Hunter Valley Getaway...

Words by Dorian Mode and photography by Lydia Thorpe

Binnorie Dairy is situated in Lovedale and is a boutique cheese haven

As residents of the Central Coast of NSW, whenever Mrs Pictures and I drive a few clicks up the road to the Hunter Valley, we always say to ourselves, “why on earth don’t we come here more often?” A veritable treasure on our own doorstep and less than 3.5 hours’ drive north of Sydney.

Our getaway begins at Binnorie Dairy. Situated in Lovedale, this boutique cheese haven produces a range of cheeses with distinctive flavours unavailable outside the region. This is mostly achieved by using Hunter Valley milk. “In the same way wine reflects its regionality, due to soil variation and climatic conditions, so too with our dairy produce,” says Simon Gough founder of Binnorie. We enjoy a tasty cheese platter before leaving. Psst! Why not purchase a picnic package? $50 will easily feed four and makes a thrifty lunch to pair with some local scrummy wines.

Hunter Valley Gardens are Australia's largest private garden

Post cheese we arrive at one of the superlative destinations in the region: The Hunter Valley Gardens. What a wonderland! Created by those folks who brought you Nutrimetics, this is Australia’s largest private garden. Seniors might like to know that for only $7 you can hop on a train and have a guided tour of the gardens to save time (and heat stroke). There is the French Garden, Italian Garden, Japanese and Indian Gardens – the list goes on, with each blissful garden more breathtaking than the next. During the holidays there is theme park standard rides for the teen grandkids and at Christmas, the gardens are lit up like a fairyland for the littlies.
We leave the Gardens open-jawed. This is apt as we luncheon at the flanking Cellar Restaurant. This restaurant punches above its weight. Here we have the lamb shoulder with mint yoghurt, matched with Tyrrell’s Hunter Valley Shiraz. And a sourdough garlic bread starter would feed a family of twelve in Wyong. The starter was all the entrée you need. Cellar Restaurant is great value and most convenient for a day at the Gardens.

Audrey Wilkinson established his vineyard in 1866

We saunter out of the restaurant patting our bellies before heading to the oldest vineyard in the region. Audrey Wilkinson established his vineyard in 1866. This is virtually prehistoric vis-a-vis wine marking in the Hunter. Here we enjoy a wine tasting and a cheese plate (more wine and more freaking cheese! – I have a bad liver and I’m lactose intolerant but this is the way I want to go). Rated by Gourmet Traveller Wine as one of the Top 10 Cellar Doors in the country, it’s perched atop of the Brokenback Mountain Ranges, and is a must see Hunter Valley pit stop. Psst! Audrey Wilkinson holds an excellent historical tour/lecture which is something unique to the region.
Our accommodation that evening is The Convent. Brought to you by those folks who brought you the uber-luxury of Lillianfels, The Convent was once home to the Brigidine order of nuns. So you’ll need to be on your best behaviour. After careful reconstruction, the building was relocated to the stylish gardens of the Pepper Tree Complex. The Convent is an imposing building as you drive through its avenue of wind trickled trees to reception. It has a ‘Euro-chic meets Hamptons’ aesthetic. And like Lillianfels, it oozes luxury at every turn, with tasteful soft furnishings, delicious citrus smells and a high-spec finish. French doors open onto a sweeping veranda with tree-filtered views of the estate. Here we enjoy a five-star breakfast on the terrace with toe-curling lattes. We later enjoy lounging by the pool with nothing but the soft hum of the bush around us. Bliss.

