The fighter jet roars overhead. An F-35, apparently. Even without its afterburner, the sound is almost deafening. If the regular noise of military aircraft wasn't already a giveaway, the sign on the road confirms I'm at RAAF Williamtown. Today, though, I'm here for the larger sign in front of me: Fighter World.
In two hangers just outside the base's boundary is an impressive collection of old military planes. As manager Bernie Nebenfuhr shows me around, he points them out - the Dassault Mirage, F-111, Gloster Meteor, and many more. It takes me a while, but I eventually appreciate the significance. Most of the planes were flown from this RAAF base just north of Newcastle, and have a special meaning for the local community.
"Instead of seeing them taking off and hearing them, you're able to actually walk up and around the aircraft and touch them, which is a huge thing," Bernie says.
I've popped into Fighter World on my way into Port Stephens and I feel like the planes follow me the whole time - at least, I keep hearing them flying their sortie games above me for the whole stay. The pilots are probably not thinking too much about the landscapes beneath them, but the views must be incredible.
It's the Stockton Dunes that are probably the most impressive landscape here in Port Stephens. Stretching out for more than 32 kilometres, I'm told they are the longest coastal sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere. Looking at the vastness of them, you see undulating hills stretch to the horizon. Focus on the ground, the patterns created by the wind in the sand seem so intricate.
I head into the dunes from Anna Bay with Port Stephens 4WD Tours. They normally offer several types of trips but right now it's all about sandboarding. With board in hand, I climb to the top of a dune, survey the landscape like an explorer, then slide down the sand squealing like a schoolboy.
If you have your own 4WD, you can buy a permit to drive along the beach - and there is also a campsite on the sand further down Stockton Beach. Even with a normal car, you can do some of your own exploration, with several entry points to the dunes from Nelson Bay Road through Worimi National Park. Look out for Tin City, the ramshackle village of corrugated iron shacks in the middle of the sand that was founded in the late 1800s and still has residents.
Port Stephens is full of these little surprises because, much like the jets, it's flown under the radar a bit. One of the best known spots here is Tomaree Head Summit, a viewpoint at the easternmost point of the peninsula. It offers sweeping views across the water, the towns of Port Stephens, and the protected nature that surrounds them.
But venture slightly away from this popular walk and there's even more to discover. I meet up with Amy Robinson, who runs guided walks with her company Tomaree Coastal Adventures. Together we hike along less traversed trails, to different viewpoints, and a small hidden beach that is only accessible by climbing over some rocks. She points out different parts of the national park and even suggests I eat a mountain devil flower we find on the track (the nectar is deliciously sweet).
"People come here for the beaches and they think of it as a beach holiday destination with Tomaree Mountain," Amy tells me. "But there's so much more here that is unexplored."
Amy and I have morning tea on a rocky bluff near beautiful Wreck Beach before heading back. It's a nice way to have a snack but thankfully you don't need to hike to extremes to find a good meal here at Port Stephens. The Boat Shed at Soldiers Point does a good breakfast on the water; The Shoal Bay Country Club is a casual option all day; the Cheeky Dog at Bannisters does good pub food; while the Little Beach Boathouse at Nelson Bay does fine modern Australian.
There's also Murray's, a brewery that has expanded its food menu to options like Americana BBQ and woodfired pizza, all set amongst vineyards, with indoor and outdoor dining areas.
"Now we're starting to establish more craft entities that are more sustainable," manager Carl Kenzler explains. "So whatever waste there is, we put it into another part of the facility." That includes taking the byproducts of the beer fermentation and using it in the distillery, which is ramping up production. Local artisans like pastry chefs and baristas are also adding their products to the range on offer here.
In many ways, Port Stephens feels bigger than it is. From a tourism perspective, it's really only a 30-kilometre peninsula, but each bit of the coast feels like its own little unique destination. From them, you can take whale watching cruises, hire a boat, go fishing, or take a kayak for a paddle.
Shoal Bay and Nelson Bay are among the most popular areas for accommodation, but I find an even more relaxing option at the Thou Walla Sunset Retreat at Soldiers Point. I'm staying in one of the glamping tents - a description that gives me a bit of trepidation until I arrive and discover an enormous space with a faux fireplace (in a tent!). Watching the sunset over the water from the tent's deck, I settle in with a beer from Murray's and wait for the planes to fly past.
WHAT TO DO:
WHERE TO EAT:
- Murray's has an excellent selection of beers and a menu with woodfired pizza, BBQ, and much more.
- The Boat Shed at Soldiers Point does a good breakfast on the water.
- The Shoal Bay Country Club is a casual option for food and drinks all day.
- The Cheeky Dog at Bannisters does good pub food.
- The Little Beach Boathouse at Nelson Bay does fine modern Australian.
WHERE TO STAY:
Michael Turtle was supported by Destination Port Stephens.
Michael Turtle will be bringing you a new idea each week for a trip within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website for things to do in Port Stephens.