Port Stephens, a few hours north of Sydney in the Hunter region, is a coastal hideaway of headlands, ocean bays and big open skies ideal for an escape from a frenzied city life. Eager to glimpse the natural wonder of Zenith Beach, which I had somehow missed on a few visits to the area over ten years ago, we packed the tent and beach umbrella into the car, and set off for a weekend to wind down and rejuvenate after a busy few months.
We set up camp at the Halifax Holiday Park, tucked behind the Nelson Bay lighthouse on a peninsula between Little Beach and the north end of Shoal Bay, where we took a quick walk on the beach in the afternoon light. We then took a stroll down Little Beach looking for somewhere to eat and happened upon the lovely white Little Beach Boathouse. A short wait in the bar downstairs meant that we enjoyed a refreshing drink watching the pastel sun set over the calm water. Once seated in the upstairs restaurant, I ordered the Miso Glazed Atlantic Salmon on a wombok, fried noodle & cashew salad w/ avocado salsa & ginger dipping sauce, while Skymie (my fiance Phil), had the fresh ravioli with cherry tomatoes and rocket. At the recommendation of one of the young staff, we wandered into town to the Seabreeze Hotel for a nightcap, a newly renovated pub teeming with locals, many dancing to the band, named Whiskey Business (yup, you heard that right).
We woke before dawn. It was time to see Zenith Beach in all it’s morning sun-baked glory. Accidentally (but not regrettably), we took the wrong path down onto the beach rather than up to the headland, and met a local photographer setting up his kit, who gave us a number of tips on beautiful beaches and sites in the area. Friendly locals tick. As the sun rolled into view on the horizon, creating a wash of peachy warmth over the sea, we watched the morning unfold on the wondrous Zenith Beach.
The ascent up to Tomaree Head Lookout takes only around 25 minutes and while it is steep in parts, it is well paved, with steel steps and railings at at regular points. Partial views down to the bays and beaches become more frequent the further you go, until you reach a lookout point just shy of the summit, that opens up one of the most beautiful vistas on the east coast.
Ladies and Gentleman, Zenith Beach…
We spotted at least a couple of Peregrine falcons up at the summit, gliding and diving for what we assume are mice. I wonder if they are aware of how stunning their home is. There are multiple viewing points up top, with views back down to Zenith Beach and beyond, but also in the other direction out to Yacaaba Head (Myall Lakes National Park) and Cabbage Tree Island (John Gould Nature Reserve).
Time for brekky – on the way back to our campsite, we spied what looked like a cool little cafe along the beachfront main street at Shoal Bay, with wooden bench tables with marine-coloured paint (intentionally weathered) and enough punters to show it was a popular breakfast spot. Pennyweight Road fueled us with coffee, big breakfasts and a green juice, and was conveniently located next to a newsagent to pick up the Saturday paper.
Someone I know loves him a craft beer brewery, so when the weather turned overcast mid-morning, we head for Murray’s Craft Brewing Co, about a 15 minute drive inland. Just last month a fire ripped through the site, meaning there was a makeshift structure where the food and drink sales took place, but apparently the fire did not touch where the actual brewing takes place, so the beer was still flowing. There was also live music outside, with groups of happy folk spread around the grassy grounds enjoying the likes of Murray’s iconic brews Whale Ale, Angry Man Pale Ale or Moon Boy IPA (the label of which has on it a man with an uncanny resemblance to my companion). Feeling the need for a light healthy meal after our indulgent breakfasts, we both ordered a big green tasty salad (to errr, eat with our beer and cider). On the way out we picked up some good man-gifts.
A camp cook-up was in order for Saturday eve and indeed Sunday morning, after our lavish dinner at the boathouse the evening before. So we laid low and waited for the sun to come back out, grabbing morning coffee and a watermelon juice on the d’Albora Marina in Nelson Bay, and browsing a few boutiques like Coco Willow and The Home Interior (rumoured to also have great coffee). And then she came out, brilliant and warm and beckoning us to set up on the beach. So we did, and plans to head back to Sydney that afternoon were thrown away. Up came the beach umbrella. We read. We swam. We ate ice cream. We read some more, whiling away the afternoon on the calm of Little Beach.
Winding down after a strenuous day of reading and swimming, we returned to where our trip began – the Little Beach Boathouse bar – for a relaxing ocean-side drink and snack. With the weekend crowds dispensed, we watched locals unwind with cocktail jugs of fruity sangria on the back deck overlooking the jetty. We ordered delicious haloumi with a peach puree, and a wakame Japanese-inspired cashews and peanuts mix, which was salty, sticky and sweet. Skymie went for the Alehouse Golden Ale on tap and I had a glass of apple cider.
And how do you round out a weekend of escaping the scramble of city living? Another walk up Tomaree Head to watch Sunday set over the Pacific. A bit of low cloud on the horizon prevented a full-blown sunset, but the calm of watching out to sea (we also took a sneaky beer up each) and taking a walk through the bush as the light faded had us feeling centred and ready to take on another week.
Our final meal was a quick and tasty sushi train at Sushi Gogoro in Nelson Bay, before we retired to the tent for one last night before a drive at sparrows back to Sydney. (The fact that my car broke down 120kms from home, and made its way to the car cemetery that day is a story for another time and place).