Port Macquarie to Armidale
Route: This sea-to-summit journey whooshes you from the mid-North Coast’s scalloped coastline up to New England’s cool-climate tablelands. Port Macquarie is home to the Koala Hospital (pictured) where sick and injured koalas are nursed back to health, as well as a sculpture trail featuring one-metre-high decorated koalas.
An hour’s drive north is Trial Bay Gaol at South West Rocks. Unusually, the granite prison was built to house a labour supply for a public works project – remnants of that ill-fated breakwater can be seen from the watchtower. It was also used as an internment camp. Pop to Coffs Harbour for a frolic in the ocean – perhaps a pod of dolphins will join you on a wave – before swinging back towards Waterfall Way. Mosey around bohemian Bellingen and continue west through rugged, gorge-fractured rainforest. Admire Crystal Shower Falls, Dangar Falls (pictured) and two-tiered Ebor Falls before reaching Armidale, Australia’s highest city. It is home to heritage architecture, grand churches and an active rock-climbing community.
Stay: Smoky Cape Lighthouse Cottages, spectacularly located in Hat Head National Park, are a 12-minute drive from Trial Bay Gaol. Armidale’s recently renovated Art Deco-style Tattersalls Hotel includes suites and a family apartment.
Eat: Port Macquarie’s Bills Fishhouse + Bar serves oysters, ceviche, sashimi, glazed octopus, BBQ mullet and seared barramundi. Pair the feast with interesting locally brewed tinnies. For a fine craft brew in Armidale, head to The Welder’s Dog.
Inside tip: Armidale bakery-café Goldfish Bowl wood-fires everything – even the muesli.
POP THE BUBBLES
Newcastle to Moree
Route: What connects the Hunter region to northern NSW’s artesian spa country? Bubbles, of course. Toast Newcastle, the state’s second-largest city, with a flute of Hunter Valley fizz (perhaps from Peterson House). Explore the city’s buzzy Honeysuckle precinct and dive into hand-hewn sea baths.
Point the wheels inland to discover the Hunter’s cultural riches. Maitland Regional Art Gallery is a worthwhile stop; ditto Michael Reid’s eponymous gallery in Murrurundi. In Gunnedah, see silo art featuring Dorothea Mackellar and an extract from her poem, My Country, emblazoned across a maize mill near the main drag. Pass rows of cotton sprouting from the rich black-soil plains to reach Moree, home to natural artesian hot springs and exquisite Art Deco architecture. The Moree Artesian Aquatic Centre (pictured), which played a pivotal role in the nation’s Indigenous civil-rights movement in 1965, is closed for repairs but many motels feature private artesian pools.
Stay: Newcastle’s first five-star hotel, the 130-room Crystalbrook Kingsley, recently opened in the landmark brutalist Roundhouse building.
Eat: Graze Willow Tree Inn, on the New England Highway between Murrurundi and Quirindi, offers accommodation but it’s best known among carnivores for its steak. The dry-aged beef comes from steers raised on pasture just 2km away. In Moree, grab a good coffee from the window of Brooker Trading Co on Balo Street.
Inside tip: Drop into the Pally Pub, in the hamlet of Pallamallawa east of Moree, to lunch on barramundi, lamb or pecan-crusted chicken – a nod to the local pecan industry.
Megalong Valley to the Central West
Route: Before exploring the Central West’s rolling countryside, corkscrew down into the Megalong Valley below Blackheath in the Blue Mountains. Settle into a spot at either Dryridge Estate or Megalong Creek Estate to admire the dramatic escarpment while wine-tasting. Bathurst’s notable cellar doors include Winburndale Wines while Orange offers a staggering 30-plus cellar doors. Try Philip Shaw (with bonus architectural swoon), Heifer Station (with its family-friendly petting zoo), Borrodell (for panoramic views from the flanks of Mt Canobolas) or make an appointment at Bloodwood, an early viticultural pioneer. Loop through Wellington and historic Gulgong to reach Mudgee. Pleasures here include Robert Stein Winery and Lowe Family Wine Co. Even if you think you’re all done with wineries by now, don’t skip Rylstone’s French-style De Beaurepaire Wines on the way home.
