Spend a wine themed weekend in the Hunter Valley.
By Ellie Schneider
Australia's oldest wine region is home to 120 wineries, award winning restaurants and beautiful hotels, adding up to the perfect culinary escape. Drive two hours north from Sydney to discover the beauty of the Hunter Valley.
Check in to Spicers Vineyards Estate in Pokolbin, a five-star guesthouse set among native bushland. Suites have bluestone fireplaces and the option of a private courtyard or balcony with views over the wines. Hire bikes from nearby Grapemobile Bicycle Hire to explore the Hunter Valley's fabulous scenery of rolling hills, country laneways and dairy farms. Stop for a relaxed lunch within the Tuscan-inspired courtyard of Café Enzo, where you can dine on linguine with tiger prawns, or pork cheek and pistachio terrine.
There are scores of wineries to visit in the Hunter Valley, and you can easily drive or cycle between them. Start at picturesque Audrey Wilkinson, which is perched atop the foothills of the Brokenback Ranges, and serves excellent semillions at its country house tasting room. Sample chardonnay and shiraz at the country estate of Oakvale Wines, which has been in operation since 1893. At Usher Tinkler indulge in wines or whiskey matched with prosciutto, truffle salumi and camembert within the beautifully restored Pokolbin Church. In the evening dine at multi-award-winning Muse restaurant on dishes such as New Zealand king salmon sashimi, Redgate Farm duck leg and roasted Rothbury mandarin ice cream with coffee cream.
Wake early for a one hour sunrise hot air balloon ride with Balloon Aloft. You'll rise high above the vineyards of Pokolbin, Lovedale, Rothbury and Broke, before enjoying a decadent champagne breakfast at Peterson House Winery. Afterwards, tee off at one of the Hunter Valley's championship golf courses including the 18-hole, Greg Norman-designed Vintage Golf Club. Or take a stroll through the enchanting 24 hectare (60 acre) Hunter Valley Gardens. Ten themed gardens, including the Rose Garden and Storybook Garden, showcase a diverse variety of botanic beauty.
Unwind at Spa Elysia at Golden Door Health Retreat, Australia's largest day spa. Indulge in the 170 minute Spa Fusion (AUD$310), which includes a Swedish massage, customised facial and pedi spa. Book well in advance for dinner at EXP. and delve into its tasting menu over five or eight courses with matching wines (AUD$135-$175 per person). The menu showcases local ingredients – many of which are sourced from the kitchen garden – and includes dishes such as Fraser Island spanner crab with ink pasta, Petuna ocean trout and native pepper berry meringue and lime.
Get your hands dirty with one of the Hunter Valley's fantastic cooking classes, which specialise in everything from Thai to Vietnamese, Indonesian and Italian cuisine. At boutique winery Sandalyn Wilderness Estate, in Lovedale, students are taught the time-honoured art of making pasta. Join the hands-on class (AUD$135 per person), which runs for three hours in the estate's cellar, and concludes with a two-course lunch in the garden. Alternatively, join Lovedale Smokehouse chef and owner Ben Sales for an informative class on smoking and curing meats (AUD$80 per person).
Before you hop in the car for the journey back to Sydney, stock up on some of the Hunter's delicious regional produce. Sample handmade Belgium chocolate and fudge at the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company or watch cheesemaking in action at The Hunter Valley Cheese Factory. Drop into the Small Winemakers Centre, which combines multiple wineries in the one location and offers an excellent variety of reds and whites. For the ultimate 3pm sugar hit, make reservations at popular dessert bar Sabor. The "adults only" menu includes Portuguese mousse, Mars Bar cheesecake and a chocolate dipping plate, each paired with a local wine.