This tourist-friendly town is not far from Newcastle, NSW, on the south side of Port Stephens, a long natural harbour.
Nelson Bay is located in a series of fantastic bays and rocky headlands at the end of the Tomari Peninsula.
Much of the coast and the interior of the peninsula are protected by Tomari National Park and Worimi Reserve, which are rich in Aboriginal culture, biodiversity and breathtaking natural beauty.
You can rest on the white sand beaches, hike through Sahara-like dunes, climb scenic lookouts, and go to the water’s edge to watch whales and dolphins.
1. Whale and dolphin watching
Between mid-May and early November, humpback whales migrate north along Australia’s east coast, calving in warm tropical waters before returning.
Thanks to its deep and secluded waters, Port Stephens is a resting spot and a place to spot these spectacular cetaceans.
There is a whole range of operators to help you catch a glimpse, such as AquaMarine Port Stephens, Imagine Cruises, Tea Gardens Ferry Service and Moonshadow – TQC Cruises.
Around 160 bottlenose dolphins also inhabit the waters around Nelson Bay year-round, often seen from shore.
But you can also get up close and personal on a dolphin cruise, and the Australian Dolphin Aquarium offers the only wild swimming experience allowed in the country for these cheerful and curious creatures.
2. Tomari National Park
Behind Nelson’s Bay, much of the land at the tip of the Tomari Peninsula is protected by the national park of the same name.
A single sentence cannot adequately express the natural splendor that greets you in the park, or the variety of things to do.
For the Worimi people, the Tomari Peninsula is a place to eat, take refuge and gather medicine, and as you stroll the beaches here, you’ll follow ancient Aboriginal travel routes.
For family beach trips, Anna Bay and Fisherman’s Bay are calm and well sheltered, while Mile Beach on the south side faces the Tasman Sea for surfers.
Along the water’s edge, you may find waders and shorebirds such as sooty oystercatchers, red-necked sandpipers, spot-tailed sandpipers and eastern sandpipers, while honeyeaters and lorikeets forage in coastal heath during winter.
In spring, stroll among wildflowers along the Morna Point trail or explore the coastal Angolan forest on the Wreck Beach trail.
3. Tomaree Head Summit Walk
The towering Tomaree Head climbs to over 160 metres at the entrance to Port Stephens, offering breathtaking views of the Tasman Sea, offshore islands, natural harbour and Mount Yakaba opposite.
Views are even better between May and October during whale season, and a pair of binoculars will be essential at this time of year.
To reach the summit, there is a short, hard 2.2km loop trail that awaits you up to a picnic area and a set of WWII batteries.
There’s also a south-facing platform where you can observe the chain of bays and the historic Cape Stephens Lighthouse on Fingal Island.
4. Gangan Lookout
If you want to get the most out of the stunning views of Port Stephens and the Tomari Peninsula, the hills at Nelson Bay are one of the best places to go.
Gangan Lookout is located beside Lily Mountain Road, 160 meters above sea level.
The most photographed image is Tomaree Head and its companion Sentinel Mount Yacaaba at the entrance to Port Stephens.
But if you look south, you’ll see the massive dune system tracking Stockton Beach at the Worimi Reserve.
At dusk, the view to the west is stunning, and under a golden sky you can see the concave shores of Soldier Point and the harbour.
5. Nelson Head Heritage Lighthouse and Preserve
Across Shoal Bay from Tomaree Head is another headland, 53 metres above Port Stephens, which has had a lighthouse since 1875. Nelson Head offers an even more stunning panorama of the ocean, which is vital to the keepers who control the lighthouse.
The scenic historic lighthouse keeper’s cottage next door is preserved as a museum, where you can see the original living quarters and view historic lighthouses, photos, nautical memorabilia, maps, and learn about the events of this stretch of coastline history.
Finally, head to the tea room for a hot drink and a piece of cake, with stunning views of Port Stephens.
6. Worimi Reserve
Along the sweeping Stockton Beach and beyond is land belonging to the Aboriginal Worimi people, managed by traditional owners in partnership with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
This is home to the largest moving sand dune in the southern hemisphere, reaching a height of 30 meters and moving 4 meters per year.
You can encounter this romantic landscape on a hike, horseback adventure, camel ride, 4×4 or quad bike.
The Worimi Conservation Lands are also dotted with important Aboriginal sites such as tombs, cemeteries, campsites and tool-making remains.
The park protects more than three-quarters of its 32 kilometers of beach, washed by tumbling waves, with nothing behind but sand dunes that stretch a kilometer inland.
7. Fingal Bay Beach
This magnificent white sand beach is completely surrounded by Tomari National Park and lines the scallop-shaped Fingal Bay.
The coastline here is protected from the high seas by Fingal Island, which is sometimes accessible on the north side of the bay via a spit.
On this end, the water is calmest and best for families, while the more exposed southern end usually has rolling waves.
