Since moving back to Sydney in January, I have been busy exploring the city and the surrounding area as much as possible. After barely leaving the city when I last lived in Sydney nearly 10 years ago, mainly due to laziness, I resolved to make more of an effort this time around.
With my Dad visiting earlier this month, I consulted my growing list of nearby destinations for ideas of where we could go for a weekend away together. As a lot of the places on my list are beachy and as we are currently in the depths of winter (an Australian winter, granted, but still), there weren’t a lot of places left on my list after discounting the coast.
The Hunter Valley ended up standing out as the winner.
Dad was renting a car so it would be easy to get to and it was close enough to be able to leave after work on a Friday and not get there too late.
The Hunter Valley is the oldest wine region in Australia and is only a two-hour drive from Sydney. The Region is best known for its award-winning Semillon and Shiraz but there is a wide variety of wines produced there. As well as its most famous export, the Hunter Valley is also known for its fantastic restaurants, breweries, chocolate factories, cheese dairies and even a vodka distillery. This little region has definitely been busy diversifying!
It’s funny. I only ever used to drink sparkling wine and have always been much more of a beer girl. Despite this, I have always loved visiting wineries. They are just so pretty, you know? In the past few months after living with a Wine Rep and having access to some amazing wine (which we were kindly given free samples of), I have actually finally started developing a taste for it. Yay!
So it was the perfect time for me to visit the Hunter Valley.
We decided to stay in the Hunter Valley Wine Region’s largest town, Cessnock, after finding a Hotel online that has funky, retro décor and was a decent price for a large family room for two nights.
The drive ended up taking us nearly three hours (damn Sydney traffic) but we at least managed to not get lost, arriving in Cessnock just after 8pm.
Cessnock is unremarkable but nice enough. Our Hotel, the Vine Valley Inn, was located on the main street which was deserted when we arrived. We saw a couple of the grand old Hotel/Pubs that Australia does so well but other than that, nothing else seemed to be open.
Entering the Vine Valley Inn was like walking into an episode of Mad Men, but without the sexism. Super kitschy with a modern twist; the attention to detail was staggering.
Beautifully restored antiques and an eclectic colour scheme made this Hotel very unique and pleasing on the eye.
I find that a lot of Hotels are quite generic and lack personality but you could see the love and attention that was put into decorating the Vine Valley Inn and I loved that.
There was a guest dining room, a cosy lounge and even a guest kitchen. I loved the great guest facilities similar to a hostel, but with the luxuries of a Hotel.
Our Host Simon was very helpful and friendly, giving us a map and information about the surrounding area with his recommendations marked, before showing us to our room.
And what a room!
So much space with a king size bed, two single beds and a couch. I loved the bright colours and the fresh flowers in the room were a really nice touch.
After the long drive, we were happy just chilling out in our amazing room for the first evening, eating KFC and watching TV. Sometimes it just has to be done.
Up bright and early the next day, we decided to start the day with a cooked breakfast to line our stomachs to prepare ourselves for the myriad tastings we planned to partake in. With so many places that we wanted to go to, it was hard to know where to start.
The Hunter Valley is made up of small communities, with Pokolbin being the most visited. We decided to start small in the lesser known Lovedale area. I had read that there was a great café attached to the Gartlemann’s Winery so we decided to have breakfast there.
I loved the deck overlooking a still pond and the coffee, and bacon and egg rolls were delicious. On the way out we visited the colourful varieties of birds in the small aviary on the property.
Our first wine tasting was at Peterson’s Champagne House in Pokolbin which specialises in sparkling wines, including the very Aussie sparkling red wine. It sounds pretty unusual but it was actually not bad. My favourite wine that we tried was the Moscato that was the perfect amount of sweetness without becoming sickly. It was definitely one of the busier wineries and it was hard to find a spot at the tasting counter so we didn’t stick around for long.
Stopping at the ridiculously busy Tempus Two Winery and shopping complex, we managed to squeeze in and try a few of the delightfully smelly cheeses at the Smelly Cheese Shop. I bought a small wedge of a strong Tasmanian blue cheese before getting the hell out of the swarm. Just way too many people for my liking!
The thankfully quieter Small Winemaker Centre was our next stop where I tasted another delicious Moscato. While Trav and Dad were still tasting I sat by the peaceful pond, surrounded by a ring of golden reeds and with a small, worn boat sitting motionless on the water, and let the winter sun warm my skin. I very nearly drifted off to sleep.
One thing I noticed when we were driving around the valley was how dry the landscape is, which surprised me, it being winter and all. We were surrounded by green mountains, but the grass was brown and the vines were bare. It all looked a bit bland and uninspiring.
I was excited to visit a Chocolate factory but my hopes of gorging myself on free tasters were dashed as there was only one dish with meagre sized tasters of a raspberry white chocolate. At least it was delicious. Unfortunately we couldn’t afford the steep cost of actually buying any of the chocolate so we didn’t stay long.
Tulloch is a historic winery and one of the oldest in the Hunter Valley, producing their first wine in 1895. We tried their flagship wine, Shiraz, and checked out the old photos of the Tulloch family and a 1954 bottle of Tulloch Shiraz. It was interesting to see how much wine bottles have evolved in the past 60 years as it was a lot stouter than modern bottles and made of an orange tinted glass.
Audrey Wilkinson was my favourite winery that we visited, not for the wine so much (although it was good) but for the spectacular view. Sitting on the grassy slope we sat and admired the view over the orderly rows of naked vines, sloping downwards into a valley dotted with numerous ponds of dark water. Rugged mountains rose up in the background. Everything looked a lot greener from this vantage point and it was the most beautiful part of the Hunter Valley that I saw.
