A dry run through the Hunter Valley

Historic Village of Wollombi, Hunter Region
The Historic Village of Wollombi Hunter Region


Ten things a teetotaller can do in the picturesque NSW wine region.

1. Great North Road

In the 1830s, the Great North Road was a cacophony of hammers, axes and two-man saws as teams of sweating convicts forged a path north.

These days it offers a leisurely and scenic alternative to the banality of the M1. To best enjoy your journey, begin at Dural, before snaking around the ‘Secret River’ where Australian author Kate Grenville’s ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, once ferried Sydneysiders across the torrent. En route you’ll take in Glenorie, with its galleries, roadside stalls and markets, as well as Kenthurst and Cattai National Park. The park is made up of land originally granted to the assistant surgeon on the First Fleet, Thomas Arndell, and features the historical Cattai Homestead and other important colonial buildings.

2. Historic Village of Wollombi

Wollombi is a sacred place for Indigenous people in NSW and it’s here that I meet up with dear friend Tim Selwyn. I used to teach with Tim at Naisda Aboriginal College and he now guides tourists around Wollombi. We chat about Mount Yengo in the Yengo National Park. “It’s the Uluru of the east,” Tim says. “The importance of Yengo in Aboriginal culture can’t be overstated.”

Indeed, this tabletop-shaped mountain is an extinct volcano that’s World Heritage listed and the focal point of the Wollombi Valley.

Tim and I head to the Aboriginal Cultural Centre where visitors can learn about the original denizens of Wollombi. Flanking the centre is the Wollombi Museum and there’s a charming village walk that reveals historical buildings and the general surrounds of Wollombi. A helpful map is available at the museum and you can contact Tim via girrigirra.com.au for Indigenous heritage tours.

3. Binnorie Dairy

Situated in Lovedale, this boutique cheese operation produces a range of tasty cheeses with distinctive flavours unavailable outside the region.

The founder of Binnorie, Simon Gough, explains this is mostly achieved using Hunter Valley milk. “In the same way wine reflects its region, due to soil variation and climatic conditions, so too does our dairy produce.” Here I enjoy a tasty platter before passing out (I’m lactose intolerant). You could always chip in for a $50 picnic package. This will easily feed four people and makes for a thrifty, yet decadent, lunch.

4. Hunter Valley Gardens

This wonderland is Australia’s largest private garden – and, boy, it’s surprising how enormous it is.

There’s the French Garden, Italian Garden, Japanese and Indian Gardens, and the list goes on and on. Each blissful vista somehow gets even more breathtaking than the one before. For younger visitors, there are theme park rides during the school holidays and the gardens are lit up like a fairyland around Christmas.

Seniors, meanwhile, can hop on a train and have a guided tour of the gardens for only $7, which will save time and possible heat stroke in summer.

5. Cellar Restaurant

Located on the grounds of the Hunter Valley Gardens Village, this Mediterranean-inspired cuisine restaurant offers terrific value.

Tropical foliage is spread throughout and there’s a medieval-sized fireplace in the centre of the room that’s sure to make it especially cosy in winter.

The meals are hearty and we enjoy a generous garlic sourdough starter before devouring the lamb shoulder with mint yogurt. While the Cellar’s desserts are also renowned, we opt to skip the treats in an attempt to not be complete gluttons this weekend.
The Cellar Restaurant

6. The Convent

The Convent is a luxury boutique hotel that once housed the Brigidine order of nuns in Coonamble, which lies 600km west of the Hunter Valley.

When the nuns moved on to new digs, the building was painstakingly relocated and put back together in the serene gardens of the Pepper Tree winery complex. From its avenue of trees leading right to reception (see opening photo), it oozes luxury at every turn and boasts tasteful soft furnishings, delicious citrus scents and a high-spec finish.

From our room, graceful French doors open onto a sweeping veranda, with tree-filtered views of the estate. The following day we enjoy a five-star breakfast on the terrace and later lounge by the swimming pool with nothing but the soft hum of the bush around us.

7. Circa 1876

The Hunter Valley’s most iconic restaurant lies in a pretty cottage on the leafy grounds of Roscrea Estate, which is only a short stroll from The Convent.

Circa 1876 offers superlative Hunter wines (not that we’re partaking this time around) and world-class dining. It has a Viking banquet hall aesthetic, with antler chandeliers and mighty oak beams. Pre-dinner we chat with chef, Matt Calaz, who says the restaurant has distanced itself from the usual à la carte fare to offer a hip two-course, three-course or seven-course degustation meal. Where I’m from, a seven-course degustation meal is a six-pack and a meat pie! Though tempted, we eschew the degustation for the two-course deal, sharing sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna, seared duck breast with slow-cooked duck egg and fresh black truffle, and a Wagyu rib eye on the bone.

8. Kirkton Park Hotel

Kirkton Park offers a famed high tea and here we stop being tediously sugar-free to enjoy a cairn of treats, handmade scones and a crown of brightly coloured macaroons.

This is all washed down with delicious tea that would bring a smile to the Queen herself. The towers of desserts are showered with more rose petals than a Roman emperor’s bathtub, which are plucked from the hotel’s picturesque rose garden that we overlook.

9. Hunter Valley Zoo

To further bust the myth that the Hunter is all Shiraz, Chardy and little else, this quaint zoo allows kids to get up-close and personal with some of Australia’s iconic wildlife.

Owner Jason Pearson took over what was originally a deer park to create this fabulous pocket zoo, with its focus on conservation and breeding programs. You can bribe the kids into enduring other Hunter activities for grown-ups with the promise of hand-feeding roos, wallabies, farmyard animals and colourful native parrots. They can also see American alligators, white lions, Tassie devils, meerkats and even ring-tailed lemurs. The zoo provides free barbecue facilities and undercover seating, so hungry families on a budget can also picnic there.
Meerkats at Hunter Valley Zoo

10. Tiger Moth Adventure Flight

Loads of folk enjoy hot-air ballooning in the Hunter, but there’s an even more exciting way to get a bird’s eye view of the region.

A 30-minute Tiger Moth Adventure Flight lets you experience flying in the same type of plane that most of Australia’s WWII pilots trained in. Our son Henry adored this ‘Biggles’ experience at Hunter Valley Joy Flights. He was a little chary at first but, once in the air, the exhilaration of buzzing over the Hunter Valley’s green quilt of vineyards in the open cockpit is something he’ll never forget.

Words from Dorian Mode, this article was originally published in the Open Road magazine.