Blessed with azure waters and countless white sandy beaches and bays, Nelson Bay, Port Stephens, is Australia’s quintessential summer playground. It’s a natural harbour surrounded by subtropical forest and coastal bushland. Dramatic headlands and nearby Islands punctuate the east-wood vistas. Its waters are frequented by whales, dolphins, and seals. Its forests are home to Roos, Koalas and Goannas. It’s like something from a nature movie but with fun, excitement, and the amenity of a small modern city.
Situated 40 minutes north of Newcastle, NSW, The Bay, as it’s known locally, is an easy drive from any direction, and 20 minutes from Newcastle Airport. And don’t worry if we’re smack bang in the middle of winter. Grab a beanie, swap out short sleeves for long and bring a wetsuit.
I’ve lived 30 minutes down the road from Nelson Bay for most of my life. I’ll be there again this weekend. But before I go, I’ve compiled a list of 17 fun things to do in Nelson Bay for all ages. Pack yourself a weekend bag, and I’ll see you there.
History - Cultures Ancient And New
Nelson Bay and the Port Stephens Shire are steeped in history, modern and ancient. Before colonisation, the Worimi people were the original custodians of this land. I encourage every Nelson Bay visitor to explore the richness of their culture via educational workshops and tours.
Did you know Port Stephens was in the race to become Australia’s capital? The tense Sydney-Melbourne rivalry precluded either city from becoming the nation's capital. Several alternative locations were flagged as having potential, Port Stephens being one. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, it lost out to Canberra.
17 Fun Things To Do In Nelson Bay For All Ages
This list includes a mix of free and fee-based adventures. Some have skill or age prerequisites while others are fun for all. I’ve broken up this list into four easy categories, including a bonus Nelson Bay campers guide.
Fun In The Water
The Bay is home to over 25 beaches, 7 of which have awesome breaks, attracting surfers from all over NSW all year round. Surf beaches include Fingal Bay Beach, One Mile Beach, Birubi, Zenith, Wreck, Samurai and Box Beaches. Check the surf report, then choose your break.
If you’re surfing One Mile, don’t be surprised to find yourself sharing your wave with a dolphin. If you’ve never surfed before, consider lessons with Port Stephens Surf School. They have schools at One Mile, Birubi and Fingal Bay Beaches catering for beginners to pros.
There’s nothing like the feeling of swimming off a white sandy beach. From tranquil Taylors Beach and Salamander Bay to the powerful surf breaks, Nelson Bay is a natural blue water wonderland - a gift for lovers of swimming. There’s an idyllic swimming spot suitable for all ages, beginner to advanced. Most beaches are patrolled by lifeguards during the warmer months.
For laps and water aerobics, or some serious giant water slide action, head to Tomaree Aquatic Centre for all-day family swimming fun. There’s a heated outdoor pool too - great for winter laps.
The fishing from Nelson Bay and its surrounds is nothing short of legendary. There’s something for every saltwater angler, land-based or afloat. With Port Stephens so close to the continental shelf, offshore anglers can chase everything from mahi mahi to massive marlin. You can drift the estuary, and explore the Myall and Karuha Rivers.
Land-based anglers can chase kingfish from the rocks, bream from the sea wall, or hit Stockton beach (4WD recommended) for 36 km of whiting, bream, jewfish, tailor and Aussie salmon.
There are plenty of charters available for offshore and estuary adventures. Prices vary according to group size and duration, but on average, start at $200, exceeding $450. For those with their own boats, Nelson Bay has outstanding launch facilities.
4. Diving And Snorkelling
For experienced divers and snorkelers, all you have to do is bring your gear. The snorkelling and diving opportunities are far too numerous to list. Pick a patch of water…like really. Nelson Bay and its surrounds are teeming with Aquatic life, including coral, dolphins, turtles, sharks, rays, huge blue groupers, and so much more. And, there’s a location to suit all skill levels.
Halifax Aquatic Park at Fly Point is an exceptionally popular dive and snorkel location you can access from the beach. Banned from all exploitation, it remains pristine, and an ideal location for shore-based adventurers to mix it up with Spong Bob, and Nemo. Dive and snorkel charters are numerous, as are dive schools and dive information. Nelson Bay is a great place to get certified and one of the rare places you can dive with grey nurse sharks.
