Alongside its heritage appeal and jaw-dropping wilderness areas, Armidale and its surrounding towns and villages boast world-class art, funky small bars and even a bohemian boutique distillery, writes Imogen Eveson.
Driving down an unsealed backroad in the New England High Country, I consider the correlations between the rural landscape here and that of its namesake nation. Sheep graze in flat-as-a-tack paddocks edged by low wooden fences and studded with old farm buildings and rusting apparatus; so far, so bucolic. I can understand why this cool-climate pocket of northern New South Wales – perched on the Great Dividing Range and first inhabited by the Indigenous Anaiwan people – was given its name by the European settlers who trampled on through in the early 1800s to establish a livelihood for themselves on its fertile plains.
The road takes us to the edge of the World Heritage-listed Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, where we walk a few metres through the wattle until the land falls away. This lookout point at Dangars Gorge and Falls reveals a sweeping panorama of deep chasms hugged by eucalyptus trees for as far as the eye can see. I have no doubt I’m in Australia now.
This is gorge country: a spectacular wilderness carved into the Northern Tablelands that formed over millions of years as rivers and streams cut their way through the rock that forms the plateau. We absorb it in huge lungfuls as we walk McDirty’s track, a six-kilometre round trip that follows the rim of Dangars Gorge; and gain a whole new wide-angled perspective later on a scenic helicopter flight with Fleet Adventures, tracing the sharp contours of the ridges and valleys and chasing riverbeds looking for wild brumbies.
The region rivals the Blue Mountains in beauty and drama but beats it by a country mile in terms of the solitude you can find so easily. It’s on the doorstep of the region’s capital and yet you can fly straight along the highway – flanked by pretty pastoral scenes – and not even realise it’s here. And it’s just one of many surprises to be had from a few days in Armidale and its nearby towns and villages – an area that delivers on the promise of wholesome rural charm but packs plenty of punch on top.
Driving from Sydney to Armidale
Two days earlier, it takes me and my friend just over six hours to reach Australia’s highest city from Sydney; you can fly into Armidale Airport, but a road trip is half the fun. We follow the scenic Thunderbolts Way (a drive named after ‘gentleman bushranger’ Captain Thunderbolt who once roamed the region), which twists and turns through the landscape taking in views of the striking Barrington Tops and cute towns like Walcha with its quirky open-air sculptures.
Exploring Armidale’s streets
The streetscape of Armidale reflects the lofty ambitions of those early settlers in the prosperous, post-gold rush days of the late 19th century. It boasts cathedrals and grand public buildings including the heritage-listed post office and courthouse, as well as those associated with the University of New England (UNE) including Arts and Crafts-style country mansion Booloominbah (formerly the summer residence of the White family – but more on them later) and the Old Teachers’ College, built on the site of the 1863 Armidale Gaol.
Staying in luxury at Loloma Bed & Breakfast
Its tree-lined streets are home to many heritage houses, and we’re lucky to be staying in one of the finest. Loloma was built in 1882, three years before Armidale was proclaimed a city, and has been transformed into a luxury bed and breakfast. Beautifully renovated with all mod-cons, it retains late Victorian features including iron lacework, cedar joinery and marble mantles. Our Ruby Suite – one of just two guest rooms – features antique furniture and silk drapes, but also has a smart TV with Netflix; our beautiful Federation-style en suite is complemented with L’Occitane amenities and underfloor heating.
In the morning we eat in the sunny glass conservatory that connects the Ruby to the Sapphire Suite. Our host Rhonda Morris, who has poured so much love and attention to detail into this boutique property, serves a sumptuous affair of a fresh fruit platter, yoghurt and French toast prepared to perfection.
A tasting tour of the Tablelands
Set up for the day, we embark on the ideal way to get the lay of the land. A tasting tour through the New England High Country, Wayward Trails is the brainchild of Deb O’Brien: the happy outcome of a midlife crisis, as she tells us en route to our first stop. “Instead of going out and getting a fast car, I made a conscious decision to be happy,” she says. “I decided to leave my career of 10 years and invent a job for myself.”
