Start Point: Bayswater Car Rental, William Street, Kings Cross
Finish Point: Shoal Bay
Estimated Driving Time: 2 hours 40 mins (excluding stops)
If you’re planning a road trip from Sydney and want fresh country air, stunning coastlines and the odd wine sampling, exploring the Hunter Valley by car is a great idea. Just two hours from Sydney, The Hunter Region attracts more than 2.5 million visitors a year. The area starts 120km from Sydney and extends for around 180km.
There truly is something for everyone on this journey. While the main drawcard might be its 100-plus wineries, there are plenty of other activities and sights, from water sports at the largest coastal saltwater lake in Australia, to bathing and surfing at several idyllic beaches.
Just 100km from Sydney on the Central Coast, the lagoons, lakes and beaches at The Entrance have long been popular attractions for Sydney and Newcastle locals looking to get away from it all. The town’s name has the Aboriginal origin Karagi, meaning entrance or doorway. Sitting near the strip of land that separates the ocean from Tuggerah Lake, the town is rated for its prettiness, large pelican population and nature walks in the Wyrrabalong National Park.
The Entrance is a great place to base yourself as there are many restaurants and accommodation options. By staying here you're sure to catch the pelican feeding sessions at the special pavilion in Memorial Park at 3.30pm every day.
Pelicans at The Entrance [Destination NSW]
Fifty kilometres north of The Entrance is Lake Macquarie, the largest coastal saltwater lake in Australia, at twice the size of Sydney Harbour. If you love all things to do with water, you'll be spoiled for choice as Lake Macquarie is an aquatic playground with everything from sailing, surfing, swimming and sunbathing on offer. On its western side Lake Macquarie borders the Watagan Mountains, a national park with spectacular rainforest gullies, views over the Hunter region and bushwalking trails that wind around beautiful Illawarra flame trees.
Dining at Lake Macquarie [Andrew Monger, Destination NSW]
From Watagan National Park, it's an easy 45 minute drive to Cessnock, the heart of the Hunter Valley. The town provides easy access to the oldest wine-growing region in Australia. Stop off at the Hunter Valley Visitor Information Centre to find out everything you need to know about accommodation, where to eat and which wineries offer tastings.
Cessnock is a good place to use as a base as it has a number of fine restaurants, B&Bs and galleries. History buffs should not miss The Convict Trail conservation project which is restoring the convict-built Great North Road. Other nearby towns well worth exploring include Pokolbin and Lovedale and the historic hamlet of Wollombi.
A Hunter Valley scene [Tourism Australia]
Heading east from Cessnock, back to the coast, is Port Stephens, a fabulous getaway with 26 golden beaches to explore. There are year-round water sports on offer at Port Stephens from swimming and surfing to snorkelling and sailing. After you've built up a healthy appetite, take a table at one of the waterside restaurants or cafes that line Nelson Bay, many specialising in freshly caught seafood.
Another special attraction at Port Stephens are the 150 or so bottlenose dolphins that call these waters home. You can join a cruise or a kayak trip to get up close to these graceful mammals. During whale-watching seasons in June/July and September to November visitors can take a cruise to view their migration up close or try their luck from a headland in Tomaree National Park.
Port Stephens [Tourism Australia]
The final stop on our road trip is Shoal Bay, the most eastern point in the Hunter region, on the southern shore of Port Stephens. Named after the sand shoals which are scattered around the area, Shoal Bay is overlooked by magnificent volcanic headlands. Boasting crystal clear waterways, white sandy beaches and extensive national parks with unspoiled bushland, Shoal Bay is one of New South Wales’ most attractive and unspoilt coastal areas.
View to Shoal Bay [Hamilton Lund; Destination NSW]