If life in the fast lane is taking its toll, Sydney’s residents can easily get away from it all. Right on their doorstep, golden beaches and magnificent national parks beckon, interwoven with intricate waterways. Everything in this part of the chapter can be done as a day-trip from the city, although some require an overnight stay to explore more fully, and there is a huge variety of tours on offer.
North of Sydney, the Hawkesbury River flows into the jagged jaws of the aptly named Broken Bay. The entire area is surrounded by bush, with the huge spaces of the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in the south and the Brisbane Waters National Park in the north. Beyond Broken Bay, the Central Coast between Gosford and Newcastle is an ideal spot for a bit of fishing, sailing and lazing around. Newcastle is escaping its industrial-city tag: an up-and-coming, attractive beach metropolis, with a surfing, student, café and music culture all part of the mix. Immediately beyond are the wineries of the Hunter Valley.
To the west, you escape suburbia to emerge at the foot of the beautiful World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains, while the scenic Hawkesbury–Nepean river valley is home to historic rural towns such as Windsor.
Heading south, the Royal National Park is an hour’s drive away, while on the coast beyond is a string of small, laidback towns – Waterfall, Stanwell Park, Wombarra – with beautiful, unspoilt beaches. The industrial city of Wollongong and neighbouring Port Kembla are impressively located between the Illawarra Escarpment and the sea, but of paltry interest to visitors, although more interesting spots cluster around. Inland, the Southern Highlands are covered with yet more national parks, punctuated by pleasing towns such as Berrima and Bundanoon.
Blue Mountains regionThe section of the Great Dividing Range nearest Sydney gets its name from the blue mist that rises from millions of eucalyptus trees and hangs in the mountain air, tinting the sky and the range alike. In the colony’s early days, the Blue Mountains were believed to be an insurmountable barrier to the west. The first expeditions followed the streams in the valleys until they were defeated by cliff faces rising vertically above them. Only in 1813, when the explorers Wentworth, Blaxland and Lawson followed the ridges instead of the valleys, were the “mountains” (actually a series of canyons) finally conquered, allowing the western plains to be opened up for settlement. The range is surmounted by a plateau at an altitude of more than 1000m where, over millions of years, rivers have carved deep valleys into the sandstone, and winds and driving rain have helped to deepen the ravines, creating a spectacular scenery of sheer precipices and walled canyons.
Before white settlement, the Daruk Aborigines lived here, dressed in animal-skin cloaks to ward off the cold. An early coal-mining industry, based in Katoomba, was followed by tourism, which snowballed after the arrival of the railway in 1868; by 1900, the first three mountain stations of Wentworth Falls, Katoomba and Mount Victoria had been established as fashionable resorts, extolling the health-giving benefits of eucalyptus-infused mountain air. In 2000, the Blue Mountains became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, joining the Great Barrier Reef; the listing came after abseiling was finally banned on the mountains’ most famous scenic wonder, the Three Sisters, after forty years of clambering had caused significant erosion. The Blue Mountains stand out from other Australian forests in particular for the Wollemi pine, discovered in 1994, a “living fossil” that dates back to the dinosaur era.
All the villages and towns of the romantically dubbed “City of the Blue Mountains” lie on a ridge, connected by the Great Western Highway. Around them is the Blue Mountains National Park, the state’s fourth-largest national park and to many minds the best. The region makes a great weekend break from the city, with stunning views and clean air complemented by a wide range of accommodation, cafés and restaurants. But be warned: at weekends, and during the summer holidays, Katoomba is thronged with escapees from the city, and prices escalate accordingly. Even at their most crowded, though, the Blue Mountains offer somewhere where you can find peace and quiet, and even solitude – the deep gorges and high rocks make much of the terrain inaccessible except to bushwalkers and mountaineers. Climbing schools offer courses in rock climbing, abseiling and canyoning for both beginners and experienced climbers, while Glenbrook is a popular mountain-biking spot.
The Six Foot TrackAlong the Great Western Highway, about 2.5km west of Katoomba train station, is the Explorers Tree, inscribed with the initials of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth during their famous 1813 expedition. From Nellies Glen Road here is the start of the 42km Six Foot Track to the Jenolan Caves (2–3 days; carry plenty of water) and shorter walks to Pulpit Rock and Bonnie Doon Falls. There are four basic campsites along the way, plus well-equipped cabins at Binda Flats. Blackheath NPWS (02 4787 8877) can provide more bushwalking and camping information. Blue Mountains Guides (02 4782 6109, bluemountainsguides.com.au) offer a guided walk along the track. Otherwise, Fantastic Aussie Tours provide a return service from Jenolan Caves for those who have completed the walk. A more unusual way to do the track is to enter Australia’s largest annual off-road marathon, the Six Foot Track Marathon held in March (coolrunning.com.au).
