Discovering the Delights of the Hunter Valley
A popular weekend escape from Sydney, the Hunter Valley is renowned for its farm-fresh produce, pretty vine-cloaked countryside, elegant day spas, golf courses, and the World Heritage wilderness areas of Wollemi and Barrington Tops National Parks. Not surprisingly, the region is a paradise for foodies. Cheeses, chutneys, chocolates, grapes, aromatic oils, olives, and honey are just some of the delicacies produced in this fertile valley, and the region is home to highly acclaimed restaurants.
After feasting on farm-fresh food, visitors can burn off some energy exploring the region's many tourist attractions. Thanks to its rich history as a coalmining center (the Hunter Valley prospered during the 19th century), many of the old houses and mansions in the Hunter Valley towns bear testament to this wealth. Today, visitors can explore this architecture on heritage trails and learn about local history in the regional museums. Green thumbs, too, will not be disappointed. The Hunter Valley Gardens are a popular draw.
A great way to appreciate this picturesque farming country is to soar over the landscape in a hot air balloon. Sightseers can also bike along country backroads, or horseback ride in the surrounding wilderness. Evocative accommodation options range from boutique hotels to historic homesteads and rustic country guesthouses.
Sitting between fantastic surf beaches and one of Australia's busiest ports, Newcastle is the second largest city in New South Wales and the main town in the Hunter region. The area was settled at an early stage, with a penal colony established in 1804, and coal mining began soon afterwards. It enjoyed a great upsurge of prosperity after becoming the principal port in the Hunter area for steel, coal, wheat, and wool in the mid 19th century.
Today, Newcastle is a vibrant city packed with top-notch restaurants and cafés, a lively arts scene, parks and gardens, eclectic shops, and surf-sloshed beaches. A great way to begin a tour of the city is to stroll along the Bathers Way, a 5 km coastal promenade stretching from the lighthouse at Nobby's Headland to Glenrock Reserve. Along the way, visitors can take a detour and stop for a snack at a café on Darby Street, explore the city's early coal works, or take a dip at one of the golden beaches. Yellow signs along the route share details about the area's culture, convict heritage, and natural environment.
For an overview of the region's history, visitors should pop into the Newcastle Museum. Exhibits on Newcastle's cultural history, environment, early aboriginal life, industry, and the 1989 Newcastle earthquake reveal the tough character of this coal mining city. Another top tourist attraction, the Newcastle Art Gallery displays an impressive collection of Australian art, particularly from the 19th century, and the largest collection of modern Japanese ceramics in the southern hemisphere.
From Newcastle, visitors can also plan excursions to Lake Macquarie, 27 km south. The largest permanent saltwater lake in the southern hemisphere, Lake Macquarie is popular for boating, fishing, kayaking, sailing, and water skiing.
Barrington Tops National Park
Preserving one of the largest temperate rainforests in Australia, beautiful Barrington Tops National Park, in the upper Hunter Valley, is part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area. The precipitous Barrington and Gloucester Tops dominate the landscape, rising more than 1500 m above the surrounding countryside. Most striking is the wide range of vegetation - subalpine plants on the plateau and subtropical rainforest in the valleys. Visitors will be spoiled with breathtaking views, a vast network of hiking trails, picturesque waterfalls, and abundant wildlife, including many species of birds. From October through May, anglers can cast for rainbow or brown trout.
Wollemi National Park
About 100 km from Newcastle, Wollemi National Park is a World Heritage-listed wilderness of cliffs, canyons, and gushing rivers. Vast tracts of unspoiled bushland fringe the banks of the Colo and Wollemi Rivers where nature lovers can relax with a picnic or paddle the wild waters. In the hills and valleys, sweeping stretches of rainforest provide plenty of opportunities for bushwalking. Rock climbing is also popular along the rocky escarpments and in the northwest of the park at Ganguddy, a mist-shrouded swamp hemmed by beehive-shaped rock formations.
