Named after England’s famous coal port, Newcastle was originally the place where the most dangerous convicts were sent to dig in the coal mines as harsh punishment for their crimes. Guess who’s having the last laugh now.
While England is stuck with the orange-faced Geordie Shore bunch who spout incredible sentences such as “Tonight we’re hitting Scary Canary and I’ve got a hairy fairy,” Newcastle in Australia is now a cute port town with locals as friendly as they come Down Under.
Situated a two-hour drive or a three-hour train ride outside Sydney, Newcastle is fast becoming a quick getaway for city dwellers looking to escape the hustle and bustle. Although, for a small beach town, a weekend in Newcastle can pack a punch if done right. It’s got great surfing spots,offers high-adrenalin among the sand dunes, its art scene is growing and its small bar scene is overflowing…
I’d never been to Newcastle before and expected it to be this pristine little gem, but I am surprised to find it is a little rough around the edges. I’m not too disappointed, however, as the weekend soon gives way to Newcastle’s determined personality to be something big.
I’m visiting Newcastle outside of summer and, as my train pulls into the station, I can’t help but notice how eerily quiet and still it seems. Am I in the right place? Where’s the noise and the crowds? It almost feels like a ghost town. (I’d later learn that, in some ways, it is.) I meander down to my accommodation at the Newcastle Beach YHA (yha.com.au), which is just a short walk from the station and across the street from the beach. It’s a great spot, with neat and tidy rooms, amiable staff and an easy going vibe; however, don’t expect to feel like you’re being rocked to sleep by the sound of the waves as the rooms don’t come with sea views.
I head to dinner at Queen’s Wharf Brewery, a Newcastle institution right on the harbour. As I sit there eating heaven like sliders and sipping on a cider (I’m a poet and I didn’t even realise it), Newcastle’s history unfolds itself as I watch boats and barges coming through the harbour. It seems like a place that treads a fine line between an industrial port town and a picturesque beach town, but it’s clearly pushing fast forward to put itself on the tourism map.
In a post-dinner food coma, I make my way down to meet Renata Daniel who takes me on the ‘East End Dark History and Ghost Walk’. It’s late, there’s a cool breeze passing through, and we are following the footsteps of the first convicts sent to Newcastle. Cue spine chills.
I can’t say I saw any ghosts, but it was a unique way to hear the history of Newcastle. I stay close to Renata as she shows me how the city, once richly vast in resources including coal, timber, and cedar, grew from the penal colony it was to the thriving (and possibly haunted) place it is today.The next day I make my way to tour Fort Scratchley, situated high above the city with endless views of Nobby’s Beach below (Yep, Nobby’s, brilliant). My tour guide (like all the guides) is a volunteer; an older bloke in his late sixties whose mannerisms are as soft as a pillow. He’s wearing a guard’s uniform topped off with a soft canvas army hat, the tie fastened right under his chin. I wonder if it’s at all uncomfortable to wear his hat so tight on this 29° day.
Fort Scratchley plays a pivotal role both to local and national history as the only Australian fort to fire at an enemy ship during war time when it took action against a Japanese submarine in WWII. My guide leads us around the site and takes us on an exclusive tour where we snake through the underground tunnels. We make our way back in time for the seafaring tradition of firing the guns at 1pm, which coincides with the drop of the time ball in the clock tower just behind the fort.
My guide leads us around the site and takes us on an exclusive tour where we snake through the underground tunnels. We make our way back in time for the seafaring tradition of firing the guns at 1pm, which coincides with the drop of the time ball in the clock tower just behind the fort. My guide explains it is an international tradition that was used in ports around the world during the 19th century to help sea captains adjust their navigation instruments.
The gun goes off. It produces a small cloud of smoke, but a big smile on the faces of all the dedicated volunteers.
