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HOTEL REVIEW: Bannisters Port Stephens ticks almost every box

Signature Editor-at-large Andrew Conway heads to Bannisters Port Stephens and finds a hotel that is effortlessly chic.

Bannisters Port Stephens is a four-star retreat featuring 78 rooms and suites; a Rick Stein restaurant; a lively pub, beer garden and sports bar, and a body-soothing spa. The classic former motel has been reimagined as a cool, contemporary and retro-chic boutique getaway.

Perched on a rise at Soldiers Point, Bannisters delivers pleasant views of the bay, beaches and paperbarks. It’s a wonderful place to sit back and chill for a few days, recalling sun-splashed holidays of the 60s and 70s.

Bannisters Port Stephens
Bannisters Port Stephens. Credit: Kate Bennett

Traveller: Andrew Conway
Room: Ocean Deck Upper Level
Address: 147 Soldiers Point Road, Soldiers Point, NSW 2317
Date: April 2021
Best for: A total relaxation weekend or short break in any season. Explore the surrounding bay and beaches or simply lounge on the main deck beside the sky-blue infinity pool. You’ll soon be as chilled as the cocktails from the pool bar.

The Signature factor

For foodies, the stylish Rick Stein at Bannisters is the absolute standout drawcard, delivering an exceptional gourmet food and wine experience that’s reason alone to stay at Bannister Port Stephens.

The hotel’s box-seat bayside location runs a very close second, ensuring cinematic sunrises and sunsets from the main pool deck and upper-level guest rooms and suites.

The concept

Everything old is new again at Bannisters Port Stephens. This former late-1950s motel underwent a successful restoration in 2018 and re-launched the following year as a cool, contemporary and retro-chic retreat with a Miami-meets-Mollymook coastal vibe that guests of all ages will love.

A northern sibling to the acclaimed Bannisters by the Sea and Bannisters Pavilion at Mollymook on the NSW South Coast, this thoroughly chilled retreat offers 78 chic but relaxed guest rooms and suites on four levels with views (or glimpses) of the bay as well as landscaped gardens and stately paperbark trees.

Bannisters Port Stephens.
Bannisters Port Stephens.

First impressions

Drive in, park your car and relax.

Genuine smiles greet guests as they walk through the front entrance into a breezy, sun-filled lobby featuring the reception desk, floor-to-ceiling sliders opening to the pool deck, and a dining space used for themed ‘pop-up’ restaurants depending on the season.

Cactus plants and string lights set the scene for Julio’s, a fun Mexican pop-up, during my stay.

Check-in is smooth and seamless, with each guest handed a glass of bubbles as they complete the formalities. Minutes later, they’re on the pool deck and taking in the beautiful views.

© Bannisters / Kate Bennett

Covid Safe

Bannisters Port Stephens is a Covid Safe retreat with ample and prominent hand-sanitiser stations, social distancing measures, and all food and beverage ordering (except for Rick Stein at Bannisters) done by a QR code. Menus and payments by credit card are linked to your tablet or smartphone, among other approved health and safety protocols.

The room

I love a room with a ‘wow’ factor and 407 delivers as soon as I open the door.

A spacious Ocean Deck Upper Level room on the fourth floor, the open-plan bedroom comprises a king bed with sink-into bed sheets and coverings, a light-filled and separate ensuite bathroom, and an open area for hanging clothes next to a cabinet with glasses, crockery, cutlery and a handy bar fridge.

Step onto the compact deck – furnished with two armchairs and a low table – and wow! 180-degree panoramas of the bay and beyond to the Pacific Ocean as far and as wide as the eye can see. It’s beyond spectacular at sunrise, sunset and all other daylight hours.

© Bannisters / Kate Bennett

Top suite

The top-floor Penthouse is the premier accommodation, a chic, spacious and light-filled retreat with a private balcony and panoramic bay, garden and paperbark vistas.

Groups of family or friends can opt to combine the Penthouse with three adjoining rooms to create The Deck, ideal for a special celebration or a multi-generational weekend away or longer holiday.

On my plate

What can I say? The incomparable Rick Stein at Bannisters is a flawless gourmet food and wine experience, delivered by talented Head Chef Mitchell Turner and his team. Think ocean-to-plate seafood dishes that would grace any capital city restaurant, complimented by an extensive and expertly curated wine list.

The restaurant was packed to the rafters on the Tuesday night my husband and I dined there, a drawcard for locals and guests alike and a testament to Stein’s global food empire.

Hats off to the wait staff, who also provided a friendly yet seamless service.

The hotel’s Cheeky Dog pub is a lively venue for a more relaxed drink or meal, and don’t miss dining at the seasonal and themed pop-up restaurant in the lobby; Toli’s has replaced Julio’s for the winter season, serving up Mediterranean-style menus with dishes drawing inspiration from Tunisia to Turkey and beyond.

© Bannisters

Highlights of the mini bar

Each room’s mini-bar fridge at Bannister Port Stephens is empty – a welcome surprise – allowing us to fill it with BYO treats and tipples of our own choice, ideal for ‘sundowner’ cocktails on our terrace each evening.

I wish I could take home

The fish tacos from the pool bar, the best I’ve ever tasted.

Spa life

A motel with a spa? Absolutely, and a very good one at that.

Spa Bannisters is tucked away under a wing of the hotel, a fragrant, tranquil and body-soothing space offering an array of treatments and therapies using organic Australian products.

Bannisters Port Stephens
Bannisters Port Stephens. Credit: Kate Bennett

Staying in

We never left the hotel from the minute we checked in to the moment we (reluctantly checked out). But we did so much. We strolled along the bayside boardwalk and twin beaches next to the hotel, chilled by the pool and ate at every available venue.

Going out has no meaning at Bannisters Port Stephens.

Stepping out

Yes, Port Stephens has a lot to offer.

Myriad water-based activities; a koala habitat; breezy bay or oceanfront towns and villages; white-sand beaches; cafes and boutiques; swimming with dolphins; whale-watching cruises; camel rides; hiking, golfing, yachting and kayaking; and the lush vineyards of the Hunter Valley are only an hour’s drive away.

© Bannisters

Insider tips

Pack some wine and treats for your empty bar fridge, and book a table at Rick Stein at Bannisters well ahead of your stay.

If only

… we owned a dog. The hotel offers three pooch-welcome guest rooms, and the handsome golden retriever lying quietly beside a guest’s sun lounger next to mine looked as chilled as a lizard on a log.

Pet Peeve

The centrepiece and sparkling infinity pool is beautiful to look at … but freezing cold.

It’s fine in the heat of summer but literally breathtaking in the cooler seasons.

I’m told pool maintenance is already under way with plans for a heat pump to be installed in time for spring.

In guest rooms, the open wardrobe space in guest rooms is too casual for my taste. I’d rather my clothes, shoes and luggage were tucked away in a cabinet.

Final verdict on Bannisters Port Stephens …

We loved the cool, contemporary yet retro Miami-meets-Mollymook vibe.

The staff were unfailingly polite and friendly (even the tradies replacing the original 1950s outdoor corridor floor tiles as part of ongoing design improvements), and the bay views are spectacular.

We’d go back in a flash.

Where to find it

Bannisters Port Stephens is a 3.5-hour drive north of Sydney, depending on traffic, and is located at the northern tip of Soldiers Point.

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