The conversation is always the same.

You: Where are you from?”

Me: “A couple of hours north of Sydney … a small town called Paterson. It’s near Maitland, which isn’t far from Newcastle in the Hunter Valley.”

You: “Ohhh! The Hunter Valley! Where they make wine!”

And that’s where it usually ends, because that’s all you really know about the Hunter Valley. A voice in the back of your head vaguely recalls that you read somewhere that the city at the region’s epicentre, Newcastle, has a reputation for being a dirty steel city. Oh, and aren’t the Newcastle Knights a decent enough rugby league team?

Well forget the ‘steel city’ clichés and forget the Newcastle Knights; the city at the centre of one of Australia’s most beautiful regions is worthy of recognition beyond its coal-fired history and sporting traditions.”

Captain Cook may have sailed right past the city while charting the east coast of Australia, but more intrepid explorers later discovered the Hunter River, around which much of the region’s prosperity would later flourish. And more intrepid travellers today are discovering a city which has moved on from its coal, steelworks and ship-building roots. It’s still a proud working class place, but it comes laced with a vibrancy that can be found in any city which has been forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror and redefine itself. The withdrawal of steelworks giant BHP from Newcastle in the ’90s saw the city look elsewhere for prosperity – so it looked to tourism and it looked to culture.

The smog-tarnished foreshore was redeveloped to provide the perfect foil for the beaches which surround it; cosmopolitan restaurants, bars and cafés sprang up, and the local people, or Novocastrians, as they are known, adopted a positive, confident feel which would see them well placed for the new millennium.

You can have your Coogees and your Manlys, hell, you can have the Gold Coast, and throw Bells Beach in while you’re at it. The beaches around Newcastle are Australia’s finest: they are clean, less crowded than those in the suburbs of Sydney or further up the coast, and the country’s best boardriders can attest to the quality of the waves which lead them into shore. Find your own slice of sand by following the 5km-long Bather’s Way coastal walk, which links Newcastle’s top beaches, including Nobbys, Newcastle and Mereweather, to Blacksmiths and Nine Mile Beach, which stretches right through to the gentle waves of Redhead. See

Wine country

Grapes have been grown commercially in the Hunter for more than 180 years, making the region one of the country’s oldest wine-growing regions. Today, around 110 wineries – and dozens more vineyards which supply grapes to the wineries – litter the roads of Cessnock and Pokolbin, some 150km north of Sydney. While any time is a good time to visit an area boasting so much good (cheap) wine, key events include the Hunter Valley Harvest Festival in March and April, and Opera In The Vineyards and Jazz In The Vines, both in October. See

The Barrington Tops National Park

One of Australia’s most under-rated World Heritage-listed wilderness areas can be found on the fringes of the Upper Hunter Valley, 38km from Gloucester. Here, across more than 73,000 hectares of protected rainforest, koalas share the fragile environment with rat kangaroos, broad-nosed bats and parma wallabies, platypi, bandicoots and the odd wombat. Walking tracks criss-cross the mountains, while fishing (a permit is required), swimming and cycling are all popular year-round. Expect snow during the colder months. See

Maitland Gaol
It may not be Alcatraz, but between 1844 and 1998, the maximum security Maitland Gaol was home to some of the state’s most notorious prisoners, including convicted backpacker serial killer Ivan Milat. Its high walls and barbed wire fences shielded the outside world from thousands of people deemed unfit for society, and until 1861 hosted public hangings. Around the corner you’ll find Maitland Grossmann High School where, in my day, we had gaol break drills rather than fire drills. Not surprising when you consider that in 1977, a chap by the name of Raymond ‘Maddog’ Denning and six of his gaol housemates made their way out via an exhaust vent in the shower block. They roamed East Maitland for two hours before police rounded them up and carted them back inside. Three years later, wardens found a six-metre-long tunnel chiselled through a cell block – it took two truckloads of concrete to fill the hole. You’ll learn all this and more if you visit the gaol, which is now one of the Hunter Valley’s most intriguing tourist attractions.

• 6-22 John St, East Maitland (www.;

OK. So it doesn’t make many maps, let alone the guidebooks, but my hometown boasts two pubs, a butcher shop, a grocery store, a newsagency and a post office (the fruit shop closed down last year). You can picnic down by the river in Tucker Park or take a stroll out to the showground for a spot of tennis or a bash around the little nine-hole golf course. But the biggest news of all is that a B&B opened up in the heart of town – in the old bank building on the main street – last year. We don’t have an official website yet, but see for more. Go now before everyone else ‘discovers’ it …