She’s in her element today connecting visitors to the best food and beverage producers in the region and helping to share their stories. It’s behind-the-scenes, paddock-to-plate stuff that provides more insight than your average cellar-door experience and takes out the trials – the missed turn-offs and conflicting signposts and all – of navigating your own way through the countryside.
Our tour kicks off in Uralla, a historic town 25 kilometres south-west of Armidale that’s known locally as a foodie hub. Later in the day we’ll return here for a wholefood lunch in an old church and sample a tasting paddle at the New England Brewing Company in a converted woolstore, but for now we’re at the Alternate Root, a cafe and shop based in the 1908 general store where the architecture – exposed brickwork and vaulted pressed-metal ceilings – threatens to steal the show from the excellent coffee, delicious food and cool local wares also on offer.
We drive out of town and into the bronze-green countryside; despite signs of spring, Deb notes, the region is very much still in drought and has been for most of the decade. She stresses the imperative on farmers to evolve and diversify their businesses in order to find alternative income streams and help safeguard themselves during hard times. Sunhill Dairy Goats, not far from Uralla, is one such local success story. We meet its happy residents and leave with a stash of farmhouse goat’s cheese and handmade goat’s milk skincare products.
Embracing Moulin rouge and sumac gin
Next up is an incongruous encounter with a maverick Hollywood cinematographer turned award-winning distiller based in the sleepy village of Kentucky. Stepping into the speakeasy at Dobson’s Distillery (part of Eastview Estate, which also houses a restaurant and brewery) feels like entering the set of Moulin Rouge!, and this isn’t a coincidence. Stephen Dobson – who runs the joint with his wife Lyn – worked on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie and his predilection towards bohemian, Belle Époque aesthetics filters through to the artful labels he designs himself for his bottles.
We pull up a barstool to a smoky jazz soundtrack for a tasting and immersion in Stephen’s world of mash-ups and surprises. A showman of a man whose language is as lyrical as it is colourful, he describes the various merits of his award-winning gins, whiskies and vodkas. There’s the New England Dry Gin that, when we meet, has just taken out double gold at the San Francisco Spirits World Cup – the Olympics of spirits. “We’ve never entered a major world-class competition and not been first, second or third,” Stephen points out. That he only uses fresh seasonal botanicals and that Kentucky is blessed with some of the purest recorded rainfall in Australia surely has something to do with it.
He introduces us to his world-first sumac gin, extolling the virtues of berries that bear close chemical resemblance to juniper, yet are largely poisonous (the variety he uses, it’s worth noting, is not) and add a unique tangy finish to a classic dry gin. And from the radical to the unashamedly flowery, Stephen’s blush gin is his “paean to 4711 grandmas” – a nostalgic nod to the classic cologne – made with hibiscus, rose, strawberry and elderflower, flavours that conjure up croquet lawns and summer teas. “It’s big, blousy and the label alone looks like a Victorian wallpaper print.”
There’s pure vodka, triple-distilled whiskey and a ‘litmus’ sweet pea gin that changes colour when mixed that was created, label and all, by Stephen’s son Josh. We finish our trip – and a trip it has been – with a taste of Le Caf, a decadent Canadian maple syrup and espresso liqueur served with a float of vanilla ice-cream.
Finding small bar central
From one innovative drinking hole to another, we round off our Wayward Trail at The Welder’s Dog back in Armidale, opened almost five years ago by schoolmates and later UNE buddies Daniel Emery and Tom Croft. It was the distinct changes in each season and the laid-back lifestyle that drove them to open up shop here, says Daniel, “and we felt strongly the local community was more than ready for the bar we had envisioned.”
We settle in with a paddle of the bar’s signature brews (the guys also run their own brewery along with Phil Stevens): a petal-pink pea blossom lemonade, farmhouse ginger beer, a roasted coffee-flavoured extra stout and a bright and fruity IPA. For sustenance, there’s a DIY fridge packed with local produce to create your own platter with; think meats, trout dips, smoked fillets and cheeses from all over NSW. Plus there’s a BYO food policy that means you can have takeaways from nearby eateries delivered straight to your seat. It all combines to create a cosy, low-key kind of place that feels part of the Armidale furniture.
