Port o’call – Port Macquarie overnight getaway.

What to do in 36 hours in Port Macquarie?

Earlier this month, we were meant to fly our friends, Dave and Denise, down to Merimbula for an overnight stay. However the NSW South Coast bushfire crisis forced us to change plans and head north instead. Ironically, the North Coast had been battling its own bushfires a couple of months prior and was only just recovering from massive destruction around the Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie area. So, in a way, we were doing our bit to support the local economy and though we didn’t bring an empty esky, we indeed had plans to visit as many places as we could.

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We flew into Port Macquarie airport in this hot January morning, witnessing the blackened landscape along the way but mercifully, no active fires near the town ( though we were told by a local “ there is a pit fire near the runway, that is virtually impossible to put out. It just keeps burning underground ! “) The first thing we noticed is how clear the air is compared to Sydney.

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We picked up our hired car and drove across the Hasting River, to check out North Shore beach which is only accessible by ferry.

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The beach is gorgeous, long and empty, perfect to kite surf on this windy day or ride a horse along. Our crew was peckish however, so we returned to Settlement Point where Denise had spotted a cafe restaurant earlier.

Overlooking the Hasting river and a few meters away from the car ferry, The Point is a quaint cafe serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Customers appeared to be locals and holiday makers alike, service was friendly and accomodating as some of us have very specific requests like a burger without certain trimmings ( that’s Denise ) or long black on ice ( that’s me ). We started sipping beers, latte and iced coffee ( otherwise known as long black on ice, not to be confused with the concoction with cream piled on top! ) while waiting. The food took a little while as it is freshly made, but when it arrived serves were quite generous.

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fullsizeoutput_85a1Mr T ordered a Homemade Chunky Steak, Red Wine & Mushroom Pie which came with a side salad. He could only manage half of it, it was that filling.

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David and Denise went for traditional Aussie Hamburgers while I opted for the vegetarian delight, thinking it was a lighter option as it read “ Oven roasted field mushroom, roasted pumpkin, baked capsicum, spanish onion, zucchini, grilled halloumi stacked on baby spinach, sliced avocado & toasted turkish bread with a balsamic reduction & cashews”.

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As delicious as it was, it was anything but light, even when leaving the bread on the side ( and god knows how much I love Turkish bread !)

Our belly full, we headed south for a drive along the Coastal Drive to Camden Haven. It is only 49 klm, but it took us 2 hours as we stopped along the way at Lighthouse Beach, Shelley Beach, Lake Cathie, Bonnie Hills…

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There is no shortage of pristine, long, sandy beaches but sadly, areas like Lake Cathie, an intermittently closed lake, is out of bound as it suffers from poor quality water, largely due to drought conditions in the past few years.

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Finally back in Port, we checked into the El Paso Motor Inn, our home for the night. It is in the centre of town, a perfect spot just across from the coastal walk and the river.
There are tons of dining options within walking distance, but we couldn’t go past the Beach House, one block down from the hotel.

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It was a very busy, noisy place on this Friday night, popular with sunset watchers, so once we managed to nab a table, we didn’t move!

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Menu is typical pub food, nice and generous:

IMG_3992chicken schnitzel for David,Hummus dip with pulled lamb and bread for Denise,

fullsizeoutput_859dIMG_3990caesar salad and slow cooked lamb to share for Mr T and I. And copious beers and wine! Great ambience. 

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I got up early the next morning for a hike along the Coastal Walk. Starting from the Town Green ( across from the hotel ), the walk is 9 klm long all the way to Tacking Point lighthouse. I only walked as far as the end of the breakwater wall and Town Beach however, along with a large number of people doing the same thing, dodging kids on bikes, guys fishing off the rocks and dogs, …

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It is indeed a popular spot with boulders along the path, painted by people keen to leave their mark. Naive drawings immortalising family holidays, passionate declarations of love, sad RIP, cheeky celebration of boys pub crawls…a veritable gallery of human emotions stretches to the end of the break wall and leads to a large skatepark as well as picnic areas. I can’t imagine anywhere more kid and family friendly.
This short 30mn cardio workout done, it was time for breakfast back at the hotel. Continental breakfast is included in accomodation at El Paso, a basic but adequate offering of toasts, cereals and hot drinks. Any hot meals are extra, but we were still full from last night and I was saving myself for lunch.

