Hunter Valley weekend

I’ve never toasted marshmallow before. I’ve certainly heard about it, but I think it was more of an American thing than Australian. But here I am, watching the white confection blacken under a blue flame, then biting into the crispy burnt toffee outer shell with a soft and gooey interior. This is my first campfire in decades too. I love watching the dancing flames, the twinkling glowing red coals, feeling the heat dispel the chill of the winter drizzle in the bush night.

Toasting a marshmallow over a fire

This is also our first trip to the Hunter Valley, a very popular weekend destination for Sydneysiders. Only a couple of hours drive up from the city, it is full of wineries and, well, wineries, plus some gourmet food, mostly at wineries.

We don’t drink wine.

Still, it is somewhere different and B’s wants a short break away for her birthday.

The drive up north up along the M1 is a bit less busy than usual, but still boring and unpleasant. At least the turn-off comes before the logjam of Hexham. Attempting to save money, we will be doing a bit of self-catering and we stop at Cessnock for groceries from Aldi. A search for lunch reveals nothing interesting, so we accede to Alex’s request to try the nearby Taco Bell, which was not quite as bad as we remember it, but not exceptional enough to prefer it over alternatives.

Pokolbin is a bit further north than Cessnock. Our accommodation is a large two bedroomed cabin, accessible via a heavily potholed dirt trail, the kind they show as requiring a 4WD on the television advertisements. Our 2WD sedan is fine.

It’s a nice cabin, with a spacious lounge room, a well equipped kitchen, barbecue on the veranda and fire pit further away. We are surrounded by gum trees and the neighbouring cabins are a distance away.

A cabin with a veranda and a hedge

Once unpacked, we head back out to explore the area. The local markets are closing for the day, though it appears they were selling the same old stuff we’d never buy as any other local market. We poke our heads into the De Bortoli cellar door and leave, then stop by the Sabor Dessert bar to take away a couple of desserts.

The cloud clearing to blue skies and the late afternoon light over the vineyards gives the area a pleasantly bucolic setting that suggests another reason for coming aside from wine.

A stone statue in a field. Vineyard in the distance.

Also on the way back is chocolate factory, where we order some hot chocolates, musk and pina colada white chocolate balls and I sneak purchase some chocolate macadamias as a birthday gift for B.

The accommodation has a few local outlet shops by reception and I have to purchase a cheap bottle of white De Bortoli wine for cooking in tonight’s meal of mussels, feeling a little ashamed we didn’t buy it from the source.

Next morning, Alex and I play tennis at the accommodation’s court. I realise that he has had ten years of lessons, only recently deciding to take a pause from them.

Nearby are the Hunter Valley Gardens. Our entry includes admission to the snow festival, with a short tube toboggan ride, ice skating and an artificial snow mound, none of which really interest us. The gardens themselves are quite lovely, despite this being mid winter. Different, not as spectacular as the Mayfield Gardens, but beautiful in their own way.

I especially love the Storybook Gardens with their statues of nursery rhyme figures, and the Oriental Gardens with soothing pebble beds and stonework amongst the plants.

Dark clouds threaten as we make our way out of the gardens and past the aqua golf and putt putt grounds and back to the car.

I set the GPS to direct us to the historic town of Wollombi, south and in a mountain valley. The route takes us up into the hills along a gravel road, then up a steep and narrow dirt track, probably Mount Baker Road. I’m not happy and I know that there should be an easier way, so I carefully turn back and follow the bitumen path back to Wollombi Road.

It winds its way through the Congewai Creek valley. But I can’t admire the bush scenery as I am too focussed on the curves of the road and the many potholes in it.

Wollombi is a historic bush village, colonial era sandstone buildings. We are hungry for a late lunch, but it looks like the same old pub or cafe food as anywhere, so we end up having burgers and milkshakes at the Harp of Erin cafe. Nothing wrong with them.

A stone inn

The Forge is an antique shop located in a wooden shed with a yard full of interesting junk. We aren’t in the markets for any more antiques in the house, but it is an interesting museum of random stuff.

A robot sculpture made of wires and a circuit board

Rather than return to Pokolbin the same route, I head back along Paynes Crossing Road, which is winding and potholed, but scenic. We even spot a kangaroo hopping off the road.

Back on Wollombi Road, we pull over into an olive farm on a whim. Brown chooks and a friendly piglet who loves back scratches wander free in the grounds. Out from a fairytale wooden shack emerges a hippy woman wearing a knitted headdress welcoming us into her shop, BARE Nature’sKin.

Inside a jars of olives and preserves and rows of olive oil soaps and dried herbs hanging from the ceiling. A chicken taps at the window, while she fries up some olives for us to try.

A chicken looks in through a leadlight window

It’s so quaintly magical that we cannot help ourselves. And the onion and rosemary marmalade really does go well with steak.

Back at the cabin, barbecued steak is what we had for dinner, after those toasted marshmallows.

On our last day we wake late and only just make it out at check out time. I do not fancy driving back along the M1 and I want to explore the old convict route up to the Hunter, so I take us west and down twisting Putty Road. Heading down valleys and up hills, it looks scenic, but my eyes are again focussed on the road. There are a couple of landslip areas where the road is single lane and controlled by traffic lights. Fortunately, traffic was very light. I would much rather drive on a rural road with no traffic than a busy highway.

Not really knowing the route, I detour us to Richmond rather than Windsor. We park at the centre of the town and find the Monkey King Thai restaurant open opposite, which suffices for lunch. Alex has missed Asian food over the past couple of days.

Then it’s a drive down the A9, the M7 and the M5 to home.

For dinner, we have nasi lemak and satay at the Island Dreams Cafe in Lakemba. The food, the noisy Bangladeshi markets and cafes feel more exotic that anywhere else we have visited this weekend.

We enjoyed our first trip to the Hunter Valley. It was a relaxing little holiday, except for the driving, and we had some pleasant food and experiences. It’s a pity that the area is so alcohol focussed that there is a lack of eateries for those without a love of wine, but the scenery is nice and it was good to get away from the city, if only for a couple of days.

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