Explore And Discover
5. Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters
Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters is marine fun and education for the entire family. Get up close and personal with sharks and rays as you wade and snorkel the shallow tanks. General entry starts at $38, which includes animal interaction in the wading pools. Snorkelling, feeding, patting and more personal interactions attract further fees.
6. Whale And Dolphin Spotting Cruises
Nelson Bay is Australia’s Whale watching capital. From May to November, up to 30,000 whales will pass through the waters surrounding Nelson Bay. Humpbacks are the regulars but you may also see seven other species including Southern Rights and Orcas. Cruise for 2.5 to 3 hours with family tickets ( Adults and two Children) starting at $185.
If you’re in Nelson Bay outside of whale season, Moon Shadow TQC Cruises offers a splash-and-slide dolphin cruise, where you rip down a water slide from the side of the boat right into the dolphin's playground. Dolphin encounters are assured. Family prices start at $118 for 2 hours.
7. Oakvale Wildlife Park
Oakvale Wildlife Park is a 20-minute drive from Nelson Bay. With a focus on Australian natives, there are also exotics from Asia and the Americas. Live shows plus touch and feel exhibitions operate daily. Fancy holding a massive python? Maybe you could feed a Lemur as it sits on your shoulder. Park entry starts at $36 per adult. More intimate encounters with your favourite animals cost a little extra.
8. Fighter World
Williamtown RAAF base is just 20 minutes south of Nelson Bay. Home to the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, it’s also home to Fighter World. Fighter World is a military aircraft museum where you can get touchy-feely with some of Australia's most famous fighter aircraft. Fun and informative for the whole family, there’s a cafe on-site for refreshments, and entry starts at $19 for adults and $11 for children. This is a very busy military base, there’s every chance you’ll witness an F-35A going through its paces. It’s a sight and sound to behold.
9. Sahara Trails Horse Riding
Discover Port Stephens on Horseback with Sahara Trails Horse Riding. Take a magical trail ride through Casuarina forests, and visit the kangaroos and koalas. Intermediate riders can explore the mind-blowing sand dunes and beautiful golden beaches.
Catering for beginners and advanced riders, ages 4 and above, each trail is led by an experienced guide with oceans of local knowledge and great insights into our indigenous heritage. Prices start at $55 for a truly amazing experience.
10. Holberts Oysters
Any visit to Nelson Bay is a veritable seafood festival with a huge selection of bay-side restaurants specialising in fresh and local seafood. Holberts Oysters is an institution in The Bay and a must-visit for Oyster lovers. Get there about 4ish, grab a dozen or so oysters, and stare out over Cromarty Bay as the sun disappears. Life doesn’t get better.
Sport, Thrills And Fitness
11. David Graham's Golf Complex
When too much sport just isn’t enough - there’s David Grahams Golf. Yes, it’s a driving range…BUT. It’s also a par 3 golf course, laser clay pigeon shooting, and baseball batting cages. There’s a mini golf course, laser tag, soccer golf and frisbee golf - I’m exhausted thinking about it. Drop the kids - and dad, and run. $15 dollars will get a round of golf or some clay pigeons. Check the website for more prices.
Go-Karts-Go is The Bay’s home of speed and adrenaline. Race European RiMO Evo 6 karts, capable of 70km/h, around the tight 350-metre track. Boasting benchmark safety, Go-Karts-Go is serious about fast-paced fun and motor racing. The minimum age is 5 years old, and prices start from $40 including your 12-month racers licence. Bookings are essential.
Nelson Bay Golf Club is a picturesque and challenging 36-hole golf course. Recently renovated, with full club facilities, this is the most popular club in Nelson Bay - book early for a social round. Tanilba Bay Golf Course is a more casual 18-hole setting, with a wonderful atmosphere, wildlife, and some challenging holes.
For the golf purists looking for the championship experience, Horizons and Pacific Dunes golf courses are immaculate tracks with national recognition. Pacific Dunes is rated 26 in Australia. Fees start at $45 for twilight golf and a push buggy.
14. Toboggan Hill Park Toboggan Ride
Toboggan HIll Park is famous in Nelson Bay. Jam-packed with family fun, there’s a 1 km toboggan run, rock climbing walls, roller skating, 19 hole mini putt and a bunch of rides and amusements to entertain the whole family. Tickets are $8 for under 8s and $10 for all over 8 years old. Just 5 minutes out of Nelson Bay, this is a favourite with all the kids.
