HUNTER VALLEY GETAWAY | HITS & MISSES
After days of cyclonic flooding up and down Australia's East Coast it's almost hard to remember that this time two weeks ago we were still in the midst of a record-busting summer scorcher. Way back in the 40º+ heat Mr. Spring and I decided to send our belongings North with the removalists, rent a car, and take our time getting ourselves shifted from Sydney to Brisbane. Our first stop was the Hunter Valley... After all, moving interstate would drive anyone to drink. We spent a thoroughly relaxing few days in wine country and had a fabulous time... But I have to say... of all our touristic experiences in Australia our Hunter Valley getaway was the most hit and miss.
The Sebel Kirkton Park
OK, first things first. What I love most about hotels - and I'm speaking generally here - is when they lay out a big white plush bathrobe for you to lounge around in during your stay. The Sebel Kirkton Park gives great robe. Check. On the level of first impressions, The Sebel sprawls grandly at the end of a long tree-lined drive in the beautiful Pokolbin countryside, the epicentre of the big valley wineries. The boutique-style hotel is peaceful, luxurious, and has a heritage feel in harmony with its stunning rural setting. We were thrilled (obviously) to be upgraded on arrival to a fabulous suite with a private verandah and sweeping vineyard views that morphed spectacularly with the changing light. (A girl can spend a lot of time watching light change on vines from a lounge chair in a bathrobe! We also loved the breakfast conservatory overlooking the rose garden and the gorgeous indoor pool, perfect for cooling off out of the midday sun. The staff were also super friendly and there're budget-friendly mid-week deals to be found online. For anyone planning a trip to the Hunter, I'd recommend checking The Sebel out.
The old town of Wollombi is a scenic 30 minute drive from Cessnock and the ideal place to enjoy a leisurely breakfast or lunch off the beaten path... Pancakes and tea on the shady verandah of Cafe Wollombi are pretty much the perfect way to start a day. Wollombi is an interesting town to have a poke around and the local Endeavour Museum set across the street from the cafe in the town's 1864-built former Court House is worth a squiz. If you feel like getting even further from the tourist track, there are Aboriginal rock paintings at the Finchley Lookout in Yergo National Park about 45 minutes South West of Wollombi. Just follow the little track down from the lookout and keep your eyes peeled for the markings on rocks to your right. (A hand-drawn map is available from the cafe and local wine shop if you're interested!)
The North Road
The convict build North Road - now called Wollombi Road - snakes north out of the old town past beautiful craigy hillsides and vineyards. It's a lovely drive made even lovelier because it takes you up to Krinklewood Vineyard at Broke Fordwich. The family owned certified biodynamic organic vineyard and farm is open to visitors only on weekends, so plan accordingly or risk disappointment! Krinklewood's cellar door is one of the most beautiful and hospitable in the Hunter; set among Provinςal gardens with views out to the vineyard, olive grove, and Brokenback Range it's an ultra relaxing place to sit a while tasting wines, nibbling on a cheese platter, and soaking the ambience in.
Pokolbin Village Smelly Cheese Shop
Most cellar doors in The Hunter - especially the smaller less corporate looking ones - offer bar-stool tastings and sales by the case/bottle; they don't offer snacks or provide a place to relax, and licencing laws mean you can't order by the glass. Most restaurants in the region are extremely expensive and geared towards very fine dining. The upshot is that it's not as easy as one would think to find a beautiful verandah overlooking the fields from which to savour a simple glass of wine and a few tasty low-key nibbles. For this reason picnic's are a great way to enjoy the fruits of the valley. At the Pokolbin Village shops you can fill your hamper with beautiful cheeses, breads, jams, pickels, and a bottle of wine from a small local producer. From there spread your blanket in any park or field and you have it made in the shade...
Gundog Hunter Cellar & Gourmet Pantry
Designated drivers will love Gundog. It's a small boutique cellar door with a cafe attached featuring all sorts of tempting sweet treats to accompany teas and coffees. There's lovely aircon and modern decor inside plus views across a bucolic valley scene from the patio if you prefer to be out.
Indian @ Hunter, Cessnock
Quite possibly the best curry I've had in Australia. And a refreshing, budget-friendly break from the shmancy valley dining scene. Perfect after a long hot day when all you want is to get back to your hotel, turn up the AC, slip into your fluffy white bathrobe and eat dahl in bed.
// MISSES //
Hunter Valley Gardens Village
Give this a big ole miss. The shops are beyond twee and the gardens feature elements of a Disney-style theme park. Billed as the largest pleasure garden in Australia, the Hunter Valley Gardens' planting are exquisite. Perhaps, thought, they are not exquisite enough to justify the $25 per person price of admission... There were more than a few dissatisfied customers muttering about value for money in the parking lot.
Robin Drayton Wines
I don't usually post negative reviews on The Spring, but this place is to be AVOIDED AT ALL COST. As I've already said, it's quite difficult in the Hunter to find a cellar door with lovely views and an artisinal vibe that serves wine by the glass, non-alcoholic beverages, and snacks. On paper Robin Drayton Wines fit the brief. In reality the food and the service was beyond appalling. The woman behind the bar treated us like trespassers and offered no guidance on wine selection. Our $15 'cheese plate' was a pile of Homebrand water crackers and cut up tasty cheese. Mr. Spring received a stern lecture on how to properly operate the teapot that came with his 'cream tea' - a single stale scone and meagre serving of jam and cream... And although it was 45º in the shade we were never offered so much as a glass of water before, during, or after our 'refreshments'. Robin Drayton Wines takes the prize for the WORST hospitality experience either of us have ever had in Australia and just goes to show that in such a touristy area where businesses don't necessarily rely on return customers, it's important to choose your pit stops wisely!