The Convent was once home to the Brigidine order of nuns

Post-swim we amble up said tree-lined driveway to dine at Circa 1876, the Hunter Valley’s iconic restaurant. (Psst! This means you can have a few local vinos at Circa and stagger back to your digs at The Convent – amen to that Sister!) Situated inside a gorgeous historic cottage on the leafy grounds of Roscrea Estate, this seven-star restaurant offers killer Hunter wines and world-class meals. Or you can chill with a vino in the Champagne Lounge, with its open fire, and rustic ambience. The restaurant itself has a high-class Viking-cum-banquet hall feel with Nordic antler-chandeliers and mighty oak beams overhead. I have to stop myself from raiding a Saxon village after ice-cream.
Pre-dinner we chat with one of the head chefs, Matt Calaz, who says the restaurant’s distanced itself from the usual a la carte fare. They opted for a hip two-course, three-course meal, or seven-course degustation meal. I remind Matt that in Gosford, a seven-course degustation meal is a six-pack and a pie. Matt detonates with laughter.
That evening we eschew the degustation for the two-course deal. Some dishes are dazzling: Sesame Crusted Yellow Fin Tuna (Soft Cooked Pullet Egg, Olive Cheeks, Chipotle Aioli, Wasabi Roe, Fresh Garden Greens and Lime); Two Parts Duck (Seared Duck Breast, Slow Cooked Duck Egg, Fresh Black Truffle, Truffle Potato Foam, Asparagus and Jamón); Wagyu 5+ MB rib eye on the bone for two; and a Truffle Crème Brulee Foam (Truffle Honeycomb, Rhubarb, Crème Fraiche Ice cream and House-made Truffle Honey). But no pie and six-pack, I note.

The Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Wollombi, where visitors can learn more about the original people of Wollombi

The following morning we point the Yaris at the historic village of Wollombi. Here I meet dear chum Tim Selwyn. I used to teach with Tim at Naisda Aboriginal College for some years. Tim now takes tourists around Wollombi. You see, Wollombi is a sacred place for indigenous people. Over a java, we chat about the importance of Mount Yengo in aboriginal culture. Known as the “Uluru of the east” this awe-inspiring table-top mountain/extinct volcano is world heritage listed and the focal point in the Yengo National Park and Wollombi Valley.
Tim and I then mosey next door to the Aboriginal Cultural Centre where visitors can learn more about the original people of Wollombi. Flanking the centre is the local museum. And there’s a lovely senior-friendly village walk that takes in the historic buildings and the charming surrounds of Wollombi. A map is available at the Wollombi Museum.
That afternoon we high-tail it for high-tea at Kirkton Park Hotel. Here we enjoy a cairn of savoury treats, handmade scones and a crown of brightly coloured macaroons. All washed down with bubbles and delicious tea that would bring a smile to the face of Queen Victoria. Seniors would enjoy this high-tea methinks as the restaurant overlooks the hotel’s picturesque rose garden.

Upstairs in the Lovedale Bar we enjoy a beer paddle

Later that evening we visit Lovedale Brewery. God, I love craft beers. I really enjoyed this micro-tour of the micro-brewery. Located in Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley and overlooking the golf course, the brewery provides scrumptious boutique ales and ciders. Upstairs in the Lovedale Bar, we enjoy a beer paddle (is there a beer river? Lead me there now) and yes more cheeeeese!
The following day the drive back home which takes us nigh on 40 mins. Easy. We both turn to each other and say, “why don’t we drive to the Hunter more often?”.
FACT CHECK
Hunter Valley Gardens are open 7 days a week from 9 am – 5 pm
Christmas Lights Spectacular hours:
Daytime: 9am – 4pm
Evening: 5:30pm – 10pm
Closed Christmas Day the 25th of December

Visit Tim Selwyn’s website for more info on senior-friendly tours.
www.girrigirra.com.au

The Convent – Gourmet Getaway Package
Do like we did and escape to the Hunter Valley to relax and getaway and experience the local gourmet delights, whilst dining at the award-winning restaurant Circa 1876.
Package includes:

  • Overnight accommodation
  • Full breakfast in Restaurant Eighty-Eight
  • 3-course dinner at Circa 1876
  • Complimentary WiFi access
  • Complimentary daily newspaper
  • Use of all leisure facilities at The Convent

For enquiries visit www.convent.com.au