Gus, the friendly Saint Bernard dog. Try the Verdelho – a wine we had not previously heard of but very much enjoyed
*Sandalyn Wilderness Estate (www.huntervalleyboutiques.com.au) not only offers wine but also specialises in its Fuchs olive oil, and we sampled a huge range of infused oils and balsamic vinegars. Our bottle of choice here was the chardonnay
*Drayton’s Wines (www.draytonswines.com.au) has a strong family feel and will encourage chocolate liqueur, white port and cream sherry tastings as well as wine. Their traditional Hunter Semillon is a great representative of the region
Port Stephens also offers its own wine-tasting experiences, including the Port Stephens winery (www.portstephenswinery.com). Eating here is also a good option, where local produce is matched to your drink (from oysters with Chardonnay to gourmet pizza with a Murray beer).
None of the wineries should charge for tastings, though it is considered a nice gesture to buy at least one bottle of your favourite – the wines we bought at the cellar door ranged between $8 for a Semillon and $30 for a special bottle of Blanc de Blances.
Staying in the Hunter region
Staying in the Hunter Valley itself can prove expensive, but if this is the more practical option then what could be more apt than sleeping at the oldest vineyard in Australia? Wandin Valley Estate in Lovedale has a variety of accommodation with impressive views of the valley, starting at $160 per night for its Studio Piccolina. It also provided us with our first sighting of wild kangaroos, lounging in the shade. Splinters Guest House is a slightly cheaper – but equally charming and unpretentious – alternative, particularly at weekends when prices can hike. An en-suite room with private veranda starts at $160 including breakfast, and a one-hole golf ‘course’ (mind the kangaroos) and saltwater lake provide lovely surroundings.
For us, we were only too happy to return to our tree house in Port Stephens. The area really is worth the detour from the usual tourist route – it gives a completely different impression of Australia than Sydney, and who could pass by seeing a koala in its natural habitat, watching bottlenose dolphins or sliding down a sand dune?
The next day, we concluded that, though we might have been leaving our lovely tree house to return to the campervan and head up the coast, at least we had ten bottles of great wine to enjoy along the way!