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Bruce McDougall uncovers the secrets of a little-known coastal delight not that far from Sydney but which seems "infinity" away.

At Fingal Bay in the heart of Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park an unassuming service station sells an array of the freshest sour dough breads and garden veges you could hope for. Unless you are in the know you probably wouldn’t give it a second glance. It’s a local secret, one of many, that you cannot be in on unless tipped off. And that’s just the way those who holiday regularly at Fingal like it.

Around the corner in this picture perfect slice of coastal NSW is another gem – a mini mart with a choice delicatessen of homemade pies, quiches, empanadas and other goodies that make the offerings at big city supermarkets look decidedly limp. Across the road get your morning coffee fix from the surf club café and watch the early morning sun come up over Fingal Bay. If you are lucky, dolphins will share the moment with you.

If It doesn’t get much better if your holiday aim is to escape the Sydney rat race, don’t want to pay a fortune and have no desire to run the gauntlet of a flight somewhere (not as good) with all the horrendous delays, Covid tests, masks and other restrictions involved.

Who needs Queensland, or even Byron Bay, when this is on our Sydney doorstep? We were let into the Fingal secret by friends who have been holidaying in the area for years. With Covid wreaking havoc with travel plans for thousands it seemed well worth a go.

From Sydney’s south where we live, Fingal and Port Stephens north of Newcastle is not much more than a three hour drive with a leisurely coffee and grub stop, taking advantage of the nine kilometre North Connex tunnel straight on to the M1 Motorway cutting out the traffic quagmire that are Pennant Hills Road and the Pacific Highway.

Fingal and neighbouring Shoal Bay are surrounded by Tomaree National Park which offers more bush walks than anyone could need, pristine beaches and bays and spectacular views if a hill climb is your thing. For a change of pace the lighthouse tea rooms has a Devonshire tea and views to die for.

As many do in this part of the world we took our bikes with us to ride the many bush tracks and cycleways, and snorkelling gear is a must, if only to watch my wife’s reaction when unexpectedly encountering a Wobbegong minding its own business at the Fly Point Aquatic Reserve. This is a paradise for kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding but for the even more adventurous quad biking and four wheel drive tours can be done on Stockton Beach and sand dunes.

Because of the national park which dominates the area wildlife is abundant. Among my favourite sightings is the carnivorous goanna which can grow up to 2m and seem to be prevalent around Fingal/Shoal Bay.

If seafood is your go this is a choice spot to indulge. A short drive away is the area’s main town of Nelson Bay where a fishing fleet ensures the freshest of local fish and chips at the wharf. If a more up market experience is your thing Bannisters at Soldiers Point offers a Rick Stein restaurant.

For mine, though, pole position is the Shoal Bay Country Club where a coldie or a meal can be had at very reasonable prices while looking out over the beach and protected waterways – unspoiled and still bereft of maddening crowds.

Day trips come none better than the heritage ferry across to Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest where local restaurants offer a superb lunch. The trip which claims dolphin sightings “95 per cent” of the time takes around an hour out of Nelson Bay. We dined on French inspired cooking in a fabulous outdoor setting at Tillermans restaurant, Tea Gardens before heading back. Fine wines and cold beer – what could be better, anywhere.

The Port Stephens Great Lakes Marine Park covers around 98,000ha and includes offshore waters to a three nautical mile limit of state waters between Cape Hawke Surf Life Saving Club and Birubi Beach Surf Life Saving Club. All the estuarine waters of Port Stephens and local rivers, lakes, creeks and tributaries contain rich marine biodiversity.

Exploring further afield brings into play the Hunter wine region and to the north of Port Stephens and Tea Gardens the Myall Lakes National Park and its 280 bird species, equal to Kakadu but only one third of its size.

Port Stephens has a wide spread of accommodation types from $300 plus per night resorts to holiday parks and camping.

I have one final secret to give away: we jagged a two bedroom self-contained apartment for little more than $100 a night at the superbly maintained Seaside Holiday Resort across the road from the beach at Fingal Bay – part of the Federation of Community, Sporting and Workers Clubs. To qualify for the discounted rates, though, you need to have membership of an affiliated club.


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