If there was anything I wanted to do during my time in Australia, it was to go for a surf. My surf instructor, Blake, from the Newcastle Surf School, picks me up bright and early from YHA. As if he’d been lifted right out of the ’60s, Blake has long, blond curly hair, sun-kissed skin, eyes as blue as the ocean and hippie Beatlesesque glasses. He’s softly spoken and polite, with areal surfer’s melody to the waves of his voice. Luckily I am a morning person, and we have a bit of a chat about our opposing lifestyles: his office is the ocean whereas mine is a desk in a 13-floor building.“I reckon I’ve spent nearly 60% of my life in the water,” Blake says.
We make our way down to Nobby’s Beach,and the waves aren’t too rough. It’s a gentle and calm morning. There are a few younger girls beside me learning to surf, and I find myself thinking of my older brother who is a soon-to-be-father. “My brother is a surfer,” I say to Blake. “Loves it. Plays rugby, too, for the US team. Australia would be his dream. He’s going to be a dad – they’re having a little girl. He can’t wait to teach her how to surf.”
“Wicked,” Blake replies. Yeah, wicked. I started paddling with my waterlogged purple cast to catch my first wave. (When I broke my wrist a few weeks earlier, my doctor advised that surfing stay off the weekend’s activities. Whoops.) Turns out it didn’t slow me down as much as I thought it would in the water, but driving an ATV with it was a different story…
I wake up Sunday morning to hurricane- strong winds. Perfect day to hit up sand dunes, I think to myself. Thank God I have a jumper but damn for not bringing trousers.
We drive about a half-hour to Williamtown, where we sign some liability papers (eek! ) at the Sand Dune Adventures office (sandduneadventures.com.au). From there we’re off another 10 minutes down a dirt road that our toy car fights its way along, and we meet our guides for the day. We strap on helmets, put on hi-res vests and climb on to our quad bikes. It doesn’t take long before someone notices my cast.
“I’ll be okay,” I half-lie. I wasn’t so much worried about my wrist as I was with my success rate at driving a quad bike. We go through a quick tutorial and are asked if we have any questions, but I clam up as I feel the panic rising. We start driving, and I realise that I am moving at a glacial pace. (It appears quad biking with a cast is uncomfortable. Whoops.) Despite my discomfort, though, this is an incredible experience. The earth feels desolate and surprisingly quiet but for the sound of my own voice pushing me forward.
Up and down we go as the dunes get bigger, following instructions on when to go slow or fast down hills, to keep my grip around the throttle or to let it go. My heart is pounding, my concentration is steady and my main goal is to not fly over the bike face forward. The highest dune we go down is 80 feet – or was it 18? Same difference really when you’re stopped still at the top of dune and the rush of adrenaline propels you forward. Scary? Yes. Fun? Hell yes.
Eating and drinking
One thing is for certain in Newcastle, and that’s the growing and hungry cafe, restaurant and small bar scene.The weekends offer a culinary feast and an appreciation for the name that Newcastle is trying to make for itself when it comes to all things food and drink.
The beachfront sees a handful of small cafes, and among them is Estabar (Facebook: Estabar Newcastle Beach), which is swarming with customers like bees in a hive. This clearly is a favourite. Not only are the owners and staff friendly and the food fresh and delicious, but the coffee tastes so good it I feels like I am drinking it for the first time. Three lattes later and I find I have to stop before I start getting the shakes.
Bars including the Grain Store (grainstorenewcastle.com.au) are fostering a sense of appreciation for boutique beers with its total of 21 independently owned and Australian brewed beers on tap. It reminds me of a funky, warehouse style bar you’d find in perhaps Newton.
Yet if you’re looking for the real Newton of Newcastle, it’s best to head over to Darby Street, just a few minutes’drive or a short walk from the beachfront. It seems like it’s the heart of Newcastle’s affinity for coffee, as it’s lined with plenty of cafes. Mixed in are small boutiques, restaurants and bars that make it a lively little strip helping to give this city a beat of its own.
Newcastle, you are definitely having the last laugh. And I’m happy to laugh along with you.
Images via Sand Dune Adventures, Getty Images, Thinkstock, The Brewery Queens Wharf