The thought of heading up to the beautiful Port Stephens region of NSW, even for just one night away, was instantly appealing, especially as Sydney was being deluged with days on end of dreary, grey wet weather and our household was feeling just a little housebound and slightly stir crazy.
As a kid, and into my late teens, many family holidays were spent in this idyllic part of NSW – the source of wonderful memories and vivid images – and the fantastic beaches of Shoal Bay, Boat Harbour and Anna Bay, the Co-Op at Nelson Bay with the day’s fresh catch straight to the dinner table, long, hot summers and seemingly endless school holidays.
With the offer of a night away for the family at the Shoal Bay Resort & Spa and a brand new Toyota RAV4 (GXL, AWD, diesel and, bonus for this manual-driving gal, an automatic! yay!) to get us there, only a fool would say ‘no thanks’.
Let me preface our excitement over the RAV4 by saying that we’re a household running two vehicles whose glory days are well behind them. This shiny, sporty, brand new vehicle with bells and whistles was a sight to behold. The boot was more than ample for all our gear and the interior was oh so roomy and ultra-comfortable.
We headed North in driving rain that came in heavy downpours, receded, then dumped again throughout the three hour trip. Lakes had formed in low-lying areas of freeway and that RAV4 didn’t flinch. At the merest hint of a raindrop on the front windscreen, the wipers went into auto-mode and obligingly did their job!
Better still, driving in those conditions was a breeze. No slip, no slide, no mishandling and, astonishing to all – despite the pelting rain and noisy passing traffic – you could have heard a pin drop inside the RAV4. “How quiet is this car?” was the constant refrain.
So quiet, in fact, that the 8 year old was able to read aloud, for everyone’s entertainment, from her paperback in the back seat without those of us up front missing any detail of the engaging story! (And, I might add, she did so without a hint of motion sickness!)
The two big people in the car shared reminiscences of making this same road trip as kids, en famille, in the days when there was no air-conditioning, uncomfortable back bench seats, poor suspension that meant you felt every pothole, car sickness, sore bums, a crackling radio (if you were lucky) and hours of mega boredom in order to reach your destination.
How times, and cars, have changed.
As we approached Port Stephens, the rain miraculously stopped. Shoal Bay stretched out ahead, boats of all shapes and sizes bobbing on their moorings and there was the once-familiar Shoal Bay Country Club of my childhood, transformed across several buildings into the Shoal Bay Resort & Spa yet still retaining all of its iconic, seaside facade. Brilliant!
Our spacious apartment looked straight across the low-rise rooftops of Shoal Bay to the water and bushland foreshore beyond. Someone was lucky enough to snag their first-ever bedroom with ensuite and excitedly declared that “It even has its own spa bath!”, although she did say, thoughtfully, “I think this is really meant to be your room” – but we didn’t take up the offer of an exchange.
Out and about, so much of Shoal Bay’s charm, for me, was happily still all there. A swim in the pool with its poolside rooms took me right back to my frequent Country Club holidays with family and friends, the famous milk bar with its queues of kids buying lollies may have gone but another small shop is carrying on the tradition and you can still pick your own lollies, at 5c each, and walk out with your little white paper bag of goodies!
“I only paid $1.25 and look how many lollies I got! And I got to pick them all myself and the lady put them in the bag! Only 5c each!”, the little one mumbled, with the first of the chewy sour worms popped into her mouth.
(Yes, we did get our own adult bag full of cobbers and freckles and strawberries and cream!)
Fish and chips for late lunch, followed by schnitzel and salad for dinner from the Resort’s famed SeaRock @ Shoal Bay family-friendly restaurant.
Despite having to evacuate due to a fire emergency around 8 am the next morning (yes, someone did burn their toast in one of the apartments!) we used the time out of digs to enjoy a leisurely, and delicious, buffet breakfast and devoured, variously, Coco Pops, bacon, eggs, sausages, muffins, toast, fruit and great coffee. The staff could not have been more obliging, helpful and – relaxed. Despite the quick arrival of the local fire crews to attend to the emergency, the calm and professional manner in which the episode was handled makes me think that someone has burnt the toast here before!
After checkout, we were met by friends to enjoy coffee, al fresco, by the beach under a beautiful, beaming sun. Locals and holiday makers all had the same idea and Shoal Bay’s main strip was alive with families shopping, strolling and socialising in that lovely way that personifies seaside village life.
Reluctantly, the time was soon upon us to start our drive back to Sydney and we opted for the longer, scenic route with detours, via lookouts and magnificent Birubi Beach with a camel train across the sand dunes, through Stockton and Swansea and Belmont, to help us prolong the inevitable.
Sadly, we knew we had to give her back, all the while acknowledging how much we’d come to love her in such a short space of time.
It’s amazing how one night away from your usual habitat can feel like an extended holiday. It’s an opportunity to dust off the cobwebs and experience something different, to hang out as a family and to find novelty and excitement in the small things – a brand new car, a delightful storybook (300-odd pages read in just one day!), 5c lollies, a spa bath in the ensuite and even a fire evacuation.
Christine Kane is a writer and editor who took her first road trip in the back of the family Holden from Melbourne to Sydney at 3 months old. Since then, she’s travelled throughout Australia and internationally by all manner of transport and never tires of discovering, and rediscovering, destinations with her own family.