For people familiar with Australia or wineries in this part of the world, the Hunter Valley should require no introduction. There’s a plethora of leisure activities on offer, particularly in spring when there are mild sunny days and clear blue skies, while nights are cool and an excellent change from Singapore’s muggy climate. The obvious thing to do is to visit the cellars to taste the various winemakers’ wines, but as we’ve discovered, there’s a lot of amazing food on offer by restaurants in the Hunter as well. The smooth, well-paved roads in the region makes leisurely or long distance cycling a possibility. You can also have a few rounds of golf, pamper yourself at a day spa, or get on a hot air balloon to take in the sights from above. We even saw a couple on a horse-drawn carriage touring the wine country at a very leisurely pace!
Whatever your fancy, take the time to decide what you’d like to do during your visit. I previously visited the Hunter Valley in 2011 as a self-drive day trip from Sydney, which on hindsight was woefully inadequate in terms of even just scratching the surface of what this place has to offer. This time around, we planned a 3D2N visit to the wine country, starting from Sydney’s international airport at noon on a Saturday in late September. This is our trip, our itinerary, and our experience.
We picked up our rental car from the Europcar‘s airport branch at the arrival terminal. We made our reservations in advance and as a Privilege member, the pick-up process was quick and smooth. We were also pleasantly surprised when we got a free upgrade from our Volkswagen Passat to a Mercedes Benz C200, which had a few luxurious features like an in-built GPS (which saved us on a daily rental cost for an external unit) and an automated sunroof, which was a nice addition to take in some fresh air and sunlight in the countryside. The cavernous boot was large enough to fit both our luggages without having to fold the rear seatbacks down. I should also add that while it’s more affordable to rent a compact like a Toyota Corolla, the added power and luxury that comes with an executive sedan provides better stability and comfort on the motorway. It makes a significant difference between cruising at 110 km/h at below 2,000 rpm compared with a less powerful engine at a noisy 3,000 rpm. Accelerating to overtake slower cars on single-lane country roads also doesn’t require you to wait for long stretches of empty road in the other direction before you make a move.
Mind-numbing motorway itineraries are not my idea of a road trip, so when I found out that there’s a scenic alternative along the Tourist Route 33 to drive from Sydney to the Hunter Valley via the mountains of Wollombi, I jumped on it. Although we weren’t sure how to programme the GPS to include this detour at the time, we exited the M1 (Pacific Motorway) at the first sign of the T33 and kept pushing along despite the matriarchal voice of our GPS telling us to make a U-turn to re-enter the M1 whenever possible. As we headed far enough along the T33, the route instructions eventually changed, updating itself to take us from our new location towards our destination. While it may not be a fair comparison, I felt that the T33 paled starkly in comparison against our previous road trips in the UK (Snake Pass from Sheffield to Glossop; Moffat Loop in Scotland), or in the south of France (the D1091 to Briançon; Route Napoleon; Col de Vence). The said mountainous roads don’t offer much of a view of the surrounding landscape due to the forests on either side of the roads, and the route isn’t much fun if you’re looking for some spirited driving, so in my opinion, you can skip the T33 if you’re en route to the Hunter Valley from Sydney, unless you have business there.
Three hours allows enough time to drive from Sydney’s airport to the Hunter Valley at an unhurried pace, even on a Saturday afternoon. We arrived at the Leisure Inn Pokolbin Hill, our accommodation for the weekend. We booked a modest Superior Studio Room, which is a single-storey, semi-detached suite with basic room facilities and a little private patio by the room’s entrance. Most importantly, each room’s dedicated parking space is less than 10 steps away from the room’s entrance, and the room was clean and looked well maintained. Nestled at the corner of Broke Road and McDonalds Road, the Leisure Inn was centrally located relative to the places we had planned to visit.
That evening, we had an amazing dinner at Bistro Molines, which is beside Tallavera Grove Vineyard, one of the cellars we were planning to visit the next day. The road back to McDonalds Road is pitch dark for most of the way, and we came across two kangaroos at the start of our journey back. Thankfully, we were driving very slowly out of the Mount View Road then, so there was no drama or contact between wildlife and metal. There were cat’s eye road reflectors and markers at regular intervals for our headlights to pick up, and we were thankful for the excellent illumination afforded by the Merc’s bi-xenon headlamps in the darkness.
The next morning, we popped into the nearby Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop for a light breakfast before our wine tastings. We then drove to Adina Vineyard at 492 Lovedale Road for our first cellar visit. The cellar door was supposedly an experience in itself, selling wines from the vineyard renowned for its shiraz, pinot grigio, sangiovese, semillon and chardonnay. I got a bottle of their sweet semillon, essentially a fortified dessert wine (less the hefty price tag – which I think is a steal), while Pris bought a bottle of their rosé and shiraz. The cellar door was rather small, though, and we couldn’t quite see what the apparent experience was supposed to be. With some time on our hands till lunch, we drove across the road to Ballabourneen Winery, where we met Daniel Binet himself and bought another bottle of shiraz and a pinot grigio. After a lovely albeit brief conversation with Binet, we drove back to the other side of Lovedale Road for a brilliant outdoor lunch at Emerson’s.
After lunch, we set off for David Hook Wines, but unfortunately missed the turn-in and luck would have it, we chanced upon Tyrell’s Wines while searching for a suitable U-turn point, and decided to drop in for a quick tasting. We loved a couple of their reserve wines but couldn’t bear to pay 70-odd dollars for a bottle, so went for a more affordable shiraz option. If you’re spotting a certain trend with the type of wine we were buying, you wouldn’t be off the mark the mark by guessing we were pretty focused on getting shiraz from the Hunter Valley.
Having bought a bottle of wine from our detour, we got back on our original itinerary and drove on to Tallavera Grove Vineyard, the location of our previous night’s dinner. With ample daylight, we could finally see clearly the roads we drove on in the dark the evening before, and were suitably awed by just how narrow and tight some of the bends were. The daylight also allowed us to take in the magnificent location that the cellar is situated and enjoy the panoramic view.
After taking in the humbling view and tasting some of the award-winning wine from the winery, we continued on to Il Cacciatore at the Hermitage Lodge for a northern-Italian inspired dinner. With an early check-out the next morning to set us up for our drive through the Blue Mountains and onward to Sydney, we retired for an early night – but not before we started on our bottle of easy-drinking rosé.
The Hunter Valley has cemented itself as one of the must-visits for us if we have time to spare when in Sydney. If you have a recommendation on a winemaker’s shop that we should visit, or just an experience to share, please feel free to leave a comment.