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Nelson Bay, NSW

The major township and port on Port Stephens.

Nelson Bay is the most important township on the southern shoreline of Port Stephens. It is a substantial coastal resort town just inside the mouth of Port Stephens and its marina and wharf are the departure points for the ferries across to Tea Gardens and the excellent whale watching tours which head out to the Tasman Sea.


Nelson Bay is 18 m above sea-level and 209 km north of Sydney via the Pacific Motorway and Nelson Bay Road. It is 59 km north-east of Newcastle.


Origin of Name

No one is sure whether the town was named after Admiral Nelson or a vessel named Lady Nelson. The name may have come from the Lady Nelson which was used by Governor Lachlan Macquarie when he visited Port Stephens in 1812 or it may simply have been named after Admiral Horatio Nelson, the hero who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.


Things to See and Do

Cruises and Boat Hire
Nelson Bay is one of the premier locations on the New South Wales coast for dolphin and whale-watching cruises. It is also possible to hire boats for deep-sea and big-game fishing cruises and there is a delightful ferry across to Tea Gardens. Humpback whales pass by the coast between September and November headed for the Antarctic and can also be seen heading to the tropics to breed between late May and July. Other migrants include right whales and minke whales. It is claimed by the local operators that the first whales heading north meet the stragglers heading south and consequently there are only four or five days a year when the cruises do not see whales.

There are two major tour operators
1. Imagine Cruises
The company is proud of its eco-accredited status and it specialises in dolphin and whale watching although it also offers "Marine Discovery/Snorkel tours, Bay and Beach Swim tours, a Fingal Island and Lighthouse tour as well as a Sunset Dinner Cruise." For more details, prices and times check out http://www.imaginecruises.com.au.

2. Moonshadow TQC Cruises
This company has the largest vessels in Nelson Bay. It has whale watching from May to November and Dolphin Watching every day. For more details, prices and times check out https://www.moonshadow.com.au.

Beyond the daily cruises the d'Albora Marinas offers a wide range of nautical activities including dive charters, diving lessons and equipment. There are a number of offshore wrecks to explore, as well as Broughton Island which is well known as a diving, fishing and bushwalking location. The waters off Halifax Park and Fly Point are an aquatic reserve and are the most popular diving locations at Port Stephens. Houseboats, catamarans, runabouts, jet skis, parasailing and power boats can be hired.

The Ferry from Nelson Bay
One of the modestly priced pleasures of the area is the ferry trip across Port Stephens to Tea Gardens. Apart from being a delightful journey it also travel past pods of dolphins who seem to enjoy racing the ferry and gambolling in its wake. The dolphins are remarkably reliable - the website says travellers on the ferry are 95% certain to see them. Not only do travellers get scenic views of the port they also get a free show from the local dolphins. Check out http://www.portstephensferryservice.com.au/web/timetable/ for more information.

Nelson Head and Nelson Bay Lighthouse
The road east from Nelson Bay (Victoria Parade and Beach Road) leads to Nelson Head which separates Little Nelson Beach to the west from Shoal Bay to the east. On Nelson Head, some 53 m above sea level, is the Nelson Head Lighthouse (known as the Inner Lighthouse), dating from 1872 and classified by the National Trust. Originally lit by three kerosene lamps, electric lights were installed in 1946. It was operated by light house keepers until 1985. The system was automated in 1995 and shut down in 2003. The cottage was built in 1875 and today includes a cafe/tea rooms and an exhibition of photographs, maps and information on marine rescue. It is managed by Marine Rescue NSW, tel: (02) 4984 2505. More information is available at http://www.marinerescueportstephens.com.au.

