If you’re yearning for some old-fashioned country hospitality, head to the Upper Hunter Valley. Debbie Southern discovers seven majestic towns that have nothing to do with wine.
We’ve all heard of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, but just north lies the Upper Hunter Valley, a region that deserves to be explored.
North-west of Newcastle, the Upper Hunter Valley is three hours’ drive from Sydney. It is perfect for those looking to discover old-fashioned country hospitality, wilderness areas, historic buildings and world-class horse studs.
Known as Upper Hunter Country, the region lays claim to be the horse capital of Australia, and it is also the gateway to the wilderness of the Wollemi, Goulburn River and Barrington Tops national parks. Grazing, cropping and dairy farming have long been part of this countryside, but now sit alongside the mighty mining ventures, which have carved out a firm hold on the rich region also.
Like its cousin, the Hunter Valley, you will find plenty of fabulous food and festivals, and yes, the region is also home to a number of boutique wineries, but there is so much more to discover in Upper Hunter Country. Each of the towns – Scone, Aberdeen, Muswellbrook, Denman, Jerry’s Plains, Merriwa and Murrurundi – are distinctly different and offer a myriad of holiday experiences.
Scone lays claim to the title of Horse Capital of Australia, and it’s easy to see why. Scone is home to the Australian Stock Horse Society Museum. The annual Scone Horse Festival, held next month, features the prestigious Scone Cup, one of the richest country racing days in Australia. Scone caters to diverse interests, recently drawing thousands of vintage plane lovers to the Warbirds over Scone event. And for the nature-lovers, the town is also on the doorstep of the Barrington Tops National Park and its World Heritage-listed rainforest.
As the name suggests, Aberdeen is steeped in Scottish heritage, and is one of the first settlements in the Upper Hunter Valley. Wandering around the town you will discover plaques set into the footpaths and on buildings, identifying the historic places of Aberdeen’s colourful past. The town even hosts its own annual Aberdeen Highland Games, with everything from pipe bands and Scottish dancers and even a tug of war! For the water enthusiasts, Lake Glenbawn is just a few kilometres east of Aberdeen.
The region’s largest town is Muswellbrook, known for mining, energy and horse breeding, but also for food and wine production. A 4.5 kilometre heritage walk takes visitors past stately old buildings dating back to the mid-1800s. Visitors should sample the treats at the Hunter Belle Cheese Café and factory. You can wash the local cheeses down with a Hunter wine or boutique beer, and finish off with gelato or fudge.
In Denman we enjoyed a drink at the Royal Hotel in the centre of town. If you’d prefer something a little more private, head to Pukara Estate’s Denman Tasting Room where you can sample olives, extra virgin olive oils, vinegars and gourmet condiments. Two Rivers Winery is home to Custodians of the Landscape, series of sandstone sculptures by artist Ben Dearnley that depict the local landscapes. It’s the perfect place to enjoy an antipasti plate served up with a local verdelho.
5. Jerry’s Plains
At Jerry’s Plains, the southern gateway to Upper Hunter Country, lush green pastures line the roadside, and immaculate, fenced paddocks, stables and yards herald the grandeur of two of the country’s biggest horse studs. You can join a tour of the stud farms to learn about the history, breeding and training of these mighty thoroughbreds. Nestled between the horse studs is Hollydene Estate Wines, on the Golden Highway, with its vineyard, cellar door and restaurant.
If Scone is the horse capital, Merriwa is the home of Pony Club. Cows, sheep, goats, horses, and ponies rule the region. Merriwa’s Festival of the Fleeces celebrates the area’s rich agricultural history each June long weekend. Walking around the town’s main street, the façades of the old buildings tell the story of early settlement dating back to the mid-1840s. At the Old Colonial Cottage, home to the Merriwa Historical Society, we marvelled at the hardwood shingle roof and convict blocks forged so long ago.
Just north of Scone and one hour south of Tamworth is the quaint town of Murrurundi, an art lover’s paradise. Wander the streets past the heritage-listed buildings, the art galleries, eateries and cafes, full of character and eclectic style. On the way out, stop and take a stroll over the old suspension bridge, built before the First World War – it’s a photographer’s dream in the early morning light of day.
A feast of Upper Hunter Valley festivals to devour
The 38th annual Scone Horse Festival runs from 4–13 May.
Denman hosts the Upper Hunter Wine and Food Affair in May.
The annual Aberdeen Highland Games will be held on 7 July.
The Blue Heeler Film Festival is held in Muswellbrook mid-September and the Bottoms Up craft beer and music festival in October.
Accommodation: 10 refreshingly refined Hunter Valley stays