24.05.2012 – 27.05.2012 Sunny/Windy 17°C
We arrived in Newcastle bang on time at 9:10am, just as our Greyhound driver said we would. Ten hours aboard the bus wasn’t much fun but I did manage to get a decent kip. This bus must have been a little bigger than the previous one I took on an overnighter as I could just about stretch out across two seats.
We walked from the station around the corner to the two hostels available. Newcastle Beach YHA or Backpackers by the Beach. We were actually looking for Backpackers by the Beach but didn’t see it (I later noticed it was five doors down from the YHA and we walked past it) so we checked in at the YHA for $30 each. Expensive, but the knowledgeable and helpful girl on reception actually gave us a discount, that was YHA members price. The silver lining came when we went up to our room, a four share dorm with only us in it. The hostel as a whole too, is one of the best I have stayed in. It’s a huge old building in a great location. The massive and well equipped kitchen is in the basement, the common room has a huge flat screen TV with DVD player, a free pool table, free table tennis table and loads of board games. They offer day storage, the toilets and bathrooms are squeaky clean and the two nights sleep we had there were perfect. The friendly staff also book tours and gave us heaps on info on what to do while we were there. I suppose one bad point would be because the building is old, all the windows and doors have drafts, making the place as a whole, cold. Our room was freezing all the time but a sheet, duvet and blanket is enough to keep you warm throughout the night, just not great when you get out the shower. Although I’d definitely recommend.
After checking in we set off walking around the town. I was surprised how much it actually reminded me of Newcastle back home. The buildings are pretty much the same, all built in the same era, just a few stories shorter in Aus’s version. It’s a real funky city, and not very big. The council let empty shops out to budding young artists to showcase their talent, hence the amount of galleries around. Newcastle has the highest amount of professional artist per capita in Aus. This makes for a great atmosphere with the vibe carrying on through into shops and café decor. I’m not a great lover of art, but can appreciate a good painting or nicely decorated place and Newcastle has stacks of them.
We stopped for coffee in the arty Darby Street, walked along the flash Esplanade and around the port, stopped for more coffee in town, found the library and went round a gallery upstairs, which was excellent, stopped at the town hall, found Cole’s for dinner ingredients and Europcar to organise a motor for our trip to Hunters Valley the following day.
Hunters Valley. The tour to Hunters Valley was available for $60 a person through our hostel and we were seriously considering it as this was again something I had wanted to do the last time I was in Australia but too much alcohol prevented me from doing it. After asking the girl on reception about it however, she said it probably wouldn’t be worth my while as I don’t drink wine. Undeterred I still fancied it so she came up with the idea, and details to match, of taking a train, then a bus, hiring bikes, then busing and training it back. This sounded great although I had other concerns; the weather. It was forecast to be sunny but you never know and riding around Hunters Valley in the rain didn’t sound much fun. My next idea was to hire a car. Cue Europcar in Wickham and Dave who helped us out. $50 car hire, $20 insurance if we wanted it and 9am pickup. Dave did us a deal knocking $20 off the car hire and $10 off the insurance (this was confirmed by another guys receipt left in the glovebox from the day before) so if you need to hire a motor pop down to see Dave. What a great name too.
Next day we got the free bus down to Europcar, picked it up and off we went. It was a Nissan Tilda, (never heard of it? Me either). Nice motor, even for an automatic. We headed for Cessnock, the main town in the Hunters Valley and embarked on our twelve stop tour, we had previously highlighted on the map.
The first stop was Hunters Valley Chocolate Company on Lovedale Road. The HVCC has three sites throughout Hunters Valley but we chose this one in particular as it said in an Ad we read ‘recent expansion now includes a boutique chocolate and fudge-making facility at the Lovedale location where visitors are able to view Peter the chocolatier and Lorraine the fudge-maker preparing the range of chocolate and fudge for our stores’. Sounds good ah? It wasn’t really. Peter the chocolatier was knocking up some fudge behind a big glass screen and Lorraine was probably out the back counting the profits judging by how busy they were when we walked in. We did use the free tasters to full advantage though, chocolate coffee beans are a real treat, mint fudge, chocolate rocks were also good. The chilli chocolate was too hot for myself and B though.
