Port Macquarie is the quintessential Aussie beach-break destination, but equally it has plenty on the go to satisfy foodies, history buffs and culture vultures. Here's a handy checklist of top things to do.
In days gone by you might have heard the Mid North Coast retreat of Port Macquarie in New South Wales referred to as ‘God’s waiting room’, due to the high percentage of retirees in residence.
Well, it seems the rest of us are catching on (if not catching up!). While the region still holds great appeal for the grey brigade, these days the fastest growing demographic is the 35-49ers. And with its position at the mouth of the beautiful Hastings River, stunning beaches, a dynamic and fast evolving food and wine scene, a rich convict history to delve into, and sensational weather for most of the year, what’s not to love about Port Macquarie whatever your age?
As it has been for decades, tourism is the town’s mainstay and hotels and motels can be found on just about every block of the compact and very walkable CBD. 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 tranquil riverfront is used extensively for recreation.
Do not depart Port Macquarie without having wiggled your toes in the sand at Town Beach as you gaze out at the vast Pacific Ocean. In between the town centre and beach 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, which features 80 one-metre-high fiberglass koalas, hand-painted by local artists.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Port Macquarie.
1. Hit the beach
While Port Macquarie is a year-round destination, summer sees the biggest influx of holidaymakers — most of whom are intent on hitting the beach. And there are eight magnificent stretches of sand to choose from. The easiest one for visitors to access without a car is Town Beach. For those up for a stroll, the picturesque nine-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.
2. See a show or exhibition at the Glasshouse
Port Macquarie’s happy tourists and laid-back locals rub shoulders at the Glasshouse cultural centre in the heart of town. While its construction courted controversy, the end result is a world-class facility. You’ll find the Tourist Information Centre on the ground floor, along with the box office for the 588-seat theatre’s extensive annual programme of concerts, comedy, theatre and dance. There’s bound to be something interesting on during your visit.
The Glasshouse is also home to an impressive three-level art gallery, which hosts local and touring exhibitions. Entry is free of charge. 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 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…
3. Connect with Indigenous culture at Sea Acres
The traditional owners of the region are the Birpai people and the excellent Sea Acres Rainforest Centre will introduce you to their heritage. The centre is managed by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Take a guided stroll along the 1.3-kilometre elevated boardwalk that weaves its way through the canopy of this lush pocket of Gondwana Rainforest. You’ll 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 and runs hourly from 10am to 3pm.
4. Step back in time at Port Macquarie Museum
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. The region’s early convict connection hasn’t always been celebrated. Today however, you’ll find interpretive boards around town and an incredible collection of artefacts on display at the Port Macquarie Museum. The museum is run by the fine folk of the Port Macquarie Historical Society.
5. Do a heritage walking tour
To get more of Port Macquarie’s early backstory, join a walking tour with local heritage expert Mitch McKay. You’ll visit several sites linked to the past (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.
6. Indulge in fine food
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. The subtle, locally farmed Sydney rock oysters are something else, as is the Glacier 51 tooth fish. The flesh is thick and moist and your knife will glide through it like butter.
There are also plenty of great dining options in the heart of town. 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 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.
Great cafes abound in Port Macquarie. In the CBD, 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 of baked eggs awaits.
Over 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.
Social Grounds is situated outside the town centre, and if the walk looks too much, an Uber would only be a couple of 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.
8. Visit a vineyard
Little Fish Café and Vineyard is located just a ten-minute drive from the centre of Port Macquarie, but a world away in terms of the tranquil setting. Rolling vineyards and a lush garden frame the rambling restaurant building, and this is a superb spot for a leisurely lunch. The French-inspired menu is a delight, even more so when your choice of dish is accompanied by a glass of the Little Fish Summer White (made from estate-grown fruit).
Greater Port Macquarie also 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, six or so wineries fall under the banner of the Hastings River wine region, which is building a name for the chambourcin grape, along with chardonnay and semillon varietals. The Cassegrain cellar door is open daily for tastings.
8. Meet the patients at the Koala Hospital
Koalas generally sleep 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 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!
10. Try a cold local brew at the Black Duck Brewery
And last but certainly not least, what could be better on a hot and humid day than kicking back with an icy cold, locally brewed beer? The boutique 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.
Where to stay in Port Macquarie
Mantra The Observatory
Located right opposite Town Beach and framed by iconic Norfolk pines, Mantra The Observatory 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.
Macquarie Waters Boutique Apartment Hotel
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.
After a hard day of sightseeing, head for the hotel’s pool deck or enjoy a soak in the rooftop hot-tub.
Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours, 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.