A 10-minute bar hop away, Charlie’s Last Stand has become another welcome fixture since opening in early 2018. A cool little cocktail joint with a long Australian wine list to boot, it’s named after local legend Charlie Pavlou who pushed back against developers in the ’60s to save his milk bar from being bulldozed into a supermarket. His resolve is the reason Charlie’s is where it is today.
Lewis Wheatley carries this sense of community pride through to the outfit he set up with his dad, and has established Charlie’s as a hub for live music, providing a space to showcase local musicians and bands that tour the area. “We focus on not only providing a good venue for our community,” he says, “but also one that gives back to it.”
Armidale, Lewis attests, is home to a wealth of talented musicians and artists: a precedent that can be attributed in no small part to the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM), one of Australia’s best regional galleries.
Discovering art and living heritage
NERAM was purpose-built in 1983 to house the Howard Hinton Collection, a trove of artwork donated to the newly established Teachers’ Training College between 1929 and 1948. With over 1000 significant works by artists including Arthur Streeton, Margaret Preston, Nora Heysen, Norman Lindsay and Brett Whiteley, it provides a comprehensive reading of Australian art history. Around 130 pieces feature in the permanent exhibition, HINTON: Treasures of Australian Art, a salon-style hang that offers a vivid and absorbing insight into Hinton’s aesthetic sensibility and the nature of his collection.
We explore the museum with our guide Sylvia, who leads us through its other five gallery spaces and to the onsite Museum of Printing: another quirky find full of historic printing machinery that gets used once a week by the Black Gully Printmakers, a group of artists who also volunteer to open the museum to visitors on Sunday afternoons.
But Armidale’s ultimate example of living heritage is a quick drive south-west of the CBD. A 10-hectare grazing property that was first inhabited by British settlers led by Henry Dumaresq in the 1830s, Saumarez played a key role in the development of the city as the regional centre. At its heart is the Saumarez Homestead, a two-storey, 30-room Edwardian mansion built by the pastoralist White family after they purchased the property in 1874. When Elsie White, the last surviving member of the family, died in 1981 the homestead was donated to the National Trust and conserved as an extraordinary time capsule: full to the brim with layer upon layer of original period furnishings and personal possessions spanning the 19th and 20th centuries.
We take a whirlwind tour with property manager Les Davis that leaves us dumfounded. Victorian photogravure prints hang on the walls and family mementoes remain in situ on mantlepieces. The drawing room reveals a honey stain above the fireplace from when a beehive blocking the chimney was once disturbed; Art Nouveau-style furniture and pressed-metal ceilings reveal the style of the day; and exquisite chip carvings of the Green Man reveal the artistic and esoteric interests of the women who lived here. We see original Edwardian wallpaper, ceramics by Merric Boyd made in Armidale and vases fashioned from First World War shell casings brought back from the Western Front.
At the top of the wide cedar staircase Les opens up a Chinese camphor wood trunk that had been jammed shut until recently and proved to be full of dresses from the 1920s and ’30s. “The most magnificent dresses, some totally sheer, and in perfect condition,” he says.
Afterwards we stroll through Saumarez’s heritage rose garden and head down to the 19th-century farm buildings where development is underway to upgrade its rustic-chic event spaces. Les – a font of passion and knowledge who earlier this year was awarded an OAM for his heritage work – divulges bigs plans for the property, including luxurious cabin accommodation and a honeymoon suite hidden in the elm trees. You get the sense that a new chapter is being written here too, as it is all over the New England High Country: a place that riffs on tradition, builds on its heritage, doesn’t rest on its laurels and plants so many wonderful surprises along the way.
Armidale is halfway between Brisbane and Sydney on the New England Highway; QantasLink and Rex fly direct from Sydney.
Loloma is a boutique bed and breakfast in the heart of Armidale.
Fleet Adventures’ helicopter tours are a thrilling way to see the region.
Wayward Trails offers tasting tours through New England and beyond.
NERAM is open Tuesday to Sunday.
Saumarez Homestead runs guided tours on weekends and public holidays.