Family Travel in Port Stephens

Louise Hudson — 5 March 2019

With a handful of holidays aboard  an Ezytrail camper under our belts, we were starting to get the hang of it. But now and then something comes along that throws even a veteran’s confidence. I’m talking about an eleven hour drive with the kids, a prospect we faced back in September.

A lot hung on this drive’s success. We’re planning an extended holiday throughout Australia for four months as a family, on which there’s bound to be considerably longer drives, with not much to see except central Australian dust.

All of our previous trips had been relatively close to home, requiring no more than a few hours in the car at a time. But with this big trip looming, we needed to clock up some serious hours, to test out the car, the camper trailer and most importantly, the kids.

WHERE TO GO?

We chose Port Stephens, two and a half hours north of Sydney, as our destination. Unfortunately for us, we live in Melbourne, not Sydney, making the drive *ahem* 11 hours. With the forecast at 25 degrees, we locked in a campsite at the Shoal Bay Holiday Park and prepared for our saga on the road.

There was no going into this gung-ho. A reckless approach would no doubt result in backseat chaos for our two youngsters, aged four and six. We made sure to put in the pre-departure legwork by researching where to stop, with the aim of breaking the journey up into smaller chunks, no longer than two hours each.

In the early hours, we pulled into truck stops in regional Victoria, a fast food store with a playground, and multiple public toilets. Then we stopped at Rose Park in Benalla, Belvoir Park Playground in Albury, and the Holbrook Submarine.

We talked up The Dog on the Tuckerbox, but it didn’t quite live up to expectations. In a hurried attempt to cover up our strategical lapse, we moved on towards the Victoria Park Adventure Playground in Goulburn, which was, fortunately, sensational.

The accumulating hours started to take their toll, towards the end at least. We were forced to pull out the big guns – hot chips, iPads and headphones. Despite our attempts to limit our kids’ screen time whilst travelling, there are only so many times you can play I-Spy, listen to the Lion King audio book, and retrieve yet another texta from the hardest-to-reach place in the backseat.

By the point we’d made it to Sydney, the end was in sight. We kept to the suburban outskirts and when bed time did eventually come around, we rested in the knowledge that the bulk of the work was over. The next day was a few easy hours to Port Stephens.

SHOAL BAY HOLIDAY PARK

One of the big differences about this holiday was that we were staying in a holiday park. All of our camper trailer experiences so far had been in bush camping sites, and we noticed a few differences straight away. 

We had to contend with the neighbours on one side and a road on the other, which weren’t factors we’d had to negotiate on previous trips in the middle of the bush. 

The good news was that we’re getting better and more efficient at the setup; it only took about one and a half hours for us to bring it all together. The kids headed off with their walkie-talkies and explored the park, including the nearby trees, perfect for climbing and located in a place that meant we could keep an eye on them.

Run by the local council, Shoal Bay Holiday Park is across the road from Shoal Bay Beach, which was a blessing. The idea of getting back into the car after spending so many hours getting there sent shudders down my spine.

All the photos we’d seen of Shoal Bay Beach beforehand were pretty much your standard tourist offering: beautifully clear blue waters and pristine sand. We’ve been stung by misleading photo editing before, but as it turns out, the images online were an accurate representation. 

In fact, this was one of our favourite beaches thus far. The clear waters made for fantastic snorkelling and the sand was the perfect consistency for creating mermaid sculptures. The best part? The water temperature was a balmy 17 degrees at the start of spring. Unheard of in Victoria!

The park itself had all the standard features that you’d expect, such as a basketball court, playground, games room, barbecues and loads of rabbits that were great entertainment for the kids (“Mum, there’s another bunny!”). 

I was hesitant about staying in a caravan park at first, given that all of our previous trips had been in the bush. But it didn’t take long to acclimatise to the sounds of the park and, after a few days, the kids were so exhausted from all the activity they crashed into bed with ease.

SO MUCH TO DO

There were endless family-friendly activities in the nearby regions. Of course, this included swimming. We also gave the surfboards a good work-out at Fingal Bay Surf Beach. 

The kids begrudgingly agreed to the 2.2km return walk to the summit of Tomaree Head, 161m above Port Stephens. However, by the time they made it to the top, they were truly appreciative of the view. 

We went to the Stockton Bight sand dunes, intending to just check them out. However, after getting a glimpse of the awe-inspiring 32 kilometres of the longest moving sand dunes in the southern hemisphere, we splurged on a camel ride. The dunes reach heights of over 40 metres with slopes up to 60 degrees, which offers kids (and adults) the perfect opportunity to roll down and cover themselves in sand. 

Our final hurrah was a dolphin cruise – a highlight of the trip. The kids loved waiting for the beautiful bottle nosed dolphins to pop their heads out of the water and smile as they passed.  

GREEN WITH ENVY

A few days into the trip, we found ourselves writing lists of the ‘things we need’ for the camper trailer. It’s a common habit of ours, driven as we are by curiosity about what our camper can achieve. Some of the things we listed this time around were big, unavoidable ones we’ll need to cope off-grid during our upcoming four month expedition. As it stands, we don’t have a fridge, a light, or a table.

To gain a sense of how we can spec up the camper, we wandered around the holiday park surreptitiously, checking out other setups and equipment. Now and then, unable to gauge the specifics from afar, we’d approach our fellow campers to ask for their advice. What did they think of the Engel fridge? How did they fit in various tables and storage units? And how did they store their clothes?

We definitely picked up a few ideas this way, because people are always happy to share. But, by the end, we realised your spec sheet isn’t the half of it. The kids still proclaimed this to be ‘The Best Holiday Ever’, which helped us to realise that, ultimately, it’s not about having a perfect setup. It’s about the places you go and the memories you make.

LESSONS

One of the most obvious takeaways for us is that Port Stephens is an amazing place to visit in September, thanks to the just about perfect weather. 

This trip also taught us that we need to fix up the car with a few things: rubber for the roof racks, drink holders that don’t spill, a dual charger for multiple electronics. We also learned that it’s not worth putting up the camper trailer annex for a quick overnight stay en route. It’s just too difficult at 8pm when everyone wants to climb into their beds as quickly as possible.

But, most importantly of all, we learned that we can achieve a long stint in the car as a family. The kids are in fact way more resilient than we give them credit for, which is a huge relief. Now I’m confident that we’ll have an awesome time together when our extended trip comes around.

Tags

port stephens nsw travel destination new south wales shoal bay

Photographer

Louise Hudson