After the chocolate place we needed some proper grub so we headed to Lovedale Smokehouse just down the road. This place was a bit daunting though as while we knew we had taken the right road, there was no confirmation as to where we were heading. Nevertheless we parked the car and walked towards the door but it wasn’t until we were right at the entrance that we noticed the small sign reading ‘Lovedale Smokehouse’. The shop was tiny, the main part of this place was the restaurant and café next door and the bird running cooking lessons outside. They had a good choice of smoked goods, meats, cheeses, fish and other produce from the surrounding companies like the chocolate we’d just been eating. After looking for five minutes or so the bloke asked us if we’d like to try anything, to which I said ‘there’s too much to choose from’ in a joking way. He then replied ‘well, if you can’t make up your mind, you don’t deserve to eat’, which then made me think fuck you so I asked to try the cheese. He got out a Smoked Gouda, Smoked Chicken Breast, Smoked Trout and Smoked Chorizo all on one plate. We both tried the odd few bits using the toothpicks given to us and then stuffed as many bits in our gobs as we could as soon as his back was turned. The cheese was phenomenal and the chicken breast wasn’t far behind. When we finished we left without buying anything for his insolence. We could tell he didn’t want us in there. Obviously not the right type of customer for the pretentious gimp. Keep on smokin’…
Full up on smoked goods and chocolate we headed for a liquid treat at Bluetongue Brewery and Cafe on Hermitage Road. We walked into the winery so B could try a few wines before I intended to sample the beers next door. Four wines in B’s gut we strolled to the brewery for the beer but had a shock. A tasting paddle was available, but for $15. Fuck that. It was six beers in glasses no bigger than double shot glass for £10. Time to move on.
Peckish again, we walked across the road to Binnorie Dairy where we hoped to sample, well, dairy stuff. Unfortunately Binnorie Dairy was made up of a pantry type shop and two old biddies behind a fridge counter. Any sample you wanted to try you had to ask and then they got out the ‘sample boxes’ which had pre-cut cheeses and things in them. I had a piece of swiss cheese which was nice and a piece of cheddar which was so strong it blew my head off. Mumraa behind the counter went on to tell me the cheddar was three years matured. That’s the oldest cheese I’ve ever had. By now we could see the fogies were getting impatient and so we felt we couldn’t ask for anymore free stuff. Thinking about lunch I thought what would go best folded over in a slice of the value bread I brought with me, lurking in the boot? The swiss cheese it was. I bought $7 worth and left.
Froggies Pâtisserie was next up. This was surrounded by an antiques shop and a couple of posh cafés we walked in, saw the prices, and walked out again. The pâtisserie was a bit crap, not the best I have been to. Most of the breads had gone and the cakes looked good, at best but far too expensive for me. £5 for a cake, I don’t think so.
Sitting in the car park, overlooking the half of society with money, B and I had swiss cheese and apple in folded bread and peanut butter sandwiches. No butter, but it was swiss cheese…
Full from lunch we went to check out the Hunter Valley Gardens Village incorporating The British Lolly Shop, the Hunters Valley Chocolate Company (again) and the Cookie Company. The British Lolly Shop was an old-fashioned sweet shop, with, granted, British sweets in there. I was going to buy something until the old hag who gave us one measly apple bon-bon upon entering said ‘for anyone who has just walked in and hasn’t had a complimentary sample already, would you like one?’. You tight bitch. I put down my packet of rhubarb and custard and left.
The HVCC was a carbon copy of the place we visited earlier on Lovedale Lane, minus the free samples. We hung about for a bit when we saw a bird clutching a straw tray with some choc on, do the quickest lap of the shop possible and retreating back behind the counter. I was hoping to cop a free chocolate button.
Peckish, we headed round the corner to the Cookie Company, where we had the amazing deal of a coffee and a cookie for $6, despite a coffee being $3 and a cookie being $3. The coffee was good and B liked the cookie, although I thought it was stale, she told me it’s supposed to be like that. As long as you’re happy, dear.
Back on the road and eager for more free stuff we drove to the Hunter Valley Cheese Factory. This was probably the best place for free samples. As you walk on there were two woman at separate stations giving fresh off cuts of cheese with or without crackers and out the back there was bread and various oils, dips and spreads for you to try. I had some great cheese there including the Pokolbin White Natural Rind and the Hunter Gold. The Irish Cheddar, appropriately waxed green, was OK. I asked the woman on the till when the advertised talk was supposed to begin as it was 3:05 and was supposed to start at 3pm, to which she said ‘follow me’ and took us out to a veranda where two huge glass windows were. She then spent the next ten minutes with us running through the process of cheese making and the type of cheeses they sell there, which was excellent. Thumbs up for this place.
A short drive across the road was the Australian Regional Foodstore and Cafe but by now I was sick of cheese and chocolate samples. Thankfully this place had crusty bread with jars of jams, preserves, spreads, sauces and toppings which kept us entertained for five minutes. We ate up and left before they could ask us if they could help us with anything.
