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For the first itinerary of my three-part road trip series, I went up the coast with family to discover three main spots of NSW: Newcastle/Port Stephens, Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie. We are a bit crazy because we decided to do it all in one day but I really wanted to discover and show as much as I could to my family. In a way, it was a highlight but this already inspired me to come back in the future.

Here are my highlights and places I explored.

The Sealy Lookout in Coffs Harbour. Photo: Marine Raynard
The Sealy Lookout in Coffs Harbour. Photo: Marine Raynard

Day 1: A different world at the Sand Dunes and Port Stephens

I remember booking the holiday and thinking of white sand areas and blue sky with hot and sunny weather. Well, as soon as we arrived the weather really wasn’t what we expected. All grey, windy and rainy… But no matter the weather, an adventurer always go with the flow!

Our first expedition was to discover the sand dunes via Stockton from Newcastle, which took us about 30 to 45 minutes. The way to enter the dunes is to go via a small lane near Stockton, called Lavis Lane. From here there are two options, either you purchase a pass from a the petrol station on the corner before the lane or you leave your car at the carpark and walk a good 20 minutes to get to the dunes. We didn’t get time to organise passes and and I was a bit nervous of the risk of damaging my car on the dunes as we needed it for the rest of the road trip so we decided to just park and walk. If you don’t have a 4WD and you don’t know how to drive on sand, I wouldn’t recommend it. But next time I’d love to try!

Sand Dunes near Stockton. Photo: Marine Raynard
Sand Dunes near Stockton. Photo: Marine Raynard

But once you get to the dunes, the landscape is just magical! It feels like being on another planet. I couldn’t help thinking actually about Star Wars. I wish we had a bit more time to explore with nicer weather because it is definitely worth it to take time and take photographs. If driving there, you can also discover different areas along the dunes such as the MV Sygna shipwreck or  the tin city.

Shoal Bay, Port Stephens. Photo: Marine Raynard
Shoal Bay, Port Stephens. Photo: Marine Raynard

We then decided to continue driving towards Nelson’s Bay to discover more about Port Stephens as the weather the day after was set to be bad. There’s a lot to see around, Shoal Bay, Box Beach, Nelson Bay.. If the weather is warm and sunny, it can be a true paradise of crystal clear water and white sand. Box Beach was looking perfect for surfing and is a bit more secluded than the rest. I’d just really recommend to go with a car and not be afraid to explore to discover the best spot far from the tourists. Even better, going sailing there must be magical.

A new friend in Nelson's Bay. Photo: Marine Raynard
A new friend in Nelson's Bay. Photo: Marine Raynard

Day 2: Water escapes at  Lake Macquarie & Newcastle

I won’t talk much about Lake Macquarie because well the weather was… horrific. Pouring rain and grey mood really ruined Lake Macquarie for us, even when trying to drive around we didn’t see many interesting things. A bit depressing when starting the holidays to be honest.

However, driving a bit further to Newcastle and its surroundings such as Merewether saved the day. Merewether Beach is the perfect mix of wild ocean, wild surf and iconic baths. Once again, the mood was grey and wet but the beauty of the place overcame the bad weather. The surfhouse overlooking the beach is a great place to take a break for lunch and admire the technique of advanced surfers.

Merewether Baths. Photo: Marine Raynard
Merewether Baths. Photo: Marine Raynard

We had a quick look at Newcastle, it was the second time for me in the little city and its atmosphere is still so relaxing. The main beaches are just next to the city centre and many surfers also go there to catch nice waves, like on Nobbys Beach. There’s a harbour to the newcastle breakwall to do where you have nice views over the ocean, the harbour and even the sand dunes further away.

But here finally the sun came back! This was the perfect opportunity to try again the sand dunes but this time from another angle: Anna Bay. We went a lot further than the first time, till the end of the sand dunes (or the start) but it was definitely worth it. It gives a totally different view of the dunes, you can easily walk on it and you can see the huge beach and ocean nearby. We waited for the sunset, which is said to be magical but once again got unlucky with a huge grey cloud. Next time!

Day 3: Coffs Harbour and its beautiful countryside

Now that’s a big jump from Newcastle with almost four to five hours drive to Coffs Harbour but we thought going further would be easier to then come back, knowing the time was limited.

Right away, we loved the atmosphere of Coffs Harbour which seemed really relaxed and green - a bit like Byron Bay but in bigger. We discovered Coffs Harbour with some friends of mine who kindly took us on a city and country tour. And it turns out there’s a lot to see! The best was the Sealy lookout on top of the mountain with the best view on Coffs Harbour. Coffs Harbour is also now very into growing blueberries at the moment, taking over what was before the banana fields.

Muttons Bird Island. Photo: Marine Raynard
Muttons Bird Island. Photo: Marine Raynard

We also booked the cutest Airbnb in the middle of the countryside. We could see the mountains from our windows and say hi to horses, ducks and sheeps in the morning. The perfect country escape.

There’s a great walk to do just next to the harbour to go to MuttonBird Island, A beautiful island linked to the earth where you can see amazing views of the ocean and the harbour. If you go early enough in the morning, you can actually see the native birds before they leave fishing for the day.

View from our airbnb.
View from our airbnb.

We drove back in the countryside to say hi to my friends again. The countryside of Coffs Harbour is really a must-see with beautiful farms, green patches and deserted roads. So relaxing after a busy Sydney life!  If you’re fond of golf too, I would recommend you try the Bonville Golf Course. This was a highlight for my boyfriend who enjoyed the scenery and quality of the course.

Day 4: Port Macquarie, Koala Paradise

Port Macquarie was our final stop before going back to Sydney. Surprisingly, we didn’t find the city to be super interesting. The coast line is really nice, the surroundings like the lighthouse near Lake Cathie is super cute. But apart from that, nothing really struck us. Probably, I thought, because you would need to spend more days exploring the surroundings than just one or two days.

However, there is one thing no one can miss when visiting Port Macquarie: The Koala Hospital. While it is a bit heartbreaking to see all of those koalas injured and even fighting for their life, it is also the sweetest to see how much care and love they get to heal. Without the hospital they probably wouldn’t be able to survive on their own.

Koala Hospital. Photo: Marine Raynard
Koala Hospital. Photo: Marine Raynard

Four days done!

I’d say we accomplished a lot and saw lots of places. If the weather would have been nicer, we would definitely have spent more time exploring Port Stephens and its beautiful bays.

I really liked Coffs Harbour though and wouldn’t hesitate to come back to see more. The north of New South Wales isn’t that far at all when driving and is definitely a nice place to see.

And if you have a bit of time, also stop in Byron Bay! See my article about it here.

In the next episode: Driving south to Victoria and Great Ocean Road

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