Newcastle and Hunter Valley
Newcastle is a thriving and funky surf-side city that is the southern gateway to the amazing NSW North Coast. It's just two hours drive (160km) north of the centre of Sydney and is the capital of the Hunter region, home to some world class vineyards.
Formerly an industrial centre, Newcastle was home for over 80 years to a large steel works. Since the closure of the works in 1999, the "Steel City" (as it is known locally) has been reborn and is now a vibrant lifestyle and tourist town. It offers a cosmopolitan style, with an ever emerging arts and fashion scene. Though some parts of Newcastle are still a bit gritty, the city's industrial past has shaped an edgy trendiness that can be found in Newcastle today. Parts of the city have been revamped, whilst retaining the historical aspects. With its old converted port warehouses, terrace housing and funky modern beach and cafe culture, it really is a bit of a melting pot for visitors. For such a compact little city, there is a fair bit urban style to be found.
Different pockets of Newcastle (including Cooks Hill, Merewether Beach, Hamilton, The Junction, the Civic Cultural Precinct and the Honeysuckle Precinct) have completely individual character, adding to a unique atmosphere and meaning there's lots to explore! Darby St in the heart of Cooks Hill is an eclectic strip of cafes, restaurants and quirky boutiques and is a great place to go for brunch and people watching. In the evening, head to cosmopolitan Beaument street in Hamilton, for a range of restaurants with a real mediterranean flavour. Where the Hunter river and the city meets the sea, a new, must-do locality has been developed as part of the regeneration of Newcastle. The Honeysuckle Precinct is hip and stylish waterfront playground, offering brand new designer apartments, contemporary bars, restaurants and hotels along the water. The Boardwalk here is the place to be for an upmarket evening out. During the day a stroll around Honeysuckle and along the foreshore is a must. Watch the tugs and ships plying their trade in the harbour, stop for a drink by the water and soak up the relaxed atmosphere.
The little city is famous for its iconic Ocean Baths (completed in 1922). The unique setting, with its art deco pavilion against blue sky and ocean, has been known to feature in the odd fashion photo shoot, as well being the subject of many a tourist's atmospheric snaps. Equally impressive are the Merewether Ocean Baths, which are the largest in the southern hemisphere. A large sea water open air pool is divided into two by a promenade. Set against a backdrop of crashing surf, it is a spectacular spot for a salty swim, with the blue waves just beyond. Walkers can take the 'Bather's Way' walk, a 5km coastal-hugging path from Merewether Beach to the lighthouse at Nobby's headland.
Newcastle is Australia's second oldest city and was originally a penal station. Evidence of its past as a 'convict' town can be found everywhere still. The Bogey Hole (dating from 1820) is an historic rock pool which was hand carved by convicts from the ocean cliffs. Nobby's breakwater is another convict built site, where you can only envisage the hard labour the 'criminal' inhabitants must have endured. Visitors wih an interest in the area's history can do the Newcastle East Heritage walk, a 3km loop (or 1 to 2 hours, depending on your pace).
With its cafe culture and the surrounding wine country and gourmet mecca of the Hunter Valley being just a 20 minute drive away, food and wine lovers will find themselves in paradise. Head to the Newcastle Farmers Market on a Sunday morning to experience some of the local produce.
Newcastle also has a big working harbour, and is the world's largest coal export port. There's a constant array of ships and tugs moving in and out, providing interesting viewing as you stroll the harbour foreshore or relax in one of the many bars and restaurants in the area. The harbour entrance is overlooked on one side by Nobby's breakwater, and on the other is the lighthouse, a popular Newcastle attraction.
Surf culture prevails in Newcastle, as it does all the way along the NSW North Coast. There's a range of beautiful beaches, with waves to suit all skill levels. Close to the city centre alone there are 6 great beaches to choose from. For safe swimming Nobby's and Bar beach are good choices, and for those wanting to ride the waves it's best to head to Newcastle or Merewether beaches. Being a surfie town at its heart, the atmosphere of Newcastle is pretty laid back. Each March the city plays host to Surfest, one of the largest surfing festivals in Australia.
- Hunter Valley wine region
Just 20 minutes drive inland from Newcastle is the Hunter Valley, one of Australia's premier wine destinations. Home to over 120 vineyards and wineries, and widely known for its shiraz and semillon varietals, the region is also a place for gourmands to indulge. Farm fresh organic producers and boutique food growers abound. Among others, locally made olive oil, chocolate, jams, preserves, nuts and cheeses are all on offer to complemet the wines of the region. Your choice of restaurants in the Hunter Valley is endless too, with dining spots to suit all appetites and occasions. The Hunter Valley stretches across the towns of Polkobin, Cessnock, Maitland and Singleton. The scenery encourages relaxation and indulgence at every turn, peaceful countryside criss-crossed with acre upon acre of vines, farmland, rivers and you will more than likely see kangaroos bouncing across the fields. You'll find a wonderful array of accommodation in the Hunter Valley too, from boutique BnBs, to vineyard estates and large resorts.
- Stockton Beach
Immediately to the North of Newcastle is the famous Stockton Beach (to which you can get a ferry across to). It's Australia's largest moving sand mass formation and is our very own version of a middle eastern desert, where you can go sand boarding and four wheel driving. Some of the dunes get to 30 metres high and it's absolutely exhilirating to head down them at speed on a sand board. The beach itself is 32km long and stretches from Newcastle into the Port Stephens area.
- Lake Macquarie
35km from Newcastle you'll also find the wonderous Lake Macquarie, Australia's largest salt water lake. It's 24km long and 4 times the size of Sydney harbour. It's a watersports paradise where you can charter a yacht (or hire a houseboat) and lose yourself exploring the inlets. Take off on a jetski, in a kayak... or simply relax and go fishing. Scenic walkways and villages abound on the shore, linking across beaches, the lake and the Watagan mountains which form the inland backdrop to the region. Take some time out to relax on the waterfront, where you can watch the sun go down as you feast on the freshest seafood and local produce.