Yacaaba Head
The view from Nelson Head looks east to Yacaaba Head. The "head" has an interesting geological history. Millions of years ago massive volcanic disturbances formed Yacaaba Head. Lava, subsidence and erosion have changed the landscape so that now Yacaaba Head is a remnant of an ancient volcanic peak and the local topography and the rocky outcrops are the product of lava flow. It can be climbed by travelling to Hawks Nest and walking south along the beach. The National Parks website (check out http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/walking-tracks/yacaaba-headland-walking-track) explains that the walk is 7 km return, takes between 2 hr 30 min and 3 hr 30 min, and describes the walk as "the track climbs steeply and you’ll notice smooth barked angophoras giving way to gnarly banksias and grass trees. As the track veers north, take a break and admire the inspiring views up the coastline. On a clear day, the distant blue ridge line of Barrington Tops is visible. The track gets rockier and steeper, but along the forested ridge top you’ll be treated to coastal views of Seal Rocks and Tomaree Headland. Out to sea, Cabbage Tree Island, known as John Gould Nature Reserve, protects the only known breeding colony of one of the world’s rarest birds; the Gould’s petrel."

Bagnalls Beach Reserve and the Bartlett Cycleway
There is a bicycle and walking track which runs from the Port Stephens Visitor Information Centre and hugs the shoreline following it west to the next beach at Dutchmans Bay and on through Bagnalls Beach Reserve to Corlette. The narrow beach is white, sandy and surrounded by casuarina and eucalypt. It is secluded and the waters are calm making it a popular beach with families.


Other Attractions in the Area

Bushwalks around Port Stephens
There are literally dozens of bushwalks around Nelson Bay. The major national park, Tomaree National Park, is criss crossed by dozens of trails (a PDF can be downloaded from http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/Tomaree-National-Park)
In the immediate area around Nelson Bay there are three easily accessible, medium difficulty, short walks. See http://www.portstephens.org.au/see-and-do/walking-tracks for more details.

1. Fort Tomaree Walk
This is an easy 1 km walk on a paved track to the World War II gun emplacements which were built in 1941. It starts from Zenith Beach, takes around one hour return and has some steep sections. It is defined as medium difficulty and it can continue on to the ...

2. Tomaree Head Summit Walk
This summit walk rises to 161 metres above the level of the sea and offers the visitor panoramic views across Port Stephens. In total it is 2 km (1 km each way) and will take around 45 minutes. From the lookout it is possible (when they are around) to see the pod of dolphins which live in the "port".

3. Wreck Beach Walk
A short walk (1 km each way taking about 20 minutes) which is medium difficulty down the fire trail to the beach. It is not a safe beach for swimming as it has strong rips. The trail passes through angophora forest and leads to the beach which is ideal for whale watching in season.

Fly Point
To the east of the d'Albora Marinas is Fly Point which is a popular dive site. Fly Point is a nautical term meaning safe anchorage with protection from winds. It was the site of the fish curing operations of the Chinese who, in the late 19th century, exported their fish to the goldfields, Sydney, Melbourne and even China. It was also their burial site. It was the location of Nelson Bay's first school, the original customs building and the location of an armed forces personnel and training base during World War II. 22,000 Australian and American troops trained at Fly Point in ship-to-shore invasions. The area was also heavily fortified against prospective Japanese attack during World War II.

Little Nelson Beach
Little Nelson Beach is a 200 m long beach which lies between the d'Albora Marinas and Fly Point. It has jetties at both ends of the beach, a large boat ramp, and a cycleway. It is safe for swimming. In the clearing over the road from the picnic area are several Aboriginal canoe trees - trees which had a large chunk of bark carved out in the rough shape of a dugout. The cuts are still plainly visible and are reminders of the land's occupation by the Worimi Aborigines prior to European settlement.

Corlette is now part of the suburban sprawl which stretches west from Nelson Bay. Its primary attraction is the upmarket Anchorage Port Stephens, a classy resort and marina. It’s a timber celebration of classy understatement with boardwalks jutting out into a ninety-berth marina, elegant shutters on the dormer windows, wooden balconies overlooking the marina and the peaceful waters. The interplay between the soft yellow rendered sections and the seductive grey timbers works perfectly in what can fairly described as a low key “New England Cottage” style.
Like the area, Anchorage is artlessly simple without ever being ostentatious. The complex has eighty rooms and suites (25 suites and 55 rooms) with private balconies. Most have views across Port Stephens and across the resort’s marina. The rooms are large with wooden shutters on the windows. There’s not a hint of excess. Attractions around the resort include swimming in the large, heated pool and fishing from the nearby breakwater. Check out http://www.anchorageportstephens.com.au for more details.

