Luxury Escapes Guide to the Hunter Valley

Home to some of Australia’s oldest vines, epicurean indulgences and award-winning drops, the Hunter Valley is the stuff of sommelier dreams.

A picture of rolling olive groves and sprawling vine-laced hills, surrounded by untouched natural terrain, this slice of Italy is just three hours from Sydney and a one-hour drive from Newcastle. Gateway to an abundance of producers and cellar doors, this is a region that knows that good food and wine is always a good idea.

Made up of several smaller subregions including Pokolbin, Lovedale and Wollombi, Hunter Valley is the gift that keeps giving. Boutique wineries, organised wine tours, boozy cycling trails, cool breweries and cosy cellar doors are rife here, and it’s to be expected when you’re in the epicentre of more than 180 years of wine-making heritage. And while good wine never really needs company, the drops (from more than 150 vineyards) are best enjoyed with family and friends, as you hop from vine to vine.

In between sampling the flagship semillon and shiraz, you’ll find a bounty of local restaurants that make excellent use of the local terroir. The gastronomy here is nothing to be sniffed at, with several SMH Good Food Guide-hatted restaurants, each with a view better than the last, overlooking rolling paddocks, vine-covered hills and quiet villages.

Beyond the vines, this historic region abounds with wonders. From the World Heritage-listed wilderness of Yengo National Park to Aboriginal cultural sites and the convict-built Old Great North Road, the Hunter Valley isn’t your run-of-the-mill wine region.

Please note that due to current restrictions some operators may be temporarily closed. Check their websites for the most up-to-date information.

Featured escape

Discover the Hunter Valley

Things to see and do

Visit the valley’s best cellar doors and vineyards

Many winemakers say the older the vine, the better the wine, and some of the Hunter Valley’s are older than those in France. So, it’s only fitting that you begin at the start: Audrey Wilkinson. Experience 150 years of winemaking history with 360° views and a glass of their phenomenal sparkling shiraz. To transport yourself back in time, head to the family-run Tyrell’s, where you can wander through Edward Tyrell’s original bark hut and see where vines were first planted back in 1858. There’s a lot to be said for the new-to-the-scene cellar doors, too. Situated in a renovated church with pews for seats, Usher Tinkler, one of the region’s innovative wineries invites you to linger over a Nose To Tail semillon chardonnay blend, and a salumi and cheese platter with a side of heavenly views.

Wind through Hunter Valley on two wheels

If you’re partial to hopping from vine to dairy and antique shop to cooking school, the 10km Hunter Valley Cycleway alongside Hermitage Road is the perfect place for a cycle. Picture-perfect Brokenback Mountain Range views make up your backdrop as you pedal this dedicated cycleway, past Misty Glen Wines and its four-footed welcoming committee, Matilda Bay Brewhouse, and the smoky aromas of Yellow Billy Restaurant. If you’re worried about trying to haul your bounty ‘home’, don’t. Rent a bike with Grapemobile Bike Hire or Sutton Estate Electric Bike Hire and they’ll deliver your purchases to your accommodation for your (or the nearest pick-up point).

Learn about Hunter Valley’s convict history in Wollombi

The Hunter Valley’s filigree of picturesque roads will often lead you to a vine-laden cellar door, but a 30-minute drive south-west of Pokolbin will take you to Wollombi and the Great Northern Convict Trail. Established in the mid-1800s, Wollombi is a poignant reminder of the era of European colonisation with 19th-century sandstone architecture, old-world general stores and a convict trail — where 6kg leg-irons, back-breaking limestone walls and bridges can still be found. Once a significant meeting place for local Indigenous peoples — Wollombi means ‘meeting place’ — this area is best enjoyed on foot, tracing the footsteps of early settlers and some 3000 convict laborers.

Wander through the Hunter Valley Gardens

For an endless expanse of dreamy Instagram florals, Hunter Valley Gardens’ 25 acres will satisfy your floral fantasies, with 10 eclectic feature gardens including a Mad Hatter’s tea party, a haunting Sunken Garden and an Italian grotto. This garden is not just a wonderland of floral artistry with ridiculously romantic lake walks, daffodils and a cornucopia of fountains, statues and tree-carved brumbies, it is home to family-friendly rides the Swing Chair, Ferris Wheel and Hunter Valley Gardens Train — perfect for big and little kids alike.

Pose with the Big Ugg Boots at Mortels Sheepskin Factory

The Hunter Valley has its own contribution to Australia’s proud collection of Big Things, adding to South Australia’s Big Lobster and Victoria’s cuddly Big Koala with its own ‘big’ icon. In a region where gumboots and flannelette shirts are wardrobe must-haves, it’s only fitting that the Hunter Valley’s Big Thing is a pair of Big Ugg Boots, affectionately dubbed ‘Berro Boots’. Grab a selfie with the iconic boots and then head inside, don the high-vis and join a factory tour, or you can opt to visit the Sheep’s Back Museum to hear all about the history of the ugg boot. Don't forget to buy a pair snuggly ugg boots!

Soak up the scenery of Yengo National Park

Part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, Yengo National Park covers more than 1,500sqkm of Aboriginal sacred sites, red cedars, giant stinging trees and spectacular vistas, dotted with the rare velvet wattle — all of which can be explored by 4WD, foot or bike. Uninterrupted views of Yengo and Wollemi are the reward of a short, steep climb to Mount Yengo lookout. In the park, you can also find the Finchley Aboriginal engravings hidden on the Finchley Cultural Walk, and wander the Circuit Flat Walking Track, home to Australia’s second-oldest bridge, built by convicts in 1831.