Next up was Potters Brewery, and a huge disappointment. The brewery tour advertised at 12pm, 2pm and 4pm was $10 each and you could see the vats and pipes etc from inside the pub. We took pictures and left.
Our final visit was to Tinklers Vineyard and Produce, for the produce more than anything. We were greeted by an old but polite Aussie guy who asked us if we’d like to try some wine. I said I was driving and B was already wined out from earlier, the last wine she had was so sweet, she said it made her feel rough. He said he didn’t have much in the way of produce left. There was a basket on the table with oranges and lemons in and a sign that read ‘4 for $1′. They looked good and I’d noticed all the orange bushes outside so knew they were fresh so I handed over a dollar (backpackers ah?) to which he said ‘you can pick your own if you like’. We then went orange picking.
Verdict: Hunters was a great day out. Just an hour from Newcastle it’s cheaper to do tours from there than Sydney. If you’re really into wine though a trip round the vineyards and a stay at one of the hotels would be a good idea. For non-wino’s like me, hiring a car is the best and most cost-effective way to see it. $70 on the car and $30 on fuel for just under 300km and buggering off when you like, not having to wait for divs to finish sniffing, sloshing and spitting, is invaluable.
It was 5pm and we were still in Hunters Valley, aware it was only an hour back to Newcastle but with nothing to do. We pulled into a McDonald’s car park to use their Wi-Fi (cheers!) but still couldn’t find anything to do. We drove home, went to Cole’s, bought a tomato to go with my cheese and had cheese and tomato sandwiches in another McDonald’s car park. Classy.
When we picked the car up Dave did say to us to go up to Port Stephen, get on the ferry from Nelson Bay to the Tea Gardens and watch for the whales and dolphins. He said tour companies charge $80 a piece for basically the same thing. He even said get the car back to him for 11:45 and call it quits. That sounded great so using McDonald’s Wi-Fi we looked into it. Unfortunately, the ferry left at 8:30am, 12pm and 3:30pm and took an hour. It was an hours drive to so taking into the account the return leg we were just an hour short to get the car back, he shut at midday too so it was out of the question. If I was to rewind knowing what I know now, I’d got to Port Stephens in the morning and do Hunters in the afternoon, knocking a couple of the places we stopped at in Hunters on the head.
Next day we got and dropped the car back to Dave, wasting most of it sitting in Newcastle’s great cafés drinking coffee and eating egg and bacon rolls. We did do The Lock Up Museum and Art Gallery and Newcastle Heritage Walk though.
The Lock Up Museum and Art Gallery. Located on Hunter Street, the Lock Up is Newcastle’s old police station, renovated into a museum and opened to the public for free (donations welcome).
The building is a fine example of Newcastle’s rich colonial heritage and has been exceptionally restored to its full former glory. The museum is small but poignant, displaying artifacts and uniforms, as well as the old typewriter used by officers, finger print taking equipment and other bits and bobs. The cells used to keep prisoners are open and well-lit, with the original metal bar doors attached. The padded cell is believed to be the best example in Australia. Theres a well explained piece detailing the history of the building including its uses throughout it’s time. Newcastle’s police force were locking criminals up there until 1984!
The gallery next door is used to showcase local artists work, as many empty shops are in Newcastle. Well displayed and available to buy, it’s worth a look around. Verdict: Half an hour well spent. www.thelockup.info.
Newcastle Heritage Walk. The walk took about an hour but we did cut off the last few stops as it was freezing walking around Newcastle’s beach. The walk is a great introduction into Newcastle and shouldn’t be missed for the sake of an hour. The history of the place is enthralling, much because, it’s our history. Everything done here is from our descendents and is interesting to say the least. The walk takes in Watt Street and Customs House (now a pub), the Convict Lumber Yard, Newcastle East residential district, the Jean Perrett stairs leading to the former rail marshalling yards and old commercial wharf, past the old Zaara Street Power Station and to Nobbys Road, where Fort Scratchley is. Along the promenade and to the Ocean Baths, past the old gaol site, down to the beach on to the site of the former Royal Newcastle Hospital, then back down through Pacific Park and into Watt street. Verdict: Worth doing it. www.visitnewcastle.com.au.
Newcastle was brilliant. When we arrived, we were the only ones who got off the coach and driving in, we could see why. It looked run down and ropey but stay for a bit you soon discover there’s something a bit special beneath the industrial exterior. Heading to or from Sydney, stop for a day or two in Newcastle and stay in Newcastle YHA. I’ll be surprised if you’re disappointed.