Cessnock is the gateway city to the Hunter Valley. Once a prosperous coal mining town, Cessnock has shifted its focus to tourism. The town is home to championship golf courses, guesthouses, and galleries. Tourists can also organize hot air ballooning trips and skydiving adventures here. Families will love the Hunter Valley Zoo where visitors can pat koalas and kangaroos.
Surrounded by mountains, Wollombi is a charming village sprinkled with 19th-century sandstone cottages. The town lies in the south of the Hunter region and has long been a popular rest stop along the Great North Road. Today, cafés and cozy guesthouses jostle near the old buildings. Nature lovers can explore the nearby World Heritage Wilderness areas of Watagans and Yengo National Parks with their scenic nature trails, lookouts, abundant wildlife, and ancient Aboriginal rock art.
First settled in 1820, Singleton is one of the oldest towns in the Hunter Valley. Today, this unassuming little market town is an industrial hub amid fertile farming areas producing milk, meat, and vegetables. History buffs will enjoy the small museum in the old Council Chambers as well as the Heritage Walk through the town's historic precinct. Maps are available from the visitor information center. Nearby Lake St Clair offers ample opportunities for boating, swimming, and fishing, while bushwalking is popular in nearby Yengo, Mt Royal, and Wollemi National Parks.
Maitland, on the Hunter River, is the commercial hub of the Hunter Valley and retains much of the colonial architecture of its early days. The National Trust declared the winding High Street and Regent Street in the town center a conservation area since almost all the buildings date from the 19th century. The most interesting structures are Grossman House, Brough House, and St Mary's Church dating from 1867.
Apart from historic buildings, visitors can tour the Australian Museum of Clothing and Textiles and the Maitland Gaol, while art lovers will appreciate the Maitland Regional Art Gallery. Housed in a federation gothic building, the gallery spotlights works on paper by luminaries such as Sidney Nolan. Visitors can also stroll along the river walk precinct and relax at one of the many cafés. Each year, Maitland hosts the popular Steamfest, a celebration of steam trains.
Goulburn River National Park
In the upper Hunter Valley, to the west of Muswellbrook, is a rugged sandstone plateau with deeply indented valleys. The central feature of this long, narrow park is the Goulburn River, which flows through it from Ulan in the west to Sandy Hollow in the east. The waterway offers excellent opportunities for swimming in the summer. Birding and wildlife spotting are rewarding - many emus, eastern grey kangaroos, wombats, and red-necked wallabies inhabit the park, and the area is particularly beautiful in spring when the flowers are in bloom. Walking trails thread along the wide sandy banks of the Goulburn River, and more than 300 aboriginal sites lie tucked within the park's borders.
Hunter Valley Gardens
In the heart of the vine-covered hills of Pokolbin, Hunter Valley Gardens is a must-see for green thumbs. Pathways wind through more than 60 acres of gardens organized into contrasting themes. Favorites include the sweet-scented Rose Garden; the Oriental Garden with its pagoda and pretty plantings of azaleas, magnolias, and camellias; and the Italian Grotto. Children will love the delightful Storybook Garden replete with nursery rhyme characters. Allow a minimum two hours to explore all the imaginative plantings here. After a stroll through the gardens, visitors can browse the little village of shops or snack at one of the many restaurants or cafés. For an extra fee, a tiny train takes visitors around the gardens.
Tips and Tactics
The following Tips and Tactics will help maximize the potential for fun when visiting the Hunter Valley:
- Guided tours are a great way to explore the Hunter Valley without worrying about driving.
- The Aussie sun can be strong. When heading outdoors, it's a good idea to wear sunscreen and a hat. Hikers should also seek shelter in the scorching heat of day and wear sunglasses to protect their eyes.
- Take binoculars for a close-up view of birds and other wildlife.
- Hikers should consider bringing a topographic map and compass, or a GPS.
By car from Sydney:
- The most direct route follows the F3 freeway. Follow the Cessnock/Hunter Valley exit to Cessnock. Alternatively, Tourist Route T33 passes through mountains and enters the Hunter Valley via historic Wollombi.
By public transport:
- Daily train services depart from Sydney's Central Station for the Hunter towns of Maitland, Newcastle, and Singleton. Connecting buses and tours are available within the valley.