Setting up for the day’s exploring, I wanted to visit the Port Macquarie koala hospital, a facility dedicated to the care and preservation of the marsupials. Totally self-funded and run by a few paid staff and a lot of volunteers, it is the first of its kind in the world. Their workload of late has dramatically increased with the impact of the bush fires on the koala population, and while interested to visit and see for myself ( visit is free ) the rest of our crew was wary of seeing animals in distress. Instead, we headed inland to visit Bago Maze and Winery.

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Though only 30mn from town, it feels quite remote, nestled in the hills. The setup is lovely, but the weather was really hot ( 37C ) so we didn’t bother about the maze. We left  it to the restless young kids whose only interest seem to want to get lost in a 2 meter tall hedge maze while their parents wished they were back in the coolness of the cellar door.

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Which is where you find David and I, tasting lovely blueberry wines and liqueurs. In the meantime, Mr T found some locally made harissa and honey to take home while Denise sampled the local muffin and latte.

Then it was back on the highway, to Ricardoes’ Tomatoes and Strawberries Farm.

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This is a working farm with two acres of greenhouses controlled by state of the art computerised technology, hydroponically growing tomatoes and strawberries. Visitors can pick their own strawberries in the shady enclosures where the berries grow on tall vertical vines: armed with a bucket, it is just a matter of plucking the berries, which are then weighed and bagged to take away ( no eating allowed while picking !)

IMG_4072IMG_4079Denise and I could not resist having fun picking strawberries while the boys patiently waited in the cafe checking out the menu. I bought a few tomatoes then we were off. We didn’t really spend much longer, as it was really hot in the greenhouses and the cafe area was too busy for our liking.

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Lunch was by the river, at Whalebone Wharf. What a gem! From the moment we walked in, the velvet shell armchairs, bronze fittings and whitewashed walls make you feel special already. Mr T glanced at me with his “ where have you taken us” kind of look but relaxed as soon as we were seated.

IMG_4088Our table was overlooking the river, a nice breeze flowed thru, having us forgetting about the heatwave outside. The menu focuses on seafood and local produce, prepared by award winning chef, Peter Ridland, previously of Jonah’s in Whale Beach ( I mention this, as Jonah’s has been on my restaurant bucket list for decades, so I figured this would be near enough !) I loved the look of the sides and the fact that there are more side choices than entrees or mains. You could enjoy an entire vegetarian meal with these sides. But we’re omnivores and love our seafood. So…

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Denise spotted the flash fried calamari dish at the table next to us, and literally said “ I’ll have what she’s having “.
After being told the fish of the day was not available, the boys chose the beer battered flat head fillets with chips for Mr T and roasted pumpkin for David.

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As for me, the roasted king prawns had me intrigued so I ordered an entree size of these with grilled greens on the side. While the seafood was very good, cooked to perfection, the vegetables were sensational.

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My greens ( broccolinis, broccoli and green beans ) were grilled and crispy with a crunchy topping of almond crumbs and refreshing sour cream and chive dressing. The roasted pumpkin melted in your mouth and tasted divine with whipped cashew cream, toasted seeds and mustard dressing. David couldn’t stop eating it, then he couldn’t stop talking about it! Mr T loved his beer battered chips, especially the garlic and pepper salt but couldn’t eat all of it so he shared with Denise whose dish was much lighter as it “only” came with a rocket and cucumber salad.
I really would have loved to try the desserts but not only the heat was dampening our appetites but Mr T was now in a flight preparation mode, keen to fly back home before the cold front hit later in the evening.

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The trip home was a very hot and smoky affair, as we were re-entering the fire zone. Even though we weren’t flying into any fire affected area, the winds from Victoria and the NSW South Coast were blowing the highly polluted air hundreds of kilometres up the coast. By the time we landed in Bankstown, in the late afternoon, the air was thick and a scorching 48C. We love our hot weather but that was getting extreme and we all made a collective wish for the cooler weather to hurry up!

As a final note: There is a Koalas Sculpture trail you can explore, with 16 koala sculptures scattered all over town.  We managed to spot 2 of them ( actually, we ran into them by chance, as we weren’t really looking! ): Con at the Historic Courthouse ( pictured below ) , and Berry Beautiful at Ricardoes’.

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