Spend a weekend in Newcastle and find a city in the midst of a renaissance.
Lonely Planet isn’t shy of making controversial choices when it comes to its annual ‘Top Cities’ list. But its 2011 edition in particular raised some eyebrows on home soil. Joining global cities such as New York, Tel Aviv and Valencia was our very own Newcastle.
While editors insisted Australia’s second-oldest city could also be its most underrated, praising it for its natural beauty, sun-drenched climate and diverse dining scene, many questioned if Newcastle truly earned this cred.
The years surrounding this accolade were a tumultuous time: having dominated the skyline for most of the 20th century, BHP steelworks – the company responsible for Newcastle’s nickname of Steel City – closed its major industrial operations here in 1999; iconic CBD store David Jones closed its doors in 2011; and the controversial truncation of the main train line in 2014 effectively cut off the CBD from adjacent suburbs.
Novocastrian Justine Gaudry believes the city was, at the time, suffering in a state of stasis. Beyond the steelworks and department stores, though, was a large community of creatives who held “unrealised potential,” she says.
In 2008, she and two business partners created a marketplace named Olive Tree Market to give local artisans, designers, food producers and the like a platform to experiment, grow and develop their businesses.
Justine admits there was a resistance at first from people who didn’t regard markets as a viable business opportunity, but thankfully this has changed dramatically over the years.
Today, Olive Tree Market is the nucleus of Newcastle’s creative scene and host to some 140 stallholders who sustainably and ethically create high-quality local products. On a visit to the market one sunny Saturday people laze about on the grass eating freshly churned gelato and warm, buttery pastries, while a busker plays tunes under a shady tree.
Among the locally produced wares – including cute-as-a-button hand-painted bike bells by Beep and exquisite stoneware and porcelain pieces by ceramicist Anna Bowie – I stop at Urban Hum, an artisan beekeeping enterprise.
Owners Kelly Lees and Anna Scobie manage 130 hives across the city, all of which are hosted by volunteer residents and businesses. Between producing raw honey and selling it at the markets, Kelly and Anna also hold apiarist workshops to train people about ethical beekeeping.
“We’re really passionate about the wellbeing of bees; the honey is secondary,” Kelly says. I was guided to the Urban Hum stall by Becky Kiil, owner of Newcastle Afoot walking tours. Her tours span the harbour to the laneways, with tidbits about the city’s convict and industrial history and recommendations on some of the best spots to eat and drink around town delivered along the way.
Becky is an avid supporter of the arts and culture scene, introducing us to many local makers throughout the tour. She is also one of the proud driving forces behind Big Picture Fest, which sees street artists from around the world transform the city’s drab pockets into vibrant outdoor art galleries over a three-day period.
When I ask Becky what she loves most about the city, she can’t go past the beautiful beaches on its doorstep. “I love that you’ll see locals walk past important government buildings in the city barefoot and carrying a surfboard. Going from business suit to wetsuit, you can’t get much more Newy than that,” she says.
While its natural beauty is its stronghold and the arts and culture scene is flourishing, Newcastle’s accommodation offering has been slower at rising from the dust of the post-industrial slump. But in a huge shake-up for the city, the vacant David Jones store on Hunter Street is set to become QT Newcastle, the city’s first new luxury hotel in decades.
With a design that is sympathetic to the historic building, the 106-room hotel will feature a rooftop bar, signature dining, with the quirky styling and theatrics that QT is known for. And in more exciting news, other big names are also set to enter the accommodation space in the next couple of years such as The Kingsley, operated by the luxe Crystalbrook Collection, and Little National, a property by Canberra’s DOMA Group.
Happily, we find a gem in historic Hayes House, a Victorian terrace named after the family who painstakingly restored it following the 1989 earthquake. Located in the charming Cooks Hill area, Hayes House is within walking distance of buzzy dining and shopping strip Darby Street.
It is one of the most thoughtful accommodations in which we have stayed, in particular when it comes to catering to our young family: baskets of children’s toys, storybooks and a stand of kids’ dress-ups in the third bedroom make for one very content toddler indeed.
The curated styling pays homage to the local area, with landscape photography by Novocastrian James Stephenson and dried floral installations by Morgan-Grace Kerr of Valenteen gracing the walls; organic pottery crafted by local studio Clay Canoe in the kitchen; and premium bathroom products by Savant Apothecary, also made in Newcastle. Those Novocastrians sure are a talented bunch.
When chatting to owner Tracey Bray about how Newcastle has changed, she recalls her first visit in the 1980s when the city looked bleak and industrial. “The difference now is stark,” she says. “We have a clean and modern regional city that offers the best of both worlds: big-city conveniences with a warm country-town community.”
When it comes to big-city conveniences, the all-important culinary scene is another space Newcastle is kicking goals in. Well-known local restaurateur Chris Joannou (former Silverchair bassist) has been a tastemaker when it comes to the dining scene, ever since he co-opened The Edwards in 2014. His latest venture, with Zach Scholtz, is the refined California-cool-style restaurant Flotilla, in the emerging suburb of Wickham.
These clever guys are also behind the transformation of one of the city’s most beloved watering holes, The Criterion. Along with the iconic Great Northern and The Prince of Merewether, the city’s pubs are being given multimillion-dollar makeovers, bidding farewell to beer-stained carpets and smoke-enveloped pokie rooms in favour of sleek interiors and local produce-driven menus.
I come away from Newcastle with a new appreciation for the city and a jar of Urban Hum ‘New Lambton’ honey. It’s an apt souvenir from a city that’s in the midst of a renaissance: there is a hum about Newcastle and it’s not just the bees.
Add these to your itinerary, too
Start the day with a fresh, plant-based brunch at Goodfriends Eatery.
Grab a table for the Brazilian barbecue feast at MEET on buzzy Darby Street.
Go for a dip at the Bogey Hole, a rock pool dug by convicts back in 1819.
Newcastle is a two-hour drive or 2.5-hour train ride from Sydney.
For more information visit visitnewcastle.com.au.