Uncorking the unforgettable Hunter Valley experience
WE started to question our sanity after flying 1000km into heatwave conditions and getting lost heading out of the airport so the 200km roadtrip was more like 300.
And always in the back of our mind was the fact we'd be turning for home two days later.
But if another romantic weekend is promised on the glorious food and wine trails of the scenic Hunter Valley in New South Wales, we'll be two left feet out the door to do it all again.
The Hunter region flies under the radar as a long weekend option for Queenslanders and those just south of the border.
But for me, it ticks all the boxes for a plentiful blend of style, sophistication and innovation with old-fashioned country hospitality and natural beauty.
Just two hours and between 120 and 310km north of Sydney (or an hour and just over 50km north-west of Newcastle), the world-renowned wine-producing area takes in blink-and-you'll-miss-'em towns including Pokolbin, Cessnock, Broke, Rothbury, Branxton, Singleton, Kurri Kurri, Mount View, Wollombi, Millfield, Elderslie and Dalwood.
Play golf at the three international-class courses such as Pokolbin's Greg Norman-designed The Vintage, take the slow road in a horse and carriage ride or a joyride in a classic Warbird plane, stroll in Australia's largest themed display gardens over 25 ha, sign up for the First Creek Wine School for an insight into the wine-making process from vine to bottle, or grab a ticket to signature events such as June's Hunter Valley Wine and Food Month and concerts in the vines including Bimbadgen Estate's Day on the Green - next year featuring Neil Young.
Quite apart from being a favoured spot for Sydneysiders hunting for antiques and locally made arts and crafts, the region is a popular destination for wedding ceremonies, receptions and honeymoons (complete with photos of the happy couple amid the leafy vines).
Amateur and professional photographers are in their element with regimented rows of vines flowing down hills and spreading across the valleys, every bend in the road offering a new take on rural life, wineries with the wow factor, and architecture and garden styles reminiscent of Italy, France, Spain, and England.
But most people take a mini-break here to relax while being wined and dined like nowhere else in the world.
The Hunter, with its fertile soils and healthy annual rainfall, has been under vine since the mid-1800s and is Australia's oldest wine region.
While chardonnay, semillon and shiraz have built the region's reputation internationally, the more than 100 wineries and cellar doors are now branching into new-generation wines such as verdelho and chambourcin.
Grape-growing and wine-production are celebrated processes in the Hunter.
Visitors can stand in the soil next to the vines laden with juicy grapes, perhaps meet the winemakers only metres away at the winery to discuss the varietals and challenges of the season, and taste the fruits of their labour at the cellar door.
And the easiest, most enjoyable and safest way to take in all the area has to offer is on a wine tour such as Bradley Garrett's Hunter Valley Vine Link.
Our full-day tour was a great smattering of young and old wineries - Poole's Rock (home of Cockfighter's Ghost label), Audrey Wilkinson (established 1866) and well-respected Hungerford Hill, as well as the First Creek winemaking service for a lively discussion and tasting in the barrel room with cellar door manager John Earl. Helping to soak up the alcohol were visits to renowned local producers Hunter Valley Chocolate Company and the Hunter Valley Cheese Company, with a light and healthy lunch at Oscar's in the Hunter Valley Gardens Village.
On our final day, lightning strikes from a lingering overnight storm saw our much-anticipated Balloon Aloft sunrise flight over the vineyards cancelled due to safety regulations.
So we took the opportunity to drink in a little more of the Hunter scenery, making use of the free Wine Country map to drive past the home of household names such as Lindemans and Tyrrell's and take in lookouts including Bimbadeen and Mountain View Road for photo opportunities overlooking Cessnock township.
If you're dreaming of venturing somewhere different, where you can satisfy your cravings for great food and world-class wines, with a plethora of accommodation including cosy B&Bs, guest houses, quaint self-contained cottages and stylish hotels, uncork a Hunter Valley experience.
We won't be waiting another 16 years to return.
And next time we'll be sure to turn left instead of right when heading out of the airport.
GOOD TO KNOW
- GoDo is an Australian online tours and activities provider and sister company to travel.com.au. Visit godo.com.au.
- Jetstar flies daily from the Sunshine Coast to Sydney or Brisbane to Newcastle. Visit jetstar.com
- Peppers Guest House, Ekerts Road, Pokolbin: call (02) 4993 8999 or visit peppers.com.au/guest-house
- Thrifty Car Rentals at the airport arrival halls: Call (02) 9582 1722
- Hunter Valley Vine Link wine tours: Call Bradley Garrett on (02) 4930 7689 or 0411 628 752 or visit vinelink.com.au
- Balloon Aloft: Visit balloonaloft.com/hot-air-balloon-flights-hunter-valley