What defines Port Macquarie? In the scope of New South Wales, a state with some of the beautiful coastal towns in the country, Port Macquarie may not seem all that distinctive. Until you get there.
Make the four-or-so hour drive from Sydney (5.3hrs from Brisbane), like many do throughout the year, and you’re rewarded with one of the state’s most genuinely enriching and restorative escapes. Port Macquarie is quiet enough to still feel like a hidden gem, but has gone through so many positive changes over the past years that it’s quite obviously on the cusp of becoming the state’s next big “it” destination.
I’ve been before; sometimes unwillingly, dragged up to Port Macquarie since before I knew how to speak. Pretty much my entire extended family live there. For a long time during my childhood, my mental map of NSW consisted of only a limited scope of Sydney, and Port Macquarie. And while I hadn’t been up in roughly three years, it says a lot that my brief time exploring the changes made me feel like I’d never really been in the first place.
There’s a lot to be excited about in Port Mac now, and it’s not just the recently viral fame of Port Macquarie Koala Hospital which, during the tragic 19/20 bushfires, attracted a global outpouring of grief for the furry natives, resulting in an eye-watering $8 million GoFundMe campaign. Although the hospital is rightfully one of the star attractions here, and will easily be the prime lure once travel makes it slow but steady crawl back to normalcy.
With so much now happening around Port Macquarie, what do I write about?
Do I write about where to eat?
That’s easy: make a bee-line to Drury Lane Eatery for rich, locally sourced and slow-braised brisket. Make sure to fill the table with inventive vege small plates like roasted Dutch carrot with dukkah and braised leeks, then end the night with a choc chip cookie ice-cream sandwich while you breathe in the airy courtyard seating. Or, if pizza is more your bag, fold into the retro vibes of Bar Florian, where all the thin-crust pizza, cured meats and cheeses you could possibly want are marched out in a procession of vibrant Mediterranean flavours.
When the sun rises, head out to Byron-esque Little Shake at the city-end of Port Mac’s iconic breakwall. Settle in here to watch dolphins flip around in the Hastings while you sip exceptional coffee and munch on a gooey, rich breakfast bap. Or, if whale-watching over breakfast is more attractive, drive a bit further to COAST Lighthouse Beach, which offers indulgent al fresco shakes and fresh-first breakfast staples while looking straight out to the beach, where those behemoth sea mammals often play in direct line of sight.
And just in case you weren’t aware that Port Mac favours sun-soaked outdoor dining, get cosy in front of Round & Round Coffee, which is located on the same site as the Koala Hospital and is a top-quality vintage van serving up juices, coffee and croissants for picnic-style lunches.
Do I write about where to stay?
Also easy. Those who want to hug the city are best placed at Macquarie Waters, where just about everything is within an earshot. Or, if the water’s edge is more appealing, check in to Rydges Port Macquarie – even if only to have easy access to next-door Zebu Restaurant & Bar, which evidently has deep connections when it comes to sourcing fresh local oysters.
Although I’d be doing readers a massive disservice if I suggested any accommodation over the stunning – and brand new – Mansfield Estate, a premium eco-retreat set on 600 acres of pristine land, within a 25-minute drive of Port Mac centre. The forward-thinking modular retreat was once an exclusive private family escape, but owners Paul and Helen Mansfield have now refurbished and opened up to the public, welcoming more to enjoy the wide-open bushland and gather by the stunning outdoor dining area, where a fire pit and pizza oven is available for guests to use, and ocean views shimmer in a distance. The guest rooms themselves, modern looking with ensuite bathrooms, are all neatly lined up along a very outback-style veranda while nearby a fully sized indoor basketball court and activities centre helps bolster the laundry list of things to do – which also includes bushwalking around Queens Lake.
If staying at Mansfield, you’re also a 14 minute drive from the glassy waters of Dunbogan, a popular spot for holiday houses, kayaking, and general peace. The lovingly maintained 1940s Dunbogan Boatshed here is a slick haunt with all the on-water rentals you could want, an ice cream parlour, plus plans to turn an old-school trawler into a floating champagne and oyster bar – easily one of the coolest things to keep in mind for Port Mac trips trips over the next few months.
Ask me a few years ago where to stay and eat in Port Mac and I would have drawn blanks. Clearly that’s changed and, most excitedly, the transformation appears to be in its very early stages.
Let’s talk Art Therapy
I know, it may seem redundant to talk about another northern NSW city that draws much its character from art, when Byron Bay is but four hours away. But unlike the popular (and recently Hollywood-ordained) tourist spot, Port Macquarie’s grip on its artistic community feels firmer and more intimate. Perhaps it’s because my visit to Port Mac coincided with the annual ArtWalk, which comes once a year to turn various shopfronts into galleries and encourages local artists to create in the open – a beautiful, inspiring concept that gently sketches itself onto Port Macquarie’s typically breezy day-to-day.
Although I think my renewed fondness for the region is less to do with a particular point in time. Port Macquarie should be considered as a year-round destination for art from now on. The strong, interconnected community of makers have ensured that by offering a variety of interesting art classes, markets and experiences, this coastal town is a much needed respite from the year that was. Here are just some of those to get across before your next visit to Port.