Stay: Wilga Station, a few minutes’ drive from Bathurst, blends contemporary design with sheep-farm life. Mudgee’s red-brick, seven-suite Parkview Hotel is centrally located, with a first-floor balcony on which you can enjoy wine purchases (one suite includes a bathtub). Orange’s Borrodell is home to the romantic Cider Suites.
Eat: Bathurst’s Dogwood BX serves diner-style fare and top-notch cocktails. Orange’s Charred is renowned for generous wood-fired food while Anything Grows, near Cook Park, is a pretty café, nursery and gift shop. Mudgee’s The Zin House does long lunches and dinners like no one else.
Inside tip: Bathurst’s Legall Patisserie turns out justifiably famous lemon tarts.
Canberra to Albury
Route: After indulging in Canberra’s delights – e-biking around the lake, sipping coffee on the Kingston Foreshore and tracking down sculptures at the National Arboretum (pictured above), to name a few – point your wheels towards Jugiong. Stock up on fine regional wines (Tumbarumba chardonnay, cool-climate shiraz, Hilltops nebbiolo) at the Jugiong Wine Cellar while nosing around this charming village.
Travel via Cootamundra or Gundagai to reach the Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory housed in a former flour mill. In Wagga, splash down at the “beach” (pictured). Wagga Beach is a photogenic spot alongside the Murrumbidgee River. Pop into Borambola Wines to hear fascinating stories of royalty and bushrangers before zipping down to the regional city of Albury on the Murray. Paddle a canoe on the river or get a culture fix at the Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA).
Stay: Jugiong’s The Sir George underwent a stunning restoration that includes guest rooms fashioned from the 1845 Cobb & Co stables. Following a hip Palm Springs-style makeover, Albury’s Astor Hotel Motel is the place for mid-century modern design lovers to rest their weary heads.
Eat: Rebel Rebel, in Canberra’s hip Acton precinct, serves next-level casual fare. Check the blackboard for breakfast and lunch specials at Jugiong’s Long Track Pantry. At Wagga’s Magpies Nest, settle in for a set-price poetically described feast that might include a rack of Riverina lamb with rambling crunchy chickpeas.
Inside tip: Bookings open on the first day of each month for Kimo Estate’s popular eco-huts near Gundagai.
HIGH ON ADVENTURE
Cooma to Tumut
Route: Rev your engines for a twirl around the high country’s twisty roads. Kick off in Cooma (the alpine region’s gateway and largest town) with a browse at high-tech fashion behemoth Birdsnest. At Thredbo, take the chairlift to start hiking to mainland Australia’s highest point – the summit of Mt Kosciuszko. Apply plenty of sunscreen before hitting the boardwalk that leads you over fragile wildflower-studded meadows. Return to the Alpine Way to scoot within a whisker of the Victorian border before striking north to Khancoban and Tumbarumba, home to Nest (a café/cinema/bookshop) and highly regarded Courabyra Wines (its sparkling is a stand-out). Travel via Batlow’s Weemala Lookout to survey the countryside before reaching Tumut.
Stay: Check in to a mountain chalet at Lake Crackenback Resort and Spa or continue to Thredbo to stay at the historic Thredbo Alpine Hotel. Near Tumut is Nimbo Fork Lodge, home to an outpost of the Three Blue Ducks culinary empire. Opt for a lodge suite or riverside cottage.
Eat: Local lamb is on the menu at Cooma’s The Lott Café . Between Jindabyne and Thredbo is Wildbrumby Schnapps Distillery, which serves alpine comfort food such as schnitzel, goulash and dumplings. At Tumut River Brewing Company (pictured), pair a craft brew or two with pizza topped with sour cream and local smoked trout.
Inside tip: Thredbo Mountain Bike Park, home to Australia’s only lift-accessed gravity trails, opens on November 20 (closing 25 April 2022).