Gan Gan Lookout
Gan Gan Lookout is accessed of Nelson Bay Road 1.5 km south-west of the town centre along Lily Hill Road (it runs off Nelson Bay Road to the north). From the Gan Gan Lookout the panorama is breathtaking. It is possible to look south across Tomaree National Park; south-west down to the skyline of Newcastle; west to the mountains; north-west over Soldiers Point;  and eastwards over Hawks Nest, the two gigantic headlands that loom over the Port's entrance, Nelson Head and Yacaaba Head. In the spring the road is edged by enormous Gymea lilies.

Anna Bay
In recent times, as the whole Port Stephens area has become a holiday destination, the huge sand dunes at the northern end of Stockton Beach have become a magnet for enterprising entrepreneurs. For those seeking adventure there are the sand dunes at Anna Bay which can be enjoyed on horseback (Sahara Trails Horse Rides - http://www.saharatrails.com - a 90 minute ride across the dunes  – riders have to be over 16, tel: (02) 4981 9077); by 4WD (Sand Dune Tours - http://www.portstephensadventure.com.au/4wd_tours.htm - 2 hours duration and includes sand boarding and Tin City); and Quad bikes (Quad Bike King - http://www.quadbikeking.com.au - they are located at 2130 Nelson Bay Road, Williamtown).



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was occupied by the Worimi Aborigines.

* Port Stephens was sighted by Captain James Cook in May, 1770 who named it after Sir Philip Stephens, Secretary of the Admiralty. He observed smoke from Worimi campfires.

* The first Europeans in the area were five convicts whose boat sunk off Port Stephens in 1790. They were seen as reincarnated ancestors by the Worimi who aided them and accepted them into the tribe.

* The harbour was entered by the convict ship the Salamander in 1791 and charted by deputy surveyor-general Charles Grimes in 1795 who described it as low and sandy.

* Governor King ordered a survey of the Port by William Paterson in 1801.

* In 1812 Governor Macquarie visited the port in the Lady Nelson. Macquarie found the port "good, safe, and capacious" but decided there were too many shoals and the land was too barren to support a colony.

* Chinese fishermen established a base near Nelsons Bay early in the 19th century. They cured their catch and sent it back to China and to Chinese merchants in Sydney and Melbourne. By the 1850s they were sending supplies to the goldfields.

* By 1872 a second lighthouse had been constructed at Nelson Head.

* The first survey at Nelson Bay was carried out in 1874.

* A school was established at Hannah Bay (now Anna Bay) in 1879.

* Schools were established at both Salt Ash and Nelson Bay in 1883.

* In the 1880s lobsters were successfully trapped in the harbour by Greek and Italian fishermen.

* By 1886 there were about 30 residents. The villagers led a rather peaceful life based around fishing.

* During the Second World War Port Stephens was used as a base by the armed forces who trained 20,000 American and 2000 Australian servicemen.

* In the 1960s developers, seeing the potential of the area, started major commercial and domestic developments.

* Today Nelson Bay is popular with both holidaymakers and retirees.


Visitor Information

Port Stephens Visitor Information Centre, 60 Victoria Parade, Nelson Bay, tel: 1800 808 900


Useful Websites

The local official website is http://www.portstephens.org.au. It has extensive information about accommodation and events in the local area.

Got something to add?

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6 suggestions
  • Goodness me! where are the early pioneers mentioned?

    Our society is presently updating PSC website details for Heritage & History so will send some additional information when available. We have produced many publications of Port Stephens.

    ie. Captain William Cromarty- first white settler in Port Stephens
    William Glover- lighthouse keeper- first settler to Nelson Bay- lived Fly Point

    Historian & President

    President of Port Stephens Family History Society Inc

    Denise Gaudion
  • There was also a contingent of British Royal Marines seconded to the Pacific Fleet after having served at Normandy. They trained as commandos prior to a planned assault on a Japan which, ultimately, didn’t take place. There’s a monument at Little Beach commemorating this.

    Lorrence Salter