This tourist-friendly town not far from Newcastle, NSW, is set on the south side of Port Stephens, a long natural harbour.
Nelson Bay is among a string of dreamy bays and rocky headlands at the end of the Tomaree Peninsula.
A lot of the coast and peninsula’s interior is protected by the Tomaree National Park and the Worimi Conservation Lands, all abounding with Aboriginal culture, biodiversity and knockout natural scenery.
You can lounge on white sandy beaches, trek across Sahara-like dunes, climb up to scenic lookouts and take to the water to spot whales and dolphins.
1. Whale and Dolphin Watching
Between mid-May and early-November humpback whales migrate north along Australia’s east coast to calve in warmer tropical waters, before returning.
Thanks to its deep and sheltered waters, Port Stephens is a resting point and so is just the place to spot these magnificent cetaceans.
There’s a whole lineup of operators to help you get a glimpse, like AquaMarine Port Stephens, Imagine Cruises, the Tea Gardens Ferry Service and Moonshadow – TQC Cruises.
Year round there’s also a pod of around160 bottlenose dolphins in the waters around Nelson Bay, and these can often be sighted from the shore.
But you can also get closer on a dolphin cruise, while Dolphin Swim Australia provides the country’s only permitted wild swim experience with these cheerful and inquisitive creatures.
2. Tomaree National Park
Behind Nelson Bay most of the land at the tip of the Tomaree Peninsula is protected by the namesake national park.
One paragraph cannot do justice to the natural splendour greeting you at the park, or the variety of things to do.
For the Worimi People the Tomaree Peninsula was a place to eat, find shelter and gather medicine, and when you walk the beaches here you’ll be following ancient Aboriginal travel routes.
For family beach trips, Anna Bay and Fishermans Bay are calm and well-sheltered, while One Mile Beach on the south side is angled towards the Tasman Sea for surfers.
By the water you may spot waders and shorebirds like sooty oystercatchers, red-necked stints, bar-tailed godwits and eastern curlews, while in winter honeyeaters and lorikeets come to feed in the coastal heathland.
You can wander among wildflowers in spring along the Morna Point walk, or explore coastal angophora forest via the Wreck Beach walk.
3. Tomaree Head Summit Walk
The towering Tomaree Head climbs to more than 160 metres at the entrance to Port Stephens and commands staggering views of the Tasman Sea, offshore islands, natural harbour and Mount Yacaaba on the opposite side.
The view is even better between May and October during whale season, and at this time of year a pair of binoculars will be essential.
To get to the top there’s a short but stiff 2.2-kilometre round trail, and waiting for you up here is a picnic area and a set of WWII gun emplacements.
There’s also a south-facing platform up here where you can survey a string of bays and the historic Point Stephens Lighthouse on Fingal Island.
4. Gan Gan Lookout
Up in the hills backing Nelson Bay is one of the best places if you want to take in the full majesty of Port Stephens and the Tomaree Peninsula.
The Gan Gan Lookout is just off Lily Hill Road and sits at a height of 160 metres.
The most photographed image is Tomaree Head and its fellow sentinel Mount Yacaaba at the entrance to Port Stephens.
But if you look to the south you’ll see the vast dune system tracking Stockton Beach in the Worimi Conservation Lands.
At dusk the vistas to the west are marvellous, when you can see Soldiers Point and the indented shore of the harbour under a golden sky.
5. Nelson Head Heritage Lighthouse & Reserve
Across Shoal Bay from Tomaree Head is another headland set 53 metres above Port Stephens and crowned with a lighthouse since 1875. Nelson Head affords yet more awe-inspiring panoramas of the ocean, vital to the keepers who manned this beacon.
The scenic historic lighthouse keeper’s cottage next door is conserved as a museum where you can see the original living quarters and check out the historic lightroom, photographs, seafaring memorabilia, maps and find out about the eventful history of this piece of coastline.
And lastly, call in at the tearoom for a hot drink and piece of cake, paired with awesome vistas of Port Stephens.
6. Worimi Conservation Lands
Along and behind the endless Stockton Beach is a piece of land belonging to the Aboriginal Worimi People, and managed by a partnership between the Traditional Owners and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
This is the site of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest expanse of mobile sand dunes, rising as high as 30 metres and shifting four metres a year.
You can encounter this romantic landscape on hikes, horseback adventures, camel rides, 4WD trips or quad bikes.
Worimi Conservation Lands is also scattered with important Aboriginal sites, like middens, burial sites, campsites and tool-making remnants.
The park protects more than three quarters of the 32-kilometre beach, washed by rolling surf and with nothing behind but dunes that extend as far as a kilometre inland.
7. Fingal Bay Beach
Completely encircled by Tomaree National Park, this glorious white sandy beach lines the scallop-shaped Fingal Bay.
The coastline here is protected from the open ocean by Fingal Island, which at times can be accessed on the north side of the bay by a sandy spit.
At this end the water at its most peaceful and suited to families, while there are usually rolling waves at the more exposed southern end.
