The Hunter Valley is known around the world for its flourishing food and wine scene. But the region also appeals to travellers because of the plethora of activities on offer.
In addition to its 150 cellar doors, an escape to the Hunter Valley could involve everything from horse riding through some of Australia’s oldest vines to picnics in the picturesque countryside, hot-air ballooning, paint-and-sip sessions, Segway tours, wellness retreats and much more besides.
Whether you’re a teetotaller or a wine buff, a couple looking for romance, a group of hens in party mode, or a family looking for an escape to the country, we’ve got you covered with our list of the best things to do in the Hunter Valley.
Best for: romantics
1. Hot-air ballooning
Rise above the Earth in the buttery light of dawn to get a birds’-eye view of the Hunter Valley during a hot-air balloon ride, which is one of the most romantic things to do in the Hunter Valley. The view from above as the horizon is smudged in a burnt orange hue is spectacular and watching the pre-dawn light paint the landscape is a quiet kind of thrill.
Balloon Aloft, Beyond Ballooning and Hunter Valley Ballooning all set off at sunrise. Plump for the Balloon Aloft experience, which includes breakfast and bubbles at Petersen House Winery, and make the experience even more memorable by popping the question.
2. Scenic flights
The Hunter Valley stretches over about 30,000 square kilometres, which means seeing it from above has its advantages as you can cover a lot of ground. Ask Aero Logistics Helicopters to curate a bespoke itinerary that includes visits to the many cutting-edge cellar doors peppered across the region.
Plane spotters will also savour the experience of doing loop-de-loops in one of Australia’s rarest war birds, a Yak 52, an experience with Aerohunter that is best enjoyed before sampling the local wines.
Skydiving with Skydive Hunter is the best bucket-list idea for lovebirds.
3. Picnic in a vineyard
Lying on a red-checked blanket in a field threaded with vines is about as romantic as it gets. You can ask Miss Mays Picnics to put together a luxurious styled spread with one of the Hunter Valley wineries it partners with.
You can also forage for ingredients yourself at foodie pit stops such as Lovedale Smokehouse Gourmet Pantry, the Hunter Valley Smelly Deli, Pukara Estate Pokolbin, Binnorie Dairy Cheese and Tinkler Fresh Seasonal Produce.
Those keen on self-catering can plonk down at one of various vineyards that have BBQ facilities, too. See winecountry.com.au for inspiration.
4. Enjoy a dinner date
You will be spoilt for choice in the Hunter Valley if your other half is a foodie. Instead of doing dinner, you could shake things up and do brunch or lunch, as there are many great places to eat and drink in the region.
When it comes to romantic restaurants, Bistro Molines should be on the list. Two-hatted Muse Restaurant is also a must, with its swish staff, playful platings and food that’s so carefully cooked. Ask for a corner table at 1813 or Margan Estate, both great places to impress a first date.
Enjoy a horse-and-carriage ride with Hunter Valley Classic Carriages back to your room at Billabong Moon, Winmark Wines or Talits Estate, a few of the most romantic places to stay in the Hunter Valley.
Best for: families
5. Visit the Hunter Valley Zoo
Families have been coming to the Hunter Valley for years for a host of different reasons. And now, with the amount of time children are spending on screens, being surrounded by stunning Aussie bushland provides families with a chance to recalibrate. The Hunter Valley Zoo can facilitate that.
The zoo is spread out over four hectares, making it doable for little legs to bounce between enclosures. Children can see Australian birds, native mammals and reptiles as well as African animals such as lions and cheetahs. The zoo is located in Nukulba, five minutes from Cessnock.
6. Hunter Valley Gardens
Whether walking along leaf-strewn paths in autumn, picnicking under a protective canopy in summer, or falling into the pages of fairy tales in the Storybook Garden, Hunter Valley Gardens will take your children far away from the distractions of technology.
Get onboard the Hunter Valley Gardens Train to explore the 14-hectare property, which features Aqua Golf and Putt Putt as well as permanent rides such as a Ferris wheel and Superslide.
Book into the nearby Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley, which has a new splash park, and keep your promise to return for the Christmas Lights Spectacular in December, Easter Egg Hunt in April and Snow Time in June.
7. Enjoy a tailored family-friendly tasting
Sometimes a bit of space to run and jump is all that is required to keep children happy. At other times, you may need to bribe them with sugar to sit still (until the sugar kicks in that is).
Tullochs and Saddlers Creek both offer great child-tasting options. While the adults will love sitting and sipping six top drops at Tulloch Wines, a specially prepared kids’ tasting of four different soft drinks with matching snacks is on offer.
Other kid-friendly cellar doors include Scarborough Wine Co. which has hula hoops, giant Jenga and skipping ropes, and RidgeView Wines, which has old-school Totem Tennis and fish to feed in the dams.
