Destinations

Grape expectations in the Hunter Valley

Donna Fleming find there’s more to Australia’s Hunter Valley than vineyards

First, a confession. When the Hunter Valley was suggested as a location for our family get-together, I wasn’t exactly keen. While it might be fine for the adults, visiting one of Australia’s top wine regions didn’t seem particularly kid-friendly. How would we keep our five-year-old daughter ophelia and her two-year-old cousin Sophie entertained for a week? But luckily, my misgivings proved to be groundless.

This famous New South Wales region has plenty to offer every age group. Here’s a sample: Gorgeous gardens our visit to Hunter Valley Gardens was a highlight of the trip. We devoted the best part of a day to seeing the 25-hectare gardens. This was wise because, with 8km of paths, there’s lots to see.

We headed for the Story Book Garden first, where ophelia and Sophie were wide-eyed with delight at the murals and statues of children’s book characters surrounded by trees and plants. They especially loved the oad Hatter’s tea party from Alice in Wonderland and Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house. It took a large icecream bribe to get the girls to move on to the next spot, but they were soon entranced by the oriental Garden with its Japanese pagoda, then the waterfall in the Sunken Garden.

Personally, I could have spent ages moseying around the English-style Border Garden and the fragrant Italian Grotto, but my favourite was the Indian oosaic Garden. Antique wooden gates open to reveal a colourful carpet of exotic flora, including divinesmelling curry plants that sparked an intense craving for chicken tikka masala.

The Hunter Valley Gardens are part of a huge complex that includes a shopping village, picnic area and playground. The genius who designed the play area put in water fountains that kids can run under and, in the heat of an Aussie summer, it was hard to restrain myself from dashing under the cool spray with them.

**Hunter Valley Zoo

**For some reason, this zoo is not widely publicised – if we hadn’t happened to notice a sign pointing down a side road, we’d never have found it. It’s not a big, swish set-up like the late Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, but a small, friendly place that’s easily manageable, especially for younger kids.

There are no crocs and only one nasty-looking snake at the bottom of a big pit (to my relief – I’m terrified of the creatures) but it had all the animals unique to Australia, including kangaroos, koalas, dingos, wombats and Tasmanian devils. For the small cost of 50 cents, we purchased a small tub of animal and bird feed and were able to enjoy feeding parakeets, kangaroos and emus.

Awesome art galleries

Two-year-old Sophie wasn’t much taken with the idea of looking at paintings and sculptures but, at five, ophelia was old enough to enjoy wandering around the art galleries. one of the best is the Sculpture Gallery at oistletoe Wines. Intriguing pieces made of materials such as stainless steel, copper, wood, concrete and granite are placed throughout the grounds. There are also paintings inside the winery.

Another gallery worth stopping at is Butterflies Gallery on nearby Broke Rd, which has some stunning paintings and exquisite glassware. (This is definitely a “look but don’t touch” shop!) The panoramic landscape photographs at the Ken Duncan Gallery at Hunter Valley Gardens Village were also a hit with young and old alike.

**Fabulous food

**The Hunter Valley is known for food as well as wine. The girls loved sampling the wares at the Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop, though they weren’t keen on the blue cheese. (“Smells like dad’s feet,” grimaced ophelia.) But the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company was their idea of paradise (okay, so it was mine too!) and they were only too happy to choose from a wide range of treats. And at the Pokolbin Chocolate and Jam Company, the kids were so transfixed watching fudge being made by hand that they were quiet for 10 whole minutes!

**Wonderful wineries

**We did get to the odd winery that week – in parts of the Hunter Valley there’s a vineyard every 50m or so along the road. A few have playgrounds where the kids can play while you sample the winery’s cellar: oakvale, oMorebank, Tamburlaine and Golden Grape are all kid-friendly.

**Where to stay

**There’s a huge variety of accommodation available in the Hunter Valley, ranging from motel rooms in the main town of Cessnock to luxury resorts in the countryside. Lots of the local vineyards rent out cottages and there are plenty of B&Bs and lodges with self-catering studios.

We stayed in a privately owned cottage called Clydes at oount View. In the middle of lush farmland, it was a rundown farmhouse owned by a bloke called Clyde until its new owners renovated it in gorgeous retro style complete with antiques. Clydes has a bunkroom/playroom for children that’s crammed full of toys and art supplies.

**Factfile

The regionThe Hunter Valley is on the north coast of New South Wales, about a two-hour drive from Sydney. Newcastle is the closest city and the main town in the region is Cessnock. For more information on the region, visit [www.winecountry.com.au](“http://www.winecountry.com.au”).Where to stay Clydes cottage at oount View: www.clydesatmountview.com.au.

****Hunter Valley Zoo www.huntervalleyzoo.com.au.

****Hunter Valley Gardens www.hvg.com.au.

****Galleries www.mistletoewines.com/ about/gallery.shtml , www.butterflies.com.au , www.kenduncan.com.

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