Unfortunately the peace was shattered once we went inside.
There were people everywhere including a rowdy Hen’s party (is there any other kind?). I squeezed myself into a spot at the tasting counter and tried the Shiraz and the Moscato (both delicious) before wandering around the small museum. I read about the life of Audrey Wilkinson, an Australian wine pioneer who planted the first vines in Pokolbin in 1866. It looked like wine making was a back-breaking life in those days.
For a break from wine, we stopped by the Blue Tongue Brewery which was pretty hectic, with a couple of different Bucks parties choosing it for their venue. I don’t think that the Beer is brewed on site anymore so I guess it is more of a bar now, rather than a brewery. I tried five of their beers by purchasing a tasting paddle. I loved the ginger beer and pale ale the best. After five small glasses I was feeling very happy (read: tipsy).
Our last stop was at the small Binnorie Dairy where we tasted their marinated goat fetta, brie, and goats curd (chevre). Oh how I love cheese. We couldn’t resist buying some of their chevre with chervil to eat along with our smelly blue cheese back at the Hotel later.
The Royal Oak Hotel was recommended to us by Simon at the Vine Valley Inn as a good spot for dinner. We just wanted something light so instead of eating in their attached fine dining Restaurant, which is meant to be delectable, we opted to eat off their pub menu in the bar instead. This turned out to be a mistake. I ordered the seafood sampler which I expected to be a reasonably sized meal as it was $25 and ordered in the pub. It came out as three tiny servings of various seafood dishes. I would expect this in a fine dining restaurant but not in a pub. They seem to be confused about the difference.
Trav and Dad didn’t fare much better although at least they had enough food so that they didn’t go away hungry. They ordered the pulled pork sandwiches which came without the BBQ sauce that really makes a pulled pork sandwich great. It was disappointing overall. At least we had cheeses to go back to at the Hotel.
Back in the cosy lounge of the Vine Valley Inn, I spent a couple of hours listening to music, drinking red wine and eating cheese with crackers and basil cashew pesto, watching the sky slowly darken out the window. Cheese and wine induced contentment settled in as I uploaded my photos of the day and checked my social media. The simple things in life really are the best sometimes.
The next morning after a quick breakfast in our room, we stopped at a small Garden Centre that drew us in with the promise of the Hunter Valley’s best coffee. I haven’t a clue if that is true but the coffee was very good and we bought a beautiful, forest green planter pot for our new place while we were there for cheap.
Bimbadgen Winery was our last winery of the weekend and was another winery with a view, although it had nothing on Audrey Wilkinson. We were the only ones there at 10.30am and tasted the Moscato and Semillon Sparkling. The Semillon was divine without the overly dry after taste that I find in a lot of sparkling wines. There weren’t any of the small bottles left so I went for a small bottle of the Moscato instead, which was also really good if not a little too sweet.
We saved the best till last with the Hunter Beer Company, a definite highlight of our Hunter Valley escapades. We did the tour that included tastings of three of their beers. The guy that led the tour was a bit nervous and made some pretty lame jokes but it was an interesting run through of how to make beer and the ingredients that go into it. We tasted the Kolsch, Pale Ale and their Ginger Beer. They were all very good but I like a hint of sweetness in my beer so the Ginger Beer won out for me.
Winery and Brewery overload had started to sink in by this point so we decided to head to Nelson Bay, 60km North of Newcastle on the coast, for a change of scenery.
The drive to Nelson Bay was uneventful and it took longer than we thought it would so by the time that we got there around 2pm, we were starving.
Our first stop was Red Ned’s for one of their famous pies. One of the things that Australia is known for is its meat pies but to be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of places selling them since moving to Sydney. In New Zealand you can get pies pretty much everywhere and there is an uncountable number of interesting fillings. I was hanging out for a good pie and Red Ned’s certainly delivered. I tried the famous Lobster, Prawn and Barramundi pie and it was honestly one of the best pies I have ever eaten. I only wish there was a Red Ned’s in Sydney.
If everything else in Nelson Bay after my incredible pie turned out to be a disappointment, it would still have been worth the drive. Luckily though, it wasn’t.
Walking through the small holiday town and along the harbour beach, I really liked Nelson Bay. It definitely had that laid back holiday destination quality to it and was reasonably busy despite it being winter. Pelicans and fishing boats bobbed in the harbour and we watched kids splashing in the shallows.
This was more my scene. I always find myself drawn to the Coast.
Our final stop before driving back to Sydney was a beach that I had read about in the Lonely Planet, and only a few miles south of Nelson Bay: One Mile Beach.
One Mile Beach was a very pleasant surprise. We parked in a small carpark off the main road and walked through the trees and up a powdery sand dune to discover this stunning beach. The first thing I saw when I spied the sparkling waters of the Pacific was a whale spouting about 1km off shore. We continued to watch a while after it disappeared under the deep blue water but it didn’t reappear.
One Mile beach is both rugged and lush. With a backdrop of powdery white sand dunes fringed with emerald green vegetation and nary a person around, this beach reminded me a lot of one of my favourite beaches, Playa Maderas on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast. Alas, there were no baby turtles in sight.
All up it was a great weekend, and we managed to pack a lot into only two days. I did feel a tad disappointed with the Hunter Valley as I had expected it to be a lot more beautiful than it turned out to be, and it was just so busy. But I am still pleased that we visited for its culinary treasures and the fabulous Vine Valley Inn.
I was definitely left wanting more after a taste of the gorgeous Nelson Bay region and it has been added to my weekend getaway list for future explorations.
Have you been anywhere that didn’t match up to your expectations? Do you like visiting Wineries? I would love to hear your thoughts!