Fingal Bay Beach is a patrolled surf beach, hemmed by landscaped foreshore and with ample shops and amenities in the little holiday community beside it.
When we wrote this list in 2020 land access via the spit to Fingal Island was prohibited, but you can paddle there on a kayak and go ashore to see Point Stephens Lighthouse (1862) and visit an Aboriginal fish trap.
8. Fly Point Aquatic Reserve
At the north end of Little Nelson Bay there’s a headland with sweeping views back to the town, bay and marina.
Just off the coast at the spot are kelp forests and sponge gardens, protected by a reserve that continues for half a kilometre out to sea.
This sanctuary provides a habitat for a startling diversity of marine life, including blue groupers, octopuses, wobbegong sharks and pineapple fish.
This is one of the best places in New South Wales to go diving, right from the shore, and there’s a handful of businesses based in town ready to take you (Lets Go Adventures, Feet First Dive). You won’t be allowed to remove anything, not even a seashell from the reserve, so it’s worth investing in an underwater camera for your dive.
9. Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters
There’s an assortment of attractions close by that let children and parents get up close to Australian wildlife.
Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters at Anna Bay has a choice of animal experiences, depending on how close you want to get to some of Australia’s most misunderstood animals.
So you can stand in the shallows or sit on the rocks while feeding and touching rays.
Or you can get more involved, putting on a wet suit and either snorkelling with rays or wading into a pool of beautiful zebra sharks or nurse sharks.
All the while you’ll get surprising insights about these animals’ behaviour, temperament and feeding habits.
10. Oakvale Wildlife Park
A fun day out for families with children, Oakvale Wildlife Park keeps dozens of Australian native animals and domestic species in ten hectares of open parkland.
To name a handful of the residents there are kangaroos, wombats, koalas, dingoes and emus, as well as horses, goats, pigs, cattle, sheep and rabbits.
All day long there’s a schedule of activities letting children feed, cuddle and pet a whole range of animals, including lambs, goat kids, koalas and harmless reptiles.
The park also offers daily tractor rides and talks for fascinating but less approachable species like the cassowary and Tasmanian devil.
11. Little Beach Reserve
The aptly named Little Beach next to the Halifax Holiday Park has the advantage of facing north-west in the shelter of Nelson Head.
This gives it tranquil waters untouched by ocean currents, and so is the best beach in the area for little ones learning to swim.
There’s a small crescent of sand, bookended by fishing jetties and backed by a grassy space with some children’s play equipment and facilities for picnics and barbecues.
Little Beach has a boat ramp that is popular with anglers, and for this reason will often attract a crowd of pelicans.
12. Oakfield Ranch
Surely the best way to experience the desert-like dunes at the Worimi Conservation Lands is on camelback.
And you can do this with Oakfield Ranch, based at Birubi Beach.
These healthy and happy “ships of the desert” are well-natured and very easy to ride.
If you’re here with children or time is of the essence you could go on a 20-minute day ride along Birubi Beach, for which you’ll be able to just show up without booking.
Oakfield Ranch also offers 60-minute sunset treks, which will require advanced booking, taking you into the dunes and down to the water.
The ranch’s staff will also help you get some great shots of the experience with your camera or phone.
13. Toboggan Hill Park
Up in Nelson Bay’s steep hinterland, close to the Gan Gan Lookout is a family activity park amid natural bushland.
Swooping through this landscape is the park’s main attraction, a one-kilometre toboggan track, with eleven bends and beginning with a 300-metre uphill tow.
But to go with this there’s a 45-minute tractor train ride through the bush, during which you’ll stop at the Giant Maze, catch sight of goannas and see an impressive Dreamtime mural.
And finally, ensconced in Christmas bush and banksias, is the park’s 19-hole miniature golf course.
14. Fighter World
On the way to Newcastle sits the Williamtown RAAF Base, established during World War II and currently the HQ for the RAAF’s Air Combat Group and the Surveillance and Response Group.
There’s also an aviation museum in a hangar at the base, mostly preserving fighter jets from the last 70 years.
Among the exhibits there’s a Gloster Meteor, two Avon Sabres, two Dassault Mirages, a Hawker Hunter and an F-111 Aardvark.
This is accompanied by a hoard of replicas, equipment, jet engines and weapons, like a Bristol Bloodhound SAM and a GAF Jindivik target drone.
The museum also has an observation deck where you can check out the activity at a working air force base, and listen to a live audio feed from air traffic control.
15. Nelson Bay Golf Club
Described as the “Bush Course by the Sea”, the town’s highly-rated golf club is within walking distance of the marina, on the edge of Tomaree National Park.
That description is not far off, as Nelson Bay Golf Club’s three nine-hole courses trail through lush subtropical forest filled with birdsong and home to wallabies, koalas and kangaroos.
That bush poses a challenge of its own, on narrow, undulating fairways, especially on the second loop (holes 10-18). As of 2020, Green fees for non-members were $47 on weekdays and $52 on weekends, with reductions for evening rounds.