Safety in the Blue MountainsWalkers go missing in the Blue Mountains with distressing regularity, and there have been recent instances of backpackers disappearing without trace. The mountains are extremely wild, and you can lose your bearings quickly. Never leave the marked paths, and use a guide for long-distance walks. Bear in mind that due to the high elevation, night-time temperatures dip pretty low in winter, when you should take an extra layer and waterproofs.
Wollemi pineA famous feature of the Katoomba region is the “dinosaur trees”, a stand of 30m-high Wollemi pine, previously known only from fossil material over sixty million years old. The trees – miraculously still existing – survive deep within a sheltered rainforest gully in the Wollemi National Park, north of Katoomba, and they made headlines when they were first discovered in 1994 by a group of canyoners. The first cultivated Wollemi pine was planted in 1998 at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, and you can see one in the YHA hostel in Katoomba.
Close wildlife encounters around SydneyAustralian Reptile Park This park (reptilepark.com.au), 65km north of Sydney, just off the Pacific Hwy before the Gosford turn-off, offers photographic opportunities with koalas, and has roaming kangaroos, though its real stars are the reptiles, with native Australian species well represented and visible all year round thanks to heat lamps in the enclosures. The highlights are Elvis, New South Wales’ largest saltwater crocodile, and the sizeable perentie lizard of central Australia. There are reptile shows and talks throughout the day, including giant Galapagos tortoise feeding, alligator feeding and a crocodile show, featuring Elvis.
Featherdale Wildlife Park Located 30km west of Sydney off the M4 motorway between Parramatta and Penrith, at 217 Kildare Rd, Doonside (featherdale.com.au). There are feeding sessions and talks throughout the day focusing around koalas, flying foxes, dingoes and other animals. Train to Blacktown Station, then bus #725.
Koala Park Sanctuary Established as a safe haven for koalas in 1935, the sanctuary (koalapark.com.au) has since opened its gates to wombats, possums, kangaroos and native birds of all kinds. Koala-feeding sessions are the photo-opportunity times. Around 25km north of Sydney, not far from the Pacific Hwy on Castle Hill Rd, West Pennant Hills; train to Pennant Hills then bus #651 or #655 towards Glenorie.
Heathcote National ParkHeathcote National Park, across the Princes Highway from the Royal National Park, is much smaller and quieter. This is a serious bushwalkers’ park with no roads and a ban on trail bikes. You can follow the fairly hilly Bullawarring Track (12km one way; 5hr; moderate difficulty) north from Waterfall station and join a later train from Heathcote. The track weaves through a variety of vegetation, including scribbly gums with their intriguing bark patterns, and spectacular gymea lilies with bright red flowers atop tall flowering spears in the spring. Along the path are several swimmable pools fed by Heathcote Creek – the carved sandstone of the Kingfisher Pool is the largest and most picturesque.
The Hunter ValleyNew South Wales’ best-known wine region and Australia’s oldest, the Hunter Valley is an area long synonymous with fine wine – in particular, its golden, citrusy Sémillon and soft and earthy Shiraz. In recent years, the region has become equally prized for its restaurant and cultural scene: visitors are treated to some of the best the country has to offer in the way of fine dining, gourmet delis, arts and crafts, and outdoor events and festivals.
Wine, however, is still the main attraction. The first vines were planted in 1828, and some still-existing winemaker families, such as the Draytons, date back to the 1850s. In what seems a bizarre juxtaposition, this is also a very important coal-mining region, in the Upper Hunter Valley especially. By far the best-known wine area is the Lower Hunter Valley, nestled under the picturesque Brokenback Range, fanning north from the main town of Cessnock to the main wine-tasting area of Pokolbin. Cessnock, unfortunately, is a depressingly unattractive introduction to the salubrious wine culture surrounding it, though its big old country pubs offer cheaper accommodation options. Broke Fordwich is an easy fifteen-minute drive from the hectic centre of Pokolbin and also has many wonderful wineries, many of them boutique.
The area can seem a little like an exhausting winery theme park; to experience the real appeal of the Hunter Valley wine country, explore the region’s periphery. Take the scenic, winding Wollombi Road to the charming historic town of Wollombi, 28km southwest of Cessnock; or try the Lovedale/Wilderness Road area, to the northeast, and the still unspoilt Upper Hunter, west of Muswellbrook, with its marvellous ridges and rocky outcrops.
Hunter valley festivals and eventsA Day on the Green On multiple dates from November to February, Bimbadgen Estate holds A Day on the Green, featuring local and international performers. Tickets bookable through ticketek.com.au or adayonthegreen.com.au.