15. Tear Up The Sand Dunes On Quad Bikes
This is the most thrilling Nelson Bay experience available for those aged 16 and above. If you’ve never seen the sand dunes, your first glimpses will take your breath away. Add a 350CC quad bike and its sensory overload.
The Quad Bike King offers two spectacular safaris. One is open-throttle mayhem, with the other a more slow-paced discovery tour allowing riders to focus more on the scenic views. The bikes are easy to master with brilliant tuition from your tour guides. Prices start from $110 for an unforgettable hour and 45 minutes. You’ve gotta do this…really!
16. Stockton Sand Dunes
After 40 years of exploring, camping and driving the majestic Stockton Sand Dunes, I’m still inspired by them. I’m blown away that, like the Saraha desert, there’s sand as far as the eye can see, but a stone’s throw from a major city. Windswept, forever transient and full of ancient stories and secrets, this is a special place - sacred to the Worrami people. It is now part of the Worimi conservation lands.
The sand dunes are the must-see on your Nelson Bay adventure. Explore on your own in your 4WD, or simply walk. There are stunning views from the highest dunes. Entry is from Anna Bay and a permit ($33 for 3 days) is required if you’re 4-wheeling. Tours are available and highly recommended for those seeking history and insight. The Tin City tour is highly recommended and starts at $150 for a family of 4.
This is one of my favourite places on the east coast of Australia.
17. Tomaree Head
Tomaree Headland is in Tomaree National Park on the fringe of Nelson Bay. Tomaree Head Summit Walk is nothing short of spectacular with its breathtaking vistas. It’s a 2.2 km round trip and it's steep. Allow at least 2 hours.
You’ll forget about your heaving lungs, and the countless steps - the stunning views are empowering. Bring good shoes, plenty of water, trail mix, and your best camera. Keep in mind I’m yet to see a photo do it justice.
Best Camping Around Nelson Bay
Nelson Bay caters brilliantly for caravans, camp trailers and campervans, with a wide selection of caravan parks situated in idyllic locations. The parks have ample space for tent campers, and the facilities are outstanding. The kids will be in heaven and you’ll want for nothing. However, you’ll pay for it with campsites starting at $50 per night for 2 adults. They sell very quickly in the summer holidays.
Top locations include:
Ever since Stockton Beach was closed to camping back in 2012, Nelson Bay is very limited in terms of naturist-style, secluded, self-contained camping sites. But there are a couple, and you’ll need to hike in, or own a 4WD.
1. Samurai Beach
Samurai Beach Camp Ground is perfect for nature lovers, fisher folk, surfers, swimmers and beachcombers. While the area is marked, there are no individual designated sites. It’s free to camp but there is a $6 booking fee, and bookings are required. Many people don’t book, and just take the risk that there will be space.
You need to be totally self-sufficient. There are no supplies, no shelter, and you will get cut off from the beach exit at high tide. It is a tough hike should you walk in, and there are soft conditions requiring low tyre pressures for 4-wheelers.
But this is a magic location. Sometimes popular, and sometimes you’ll be there by yourself. Oh…Did I mention? Clothing is optional. Samurai Beach and campground are designated nudist. Bring sunscreen.
2. Ganyamalbaa Beach Camping Area
Technically, this isn’t Nelson Bay. But those with 4WDrives have access to Nelson Bay via an awesome 25km drive along the sands and sweeping views of Stockton Beach to Anna Bay and Birubi Beach. Firstly, this is super-soft sand, low tyre pressures and sand driving skills are a must. Walking in is for those travelling light, as it's a tough soft sand walk. You have to be completely self-sufficient and all waste must be removed from the site. Camping loos are compulsory, apparently, but there’ll be nobody there to check.
You can book online with sites costing $33.00 per/night. Set in the dunes, it can be tricky to work out which sites have the best wind protection. I’ve got it wrong several times, but it’s wind dependent, and the wind changes direction throughout the day.
This is beach camping in the elements. You’ll likely be alone, bar a few passing fisher folk. And you can rip a massive bonfire by the sounds of crashing waves. It’s a great spot for anglers, 4WDrivers, and lovers of beach camping.
Sites are marked, but it’s all a little weather-beaten. I feel it gets little attention from the custodians. This adds to the charm and the isolation. Be aware, it can be hot in the summer months.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.