Fans of chef Rick Stein, seafood lovers and those searching for the perfect beachside weekend getaway, it’s time to pack your bags.
A two-and-a-half hours north of Sydney, on the East Coast of Australia, is the beautiful seaside destination of Port Stephens – over 30km of white, sandy beaches, pristine waters, fabulous national parks, stunning sand dunes, coastal walks and tiny towns, all wrapped up in a terrifically laidback lifestyle. 26 stunning beaches and a majestic bay, the local area is a blue water paradise. World-class surf breaks, scuba diving with grey nurse sharks, swimming with wild dolphins, snorkelling in quiet bays, sightseeing cruises, jet boat joy rides, and quad bike tours – Port Stephens is all about family-friendly fun. But for those who like to do absolutely nothing on holiday, and do it in style, then Bannisters Port Stephens is the perfect destination!
Port Stephens is not a town in its own right, but rather a collection of relaxed coastal neighbourhoods, each offering something a little different, including Nelson Bay, Anna Bay, Shoal Bay, Fingal Bay, and my personal favourite Soldiers Point, a picturesque peninsula and sleepy bayside hamlet on the southern shores of Port Stephens,
In 1826 a small garrison of soldiers was established at Friendship Point to capture escaped convicts. The garrison was later abandoned and Friendship Point was renamed Soldiers Point. It’s now known as the best spot for sunsets in Port Stephens, with stunning waterways, safe swimming beaches and an award-winning marina that attracts yachts from around the globe.
Family holidays to Soldiers Point began when I was very young. Packed into the back of the car, with my younger sister and two very hairy spaniels, it seemed like an endless journey and I would inevitably get car-sick somewhere en route. My sister and I would fight over the armrest and my parents would shout to us to stop bickering. We were hot and sticky, we were tired and irritable. These are the things childhood memories are made of!
But once we arrived all that was forgotten in an instant, swept away in the excitement of being on holiday in our favourite place! We’d spend the summer in an antiquated wooden house, with a wrap-around verandah, in true old Australian colonial building style. We drew straws for who’d get the privilege of sleeping out in the tiny screened-in section of the verandah that served as an extra bedroom. The front steps of the house led straight to the beach, and we would disappear down onto the sand for hours at a time, only returning as it got dark. Parental supervision was minimal, this was decades before ‘helicopter parenting’ existed. We formed ‘gangs’ with other kids on the beach, and spent hours together hunting for shells and looking in rock pools. Saturday afternoon we were given 20 cents to spend at the local shop and would spend an age deciding which of the sweets to spend the money on, emerging hours later with a small paper bag with our ‘mixed lollies’. Saturday nights there was always a movie on at the community centre and nearly the whole town would turn up to watch it, no matter what was showing. We watched pelicans fishing with their oversized beaks and learned to fish ourselves. We hand-fed the colourful rainbow lorikeets that landed on the verandah whenever someone went outside. We swam and made sandcastles, decorated with shells, seaweed and driftwood. Family barbeques were an almost daily ritual and someone, usually me, would inevitably lose a sausage to a crafty kookaburra that had swooped in just as the sausage was on its way to my mouth! These were some of my happiest days. But I grew up, moved away, moved on, moved overseas, and left those summers at Soldiers Point behind.
Now, 40 years later, I was returning. Having lived in Zambia for well over 30 years, I was making one of my infrequent visits back to Australia to see my parents. Time was short, but I was determined to revisit the Soldiers Point of my childhood. I hopped in the car and headed up the road, and down memory lane.
The old winding, car-sick-making, highway was gone, instead, a three-lane expressway sped me along, faster than I was prepared for. I missed my turnoff and spent some time ‘finding myself’ in the streets of Newcastle, before a friendly bystander got me back on track. Pulling into Soldiers Point I was pleasantly surprised to see some things hadn’t changed. Some things though were unrecognisable. The community centre was still standing, though no Saturday night films seemed to be advertised. The corner store with the sweets was no longer. The wharf where I’d learnt to fish was still intact, but the house with its wrap-around verandah was gone. What was also the same, but different, was the old Salamander. The once down-at-heel, sixties motel, Salamander Shores, had never looked so good in my youth. But it was the Salamander no longer. Transformed, many millions of dollars later, into a four-star luxe retreat for foodies, Bannisters effortlessly captures the coastal charm of Port Stephens, perfectly packaged into a modern hotel, and this was where I would be spending my weekend.