Jazz in the Vines A day of fine food, wine and music at Jazz in the Vines, based at Tyrrell’s vineyard (jazzinthevines.com.au).
Lovedale Long Lunch Every year over a mid-May weekend, around eight wineries along and around the scenic Lovedale and Wilderness roads team up with local restaurants to host the Lovedale Long Lunch (02 4990 4526, lovedalelonglunch.com.au).
Opera in the Vineyards In late October, Wyndham Estate hosts the night-time Opera in the Vineyards (wyndhamestate.com).
Sculpture in the Vineyards From early October to mid-January, the Wollombi region hosts Sculpture in the Vineyards, in which surreal and innovative site-specific sculptures dazzle among the vineyards, valleys, dirt roads and bushy ridges of picturesque Wollombi’s wineries (sculptureinthevineyards.com.au).
Wine tasting in the Hunter ValleyNearly 150 wineries cluster around the Lower Hunter Valley and fewer than twenty in the Upper Hunter; almost all offer free wine tastings. Virtually all are open daily, at least between 10am and 4pm, and many offer guided tours. Try to tour the wineries during the week; at weekends, both the number of visitors and accommodation prices go up, and the area can get booked out completely when there’s a concert on in the valley. Listed here are a few more of our favourites, but you’ll inevitably discover your own gems.
Vineyard toursA huge range of vineyard tours are on offer, and many of the wineries themselves offer guided tours.
Hunter Valley Day Tours The excellent, long-established Hunter Valley Day Tours (02 4951 4574, huntervalleydaytours.com.au) offers a wine-and-cheese tasting tour, with very informative commentary.
Hunter Valley Resort Runs a recommended wine course, including a tour followed by a tasting instruction tutorial (02 4998 7777, hunterresort.com.au).
Hunter Vineyard Tours The family-run Hunter Vineyard Tours (02 4991 1659, huntervineyardtours.com.au) visits five wineries.
McWilliams Mount Pleasant Estate (mountpleasantwines.com.au).
WineriesConstable Estate Vineyards Established in 1981 by 2 best friends from England, this small establishment (constablevineyards.com.au) offers unhurried wine tastings. The 30-acre vineyard under the Brokenback Ranges has 5 formal gardens – Sculpture, Camellia, Rose, Herb and Secret; the gardener leads tours.
Drayton’s Family Wines Friendly, down-to-earth winery, established in 1853. All processes are still carried out on site and the excellent free tours guide you through (draytonswines.com.au). A pretty picnic area with wood-fired BBQ overlooks a small dam and vineyards.
Krinklewood Stunning cellar door with European-styled courtyard and gardens – the most beautiful winery in the region (krinklewood.com). Biodynamic Krinklewood does all the classic Hunter varieties of Sémillon, Chardonnay, Verdelho and Shiraz, with younger plantings including French varieties Viognier and Mourvèdre and the popular Spanish Tempranillo.
Mount Broke Wines This boutique winery has recently won awards for its stunning Chardonnay (buy a couple or even a case if you’re here in Dec/Jan when it’s bottled). The pretty courtyard makes a pleasant tasting spot, and lunch can be organized if you phone ahead (02 65791314, mtbrokewines.com.au).
Rosemount Estate Occupying a converted blue church built in 1909, next to a delightful café and art gallery, this intimate cellar-only location offers some of Australia’s best-known award-winning wines grown at its famous vineyards in the Upper Hunter (rosemountestate.com).
Scarborough Small, friendly winery with a reputation for outstanding wines; specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Pleasantly relaxed sit-down tastings are held in a small cottage on Hungerford Hill with wonderful valley views (scarboroughwine.com.au).
Tamburlaine The jasmine-scented garden outside provides a hint of the flowery, elegant wines within (tamburlaine.com.au). Tastings are well orchestrated and delivered with a heap of experience.
Tempus Two This huge, contemporary winery – all steel, glass and stone – has a high-tech, urban-chic exterior (tamburlaine.com.au). Owned by Lisa McGuigan, of the well-known winemaking family, whose unique-tasting wines are the result of using lesser-known varieties such as Pinot Gris, Viognier and Marsanne.
Tyrrell’s The oldest independent family vineyards, producing consistently fine wines (tyrrells.com.au). The tiny ironbark slab hut, where Edward Tyrrell lived when he began the winery in 1858, is still in the grounds, and the old winery with its cool earth floor is much as it was. Beautiful setting against the Brokenback Range.
