You've got to remind yourself at times that in all its glamour and prosperity, the Hunter Valley is actually made up of country towns. It's where the old buildings have quietly looked on as the pace changed around their foundations. It's where the simple, sound and satisfying places to eat are mixed with the super glamorous Mod Oz's that cater to the tourists, international guests and winemakers who, having spent a vintage or two abroad, now require newer, more exotic tastes.
You can see and enjoy all these eating needs in the Hunter Valley and there are many. From the stunning design and sensational food of Esca Bimbadgen to the simplicity of a steak from the grill at the Oak Brasserie in Cessnock to the locally produced cheese of the Hunter Valley Cheese Co, the choice is there, all you have to do is make it.
FANCY A PINT?
As necessary as the Post Office, as traditional as the Hunter's winemaking techniques and as unpretentious as the work that's carried out in the surrounding vineyards, is the local pub. The Royal Oak and the Cessnock Hotel who have been pulling beers for the locals since Adam was a boy, carry on the tradition with as much gusto as ever. Harrigans Irish pub opened more recently and, although it looks more New Expensive Housing Estate than it does Rustic Pub from Old Dublin Town, it's still hugely popular with the locals in the area, particularly those after a selection of dark, brooding, frothy stouts and ales from the old country. There's also a littering of country clubs and 19th holes for you to neck a couple of cold ones in. Wherever, there's enough sources to wet your whistle with a cleansing ale in the Hunter.
STAY A WHILE
Really, I'd lose your attention if I even tried to cover all the places to stay in the Hunter. There's everything from eco lodges set in the bush, lodges among the vineyards, self contained luxury, glam hotels and resorts that provide so much you really needn't leave. Not to mention the string of B&B's dotted throughout the area.
If you're heading there with a group, self-contained numbers like The Woods at Pokolbin are an ideal way to split the costs and team up the fun. But sure, different travellers have different needs and you may be with someone who has about as much interest in wine as you do in golf. That's where places like Cypress Lakes will keep the peace with you and your weird golfing mates - a five star golf resort with health spa and facilities. Right then, still with me? In the thick of it is Hunter Valley Gardens Lodge which slots in next door to the Hunter Valley Cheese Co. and McGuigan's winery. I mean, if you didn't want to leave the block … hey it's just a thought. There's also the Valley Vineyard Tourist Park or Harrigans Irish pub if you've got some backpacking types you wanna send to the area. Of course, there's the Royal Oak in Cessnock that has rooms available for less than you'd pay for a meal and you even get a front bar and a pool table on premise. For those with kiddies to think about and no luck with getting the in-laws as babysitters, the Hunter Resort has a lot to offer on site in terms of activities, including winery tours and school, trail rides and a pool. You can live as large as you want in the Hunter, but you don't have to.
One of the interesting things about the Hunter is the way many places have extended the average winery tour into a tutored tasting or food and wine matching class. I reckon it's a top way to learn a little for next time, have the opportunity to ask questions and get to know more about the region you're visiting. For those who need a little nudge in the wine education stakes, there's the Ultimate Indulgence at Lindeman's, the Wine School at the Hunter Resort and the Rothbury Estate's From The Grape to the Glass.
Lodged between mountains, many of the other activities available in the Hunter seem like high energy, old fashioned ways of trying to escape. Make like a Pepsi Max commercial and take any number of the out-and-about tours in the area. There're horse riding tours, tandem skydiving, hot air ballooning and mountain biking tours through the vineyards.
And where there's tourism and money, golf seems to follow as it has done in the Hunter. The Great White fella is currently designing 18 very expensive holes at Pokolbin within tee-off distance of Bimbadgen Estate. Existing golf courses already include Cypress Lakes golf and country club, the Hunter Valley Golf and country club and the Oaks Golf and country club.