I wanted to see the Hunter Valley from a different point of view. You see, I’d been there a few times and I thought I’d seen it all – wine, cheese, and more wine. “Show me what you’ve got,” I challenge as we drive three hours north of Sydney to reach Australia’s oldest wine region.
I didn’t, however, anticipate that two days later I would be spinning and diving thousands of feet above the ground in an Extra 300 litre aerobatic aircraft piloted by Red Bull racer Matt Hall.
When I mentioned this joy flight to my friends, most of them (mainly guys), were reduced to giggling, salivating children at the mere mention of Hall’s name. Comments like, “don’t you know who he is?” and “this is wasted on you,” were thrown at me.
While they were busy with fantasies of tumbling through the skies in his shiny, speedy aircraft, my reality was a desperate attempt to hold onto my brie breakfast – but I digress.
My travel buddy and I find our way to the central area of Pokolbin and the impressively designed and isolated Longhouse for the night. The Longhouse is exactly what’s on the tin – a long house. It’s modern, spacious and has amazing views across the valley and vines. We barely have time to pop the cork on the welcome bottle of bubbly in the fridge and watch the sun begin to set, before it’s time to head out to Amanda’s On The Edge for dinner.
Hankering for some hooch
Hidden away down a dimly lit road is this secret of the Hunter Valley dining community. We pull up to a cosy looking building with a wrap around verandah filled with rustic wooden tables and a bar made of corrugated iron.
My prawn linguine with salty pancetta is sublime and when they wheel over the giant blackboard of mouth-watering desserts, our jaws and stomachs hit the ground.
Back at The Longhouse I sink into eight fluffy pillows perched on the double bed and try not to notice that the floor-to-ceiling window has no blinds. I can see the stars and the shadowy outlines of the vines in the distance. Hang on, did something just move out there?
The next morning the gorgeous sunrise takes care of the wake-up call. The birds are chirping, the sun is shining and as I sip tea on the verandah, a kangaroo goes bouncing past. It feels like I’m in a Disney movie but this Cinderella doesn’t need a Prince, she’s after some good vino.
Before the inevitable wine tour can begin, we make a stop at the Hunter Valley Zoo. Chirpy keeper Danielle is at the front to greet us and introduce us to all of the Aussie animals.
Blossom the koala loves attention and visitors can get up-close and personal with her, along with wombats, birds, and kangaroos.
I can’t contain my excitement when Danielle picks up Scarlett, the 11-month old wombat, and hefts her over to me. She is already the size of my torso and heavier than I can manage. Even as she begins to wiggle and twist around in search of food, I don’t want to put her down.
“She was found in her mother’s pouch after they were hit by a car. Also, she likes to eat shoelaces,” explains Danielle.
It’s hard to imagine Scarlett ever being that small, “there aren’t any shoelaces in there,” I say as she sniffs and nibbles at my hair.
After giving the kangaroos some grub from my feed cone (those guys can get grabby) and trying to toss some to the emus without having my hand pecked off, we head out via the bird enclosure. Two colourful lorikeets are curiously digging into the ground, using their beaks to throw dirt behind them like a scene straight out of a prison escape movie.
On the grapevine
After a quick and hearty lunch courtesy of The Mill Restaurant at Tuscany Wine Estate, Glenn from Wendt on Tours picks us up for a private trip to some of the best wineries.
Originally from Fiji, Glenn began the tours because he loves sharing stories with travellers.
“I do this because I love the Hunter Valley, and I love talking to overseas people,” he says. Joining us are Aussie Greg and his girlfriend Emma who has just relocated from Devon, England. The four of us become instant friends over complimentary bottles of Fijian water.
Our first stop is Irongate Estate where we meet owner Roger Lilliott. “You’ve all wasted your lives up until now,” he cheekily informs us.
We are led through a Tuscan designed building past a hand-painted bar to a beautifully secluded outdoor area. Roger likes to lead tastings to get a feel for what people like.
“I present because I want real feedback, I make wine for real people,” he explains. “But be careful how you tell me if you don’t like them.” It’s a laugh-a-minute while Roger and Glenn tell us how much better wine is when it’s grown and produced on-site – something Roger is extremely proud of.
As we sip and take note of our favourites, we are encouraged to drink the water in-between tastes.
“Don’t put any water in the wine bin, it’s the staff cocktail at the end of the day,” he jokes. By this point our chuckles have turned to uproarious laughter (it could be the wine) and Roger tells us why his are the best: “You won’t get cat-bum face from my wines.”
Cue an afternoon of pursing our lips and sucking in our cheeks to make the “cat-bum” face.
We load up on delicious Verdelho and reluctantly say goodbye to our new best mate and head over to Ivanhoe Wines, where Denise is waiting to tell us about Shiraz and what it’s like to live in the Hunter Valley.
“It’s a hard day at work, staring at that view all day,” she sighs. As we do more tastings, we become self-appointed experts on Cab Savs, Semillon and Madeira, which I am certain, is actually a kind of cake. The calibre of our jokes begin to wane as our brain cells do the same. We finally stumble into the last stop at McGuigans, for some cheese tasting and begin devouring blue, goat, brie and whatever else is on offer.
After we’ve made our purchases Glenn coaxes us back on the bus for the trip home, I feel a little sad that the afternoon is over but there is one more treat in store. Glenn wants to play a song he has randomly dedicated to Greg, it’s a Fijian ditty from the Plantation Island Band and he sings out loud to us, “It’s nice that you came to the islands, we’re pleased you came here.”
Our destination tonight is Goldfish at Tempus Two, it’s the groovy sister bar of Kings Cross’ Goldfish and has leather high-backed lounges, dark wood benches and a sexy candlelit atmosphere. I’m starving and devour a tasting plate of arancini, cheese, herb crusts and fruit plate almost to myself, washed down with a Cosmopolitan – I figure my liver will appreciate a bit of variety.
Another point of view
After another early start, I’m off to meet the famous Matt Hall for a bit of air racing – Red Bull style. The first thing Matt says when I meet him and suit up in a fetching, baggy, blue onesie is that everything about the flight can be tailored to suit individuals. In other words: he can tell I’m nervous.
“It’s not about showing you how cool I am, it’s about making sure you have a good time,” he reassures me.
His coolness factor skyrockets anyway when my travel buddy takes the first trip up in the slick yellow Extra. Before long they are spiralling up, down and sideways through the sky.
After a quick 20 minutes it’s my turn and as I’m strapped into the seatbelt. I must look worried because I hear a faint, “take a teaspoon of cement and harden up” from the ground.
Obviously my brave face is not very convincing but I don’t need to worry, from up in the air it’s a whole different world. The plane doesn’t feel like it’s plummeting to earth at all and the views are breathtaking – literally.
Matt eases me into all the tricks bit by bit and asks me if I am enjoying myself. I assure him I am.
I’m beginning to see what my male friends were gushing about, besides being a seriously cool cat, Matt is also a really nice guy.
Back on solid ground I realise if you don’t look at things from every angle, you might be missing the best bits.
Wendt on Tours conduct wine, cheese and chocolate tours from $100pp (wendtontours.com.au). Hunter Valley Zoo (huntervalleyzoo.com.au) entry costs $17.50pp. Joy flights with Matt Hall racing cost $650pp for a 20 minute flight. (matthallracing.com). Lunch at the Mill Restaurant, open seven days/wk in Pokolbin.(tuscanywineestate.com.au). Beds at The Longhouse in Pokolbin from $125 per night. (thelonghouse.net.au).