Best for: a hen’s weekend
8. Enjoy a food-focused itinerary
The best kind of hens’ weekend involves getting together with your gal pals and trying to improve your culinary repertoire and kitchen skills. Perhaps you want to master paella? Maybe you want to learn how to make artisan cheese? Or join a low and slow smoking class?
The cooking classes on offer in the Hunter Valley are all pretty casual, so you get to enjoy a bit of tableside chatter followed by a spot of lunch or dinner without having to worry about the washing up. Book ahead for Majors Lane Cooking School, Our Italian Table, Lovedale Smokehouse Café & Gourmet Cooking School.
9. Pamper yourself with a posh picnic
Boyd & Co will do private in-house catering when you book a stay at Tinonee Vineyard Estate (at the 1813 cellar door), one of the most beautiful places to stay amid the vines and roses of the tranquil Broke Fordwich region of the Hunter Valley. Miss May’s Picnics can also come to the party with themes that range from ‘Retro Vintage’ to ‘Amalfi Coast’ depending on your vibe and tribe.
10. Indulge in a day spa or wellness retreat
If you’re organising your best friend’s hen’s weekend away, it’s likely there will be a handful of cellar doors and a sprinkle of great restaurants on the itinerary.
But if the bride-to-be and your fellow bridesmaids would like to include an emphasis on exercise and balance out the wine with a bit of wellness, you can factor in a massage at Heavenly Hunter Massage in Pokolbin, Bhutra Thai Massage and Ubika Spa.
Best for: wine lovers
11. Pick up a paintbrush
Master the art of painting en plein air at Gemelli Estate during a Paint and Sip session inspired by the surrounding landscape.
Those who lack confidence when it comes to picking up a paintbrush are made to feel at ease in the classes, led by local artists Amy O’Donnell who encourages a laid-back fun-filled experience that includes a wine tasting, cheese and much laughter over lunch.
Participants will get to take away their works of art, which serve as a memento of a great weekend. You can also stay on in the garden at Gemelli Estate for high tea, which includes a glass of wine.
12. The Twilight Margan Experience
The sustainable philosophy driving Margan Estate gently threads through the entire property and the Twilight Margan Experience is one of the most meaningful things to do in the Hunter Valley.
The adventure starts with a vermouth cocktail while wandering through the kitchen garden, around the olive grove and past the tangled vines for a behind-the-scenes tour of the winery, which includes a tasting of wines yet to be released from the barrel.
Learn how the single-vineyard wines are produced – from the grape to the glass – as the sun sets on the day. The twilight experience, held over summer, includes an off-grid degustation dinner in the restaurant.
13. The Ultimate Winery Experience
Hunter Valley is home to some of the oldest vines in Australia and you will visit three of the region’s most respected during an Ultimate Winery Experience tour dubbed Icons of the Hunter.
This terroir tour will give wine enthusiasts a better understanding of how the different sub regions affect the wine in a trifecta of signature experiences, which also vary vineyard to vineyard at Audrey Wilkinson, Brokenwood and Tyrrell’s.
Gemtree Wines has partnered with senior cultural custodian of Yellaka to share Tirkandi – Culture, Connection and Country, for another inspired Ultimate Winery Experience.
Best for: non drinkers
14. Attend a music festival
There are plenty of things you can do in the Hunter Valley without wine, whether you’re a teetotaller, sober-curious, or attempting Dry July. For starters, there’s the world-class restaurants, then there’s everything from hiking to hot air ballooning and even unwinding at a day spa.
Those who want to see another side to the Hunter Valley region should time their visit to coincide with one of the region’s annual music festivals. Circle January 29 on your calendar as that’s when Summersalt 2022 rolls into the region with an outstanding line-up of musicians including John Butler, The Cat Empire, Boy & Bear and Emily Wurramara.
Non-drinkers might also be keen on a kombucha tasting at Tulloch Wines.
15. Horse riding in the Hunter Valley
Reject the need to rush around to as many Hunter Valley wineries as you can and instead explore the terrain on horseback. Although Murchessons Horseback Wine & Dine Tours do include alcoholic beverages, the ride can also be tailored to suit teetotallers and designated drivers, too.
The relaxed rides, which caters to everyone from beginners to advanced, has two guides and a maximum of six riders per trek. Plod through the fields and vineyards of Hanging Tree Wines and Iron Gate Estate and take time to appreciate the countryside with a picnic in the picturesque countryside.
16. Yoga in the Vines
Pick up an electric bike from Sutton Estate Electric Bike Hire to explore the Hunter Valley, which is ribboned with bike paths, including the 10-kilometre cycleway along Hermitage Road.
Flick the switch to Turbo and flit between the different dairies marked on your wine country map, such as Binnorie Dairy, Hunter Belle Cheese, Hunter Valley Cheese Factory or Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese. The Hunter Valley Resort is one of the most family-friendly places to stay in the Hunter Valley and it’s from here that visitors can also set off with Segway Tours Hunter Valley along an old 1880s stock route, which is fringed with beautiful bush land.