Kelly Bertrand explores close to home and realises you don’t have to trek across the world to really ‘travel’ – try Australia travel!
Is it just me, or when we talk about Australia (not in the context of a sporting win, loss or draw) it’s never about ‘travel’.
New Zealanders don’t explore Australia, we pop in. Perhaps for a weekend girls’ trip, or to see family and friends, or to attend a specific event or match.
It’s West New Zealand to most of us and sure I totally get it – but what if we went to ‘Straya for something more than shopping, rugby and mates?
It’s a question I’m asking myself as I’m 15,000 feet up in a hot air balloon over the Hunter Valley, looking out in awe at never-ending vineyards and imposing mountains. I ask it again as I’m knee-deep in a river, decked in a trés fashionable set of waders while sipping Champagne and knocking back oysters that were caught just minutes ago.
Again, when I’m whizzing through the air in a seaplane directly over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and again as I’m on a twin hulled catamaran that’s motoring along Port Stephens’ impeccable coastline as dolphins playfully jump right at our bow.
‘Straya, mate – sure, it’s a country that can’t pronounce its own name but they’re family, so we still have to love them. But there’s SO much more to Australia travel than the main centres – so cancel your ticket to the GC and embrace some of their other hidden gems, starting New South Wales.
SYDNEY/ PORT STEPHENS
Heard of Port Stephens before? It’s ok, neither had I but we really should have. An underrated jewel just a couple of hours drive from Sydney, Port Stephens is the perfect place to combine relaxation with refinement. And a lot of cockatoos.
If you’re keen to start your trip off in style (or you’re rich or you CBF driving) head to Port Stephens via seaplane (check out Sydney Seaplanes for both super-smooth flights and super-smooth, ok fine hot as hell, pilots) which will take you directly to your first activity.
And I do mean directly – your plane will drop you in the middle of the Hawkesbury River, where you’ll be promptly be picked up by Sydney Oyster Farm Tours. See how oysters actually grow, learn a little about their lifespan (turns out they’re more susceptible to a virus than a non-vaccinated tinfoil hat wearer) and how the entire industry has had to pivot multiple times before pivoting was even a thing.
Then, enjoy some fresh-as oysters while still in the river – strap on a pair of waders, wander to a table covered in a white tablecloth and enjoy some of the best oysters you’ll eat with a special elderflower mingette and a glass or two of Champagne. Honestly, it doesn’t get much better.
Once you’re in Port Stephens properly, head to the actual port and jump on a dolphin watching cruise – even if you’ve done it in New Zealand, there’s nothing quite like cruising the gorgeous coastline as they glide and jump alongside you.
And if food’s your priority (yes hi how are you, welcome to the club) then head to Rick Stein’s famous Bannisters restaurant for something fancy but fun, or else Atmos, a lively and chic Greek restaurant that absolutely blew us away – order a bunch of little things with your group, settle in and enjoy!
And to really ‘Straya up, pop in to the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary – you’re not allowed to cuddle them now which makes a lot of sense really, but you can say hi to dozens of cute previously injured koalas who are being nursed back to health, or can’t be released back into the wild.
Bannisters is gorgeous – the restaurant is there of course, but you’ll enjoy amazing sweeping views of the Pacific, jazzy birds and laid-back Aussie luxury.
It’s only a two-hour drive from Port Stephens to the famous Hunter Valley – but if you’re in a hurry or you’re not planning to do too much driving because, you know, drinks, take a helicopter up instead! It’s a GLORIOUS ride up the coast – the sand dunes are particularly impressive – and then in to the Hunter, home of Australia’s oldest and most famed wine.
So, the wine – where do you even start? There’s more than 150 wineries in a relatively small area so it can be a bit overwhelming. My advice? Brokenwood is a MUST – a sweeping, brand new cellar door awaits you, as does some of Australia’s best vinos, including their world-renowned Semillon (their version of a sauvignon blanc, kind of – it’s a bit heavier but not as aromatic). Indulge in the soil to cellar experience – three oysters matched perfectly with three styles of Semillon, as well as a four-course degustation (the STEAK, trust me!) matched with delicious wine including their famous Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz – DON’T miss this.
Margan Wines is also an incredible spot – when they say garden to table, they MEAN garden to table, so ask for a tour around the vege garden!
But if wine isn’t your thing, there isn’t a better place to give hot air ballooning a go – sure it’s bloody early in the morning, but it truly was the best experiences of my life. The feeling of being 15000 feet in the air with NO engine? Absolutely incredible. Just trying and forget you’re in an oversized picnic basket and you’re good. Oh, and there’s breakfast!
You can’t go past the Kirkton Park Hunter Valley – it’s right in the middle of the valley, situated on 70 acres of rolling hills with spectacular mountain views. It’s a gorgeous hotel that also features Locavore restaurant – one of those fancy but not too fancy hotel restaurants that heroes local ingredients.
Australia travel – it’s a vibe!