Local Guide to the Hunter Valley: “It’s easy to get caught in tourist traps” | Holidays in New South Wales

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With over 8 million visitors each year (normally) and just 90 minutes from the Sydney outskirts, it’s easy to tour the Hunter Valley and get caught up in the tourist traps. You name it, the Hunter has it – from a wide array of festivals and alpaca concerts wandering through the vineyards – it seems like if there is any idea of ​​tourism, someone is already there. think. Like most busy tourist destinations, there are ordinary hot spots, but if you look a little deeper there are some unique and remarkable experiences to be had.

The Hunter Valley is vast (covering 29,000 km²) and includes Lake Macquarie, Newcastle, parts of the Barrington Tops and as far west as Muswellbrook, although for the majority of visitors a trip will include the wine regions of Pokolbin and Broke. With intensive mining and development, it is a far cry from the untouched land of the Wonnarua people who inhabited the Upper Hunter for over 30,000 years. Once the first vines were planted in the early 1800s, the area became synonymous with vineyards planted in the shade of the Broken Back Range.

A car drives on a dirt road in the Hunter Valley. The region has become synonymous with vineyards planted in the shade of the Broken Back Range. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian

I’ve been a local for nine years, and as a former tour operator I’ve tasted a lot of what’s on offer. As the Hunter has morphed into a wedding-based destination (with its accompanying male and hen parties), you might want to avoid the distilleries, sparkling wines, beer and cider full of millennials. celebrating. Another must-see is the Monday traffic on a long weekend – expect long delays on the M1 on your return to Sydney.

The best time to visit is spring. Not only have the dormant winter vineyards come back to life, but the weather is also milder. While a visit in winter isn’t quite as pretty, a glass of local shiraz in front of an open fire is hard to beat. Not all sites are open mid-week, so including a Saturday in your itinerary will give you the widest choice. Most cellar doors now charge a tasting fee ($ 5 to $ 25 and up per person) and due to Covid restrictions, it’s essential to book every element of your stay well in advance. Gone are the days of driving the Hunter’s beautiful country roads and getting where you want to go (although you may find more flexibility with this midweek).

Do not miss

While you are certainly spoiled for choice, you can’t visit the Hunter without tasting some of its local wines. Spending time with the winemakers themselves creates the most memorable experiences. Visit young pistol Dan Binet at the door of his Lovedale cellar, Domaine de Binet. A tasting with Dan is fun and informative in an outdoor setting. You can also request a behind-the-scenes tour of the winery to get a real insight into the Binet process. A little further from the main street is Pierre’s wines, Branxton. Peter Went is the owner / winemaker and his wines are some of Australia’s best – he offers a fascinating and very relaxed tasting.

Peter Went pours a sample of champagne from a vat at Pierre's Wines
Peter Went pours a sample of champagne from a vat at Pierre’s Wines. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian
A wine test set up at Pierre's Wines in Branxton, Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia
A wine tasting set up at Pierre’s Wines in Branxton. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian

A trip to Broke is well worth the extra 30 minutes drive to Pokolbin for a must-see tasting with the attractive Dave Fromberg at Race horse wines. The cellar door is gorgeous but unpretentious as its aged wines showcase the best characteristics of local grapes without costing a fortune.

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Where to eat

As you might expect from a region of food bowls, there is plenty to eat, including fine dining – one of the best is the Muse Restaurant, Pokolbin. Chef Troy Rhoades-Brown combines incredibly inventive flavors and uses many locally grown ingredients; the service is impeccable and the wine list extensive. Also ask about their vegan tasting. To eat with the locals, visit the Royal Federal Hotel, Branxton. Good pub food with lots of Hunter wines, busiest on Sunday night.

The Royal Federal Hotel in Branxton
The Royal Federal Hotel in Branxton. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian
Burgers are served in the kitchen of the Royal Federal Hotel
Burgers are served in the kitchen at the Royal Federal Hotel. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian

For a casual breakfast or lunch, request a place in the veranda at the Kawul, Pokolbin. Using impactful and mostly native ingredients, it’s easy to disconnect from the hustle and bustle while overlooking the vineyard and dam.

Or sleep

For boutique self-catering accommodation set on 100 beautiful acres, stay with Lucy and Jason at Block Eight Estate, Belford (from $ 350 per night). They have five beautifully appointed villas and the prices include a breakfast basket and a bottle of estate wine.

One of the beautifully furnished private villas at Block Eight Estate
One of the beautifully furnished private villas at Block Eight Estate. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian
Lucy and Jason, owners of Block Eight Estate in Belford
Lucy and Jason, owners of Block Eight Estate in Belford. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian

For a hotel experience, stay at Spicers guest house, Pokolbin (from $ 220 p / n). The rooms are tastefully decorated and the on-site restaurant, eRemo, serves excellent high end Italian. Have a drink at the bar watching the kangaroos frolic on the lawn or sit around the lovely outdoor fire in winter. Larger groups have hundreds of vacation homes to choose from, such as Kelman Cottage, Lower Belford (can accommodate up to 10 people from $ 510 p / n). If you’re looking for budget bush accommodation (BYO tent) not far from the vineyards that coincides with live music and a festival vibe, check out upcoming dates for Dashville (two nights including music from $ 65).

View from the top

A vineyard in the Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia
A vineyard in the Hunter Valley. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian

For stunning views of the valley, visit the Sculpture Gardens and walk to the Len Evans Memorial Lookout at Real estate agent or for those who are less afraid of dizzying heights, get up early for a hot air balloon ride with Balloon in the air.

  • Todd Alexander is the author of the bestselling memoir Thirty Thousand Bottles of Wine and a Pig Called Helga and You’ve Got to Be Kidding: A Shedload of Wine and a Farm Full of Goats. Both comedies detail his tree change in the Hunter Valley.


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