The Hunter Valley is well regarded as one of Australia’s favourite gastronomic escapes of epic adult proportions – but did you know your littlies will love it too?
Exploring the verdant valleys of the Hunter is such a sensory experience – pretty vine-clad hills, homemade gourmet fare and the cutest places to peruse and – the best bit – over 150 cellar doors from which to sample! And while Australia’s oldest wine region is perennially popular for all sorts of adult adventures – families can also get their fill, collecting memories fuelled by feasting, fun and the freedom to uncover this beautiful region affectionately known as The Hunter.
But first – Smelly Cheese…
Stocking up at the Smelly Cheese Shop in Polkobin could be considered an indulgent sport. Hundreds of gourmet items fill shelves, counters and cool rooms made by the store itself (Smelly’s have their own range) and an array of clever local providores and artisans. My favourite part is tasting my way around the store, with cheese, breads, meats, chutneys and jams to choose from, and Gelato – the very best Hunter Valley Gelato – served from a counter from which I found the kids glued to the glass with their little spoons and puppy dog eyes at the ready for free tasting.
If it all gets a little much (and be warned, this is indulgence overload), let the experts choose your cheese plate for you, with petite after dinner packs right through to family picnic size. I was convinced that we needed a tasting plate of gelato…which, at $15 for 6 selections, represented great value for the kids to share ($7 a serve otherwise)… #winning.
Opening the cellar door…
There are over 150 cellar doors calling the Hunter home, but with the kids in tow, we opted for Scarborough Wine Co, where a complimentary kids zone includes a massive level grass area, blackboards, outdoor games and cosy picnic blankets for families to help themselves to. We were so warmly welcomed into the family home where the wine tasting takes place, and guided through the $20 per person SIP experience in a beautiful garden-facing room, while the kids frolicked happily outside (and in view) on the grass. Since 1990 Scarborough Wine Co have been nurturing their batch of wines, and we tried the Offshoot, Classic and “The Obsessive” ranges in between cleansing our palettes on delectable charcuterie. You could easily turn a few hours into an afternoon here, and don’t resist wandering the sprawling property complete with mulberry trees and rows of vines backdropped against the commanding Brokenback Ranges, which is the Hunter at its very best.
Hunter Valley Gardens has been surprising and delighting visitors since 2003 when owners Bill and Imelda Roche (of Nutrimedics success) turned over 60 acres of Hunter Valley land into a whimsical garden complete with 10 international-themed gardens and series of unique sculptures and fountains. With marble sourced from the same place in Italy where Michaelangelo gathered his, and a rose garden known as the “Grandmother Garden” paying homage to the bond between Imelda Roche and her 13 grandchildren (all immortalised here in bronze), the enchantment is an ageless experience for all.
My daughter (5) adored the storybook garden, with life-sized nursery rhyme scenes, giant books to read along the way and characters including Alice in Wonderland having tea, Humpty Dumpty about to fall off a wall, and Wee Willie Winkie running through the town. For me, it was the rose garden, with 125 varieties and over 2 million roses in resplendent bloom. Their delicate perfume filled the air, and with petals gently sprinkling at my toes, it was a nostalgic moment that reminded me of my very own grandmother who had a thing for beautiful roses, too. Annually there is a Rose Spectacular (October to November) and the fabled Christmas lights spectacular, with thousands of glittering lights, Santa’s Workshop, rides and always plenty of festive fun for the kids to enjoy.
Stay in relaxed, family style…
With tummies treated and the fun meter passing full throttle, we checked into nearby Cypress Lakes by Oaks Hotels & Resorts for a rest. Celebrating 25 years this year, the rooms have been recently refurbished and are spacious and modern, set amidst manicured grounds that include a PGA championship golf course (perfect for putting dads) and a range of leisure facilities, including 3 pools, two restaurants and a bar area. Our 2 bedroom apartment had a full kitchen, laundry (so handy,) and an outdoor dining area overlooking a bushy escarpment that was home to curious kangaroos and kookaburras. With the living downstairs and bedrooms upstairs, it is ideal for when the kids were sleeping that we could linger longer over the cheese platter and a quiet bottle of local hunter Semillon (or two)…alone.
One last glass…
For a story steeped in the very history that has carved out the Hunter as one of Australia’s most renowned, make a visit to Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard.
The Wilkinson family acquired the winery in 1866 and today, Audrey Wilkinson represents one of the oldest but also most notable wineries in the Hunter Valley. Audrey, the family’s firstborn son, was just 15 years old when his father died. He took the helm and rose as one the early pioneers of the Australian wine industry, not only because of his pursuit for quality, but also because of his development of leading technologies, including cement fermenters and steam-powered crushers and hopper.
In 1916 Audrey took out the Gold Medal for Claret at the Sydney Wine Show, and some 90 years later in 2006, the Agnew family, who acquired the winery in 2004, took home 12 trophies and 20 gold medals for Audrey Wilkinson museum Semillon, the winery’s most awarded wine.
Today, my children run freely through this beautiful winery on the hill in the very vines that Audrey planted while I sit enjoying a glass born from his toil. Alongside me sits a succulent seafood picnic lunch that the winery serves for $65 to be enjoyed on the grounds that Audrey nurtured. I imagine he would have sat here too, maybe not alongside the indulgence I am now privy too, but certainly daydreaming into that stellar view. I raise my glass – to Audrey – and to a weekend where the whole family got to enjoy their own little slice – be it food, fun, wine or history. There really is something here to suit every palette.
Getting there: Newcastle Airport is around a 45-minute drive from the Hunter Valley. Alternatively, driving, training or busing up from Sydney is another option.
*Disclosure – A Little At Large was a guest of Oaks Hotels & Resorts