A wombat-crossing road sign. Furry cattle on the horizon. Ahead, a tunnel of majestic eucalyptus, with peeled bark fallen to their ankles. This is a drive through Hunter Valley, just north of Sydney, where the land swells and drops along curving river banks and the skies are huge. They drive on the left in Australia, and many tourists from India are now exploring the countryside on their own.
Just half an hour north of Sydney is Glenworth Valley, an active farm with cattle, emus and over 200 horses. The farm offers camping space and basic gear for a fee, and some corporate groups bring their own glamping paraphernalia. Guests can also go kayaking, abseiling, and quad biking. Some visitors walk through the trails, bird guidebook in hand. And, of course, there is the horse riding. They find two mild horses for us novices, and we are guided through a trail over two hours, crossing streams and edging along hills. Eucalyptus of various kinds, acacia, wild cinnamon, ficus, trailing vines and yellow termite hills make the landscape familiar to those who have travelled in the Western Ghats,but this is a whole other world. We pass a small cave with ochre Aboriginal paintings of canoes and a boomerang. The kookaburra met us first thing, even before the gates were opened, and the rainbow lorikeets, magpies, wrens and red-faced swallows fluttered about while we were saddling up. In the forest there is birdsong everywhere. The lyre bird slides through the underbrush like a mongoose. The bell bird and dove cuckoo tweet their sweet notes. Billy points out a wombat’s burrow. Now and then we see fist-sized holes in the ground, made by spiders. Everything is bigger in Australia.
From the valley to The Entrance, a pretty beach in Central Coast, is another relaxed ride. Spectacled pelicans, the largest aquatic birds in Australia, gather at the sand bars in the shallow waters. They come ashore to be fed every afternoon. Some years ago, they hoovered up the scraps from a fish-and chips shop. Now they’re a tourist attraction. If you come early you can see whiting and other fish in the water, and watch gulls leap for crumbs from careless cookie-droppers. The pelicans do not bother with crumbs. Instead, they strike dignified poses and fix you with their yellow-ringed eyes as they wait for their proper meal. Wildlife officers check the gathered birds for injuries and mark any that are hurt. As they feed the pelicans, they keep up a patter to raise awareness of wildlife, teach visitors not to litter, and raise funds for this daily dole.
A few miles on is the more posh Terrigal Beach, a row of gigantic Norfolk Island pines guarding its curved sands. They were planted over a century ago to be cut and used as ship masts, but thanks to the advent of aluminium masts, they still stand. The waves gently roll in, and the sand blushes pink in the fading light. The view as the morning mists clear is even more spectacular.
At Hunter Valley Gardens, the roses, chosen for scent as well as looks, peak in late October and early November, but in any season these 60 undulating acres offer a rich experience. They are landscaped into 10 thematic gardens, including a storybook garden for children. The gardens encompass a lake, ponds, streams and a waterfall, and over 100 varieties of aquatic birds find it a paradise. Old friends like crepe myrtle, Ficus benjamina, and bamboo make it hard to remember whether these plants migrated from India to Australia or the other way around. Carousels, a ferris wheel and fairs with food stalls liven up the gardens at various times throughout the year. At Christmas, with outside temperatures hovering in the 40s, the staff conjure up an ice rink. At any time you are likely to come upon a bridal couple either actually getting married or just having their pictures taken against an unbeatable backdrop.
Most of all, Hunter Valley is wine country, and many vineyards have an open cellar door, which means you can drive up, taste some of their vintage, and carry home a case or two. When tasting at Keith Tulloch’s vineyards, established in the 1830s, you don’t lean against a counter. Instead, you sit at a table gazing at the dried creek bed where the grapes are grown for the purest dry sémillon, and the wines are brought to you. Young Alisdair Tulloch explains to us how they capture the varietal distinction of a wine and bottle it at that point, rather than making the wine taste a particular way. Wine is slow, he points out, from the vines planted long before you were born to the wine that will be drunk by your grandchildren. As in any agricultural business, you rely on the work done by previous generations.
Here we are offered an estate sémillon and an off-dry sémillon that is called per diem, signifying a no-nonsense wine that doesn’t need to be in a cellar. To set off the differences, Tulloch’s vineyard pairs them with chocolate. On an exquisite plate is a ganache apparently painted by painter Jackson Pollock. Wenibble on the chocolate, sip wine, nibble, sip and nod sagely. The chocolate shop, Cocoa Nib, is just below and it offers its own unexpected pairings—matcha and strawberry, honey and mascarpone, yuzu and guava—all in a heavenly fog of scent and taste.
At Tyrrell’s Wines, some grapes are still hand-picked, especially from the older, more fragile vines. Tara here explains that the dry-grow vines yield grapes with a more intense flavour. The older vines result in a different taste than the younger ones, and the ageing varies that yet again. The old homestead built by the founder, Edward Tyrrell, is open to visitors, and in the cellars, a wall is given over to the extended family tree. Here, as in many of the vineyards of Hunter Valley, the taste that lingers most is pride, in the land and in its cultivators.
Air India flies direct to Sydney from Delhi (from ₹70,000, round trip). Glenworth Valley is a 30min-drive and Hunter Valley is a 3hr-drive from Sydney. AR Tours provides transfers to all major cities.
Where to Stay
As a stopover en route to Glenworth Valley or Hunter Valley, there is QT Sydney, a boutique accommodation with 200 suites (from AU$ 299 per night). Crowne Plaza Terrigal with its expansive views is a six minute walk from the Terrigal Beach (from approx. AU$ 145). Sebel Kirkton Park in Hunter Valley has 71 rooms and suites with views of wineries (from approx. AU$ 180).
What to See & Do
>In Glenworth Valley, go quad biking, kayaking, abseiling and laser skirmishing. Head to The Entrance, a beach on the Central Coast, for pelican feeding. Enjoy an on-site picnic at the Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop with cheeses and baked goodies.
>In Hunter Valley, a train tour will show you 10 themed gardens which include an Italian grotto. In Keith Tulloch Vineyard sample the estate’s best wines and artisan chocolates. Tyrrell’s Wines is home to some of the finest Australian wines, and you can see old oak vats and red cellars that are still operational. Stroll down the valley’s prettiest village, Peppers Creek, for shopping and fine dining.