THERE'S a lot to be said for the humble weekend getaway. Two or three nights away from the tedium of routine, and swapping obligations with relaxation or adventure, or a mix of both, is an enticing prospect.
With weekend schedules cleared and a thirst for adventure, my partner and I hit the Pacific Hwy on a Thursday night. Destination: Port Stephens, just north of Newcastle.
Unfortunately, the 1974 Kombi we call our second home is not the most powerful vehicle on the road.
So after a freezing night spent on a roadside at Forster we followed the highway south and an hour or so later found ourselves on the road into Port Stephens, with the promise of whales and sand dune adventures on the horizon.
With so much to see and do - on our way into town we saw advertisements for paintballing, diving, go-karts and SUPing - it is clear tourism is big business here.
But we soon discovered the scenery, restaurants and spas at Ramada Resort Shoal Bay were good enough to ignore all of that if you wanted to.
From the balcony of the spacious Heritage room we checked into was the impressive vista of a calm bay filled with clear water, kissed by the winter sun and surrounded by mountainous islands and terrain.
Shoal Bay is just one of several beautiful bays in Port Stephens, but it is what lies in the open water that we were interested in on our first day.
Leaving from Nelson Bay twice a day, Moonshadow TQC Cruises - one of two original whale-watching operators and the largest in Port Stephens - has plenty of experience getting tourists up close to the huge humpback whales that pass the central NSW coast each year.
It also runs dolphin tours, private charters and twilight dinner cruises, the last of which would beckon us back to Nelson Bay the next night. But back to the whales.
"Over here," someone yelled from the starboard side of the Hinchinbrook Explorer, more affectionately known as Dora.
Two huge, unmistakeably whale-shaped lumps rose from the depths. The skipper followed the pair for a few minutes before the humpbacks decided they had had enough, drawing "ooohhs and aaahhs" from those on the boat as they dove down with a flick of their tail flukes.
Whale flukes, a volunteer with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society told me later, are as unique as human fingerprints and often used to identify individuals.
But it was the seals we encountered that were the real pleasant surprise. Camouflaged against the dramatic rock formations that make up the popular dive spot Cabbage Tree Island, the sleek lounging mammals lazily tilted their heads towards us as the 30-metre Supercat came in close.
Fast forward two days, lazing on a rock was something the more conservative part of me wished I was doing.
Instead I found myself in control of an ATV for the first time in about 10 years, perched on the edge of the steep wall of a sand dune.
"Remember, no brakes!" Sand Dune Adventures' lead tour guide Scott Newlin yelled as I psyched myself up to take the plunge. I had been in a similar place the day before, but I was not driving a quad bike and the drop was not this big.
I was seated comfortably on a sandboard supplied by Port Stephens 4WD Tours, and in sliding down the hill was taken back to childhood camping trips on Stradbroke Island.
This moment, though, evoked feelings more reminiscent of driving a car for the first time - a heady mix of confidence, fear and vulnerability. But the guides were highly capable.
I dropped down the dune, picking up speed quickly as I kept my thumb on the accelerator, just as instructed.
What a rush; the best possible way to end an hour spent traversing the largest moving sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere.
Holding a special place in Aboriginal culture, the 4200ha Worimi Conservation Lands were a sight not to be missed - even pop superstar Beyonce included the dunes in one of her clips. But if sand is not your cup of tea, or you prefer to stay near town, take an evening walk to the summit of the Tomaree Headland lookout, between Shoal Bay and neighbouring Fingal Bay.
Pack a bottle of wine, and maybe a cheese platter in a backpack. Because even if you are cursing this advice as you sweat it out through the beautiful forest track to reach the peak, the sunset view is well worth the effort. I promise.
The writer was a guest of Ramada Resort Shoal Bay and the operators.
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