A stay by the sea is even better when a named chef owns the hotel restaurant, writes Teresa Ooi.
It's a classic retro motel which has been rebuilt into a lively, four-star hotel facing the water in Port Stephens. We are booked to stay a night at Bannisters and dine at the hotel's restaurant. But there is something special about this establishment: it's owned by Rick Stein, the affable English celebrity chef and television presenter whose incredible seafood is the hallmark of his kitchen.
Stein is often called the "fish whisperer", not only because he goes fly-fishing in Scotland but also because he believes there's "nothing so exhilarating as fresh fish, simply cooked". He has written over 20 cookbooks and made more than 30 cookery shows.
The Rick Stein restaurants at two of the Bannisters (there's also one at Mollymook on the NSW south coast) have given the hotel group a point of difference. Around the world, many top chefs now operate hotels or luxury B&Bs, but it is a relatively new concept in Australia.
The hotel has a modern lobby which feels spaciously welcoming and leads to the infinity pool. Our room on the third floor is bright and breezy with a Juliet balcony overlooking the sea. What it lacks in luxury, it makes up for in size with a comfy king bed, a large bathroom with skylight and ample wardrobe space.
We head for a walk by the seafront, where contented locals are quietly fishing at a pier down by the hotel. It is near dusk, and the sky sunrays look amazing in shades of pink and gold.
We return to the hotel for the high point of our visit - dinner. The contemporary restaurant is big and the waiters are well versed in the food and wine. We start with local oysters and they are fresh and delicious. We also share perfectly grilled sardines with a tomato, thyme and garlic dressing that has just the right amount of tangy garlic.
I choose mussels with yellow kroeung (Cambodian spice paste), coconut milk and kaffir lime. The mussels are large, succulent and creamy.
The friendly waiter recommends Stein's signature dish, Bannisters fish pie, an interesting mix of salmon, blue-eye, snapper, scallop, prawns, mussels and mushrooms in a creamy velouté sauce, topped with breadcrumbs and parmesan. My partner thoroughly enjoys it. We also share a side of broccolini with almonds, mint and chilli.
Stein's food delights and titillates but it's accordingly priced with oysters at $4.50 each, mussels $28 and fish pie $44.
On our drive home, we stop by Fingal Bay and One Mile Beach, on either side of the Tomaree National Park.
Bannisters Port Stephens is indeed a delicious weekend away.
Drive: Port Stephens is a 2.5-hour drive north of Sydney and just over five hours' drive from Canberra.
Stay: The rack rate for an Ocean Deck room on the upper levels including breakfast is $525/night.