Put your wits to the test at Maitland Gaol

Wander the empty cells and hear harrowing tales from an ex-warden about the riots, executions and escapes that took place in the maximum-security Maitland Gaol. This haunting place was only decommissioned as a correctional facility in 1998, after operating for more than 150 years and housing some of Australia’s most notorious criminals — including Australia’s first gangster, John ‘Chow’ Hayes. Just a half-hour drive from Pokolbin, a tour of Maitland Gaol is an eye-opening experience, but it’s the overnight torchlight sleepover that will put your wits to the test.

Epicurean indulgence at the Hunter Valley Wine + Food Festival

Let your inner locavore run free on Broke Road during the Hunter Valley Wine + Food Festival, where you can wine and dine with winemakers, brewers and culinary talents. Spanning two months, the festival is a feast of epicurean indulgences, including locally produced gourmet dinners, vineyard tours, winemaking masterclasses and evenings curled up beside an open fire with friends. Our tip: time your visit for the iconic ‘Burning of the Barrel’, arguably the best night you can have in the Valley with wine, cheese, food, music, fireworks, starry skies and a massive fire on the Glandore Estate property.

Taste handcrafted wine and olive oil at Whispering Brook

Having received glowing accolades from prestigious wine critic James Halliday, Whispering Brook is a vineyard that takes its wine very seriously. But it’s not all about grapes. This charming winery doubles as an olive grove, creating a unique tasting experience that combines handcrafted olive oil with a selection of fine wine vintages. Learn about cultivation, harvest and distillation, all while sipping some signature Hunter drops. Our tip: visit during one of the long-table banquet-style lunches among the estate’s olive groves, featuring food by Chef Frank Fawkner (of EXP fame) served with matching wines.

Unleash your inner artist at Thirsty Palette Wine

Put your creativity to the test with a two-hour art class at Thirsty Palette Wine, a cellar door that doubles as a painting studio. Run by resident artist, Jacquie Mather, this art class will teach you to mix oils, provide you with a deeper understanding of colour and paint, and show you how to replicate the beauty of the magnificent Brokenback Ranges. All you need to bring is your inner artist and lunch, they’ll supply the wine, canvas, easels and paint.

Top places to eat and drink

Muse Kitchen @ Keith Tulloch Wine

Keith Tulloch Wine perfectly encapsulates everything that makes the Hunter Valley great: incredible wine, chocolate and fine dining. Enjoy a guided wine tasting in the Tasting Lounge, take home a box of marble-like drops from chocolaterie Cocoa Nib, and savour three courses in the award-winning European eatery, Muse Kitchen. The menu appears deceptively simple, with dishes such as pork neck, snap peas, lardo and Yorkshire pudding, but it’s this devotion to simple, seasonal produce that has earned Muse Kitchen several chef hats.

Café Enzo

All that glitters isn’t gold at Café Enzo, but the bar is, and it effortlessly sets the mood for this casual eatery. Hand-cut sandstone and hardwood beams from one of Sydney Harbour’s wharves add to the lived-in feel, so pull up a seat in the courtyard or cosy up by a fireplace and dig into a simple but delicious meal. Tuck into delectable plates of truffle green peas on sourdough and Tasmanian smoked salmon with poached eggs, or crisp tempura zucchini flowers filled with whipped goats' cheese, red pepper coulis and baby herbs.

Margan Wines & Restaurant

If you prefer your food fresher than fresh, where the olive oil is filtered, the chicken and lamb reared nearby, and the charcuterie aged on-site, then you can’t go past Margan Wines & Restaurant. A pioneer of ‘agri-dining’ in Broke, this Tuscan-style eatery crafts unique dishes that are estate-made and grown. Everything that can’t be plucked from the soil or raised on the farm is sourced from within 160km. The menu changes according to what’s harvested from the one-acre kitchen garden, but if the fresh kingfish drizzled with chipotle or pan-seared salmon with tomato butter are on when you’re there, order them.

Roche Estate

There’s no better duo than cheese and wine. Roche Estate knew this when they opened the gorgeous Tempus Two cellar door in Pokolbin, which is why you’ll not only find rolling vines and local drops from Meerea Park's Cellar Door but also The Smelly Cheese Shop. The tasting room here is filled with handcrafted brie, blue and fig cream cheese, as well as homemade gelato, baked-on-site sourdough and cheesecake. When the cellar doors close for the evening, appreciate the finer things in life with a bite at the minimalist Oishii Japanese and Thai Restaurant or settle into a leather booth at The Goldfish cocktail bar, both on-site.

Circa 1876

Discover the art of the long lavish lunch at Circa 1876. Clear your schedule and settle in for the three-, five- or seven-course multi-award-winning degustation lunch, featuring organic dishes that have garnered an Good Food Guide Award or two. Dine on foie gras with blueberry, Redgate Farm quail and more in the sunny courtyard or take a seat under exposed beams in the 1800s cottage restaurant. On your way out, be sure to grab a bottle at the adjoining Pepper Tree Winery, awarded five stars by wine critic James Halliday every year for the last decade.