If you’ve made it to Sydney, Australia, a side trip starting just an hour out of town puts you on the road to to great food, wine and adventure!
Get your taste buds and your camera ready! The state of New South Wales is blessed with beauty and bounty in every direction, but for this adventure we’re heading north of Sydney on our way to one of Australia’s best-known wine-growing regions. Just under an hour’s drive from central Sydney is a small riverfront village called Mooney Mooney, in the heart of oyster country. This is where you will take a boat ride to an oyster lease and hear about how the delicious bivalves are grown and harvested, all in the stunning natural setting of the Hawkesbury River.
A Sydney Oyster Farm Tour is one of the best ways to sample the delicious and creamy Broken Bay oysters produced by Sheridan Beaumont and family, a main supplier to the famous Sydney seafood market. During the tour you will be guided by a knowledgeable farmer and discover what baby oysters look like and how long it takes them to grow before landing on your plate.
You’ll even wade into the river (in appropriate clothing; hat and sunscreen always recommended) and partake of an oyster lunch standing in the rich and pristine shallows as you freshly shuck the oysters and sip sparkling wine, surrounded by beautiful sandstone outcrops and majestic eucalypts. This is a magical experience and highly recommended as the beginning of your culinary immersion in the NSW Central Coast.
Leaving Mooney Mooney and heading north through Newcastle, then turning slightly west and inland, you’ll enter the beautiful Hunter Valley after a 2.5 hour drive. As with some of the world’s best-known wine regions, whether that’s Alsace or Napa, in the Hunter Valley you’ll find yourself in a bucolic setting but with world class wine in your glass and the freshest local produce on your plate. Sydneysiders frequent the Hunter as a gourmet getaway and there are plenty of wineries and restaurants to sample—and a proud lineage as Australia’s oldest continuous grape growing region.
The first vines were planted here in the 1820s and today ‘The Hunter’ is home to some of the oldest vine stock in the world, precisely because the distance from Europe meant colonial vines avoided the late 19th century phylloxera epidemic, which destroyed most of the vineyards in Europe, most notably in France. Hunter wines are unique because of the age of some of the vines, the terroir, and the climate’s effect on the appellations. Not to mention, visionary pioneer winemakers whose descendants lead the wineries to this day.
But before we get to our favorite cellar doors, we have a recommendation for where to stay while in the area. If you’re visiting in the Australian summer it’s important to note that the Hunter Valley gets very hot and to that extent you’ll appreciate the big pool at Rydges Resort Hunter Valley. Other perks include super spacious rooms, a golf club, and Redsalt Restaurant.
From 6:30am daily, early risers can indulge in a sumptuous spread of local breakfast goodies, from fresh fruits and pastries to a DIY pancake maker, smoothie/juice station, and chef station for made-to-order eggs. Dinner is also served à la carte or by five-course degustation at Redsalt, and designed to complement the extensive Hunter Valley wine list.
If you would like to go out to dinner but wish to soak up a more casual country vibe, the warm and welcoming family ambience of Amanda’s on the Edge is the place for you. This restaurant in the village of Pokolbin is in a classic Aussie farmhouse with a verandah that looks out over the grapevines. It literally feels like going to a friend’s house for dinner! The menu is internationally inspired, leaning towards Asian and Italian flavors: King prawns pan seared in garlic & parsley with crusty ciabatta bread; or Sri Lankan chicken curry—we tried both and they were excellent. There is also a vegetarian menu with dishes such as linguini tossed with broccolini, garlic, baby tomatoes, basil, parsley, spinach, lemon & pine nuts. As restaurants in wine country can tend to focus on rich animal protein dishes, Amanda’s home-cooking style with something for everyone strikes a very hospitable note. The wine list features some of the best from the local wineries and if you’re not sure what to order your friendly server is more than happy to steer you in the right direction.
History, location, and of course the wines themselves make Audrey Wilkinson a must-stop on your wine trail. With stately grounds and an elevated vantage point that offers 360-degree views of a lovely patchwork of paddocks and crops from every angle, this winery is literally a high point of a visit to the Hunter Valley. With a spacious colonial style cellar door and a wide range of offerings including Aussie favorites—antipodean takes on Shiraz (aka Syrah), Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc – this is one of the most visited wineries in the region. Audrey Wilkinson has a small museum on site, and you can purchase some attractive gift boxed wines to take with you. You can also arrange a picnic in the winery’s grounds.
But I must mention another factor: The people. When you drop by Audrey Wilkinson for a tasting you’ll be met by the loveliest and most knowledgable local folk including sixth-generation winemakers. I was also delighted to meet LGBTQ-friendly and transgender staff who made our visit as delightful as the wines themselves. If you’d like to try a breath of fresh air in a glass, be sure to sample the Light Rosé. Made from Hunter Valley Shiraz, the grapes were picked at peak flavor, low sugar, the fruit loaded into presses and separated from skins to achieve the most delicate pink, then fermented in stainless steel to retain fresh fruit characters. This may be one of the older wineries but it isn’t afraid to try the latest trends. And it’s a pleasure to learn the Chief Winemaker is a dynamic young woman by the name of Xanthe Hatcher.
