Route 33 is ‘the back way’ to the Hunter Valley, and it’s a place of artisans and creatives. The whole area is brimming with strange and delightful discoveries, like these, numbers 7, 8, 9, 10 on Australian Traveller’s ‘100 amazing places you haven’t been to yet‘. Nominated by: Georgia Rickard, AT editor; Elise Hassey, travel photographer.
7. A bushland loungeroom
Blair Athol Estate in Wollombi is a stunning 283-hectare heritage property run by an ex-city slicker with romantic sensibilities.
“I found this place by accident,” says AT editor Georgia Rickard, “and I’m so glad I did.” She lists the “beautifully modern” gardens, “sleek” accommodation and the property’s 12 walking tracks as highlights, but nothing compared to the food experiences they offer, she says.
Wake up to an organic, locally produced basket of fruit, vegetables, muesli, eggs, milk and other assortments; book in lunch on the lily-covered dam, or ask for Rickard’s favourite: the hilltop twilight picnic.
“Staff transport the contents of an entire lounge room, complete with sofas, armchairs, lanterns, vasefuls of fresh, native flowers, and candlesticks to the top of an escarpment overlooking the valley,” she explains.
“You can watch the sun set with nothing but wallabies and birdsong for company. It’s just blissful.” From $340 per night.
8. The alcoholic (but organic!) picnic trail
It’s near impossible to earn official organic status in the Hunter*, but organic principles are best, ‘status’ or not, say the guys at Stonehurst Wines (cedarcreekcottages.com.au). This is worth a stop-off because everything here is as well-considered as their wine, says Rickard, right down to the reclaimed convict bricks used to build their accommodation.
(Look out for individually shaped stamps on each one: the poor buggers had to stamp their bricks each day so their boss could keep tabs).
“Grab a cheeseboard from their cellar door and take yourself for a picnic – the entire property is at your disposal.” Alternatively, head up the road to sustainable Broke winery, Margan – the place to enjoy a ‘100-metre meal’, in which everything – from the lamb, to the wine, to the honey – is grown at 20 muddy paces from the restaurant door.
Then stop at whimsical Krinklewood winery on the way back – their biodynamic wines have won a swag of awards, and come with a complimentary pat of the on-site peacock. If you can convince him to be petted, that is.
9. Designer sleep-ins with a famous chef
The dishes of Armando Percuoco, chef and owner of long-time Sydney institution Buon Ricordo, are always crowd-pleasers, and his one-bedroom Laguna retreat, which sits nestled among twinkling olive groves, is just as delicious, says Rickard.
“This retreat has been around for a few years now, but Armando does no publicity whatsoever for the property, so most people still don’t know about it,” she states. And they should.
“The entire place is an exercise in his priorities: food, wine and coffee,” she says. “Outside, an enormous kitchen garden houses everything from quince to kale and a selection of stunning (and stunningly expensive) sculptures worth wandering about. Inside is a space that’s had a lot of thought put into it: a fully-equipped kitchen, directional lights, heated Italian sandstone floors and of course, that bath.”
With nothing but smudgy green rows of olive trees and the wavy shoulders of distant mountain lines for company, this could be the spot to finally have that Pretty Woman bath moment. From $380 per night; BYO headphones.
10. Games among the gums (and… a cinema?)
Is it possible Bruno Giagu, owner of restaurant Paninos, got hungry after all the years he spent working with fashion models? The former magazine publisher, responsible for ’80s bible Follow Me (remember that?) and the more recent Russh moved here in 2006 to feed Wollombi locals, and his food is the antithesis of the iceberg and water diet.
Lashings of garlic, chilli and olive oil seem to be his answer to most questions, even on unsuspecting victims like porcini mushroom pizza (a combination that answers itself, first bite in).
But that’s not why you should come here, says photographer Elise Hassey – it’s the sweet little scene you’ll find out the back of the restaurant you must see.
“Picture a gorgeous little garden with a handful of chairs and tables to plonk yourself in, and a giant chessboard on one side of the lawn, and you’re getting the idea,” she says.
“On hot summer nights, Bruno also sets up an outdoor cinema and plays classics like Casablanca, that you cnwatch from your picnic rug.”
With a glass of the local for company, perhaps.
Return to: 100 Amazing Places You Haven’t Been to Yet
* (from Number 8 above: Neighbourhood pesticide use puts nearly all wineries in ‘the spray zone’, effectively tainting all local wineries (bar a few, such as Tamburlaine winery and Krinklewood winery)