Wyndham Estate A scenic drive through the Dalwood Hills leads to the Lower Hunter’s northern extent, where Englishman George Wyndham first planted Shiraz in 1828. Now owned by multinational Pernod Ricard, there’s an excellent, free guided tour (wyndhamestate.com), which covers the vines and winemaking techniques and equipment, including the original basket press. The idyllic riverside setting – grassy lawns, free barbecues – makes a great spot for picnics and the annual opera concert.
Ku-ring-gai Chase National ParkKu-ring-gai Chase is the best known of New South Wales’ national parks and, with the Pacific Highway running all the way up one side, is also the easiest to get to. The bushland scenery is crisscrossed by walking tracks, which you can explore to seek out Aboriginal rock carvings, or just to get away from it all and see the forest and its wildlife.
The park’s most popular picnic spot is at Bobbin Head, 6km east of the Sydney–Newcastle Freeway, essentially just a colourful marina with a café, picnic area and NPWS Bobbin Head Information Centre, located inside the Art Deco Bobbin Inn, which is neither a pub nor a hotel. From here, the Mangrove Boardwalk (10min return) pleasantly traces the water’s edge past thousands of bright red crabs and continues as the Gibberagong Track (additional 20min return) through a small sandstone canyon to some Aboriginal rock art featuring figures and axe-grinding grooves.
To the northeast, West Head Road leads to West Head, which juts into Broken Bay marking the entrance to Pittwater, a deep, 10km-long sheltered waterway. There are superb views from here across to Barrenjoey Head and Barrenjoey Lighthouse at Palm Beach on the eastern shore of Pittwater. From West Head, the Garigal Aboriginal Heritage Walk (3.5km loop; 2–3hr) leads past the Aboriginal rock-engraving site, the most accessible Aboriginal art in the park.
NewcastleNEWCASTLE was founded in 1804 for convicts too hard even for Sydney to cope with, but the river is the real reason for the city’s existence: coal, which lies in great abundance beneath the Hunter Valley, was and still is ferried from the countryside to be exported around the country and the world. The proximity of the mines encouraged the establishment of other heavy industries, though the production of steel here ceased in late 2000 and most of the slag heaps have been worked over, but the docks are still functional, particularly with the through traffic of coal from the Hunter Valley.
New South Wales’ second city, with a population of over a quarter of a million, Newcastle has long suffered from comparison with nearby Sydney. However, for a former major industrial city, it’s surprisingly attractive in parts, a fact now being more widely recognized, and old icons have been redeveloped, such as the Great Northern Hotel. The large and lively student community keeps the atmosphere vibrant, and there’s a serious surf culture too – many surfwear- and surfboard-makers operate here, several champion surfers hail from the city, and there’s a big contest, Surfest, in March. You might not choose to spend too much time here, but it can be a good base for excursions, particularly to the wineries of the nearby Hunter Valley.
Newcastle festivalsTry to time your visit to Newcastle with the This Is Not Art festival (02 4927 0470, octapod.org), a dynamic, multidisciplinary experimental arts festival with free performances, exhibitions and talks all over the city over the October long weekend; the Mattara Festival (Festival of Newcastle) is held at the same time. It’s also worth investigating the Street Performers Festival and Surfest in March, Cultural Stomp in June and the Newcastle Jazz Festival in August.
Royal National ParkThe Royal National Park is a huge nature reserve right on Sydney’s doorstep, only 36km south of the city. Established in 1879, it was the second national park in the world (after Yellowstone in the USA). The railway between Sydney and Wollongong marks its western border, and from the train the scenery is fantastic. If you want to explore more closely, get off at one of the stations along the way – Loftus, Engadine, Heathcote, Waterfall or Otford – all starting points for walking trails into the park. On the eastern side, from Jibbon Head to Garie Beach, the park falls away abruptly to the ocean, creating a spectacular coastline of steep cliffs broken here and there by creeks cascading into the sea and little coves with fine sandy beaches; the remains of Aboriginal rock carvings are the only traces of the original Dharawal people.
You can also drive in at various points: so long as you don’t stop, cars are allowed right through the park without paying, exiting at Waterfall on the Princes Highway or Stanwell Park at the start of Grand Pacific Drive.
Approaching the park from the north, stop 3km south of Loftus at the easy, concrete Bungoona Lookout nature trail (1km return; 20min; flat) with its panoramic views, or continue 1km to the NPWS Visitor Centre (t 02 9542 0648), at tiny Audley. Here, beside the Hacking River, you can rent a bike or canoe or just laze around with a picnic.
Deeper into the park, on the ocean shore, Wattamolla and Garie beaches have good surfing waves; the two beaches are connected by a walking track. There are kiosks at Audley, Wattamolla and Garie Beach.