Is there anything better than throwing your bags in the car on a Friday afternoon and hitting the road for a weekend away? Drive three hours north of Sydney and you’ll find Shoal Bay, part of the larger Port Stephens area, a pretty but sleepy beach village on the NSW mid-North Coast.
There’s the white sandy shores of One Mile Beach to explore, green bushland for hiking at Tomaree National Park, and plenty of seaside activities such as stand-up paddle boarding and sailing in its often-serene bay.
But it’s the news that the Shoal Bay Country Club (SBCC) has undergone a renovation that might motivate you to book a trip.
Since the 1930s it’s occupied a prime stretch of waterfront real estate facing out over the bay. In late 2016, Sydney pub baron Andrew Lazarus (of The Eastern in Bondi Junction) purchased the run-down hotel and invested $6 million in a total refurb. The result is breezy, beachy and decidedly Bondi-esque with plenty of white timber, stripey umbrellas and pastel couches.
The venue is huge, spread over two levels and with a 2000-person capacity. It’s consistently busy but never feels overcrowded (this will remind you you’re not in Sydney). There are multiple bars, a large outdoor courtyard, a stage for live music (hosting bands like ’90s favourite Spy vs Spy), a games room and even a quiet reading room with wicker armchairs.
The Kitchen & Patio is the main dining venue, set in prime position on the first floor overlooking the beach. Chef Atick Elahi (ex-Centennial in Woollahra and El Topo at The Eastern) is in the kitchen. It serves up excellent woodfired pizzas, fresh seafood, huge steaks and artery clogging combo platters that include barbeque ribs, half a Portuguese-style chicken and a porterhouse steak with chips and coleslaw. The cocktails are decent too, coming by the glass or by the jug.
Breakfast is served in Mermaids, a 1950s-style diner on the ground floor. As well as the ubiquitous avo on toast, there’s an acai breakfast bowl, Middle Eastern baked eggs, sweet-corn fritters and waffles with fresh berries. The croquet-monsieur is a gooey, cheesy slab of food-coma goodness. Fresh bread and pastries are brought up from Sonoma every day, with the rest being baked on-site.
The SBCC joins onto the Ramada Resort Shoal Bay next door, a good accommodation option for the region. This sprawling resort complex is made up of spacious studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments spread across multiple buildings set around a central pool area. Choose an apartment in the Heritage Wing for a large balcony overlooking the water.
If you manage to find your way out of the SBCC complex, there’s plenty to do around Port Stephens. The calm waters of the bay are popular with stand-up paddleboarders and you can hire one from Port Stephens Paddlesports, right next to the club. The hike to the summit of Tomaree Head takes around two hours and offer beautiful views over the North Coast and surrounding islands.
Just south of Shoal Bay, the Stockton Sand Dunes are the largest sand-dune system in Australia, covering more than 4000 hectares. The best way to see them is from a quad bike with Sand Dune Adventures. The company is wholly owned by the Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council and guides give tours focussing on the Indigenous history and significance of the region.
Port Stephens sits on the edge of the Great Lakes Marine Park and its almost 100,000 hectares of water, so you’ll want to get out on a boat Blue Water Sailing operates the Champagne on Ice luxury sailing yacht for private charters, sunset cruises or learn-to-sail trips. The crew will pull up in a quiet bay, crack the champers and you can settle in to watch the sun set.