Award-winning local artist Skye Petho has been running Arthouse Industries off Murray Street for years. It’s a quiet, casual shopfront that doubles as an incubator for the local creative industry. It should be one of the first stops on an art tour around Port Mac, booking into one of her jewellery or art classes and workshops. Petho is exceptionally kind, open and encouraging, so beginners need not be wary.
You’ll find the beloved BabaLila Chocolates tacked onto the back of Bago Maze & Winery, just a short drive from town. After you’re done navigating your way through Bago’s incredible lush and playful hedge maze (which should take around 20 minutes – 30 if you tend to get lost in garden mazes, as you do) and rewarding yourself with a tasting paddle of some very fresh, very delicious wines, make your way to BabaLila. The small space is home to some incredible handmade chocolates, the best of which reinterpret native Australian flavours for profiles that are rich and indulgent, but skilfully balanced.
Founder Tash Topshij uses her Russian mother’s recipes for these gorgeous dark chocolates, so after you’re done book into one of her chocolate-making and chocolate-painting classes to learn a thing or two yourself.
Life Drawing with Carly Marchment
Port-born artist Carly Marchment focuses on capturing a moment in time with her Life Drawing classes, primarily using oils and acrylic to help people create portraits and nudes on difference surfaces like paper and timber. Life Drawing is popular as a mindless practice to bring oneself into the presence and pull them out of their own mind for a time, so if you’re feeling a bit stressed, this is certainly one of the best things you can do. Plus, your observation skills will only be stronger, sharper and more focused.
A one-off class will set you back $60, while a block of six can run you $180. Note that you’ll need to BYO paper, ink or graphite. The model and everything else is provided.
Paint Your Town – Mobile Party Painting
Mixing a bit of spontaneity in with art therapy, Paint Your Town is a service offering mobile paint parties throughout the Mid North Coast region. If you’re up there with a group, this could be a good way to mark a special occasion and take part in a little bit of a bonding exercise. Groups can select their own artwork to “recreate” together, or leave the decision up to the teacher. Each session is two hours and prices vary, so you’ll need to call through or book via the link below.
Sunset Framing & Art Gallery
Partial to some embroidery? You’ll need to head along to Sunset Gallery for that and book into an intimate class led by Alana Cabera from That’s Sew Llama. As the gallery’s artist in residence, she started these classes to further strengthen the local arts community and bring a varied perspective on the town’s abundant creative scene. The classes happen every Saturday from 10am to 12pm and will set you back $20pp.
Sue Brangwin, going by the name of “Koala Sue”, is the qualified teacher and Creative Kids Provider behind Clay Koala and hosts regular Wednesday evening workshops for those looking to get across pottery. Sue’s workshop in Port Macquarie is certainly the place to be for fun, casual workshops that showcase the skill and patience behind the renowned mindful practice of creating beautiful clay items such as pots and dinner ware. As well as hand-made pottery, you can learn how to pot at the wheel with more intensive classes over a series of weeks this year.
Note that classes start at $35.
Wauchope Artists Market
If you’ve already done the rounds and scoped out what kind of art classes are available in and around Port Macquarie, you might need some proof that what you’re getting yourself in to will be worth it. Take the short drive to the cutesy boutique town of Wauchope and wander the intimate artists market in Bain Park. Here you’ll find stalls, many from students of aforementioned artists and their respective classes, selling nothing but creative works. These local artisans are across everything that’s locally grown, made and baked, plus there’s some live music on the green nearby. I’ll be surprised if you don’t walk away with something like a beautiful mosaic pot or a unique necklace.
Glasshouse, a multi-million dollar cultural centre for Port Macquarie, has been one of the most positive and influential forces behind the town’s fresh look. Not only to they have a pristine 594-seat theatre here – so expect regular drop-ins from Opera Australia and Sydney Theatre Company – but the gallery is a beautiful and unpretentious display of multimedia works from Australian artists.
Port Macquarie Breakwall
It’s not a class in the traditional sense, but strolling Port Macquarie’s famously colourful breakwall is an education in itself. It’s a showcase of communal spirit coming together to turn a town’s star attraction into a vibrant, diverse and interesting clash of colour and ideas. The rocks along this walk are almost all painted, some by families who have clearly staked claim and return every year to update their collective murals. Some are statements, some are just odes to pop culture, while others creatively use a rock’s unique shape to innovate – like the one conveniently shaped like a shark, and painted as such. Little Shake – the café I mentioned above – is the best way to start the stroll, which ideally ends by relaxing on the rocks at the walk’s outermost point, looking out to the waters as dolphins flip around and share the ambiance.
Out There Design & Mosaic
If the privacy of Mansfield Estate is perhaps a bit too large-scale for you, and staying right in the heart of town is out of the question, consider local artist Francesca O’Connell your new best friend. She owns a small property out in Beechwood that, despite the lack of surrounding water, looks like it was transplanted straight from the the Byron Bay Hinterland. Her beautifully kept gardens and gorgeous home-style accommodations are reason enough to pop by here for an afternoon tea, but the real deal-maker is her home studio. Operating as Out There Design & Mosaic, Francesca teaches guests how to make unique handcrafted pieces for their home or place of work, both across mosaic works and jewellery. Spend a few days here and have a hands-on art session everyday – you’ll probably have to set up a stall at Wauchope Art Market after.
Feature photo by Remy Brand Creative.