NEWCASTLE 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.