Wine Ol’ Time: a Sydney to Hunter Valley Driving Holiday

Couple enjoying the sunrise from Caves Beach, Lake Macquarie, NSW

Keen to take a more leisurely approach to their latest driving holiday, Sydneysiders Sarah and Chris are heading for one of NSW’s best-known destinations, and a magnet for lovers of fine food and wine.

We’re not really a couple good at relaxing. Surfing, hiking, snorkelling? Sure, we’re there. But taking it easy? Not so much. I’ve talked Chris into a long weekend in the Hunter Valley though, where I’m committed to slowing down. But before we get into that we have to pick up a car from Apex Car Rentals at Sydney Airport.

Wineward Bound: Sydney to Cessnock

French-inspired dishes at Bistro Molines, Mount View, Hunter Valley, NSW

There’s a point at which you drive north on the M1 and suddenly you don’t feel as though you’re in Sydney any more. It happens when you cross the Hawkesbury River and you’re suddenly surrounded by water and bushland. It’s also the point on the highway when Chris begins looking for diversions. “Should we stop at the Australian Reptile Park,” he asks. Instead, I talk him into turning off to Terrigal. That way we can have some lunch and a swim in the ocean before we arrive in the Hunter.

By the time we arrive in Cessnock, it’s 5pm somewhere, so we head to Foghorn Brewhouse, where you can get everything from a low-alcohol pale ale to a modern take on a farmhouse ale. It’s just what we need to get us in the mood for this evening.

Chris and I have a friend whose family lives in the Hunter Valley, and we’ve listened to her talk about Bistro Molines for years. Now we’re finally here, and I can understand the hype. It’s like a pocket of countryside France in amongst the vineyards. Probably because chef Robert Molines is from Provence and uses the best local produce to capture the essence of dishes from there. The twice-roasted duck and slow-cooked beef short rib are perfect, but I could eat Robert’s house-made charcuterie – pâté, chicken terrine, salami, rillettes – every day for the rest of my life.

Pour Me: Cessnock to Pokolbin

Inside the Smelly Cheese at Pokolbin in the Hunter Valley

Today is all about living our best Hunter Valley life, so we’re sticking close to Pokolbin to ensure there are no issues with who’s driving. After all, if you’re walking you can have as many sips of chardonnay as you like. We start at Tulloch Wines, one of the region’s big guns. Wine has been made here for 125 years, so they know what they’re doing. And there’s a huge selection, so we choose the simplest option – tastings of six current releases.

Then we wander and imbibe: Audrey Wilkinson, Cockfighters Ghost, Pokolbin Estate. We find the Smelly Cheese Shop and can’t resist the dairy delights. Then Chris finds out about Hunter Valley Aqua Golf. It involves getting a bucket of balls and teeing off at targets on a lake. Get the ball in the net and you win a prize. It’s great fun and we add a round of putt putt, just to give us some solid hours away from wine and cheese. We do finish on a high note though. Hope Estate is a winery, craft brewery and distillery. Me? I can never have enough wine, so am happy to choose the six-variety tasting, but Chris is ready for a day’s-end frothie, so goes for a tasting paddle instead, choosing four of the 22 beers on tap.

Walk it Off: Pokolbin to Watagans National Park

Hunter Valley Vineyards

After yesterday’s indulgences we’ve decided to get active. Watagans is a small national park, just south of Cessnock, and we’re going to hike the short, sharp Turners walking trail. From the picnic area at Boarding House Dam, we set out on an old logging track as it rises through the thick forest of blackbutt and blue gums. We pass what’s left of an old sawmill, built here after World War II, then come out in more open forest. It’s a hard slog heading uphill, but we see bush turkeys scarper off into the undergrowth and catch a glimpse of the impressive tail plumage of a lyrebird. I’ve always been fascinated by these birds, who are incredible mimics – they not only sing other birds’ songs, but also imitate other sounds they hear. I tell Chris to remind me to show him the video of David Attenborough listening to one when we’re back in the car. We make it to the campsite at the top and the views are sensational. It’s a good reminder that the Hunter Valley isn’t just vineyards.

Back at Pokolbin we decide to try an activity that has always made me cringe a little, although I’m unsure why. At Hunter Valley Resort, you can take a Segway tour of the property. Chris is always up for anything with wheels, and takes to the weird machine like a duck to water. I’m not a natural, but we’re soon cruising along an old stock route and past mobs of kangaroos. We even spot a wombat, snuffling and going about his marsupial business, not too far off. The last bit of the tour heads back through a vineyard. Which gets me to thinking… I’m sure I saw a cellar door when we parked the car.