Bannisters Port Stephens opened in late 2018. This is the second location for the Bannisters group, which began in 2002 when media entrepreneur Peter Cosgrove renovated a seventies motel at Mollymook, a tiny town on the coast, three hours south of Sydney. But Bannisters by the Sea never really took off until Cosgrove welcomed in Rick Stein, who started his first restaurant outside of the UK here in 2009. Rick Stein’s in Mollymook has since become an incredibly popular restaurant for Sydneysiders, Canberrans and International visitors alike, all eager to indulge in some fine seafood and soak up the slowed-place south coast life.
Starting his career in 1975 with The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall UK, Rick Stein has made a career out of traversing the world and discovering some of its most delicious locations. He’s written over 20 cookbooks, made more than 30 cookery shows, and he’s now one of the world’s most well-respected chefs, with a reputation for serving only the finest fish and shellfish – incredible seafood simply prepared. After the success at Mollymook, and keen to expand their footprint in Australia, Rick, his wife Sarah and Peter Cosgrove turned their hand to Bannisters Port Stephens.
Situated cliffside, the hotel is grand in scale but boutique in vibe. A sparkling makeover infused with design elements like floor to ceiling glass, trademark whites and breezy blue tones, timber accents and plenty of greenery; somehow breathing new life into the space whilst retaining the character of its former Salamander days. Dogs and children are welcome, there are even pet-friendly rooms. The staff are super friendly, and somehow have the knack of managing to make good service entirely drama-free. An infinity pool looks down over the same public jetty where I’d once learned to fish, and where patient fathers and excited youngsters still dangle their fishing lines. The hotel features 80 rooms, including four luxury suites and a penthouse, that all come with either water or bushland views. There are a couple of different options when it comes to dining – a cavernous bar downstairs called the Cheeky Dog, good for pizza, pool and watching sports on the giant TV screens and Julio’s Mexican Cantina, with bay views, Mexican food and margaritas. But, by far the best, without a doubt, is Rick Stein’s, a fine dining restaurant, but with a relaxed, holiday feel.
When celebrity chef Rick Stein takes the helm, you know you’re in good hands, add innovative Head Chef Mitchell Turner, whose passion for cooking began from a young age, and the resulting menu shines a spotlight on the best of the region’s seafood. The quality of local seafood and proximity to the Hunter Valley and its wines sold Stein on the location for the restaurant. King prawns, sand whiting, snapper and blue trevally star, while Sydney rock oysters are sourced from local growers a mere 600 metres away. You can’t get more local than that.
Port Stephens is home to some of the best seafood on the east coast of Australia and the menu reflects this. It starts with a selection of fresh seafood – think grilled scallops and freshly shucked oysters. Follow that with an entrée of sashimi of local yellowfin tuna or perhaps local lobster and mud crab linguine. For main course, I went with the amazing Sri Lankan local swordfish curry, whilst my son opted to leave the seafood and go for a Tasmanian wagyu rump steak. Desserts are decadently rich, mine being a divine chocolate fondant. Whatever you choose, the ingredients are freshly caught or sourced and beautifully prepared, and when combined with a wide-ranging wine list to complement every course, you really can’t go wrong.
Early the next morning the rising sun sun is shining through the gum trees and glistening on the water in the calm, clear bay that stretches out towards the distant Yaccaba and Tomaree headlands. A pre-breakfast stroll down to the wharf and along the beach, it doesn’t get much more perfect than this. Port Stephens is a magical coastal destination, where you can switch off, get swept up in the natural surroundings and take a break from the daily grind.
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