Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Adam Ford checks in from the coastal paradise of Port Macquarie in northern New South Wales...
In days gone by you might well have heard the NSW Mid North Coast retreat of Port Macquarie referred to as ‘God’s waiting room’, due to the high percentage of retirees in residence.
It seems the rest of us are catching on (if not catching up). While the region still holds great appeal for the grey nomads, these days the fastest growing demographic is the 35-49ers and Port Macquarie has a definite spring in its step. With its stunning coastal scenery, a dymanic and evolving food and wine scene, a rich convict history to delve into and sensational weather most of the year, what’s not to love whatever your age?
As it has been for decades, tourism is Port Macquarie’s mainstay and hotels and motels can be found on just about every block of the compact and very walkable city centre. In between and beneath the blocks of holidays apartments, you’ll discover hole-in-the-wall cafes, lively bars, and eateries with an industrial-chic vibe that wouldn’t look out of place in any of our biggest cities. The focal point is the Town Green on the beautiful Hastings River — scene of the uber-popular Tastings on Hastings food festival held in October each year (which attracts some 20,000 visitors).
Do not leave town without heading around to Town Beach to wiggle your toes in the sand as you gaze out at the Pacific. In between there are stunning views on offer from Gaol Point, and a colourful outdoor gallery of painted rocks to enjoy along the break wall. The artistic fun continues on the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail — 51 one-metre high fiberglass koalas, hand-painted by local artists and positioned around town. They’re hard to miss!
Enjoy this Port Macquarie travel guide.
Base yourself: City centre, Town Beach
Average hotel price per room/per night: AUD $146
Best breakfasts & coffee: Clarence Street, Town Beach
Top spots for a beverage: Town Green, Cruise terminal/port
Must-dos: Koala Hospital tour, Coastal Walk, Sea Acres Rainforest Centre
While Port Macquarie is a year-round destination, summer sees the biggest influx of visitors. It’s perfect weather for trying as many from the official list of 52+ things to do around the region as you can. It can get very hot and humid at times, so check that your accommodation is air-conditioned.
As the summer crowds depart, large-scale events bump in, including the IRONMAN challenge in May. On average March is the wettest month of the year.
Winters in Port Macquarie are generally mild with temperatures hovering in the mid-teens. Pack warmly, particularly for the evening. As temperatures creep back up to the low 20s in spring, the city gears up for its annual food festivals, including the much-anticipated Port Macquarie Beer & Cider Festival. Good weather is almost guaranteed, with the year’s lowest average rainfall in September and October.
The city’s happy tourists and laid-back locals rub shoulders at the Glasshouse cultural centre.
While its construction courted controversy, the end result is a world-class cultural facility. Architecturally stunning, the Glasshouse should be every visitor’s first port of call. You’ll find the Tourist Information Centre on the ground floor, along with the box office for the facility’s extensive annual programme of live events and concerts. There’s bound to be something interesting on during your visit.
Check out the three-level art gallery (free of charge), which hosts local and touring exhibitions. The surviving foundations of some of the convict-constructed buildings that once occupied the site have been preserved under the footings of the modern structure, and can be viewed in the basement.
Watch our guide for Sky News Business Class to top places to stay and eat in Port Macquarie:
Adam Ford, editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and host of Tour the World, regularly joins the team at Sky News Business Class to discuss top travel destinations around the world. In this interview Adam provides tips on visiting the coastal paradise of Port Macquarie in northern New South Wales, which is fast evolving into a cosmopolitan centre of food, wine and culture…
The traditional owners of the region are the Birpai people and the excellent Sea Acres Rainforest Centre will connect you with their heritage.
The Sea Acres Rainforest Centre is managed by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Take a guided stroll along the 1.3km elevated boardwalk through the canopy of this lush pocket of Gondwana Rainforest. Spot wildlife and birds, and get a rundown on local bush foods. The Spirit of the Land multimedia presentation on Birpai culture is well worth seeing. It runs hourly from 10am to 3pm.
Charted by John Oxley in 1818, Port Macquarie’s modern history began with the establishment of a penal settlement in 1821. Located far enough from Sydney to thwart escapees eager to return to the big smoke, the colony was eventually opened up to free settlers in 1830 and the remaining convicts were shipped out to other locations.
Listen to a podcast of our tips for top things to see and do in Port Macquarie:
The city’s early convict connection hasn’t always been celebrated. Today though, you’ll find interpretive boards around town, and an incredible collection of artefacts at the Port Macquarie Museum. The museum is run by the fine folk of the Port Macquarie Historical Society. It’s one of the top historical things to do in Port Macquarie, so give yourself a couple of hours to really enjoy it. The museum is closed Sundays.
To get more of the early back-story, local heritage expert Mitch McKay runs regular walking tours of the key historic sites (the climb to the top of the church tower at convict-built St Thomas’ Anglican Church is a highlight) and the Historical Cemetery. There’s an intriguing tale of one of the cemetery’s interred being the possible illegitimate son of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Foodies, you are going to have a fine time in this delicious part of Oz!
The region is fast developing a name for itself as a food and wine destination, and leading the charge is The Stunned Mullet. Located just off Town Beach, this is actually the only hatted restaurant between Newcastle and the Queensland Coast and it’s a must try for its innovative menu and impeccable service.
Start this gastronomical journey with the sweet and subtle locally farmed Sydney rock oysters. The Glacier 51 tooth fish is also something else. The flesh is thick and moist and your knife will glide through it like butter.
In town there are plenty of options. New kid on the block Chop and Chill offers an inspiring menu of Asian tastes and smoked meats, served in casually elegant surroundings, embellished with treasures from the owner’s world travels. The outside seating in the colonnade is a great spot to watch the world go by on the Town Green.