Fingal Bay Beach is a patrolled surf beach surrounded by a scenic foreshore and a small resort community with plenty of shops and amenities.
When we compiled this list in 2020, Fingal Island was off-limits to spit mouths, but you can kayak there and go ashore to visit the Cape Stephens Lighthouse (1862) and visit Aboriginal fishing nets.
8. Fly Point Water Reserve
At the northern end of Little Nelson Bay is a headland with sweeping views of the town, bay and marina.
Just off the coast of the site is a kelp forest and sponge garden, protected by a reserve that stretches half a kilometer to the sea.
This reserve provides habitat for a surprising variety of marine life, including blue grouper, octopus, wobbegong shark and pineapple fish.
This is one of the best dive sites in NSW, right on the shore and there are several businesses in town ready to take you there (Lets Go Adventures, Feet First Dive). You won’t be allowed to remove anything, not even shells, from the reserve, so it’s worth investing in an underwater camera for your diving.
9. Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters
There are a variety of nearby attractions that allow kids and parents to get up close and personal with Australia’s wildlife.
Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters at Anna Bay offers a variety of animal experiences, depending on how you want to get up close and personal with some of Australia’s most misunderstood animals.
So you can stand in shallow water or sit on rocks to feed and touch the rays.
Or you can get more involved, don a wetsuit, or snorkel in the light, or wade into a beautiful pool of zebra sharks or nurse sharks.
All the while, you’ll gain amazing insights into the behavior, temperament, and feeding habits of these animals.
10. Oakville Wildlife Park
A fun day out for families with children, Oakville Wildlife Park is home to dozens of native Australian animals and domestic species in its 10-hectare open park.
There are kangaroos, wombats, koalas, wild dogs and emus to name just a few of the inhabitants, as well as horses, goats, pigs, cows, sheep and rabbits.
There is a range of activities throughout the day for kids to feed, cuddle and pet a variety of animals including lambs, goat kids, koalas and harmless reptiles.
The park also offers daily tractor rides and lectures on fascinating but less approachable species such as cassowaries and Tasmanian devils.
11. Little Beach Reserve
The little beach next to the Halifax Holiday Park is aptly named, it has the advantage of facing northwest in the shelter of Nelson Head.
This gives it calm waters unaffected by ocean currents, making it the best beach in the area for children to learn to swim.
There is a small crescent of sand, booked by the fishing pier, and a grassy area behind it, with some play equipment for kids and facilities for picnics and BBQs.
The small beach has a boat ramp that is popular with anglers, so it often attracts a flock of pelicans.
12. Oakfield Ranch
The best way to experience the desert-like dunes in the Worimi Conservation Lands is undoubtedly a camel ride.
You can do this via Oakfield Ranch at Birubi Beach.
These healthy and happy “desert ships” are docile and very easy to navigate.
If you’re here with kids, or if you’re pressed for time, you can take a 20-minute day trip along Birubi Beach to show up without a reservation.
Oakfield Ranch also offers a 60-minute sunset hike, pre-booked, that takes you into the dunes and into the water.
The ranch staff will also help you take some great photos of the experience with your camera or phone.
13. Toboggan Park
In the steep hinterland of Nelson Bay, near Gangan Lookout, is a family activity park set in natural bushland.
Crossing the landscape is the park’s main attraction, a 1km long toboggan run with 11 turns, starting with a 300m uphill tow.
But for that, you’ll take a 45-minute tractor train ride through the jungle, during which you’ll stop at a giant maze, see monitor lizards, and see the impressive Dreamtime mural.
Finally, in the Christmas Bush and Banksias is the park’s 19-hole miniature golf course.
14. Fighting World
On the way to Newcastle lies the Royal Air Force Base Williamtown, established during World War II and currently serving as the headquarters of the RAAF Air Combat Group and Surveillance and Response Group.
There is also an aviation museum in the base’s hangar, which mainly preserves fighter jets from the past 70 years.
Among the exhibits are a Gloster Meteor, two Avon Sabres, two Dassault Mirages, a Hawker Hunter and an F-111 Aardvark.
Accompanied by numerous replicas, equipment, jet engines and weapons such as the Bristol Hound SAM and the GAF Jindivik target drone.
The museum also has an observation deck where you can view activities at the working Air Force base and listen to live audio from air traffic control.
15. Nelson Bay Golf Club
Described as a “jungle course by the sea”, the town’s acclaimed golf club is just a short walk from the marina, on the edge of Tomari National Park.
That description isn’t far off, as the three nine-hole courses at Nelson Bay Golf Club cut through lush subtropical forest full of birdsong and are home to wallabies, koalas and kangaroos.
On the narrow, undulating fairways, especially on the second loop (holes 10-18), the bush poses a challenge in itself. As of 2020, green fees for non-members are $47 on weekdays and $52 on weekends, with reduced evening rounds.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Nelson Bay, Australia
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