Two hours north of Sydney lies Hunter Valley, the country’s oldest wine district. The first seeds were sown in the fertile soil in 1828 by George Wyndham who, after some strenuous attempts, managed to grow vines with juicy grapes. Soon, he planted the peppery grape-variety Shiraz, which was the starting point for the first commercial vineyard in Australia. George Wyndham is, perhaps not surprisingly, called the father of Australian Shiraz. Even today, there are vineyards in the area dating back to this time. Since the mid-1800s, the valley has evolved to become the wine-testers’ wet dream. First-Class restaurants are never far from rustic wine cellars, and after a long day among rolling vine-draped hills you can treat yourself with a relaxing spa visit. A weekend to Hunter Valley adds that extra spark to your Australia trip. And it gives you a taste of living the good life.
Sights and experiences
Discover and explore
Hunter Valley is divided into two areas, separated by New England Highway. The smaller and quieter southern part, Lower Hunter, is bordered by the knobby mountain range Brokenback Ranges. The northern part, Upper Hunter, has the largest proportion of vineyards, with more than 140 vineyards lying close to each other in the valleys. Restaurants and tour operators all fight for attention. It can be difficult to know which direction to turn. Some wineries with good reputation are Scarborough Wine Co. (scarboroughwine.com.au), Waverley Estate (waverleyestate.com.au) and Leogate Estate Wines (leogate.com.au). On these wineries, the staff is professional and helpful, making sure that all visitors have a pleasant time. Or, you can simply choose to travel with the popular organizers iHop (wotif.com/things-to-do/hunter-valley-central-pokolbin-hop-on-hop-off-winery-tour.a466958.activity-details), this way you can see more vineyards and you don’t have to worry about transportation. Or join Two Fat Blokes Gourmet Tours (wotif.com/things-to-do/cheeses-of-the-world-wine-matching-experience.a579494.activity-details) for a sample of fine local wines. It is also possible to rent bicycles from Grapemobile Bicycle Hire & Tours (grapemobile.com.au) in order to freely choose among sights and without having to consider other tourists’ situations.
If wine is not your thing, perhaps The Hunter distillery (hunterdistillery.com.au) suits the thirsty ones better. They produce an exceptional range of liqueurs, vodka and gin. The doors are open daily for beverage tastings for a small fee. Hunter Beer Co. (hunterbeerco.com) has ten types of draught beer, ready for tasting. You will find a relaxed environment and you can also go behind the scenes to see how the beer is made. If you are teetotaller or are travelling with minors, you should know that most of the activities in the area revolves around wine. There are, however, activities that are not entirely about alcoholic beverages. Balloon Aloft Hunter Valley Day Tours is an example (wotif.com/things-to-do/hunter-valley-hot-air-balloon-flight.a438282.activity-details). You lift from the ground at sunrise and gaze out over the picturesque surroundings. After an hour’s ride, a steady breakfast (and champagne if you like) is served. If you like golf, you can swing the club on the golf course (wotif.com/things-to-do/national-golfing-gift-card.a257048.activity-details) at The Vintage Golf Resort (thevintage.com.au).
For lunch or dinner you can visit one of the best restaurants in the area, the 221 Restaurant & Bar at the Royal Oak Hotel in Cessnock (royaloakhotelcessnock.com.au). They have casual dining Monday to Wednesday. Fine dining applies from Thursday to Sunday. The menu changes according to season and they use local quality ingredients. Try the affordable tasting menu where six dishes are served. If hunger bothers you early in the day, Café Enzo (enzohuntervalley.com.au) is a good stop. They prepare filling breakfasts and lunches in generous portions and fine creations. If you want to indulge in something extra for breakfast, you can join Slattery Helicopter Charter, who organizes helicopter tours over Hunter Valley with Bubbly Breakfast served at the patio on Restaurant Cuvées (wotif.com/things-to-do/hunter-valley-bubbly-breakfast-by-helicopter.a519871.activity-details).
If you want to get even more out of a stay, make sure to plan your trip when one of the annual festivals are organized in the area. Some favourites are Hunter Valley Food & Wine Month (huntervalleyvisitorcentre.com.au/events/june-food-and-wine-month), Lovdale Long Lunch (lovedalelonglunch.com.au), or Hunter Valley Wine Festival (huntervalleywinefestival.com). All three revolve around food and drink of the highest quality.
Good to know
You can visit a Visitor Information Centre in Pokolbin at 455 Wine Country Drive, where staff can help you with any questions you might have about your stay in Hunter Valley. There is also a café and a souvenir shop there. For more activities, tickets and accommodation in the Blue Mountains, you can also take a look at Wotif’s website (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Hunter+Valley).
Warnings and preparations
Hunter Valley is a destination that easily can make you broke if you don’t check the price in advance or forget yourself and indulge too much. Come in the middle of the week and avoid weekends when prices on accommodations are raised. Daily restaurant-visits will also take a large bite out of your budget. If you are short on money, it may be a good idea to buy food from Cole’s (coles.com.au/store-locator/stores/nsw/cessnock-864) on the corner of North Avenue and Cooper Street in Cessnock so you cook on your own. The peak season is in summer, from December to February, although it is possible to visit Hunter Valley all year round. It is also popular to visit in autumn when the colour of the leaves shifts in the valley. It can be worthwhile to see more than just the tourist-dense northern side.
It takes about two hours to drive from Sydney to Hunter Valley, but the fastest route is not the most scenic one. Instead, take the inland route that has come to be called Tourist Drive 33 (touristdrive33.com.au/map). Plan your stay in advance. Take consumed levels of alcohol into account. New South Wales has strict laws on drunk driving, so make sure you know how to get from and to the vineyards. For example, you can join a guided tour or hire your own chauffeur. Trains run from Sydney Central Station to Maitland and Singleton in Hunter Valley. About 30 kilometres away in Newcastle is the nearest airport offering daily flights to Sydney among other places. You can also book experience tours to Hunter Valley with pickup in Sydney (wotif.com/things-to-do/hunter-valley-wine-vodka-chocolate-tour-from-sydney.a512643.activity-details).
It bears repeating, but a visit to Hunter Valley takes its toll on the budget. It can be difficult to find accommodation in a decent price range, especially if you are travelling on a strict budget as a backpacker. Many accommodations require you to stay for at least two consecutive nights, while those without this restriction often offer discounted rates if you stay for more than one night. Your best budget option is Hunter Valley YHA (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Hunter_Valley_YHA.htm). The hostel is located along 100 Wine Country Drive and costs from 32 dollars a night and up. It has recently undergone a renovation. There is no air conditioning in the rooms, but there is a swimming pool on site. If you have access to a tent or camper, you can stay at the Wine Country Tourist Park which is centrally located on the corner of Wine Country Drive and O’Connors Road (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Wine_Country_Tourist_Park_Hunter_Valley.htm). Between Friday and Sunday, the price is almost twice as high as on weekdays. On-site facilities include a swimming pool, washing machines, barbeques and kitchen. On the other side of the road there is a playground for children.
If money is not a problem, you can spend the nights at one of the vineyards. Several of them offer accommodation. Stay among the vines at Spicers Vineyard Estate (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Spicers_Vineyards_Estate.htm) along 555 Hermitage Road. It is a homely accommodation different from rigid hotel chains. Excellent service and spotless rooms. It won’t be more luxurious than this. There is a well-reputed restaurant and an on-site spa.