Also offering great views of the Green and Hastings River, Zebu at the Rydges Hotel provides relaxed casual dining in the bar (the lobster pizza is a top choice) or a more upscale affair in The Grill (open Tuesday to Saturday). Push the boat out on the five-course degustation menu.
For those happy to venture slightly further afield, Little Fish Café & Vineyard is a ten-minute drive from the centre of town and a world away in terms of the picturesque setting. Rolling vineyards frame the rambling restaurant building. This is a superb spot for a leisurely lunch, with a French-inspired menu that will knock your socks off. The Major Innes platter is more than enough for two, and when accompanied by a bottle of the 2011 Little Fish Summer White (made from estate-grown Semillon and Chardonnay fruit) there’s no finer way to while away an afternoon.
Great coffee abounds in Port Macquarie. In town, head for Drury Lane Eatery in the Garrison Building just opposite the Glasshouse. It’s shabby chic done to a tee and a smashing breaky awaits. Bunker down with the sensational baked eggs.
On Town Beach you’ll find Salty Crew Kiosk (from the team behind Bills). The surf-side setting is sublime and the café’s crew backs it up with an innovative menu and great beans. Loved the smashed avo with fetta, tomato, sprouts, dukkha and lime, served in a recycled cardboard tray with equally eco-friendly wooden cutlery.
Social Grounds is rated Port Macquarie’s top café on Beanhunter. It’s in an unlikely location on the main drag into town, and if the walk looks too much, a taxi would only be a few dollars. Those who make the effort will be richly rewarded. The coffee is bang on and the guys will make you feel more than welcome in what is obviously a firm favourite with locals.
The Greater Port Macquarie region has plenty to offer wine lovers. Winemaking first got underway here back in the 1860s but by the middle of the 20th century it was all but defunct. The resurgence began in the 1980s with the establishment of Cassegrain Wines by a family with a French wine-making heritage stretching back to the 17th century.
Today there are seven or eight vineyards in and around the region, which is known for the chambourcin grape, along with chardonnay and semillon varietals. Frankie’s Tours offers a range of bespoke itineraries, which can feature lunch and a wine tasting at Cassegrain and visits to gourmet food producers, including local institution Ricardoes Tomatoes & Strawberries. Enjoy a lesson in the hothouse on the art of growing the perfect tomato.
Port Central is the city’s main shopping hub.
The centre houses 51 retailers, and offers air-conditioned respite from the summer humidity.
The aforementioned Glasshouse wouldn’t be a true cultural hub without a design shop to browse on the way out. Think an abridged version of the NGV design store in Melbourne or MOMA’s design store in New York. Contemporary ceramics, groovy lamps and cute paper goods are all on offer.
For locally designed ladies’ casual and beachwear, jewellery and coastal-inspired accessories, head for Sublime & Blossom underneath The Observatory hotel on Town Beach. Enjoy the sensory enhancement delivered by fragrant scented candles and bath soaks.
Community Projects Worldwide in Horton Street offers an exotic array of mostly handmade products. They’re sourced from communities in developing countries to promote self-empowerment and local job creation.
For vintage and preloved goods, trundle up the hill from town to St Thomas’ rather grandly named Whitehouse Emporium. It offers clothing, antiques, bric-a-brac and collectables. Considering Port Macquarie’s historic pedigree, who knows what you might turn up. The store is open Wednesday to Friday. It closes at 3.30pm.
Spend some time doing not much at all at one of the city’s eight magnificent beaches.
The easiest for visitors to access without a car is Town Beach. For those up for a stroll, the picturesque 9-kilometre Coastal Walk will take you from the break wall all the way to Lighthouse Beach, past historic landmarks, lookouts and the Sea Acres National Park.
River cruises and whale watching trips are popular pastimes that don’t expend too much energy on the part of the participant. The whale watching season runs roughly from May through to December.
One furry local that transcends all others in the art of relaxation is of course the koala, which generally sleeps for between 16 and 18 hours a day. But that still leaves six to eight hours to get into strife and Australia’s only dedicated Koala Hospital is located in Port Macquarie. The facility admits around 250 injured and sick koalas a year, many of which are rehabilitated then released. The hospital is world-famous and on the daily guided tour at 3pm Aussies may find themselves outnumbered by visitors of every conceivable nationality. In fact, Germans are officially the most generous financial supporters of the hospital’s work!
Last but certainly not least, what could be more relaxing than kicking back with an icy cold, locally brewed beer. Luckily, Port Macquarie is home to a burgeoning boutique brewing industry. The Black Duck Brewery on the edge of town is every bloke’s dream: a very large shed, with a full brewing setup and a bar where the fruits of the brewer’s labour can be sampled. You can also try Black Duck’s brews in several venues around town, including Zebu.
Located right opposite Town Beach and framed by iconic Norfolk pines, The Observatory by Mantra offers guests a 100% carbon neutral stay. Choose from a range of one, two or three-bedroom apartment-style accommodation options with full kitchens, and the majority with killer ocean views. Hotel-style rooms are also available. The Observatory also offers an indoor lap pool, spa and sauna, and undercover parking.
Offering clean lines and contemporary styling, the Macquarie Waters Boutique Apartment Hotel, located adjacent to the heart of town, will appeal to the most discerning visitor. Modern and sophisticated, the apartment-style accommodation options offer full kitchens, flat screen internet TVs, free Wi-Fi, and large bathrooms with private laundry facilities.
Relax by the pool or enjoy a soak in the rooftop hot-tub.
Adam travelled as a guest of Greater Port Macquarie Tourism.
Do you have any tips to add to our Port Macquarie travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please send us a message.
Cover image courtesy of Destination NSW. Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.