Whether you fly in, drive in or come under sail, when you approach Port Macquarie, it sparkles. There's something about the light that sets off the many rivers and lakes surrounding it on the inland side, and the wild azure South Pacific on the other, only broken by the playful silver curves of dolphins riding the currents.
Perhaps it's the light, or the dolphins, or the sheer breeziness of it all, that has attracted a sizeable and very active creative community to the area. Every year, in October, there is a popular ArtWalk event which throws open studios to curious visitors across the city and towns of Port Macquarie district. But even outside of the annual festivities, the art scene is widespread and wonderfully visible.
Out the front of many attractions, as well as in shop windows and on street corners, you'll find the vibrantly decorated participants of the Hello Koalas Trail, a permanent exhibition of metre-tall fibreglass koala sculptures, painted or designed by some of the region's most artistic luminaries.
Lining the streets of Port Macquarie itself, amongst the regional-centre usuals, there is a steady stream of artist's stores, craft workshop spots and boutiques gleaming with handmade earrings, homewares and suitably ocean-hued knick-knacks.
In the evenings, even on weeknights, they offer a range of alfresco dining options accompanied by local crooners. The world-class Glasshouse theatre and gallery space usually attracts international performing arts acts and artists to the very centre of town.
Plenty of visitors to Port Macquarie never seem to head inside at all, though - there's a passing parade that treads the length of the breakwall seemingly night and day, and groups of picnickers are constantly laying down their rugs and lapping up the views of the Hastings River from the town-centre riverbank.
Art & culture
People, meet art. This is no elitist arty precinct - in Port Macquarie, art is a way of life. If you spend your first day visiting the artists' stores and workshops, you'll spend the rest of your stay waving at your newfound friends - the artist community here seems to pop up everywhere.
Visitors staying in the centre of 'Port' can start at The Hollow Store to meet artists and sculptors selling their various painted or sculpted wares amongst candles and scented oils. Then head next door to Arthouse Industries, where professional artist and owner Skye Petho not only sells her own creations, such as handblown glass jewellery, clothing and artwork, but she runs a variety of fabulously inclusive art classes. Even if you don't have a creative bone in your body, at an alcohol-ink class you will combine these brightly hued inks on paper in a way that is lots of fun and meditatively relaxing - with a unique souvenir to take home at the end, too.
Thirty minutes' drive out to Beechwood, you can drop in to Francessca O'Donnell's whimsical little piece of heaven at Out There Design And Mosaic. Her thoughtfully curated, manicured gardens are a mix of Balinese parasols, quirky mosaic pieces and lovingly reared subtropical plants, an outdoor porch complete with billowing curtains, and a studio cottage where the magic happens. Mosaic workshops and classes are available here with the 'master' herself; Ms O'Donnell is a successful artist who mostly works by major commission only. There is also a suitably stylish B&B arrangement here, if you'd like to linger longer.
In between here and Port Macquarie is Wauchope, where local creatives sell their goods on the first Saturday of each month. In fact, there is a full roster of markets in the area, from Port Macquarie's Foreshore Markets that combine art and produce, or the city's Art Society Market Bazaar every Sunday, to the Laurieton Riverwalk Market every third Sunday, or the Artist Markets every fourth Sunday in the grounds of the Mid North Coast Maritime Museum - check discoverportmacquarie.com.au for full information, as there are many more.
For something perhaps a little more eccentric, head out to Bago Maze and Winery, where all good things are combined into a great day out: wine tasting, family fun and some art thrown in as well. On-site chocolatier Baba Lila has been offering Choc Art workshops, where you can use chocolate dyed in myriad colours to create your own edible artwork - get in touch (bago.com.au) to check when they will next be offered. Outside is art of a different kind, with a hedge maze curling and weaving its way across the paddock. It is the largest hedge maze in NSW, and there are plans to add multiple levels to make it the largest in Australia. As it is, it generally takes at least half an hour to untangle yourself out of there; parents, take note that there are terrific wine-tasting paddles available while you wait.
Food & drink
Creative cuisine may not exactly be art, but the chefs of Port Macquarie region are making the most of their inspiring location in a rather similar way. Since the temperature rarely leaves double digits, outdoor dining is de rigueur, and super-fresh seafood and produce is truly paddock (or ocean) to plate.
Drury Lane is one eatery that is quite beautiful in its simplicity. The husband and wife team, Dru Woolnough and Kate McCarron, source all their produce locally, changing their menu to suit what's good and what's in season, and supplementing their two-course Bistro Session meals - all ordered from a blackboard - with side dishes featuring super-fresh vegetables as stars of the show.
Also in the centre of town, Bar Florian is another passionately done small business, focusing mostly on artful cocktails and a truly great wine list. However, you can settle in amongst the bar's ambient, dark walls for some authentic, minimally done pizzas.
Breakfast, on the other hand, goes best with seaspray. At the foot of the breakwall and alongside the well-positioned Breakwall Holiday Park, the raffia umbrellas and straw-poked coconuts of Little Shack give off a Bali vibe - with a view like this, the food's quality is just a lovely bonus.
If you are up for a short drive, there is a similar vibe to be found on a bigger scale - bigger cafe, bigger beach, bigger smoothies - at Coast Café in the Tacking Point Surf Life Saving Club. Come hungry, or you'll easily be beaten by the mammoth breakfast burger. It's open every day from 6.30am for surfers or hikers wanting to caffeinate here on Lighthouse Beach.
Back to nature
Did we mention a lighthouse? That's Tacking Point Lighthouse, holding court over the coastline here since 1879, when it was designed by Colonial architect James Barnet. From here, you have a bird's-eye view of the many passing whales and dolphins plying the waves.
Not far further up, Sea Acres Rainforest Centre is one of those must-visit places, no matter how tight your itinerary. The boardwalk here soars above some fascinating bushland, best understood with a guided tour - the bush tucker tour is lots of fun and an important window into Indigenous history of the region, with plenty of new flavours to experience for those that haven't tried something like this before.
It's hard to miss the two main features of the Port Macquarie landscape: water and mountains. For the former, it's absolutely worth the trip to hang out at the Dunbogan Boatshed (though owner Damien Lay would prefer we use a French accent on this one for a more Riviera feel: Dan-beau-jjjan!). Either way, this tiny landmark is becoming a cult spot to base yourself for an ice cream in the sun, a go at the quirky fish-feeder on the wall (try to understand its crazy instructions) and a hire of one of the boatshed's many watercraft.
For the mountains, you need look no further than three brothers. Just as we have the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains, so the North, Middle and South brothers overlook the Port Macquarie region - and offer spectacular hiking trails and lookouts. The winding drive up to North Brother lookout is amply rewarded with a vertiginous look over the rivers and coast below, while a hike through Kattang Nature Reserve is easily enjoyed on gravelled paths, with wildflowers lining the way.
Closer to the centre of things, Port Macquarie's famous Koala Hospital is a must-see - inspiring, and the only one of its kind in the world. Don't forget to pick up a souvenir or three, and help to fund the intensive care units and rehabilitation yards for the injured wildlife.
Drive: Port Macquarie can be reached via the coast from Newcastle in under three hours; those coming from the Central West can come via Tamworth, making it a seven-hour drive from Dubbo. If you fly to Port Macquarie, you can tour the area with Frankie's tours (see frankiestravel.com).
Stay: Macquarie Waters Boutique Apartment Hotel is right in the middle of everything. There is a rooftop spa with ocean views, and 'dive-in' movies in the pool during the summer months.
Explore more: portmacquarieinfo.com.au
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