Another vineyard with terrific views is also our top pick for a proper sit-down lunch. Perched on a ridge of the lovely Tallavera Grove Vineyard Bistro Molines feels both quintessentially Australian and French at the same time. Relax in a very Parisian bentwood dining chair at a linen-clad table and sip local wine as you gaze at the view. It’s hard not to soak up the serenity, sunshine and breeze that greets you from this little piece of paradise. The kitchen serves French Provincial and European classics prepared from local and seasonal produce and frequently changes the menu but it may include duck, quail, beef short rib, roasted pork belly, venison, and other big-flavored proteins that pair well with both local wines and international selections.
All of this good dining fortune doesn’t come by accident. There’s a solid history behind Bistro Molines. Owner Robert Molines was one of the earliest to believe the Hunter Valley could become a dining destination. Robert and his wife Sally opened their first restaurant in 1973 when the region’s wine industry was just starting to take off. Bistro Molines is their fifth venture together and diners definitely benefit from their track record.
Robert has won many industry accolades as well as mentored a generation of top Aussie chefs, so the dishes that land on your table will be some of the best for French Provincial cooking outside of France! And if you’re lucky like we were, the gracious Sally will stop by your table to make sure everything is to your liking.
Speaking of magical French-inspired country vibes, our next favorite winery is Krinklewood, which produces quality biodynamic wines. Krinklewood is located in the country hamlet of Broke and it has a rustic farmhouse charm with barn doors, ivy-covered walls, stone urns and peacocks strutting the grounds.
The only winery of its kind in the Hunter Valley, Krinklewood was ahead of the curve when it became Certified Organic and biodynamic almost two decades ago. With 49 acres of grapevines and thermal pools near the flowing Wollombi Brook, Krinklewood is all about connecting to nature. The secluded winery and cellar door, which is currently having onsite eco-cabins built, has a certain la campagne française vibe while also being truly Australian — eucalypts, cockatoos flying overhead and the backdrop of the spectacular Broken Back Range which rises 1500 feet above sea level let you know you’re far away from the world’s troubles while you’re Down Under.
There are in excess of 150 wineries in the Hunter Valley and they are too numerous to mention but if you would like to visit an LGBTQ-owned winery we can recommend Lisa McGuigan Wines. Lisa is a fourth generation winemaker and a proud member of Sydney’s vibrant and progressive LGBTQ community. She also produces wines with a lot of verve, style, and creativity, which extends to the bold design and packaging. Her cellar door in Pokolbin is called Vamp and it offers a truly non-traditional tasting experience with its mod-Goth aesthetic and sense of fun. In this way Lisa is another type of wine pioneer, representing a link to the traditions of the past and a sense of its future.
Assuming your food and wine adventure is coming to its end, we have a couple of glorious suggestions for your return to Sydney. On your way back, about an hour’s drive southeast, you arrive at the beautiful Port Stephens area where you can experience a different kind of rush — adrenalin not alcohol — at Sand Dune Adventures.
This is a great activity to get the blood pumping and some fresh air in the lungs after so much indulgence! This is a unique quad-biking experience that takes place on the traditional Aboriginal landscape of the Worimi Sand Dunes, which are the largest coastal moving sand mass in the Southern Hemisphere. What that means is you will be greeted by some absolutely stunning and pristine vistas from the vantage point of your 400cc quad bike after receiving instruction from your guide. If you choose the Aboriginal Culture tour you will receive hands-on introductions to authentic Aboriginal culture and history, visit ancient campsites and learn about the local bush foods, medicines and the secrets of finding fresh water in this unique coastal piece of ‘desert’.
After your adventure you will have surely worked up an appetite and there is no better place to satisfy your hunger than with a seaside lunch of local seafood at Rick Stein Bannisters, Port Stephens. Celebrity chef Rick Stein made a name for himself in Britain and Australia as a particularly astute purveyor of the finest and freshest seafood the world has to offer, and an approach to cooking and serving that is both simple and elegant. Bannisters is beautifully positioned on the edge of a hillside overlooking the bay of Port Stephens, which is one of NSW’s fisher-person’s paradises. The sea is teeming with lovely fresh fish that could end up on your plate: from marinated Nelson Bay yellowfin tuna with passionfruit, green chilli and coriander or how about trying the flathead—an ugly but absolutely delicious firm, white-fleshed fish. And Bannisters gives you another opportunity to order a local wine to go with your meal.
Alcohol: The legal drinking age in NSW is 18 years. Responsible drinking is encouraged. Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is extremely dangerous and Australia has very serious penalties if you are caught doing this.
Car hire/driving: Australians drive on the left side of two-way roads. Under Australian law seatbelts must be worn by all passengers when driving. Speed limits are strictly enforced. It is common to travel long distances in Australia, so you should plan your journey to include several rest breaks (a break of at least 10 minutes every 2 hours is recommended). Avoid driving at night unless you have to.
Health: If you require medical assistance, go to the nearest hospital or medical centre. Call 000 for fire, police and ambulance. For other health matters this site is useful.
Smoking: Smoking in public places is not allowed under NSW legislation.
Sun, surf and water safety: Wear a hat, sunscreen and appropriate clothing to protect you from the strong Aussie sun. Drink plenty of water. Swim at beaches patrolled by a lifeguard and always swim between the red and yellow flags.
Watch out for wildlife and livestock: Watch out for wildlife on the road who wander or bounce into your path: kangaroos, emus, wombats and koalas. Livestock such as cattle may also graze on the side of country roads.
This is just one of the many side trips from Sydney you could potentially do on your next visit Down Under. For more ideas and itineraries go here to the official tourism website for Visit NSW.