• Liane Morris

Four Destinations (up to) Four Hours Away

Feel inspired to look beyond local limits for your Summer holiday? If you’ve already ticked the top 10 activities in your local area off and you still have some time to spare, why not look a little further afield and take a short break to a destination that’s only four hours drive away? Liane Morris has uncovered some fabulous spots that are well worth a week or a weekend this Summer...

PORT MACQUARIE (2 hours, 42 mins NORTH)

Port Macquarie is located on the mid-north coast of NSW and is most famous for its all-year-round stunning sub-tropical weather, widely hailed as the best in Australia, 17 gorgeous beaches and a magnificent river system. If sunning, surfing, fishing, boating and strolling along the white stretches of sandy heaven are not enough for you though, Port Macquarie has loads more to offer the discerning visitor and family groups alike.

Discovered by John Oxley the Surveyor General in 1818 and named after Governor Macquarie, the region has been home to the indigenous Birpai people for more than 40,000 years. The Birpai followed the area’s lush seasonal food trail, living in harmony and plenty until the penal settlement was founded in 1821 for secondary offence convicts. The historical evidence of both the indigenous culture and the convict heritage can still be found today in Port Macquarie and are worth exploring.

Port Macquarie Hastings Heritage offers award-winning walking tours – 'Uncovering Our Past' and 'Grave Tales' – a great way to teach the older kids all about Australian history and the history of the region.

The lush seasonal food trail that was enjoyed by the Birpai people for thousands of years can still be enjoyed today. Port Macquarie and the hinterland is a foodie haven with opportunities to pick your own strawberries, visit an oyster farm, enjoy a tipple at a winery, meet the local producers at the farmer's markets or try a local craft beer. There are several wineries including Cassegrain, Bago Vineyards (which includes a fabulous maze for the kids), Longpoint Vineyard (amazing outdoor sculptures) and Little Fish Restaurant and Vineyard. If beer is more your taste, then don’t miss The Little Brewing Company whose Wicked Elf beer is quite famous or The Black Duck Brewery where you can enjoy a tasting paddle of 8 beers and a ploughman’s lunch.

Popular attractions are diverse and many including but not limited to, the Koala Hospital, Billabong Zoo, river cruises, whale watching, camel riding and the Timbertown Heritage Theme Park. With a vibrant art scene, there’s always a gallery and exhibitions to visit and a multitude of events year-round. On the fourth Sunday of each month, local artisans sell their wares in the Artist Market located in the grounds of The Maritime Museum.

Visitors are well catered for with a wide choice of accommodation – everything from 4.5-star luxury hotels to camping by the beach, nature domes, retreats, farm stays or holiday homes. When it comes to restaurants and cafes, Port Macquarie and the surrounding villages don’t disappoint. If fine dining is your thing, try The Stunned Mullet, the Port’s only one hatted restaurant or if you’re after something that’s sea to plate, try the buzzing vibe of Bill’s Fishhouse & Bar. The café scene is alive and well with places like LV’s on Clarence focusing on homemade and locally sourced produce and fare – they even have their own farm.

With a rich history, a vibrant arts and culture scene, lots to see and do, gorgeous food and wine and plenty of places to stay, Port Macquarie is an easy getaway for Novocastrians. And at only 2 hours and 45 minutes’ drive, the kids won’t complain too much!

How to Get There: Via Pacific Highway A1 past Forster and Taree. Cost: Approximately $29 to $49 fuel cost. Travel Time: 2 hours, 42 mins.

Top Image: Bago Maze and Winery, Wauchope (Port macquarie). Credit: Destination NSW

Sierra Escape, Piambong (Mudgee). Credit: Destination NSW

MUDGEE (3 hours, 35 mins NORTH-WEST)

In the Central West of New South Wales, Mudgee is located on a broad fertile valley on the Cudgegong River about 261 km north-west of Sydney. Most famous for its incredible food offerings and its more than 40 family-owned wineries, Mudgee is a favourite getaway spot for busy urbanites wanting a taste of the country.

Prior to the crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813, the Wiradjuri people called Mudgee “Moothi” – meaning “nest in the hills”. In 1821 James Blackman was the first European to settle in the area. As others followed him, the settlers killed many of the food sources that the Wiradjuri people depended on and unrest followed. Gold was discovered in the area in 1851 and vineyards were founded from 1858 by German immigrants. Possibly the area’s most famous son was Henry Lawson who had strong ties to the area.

Lowe Wines, Mudgee. Credit: Destination NSW

If you can drag yourself away from the more than 30 cellar doors, Mudgee and surrounding towns have an incredible array of things to do and explore. No visit to Mudgee is complete without a visit to the historic town of Gulgong where there are three museums dedicated to the history of the area, its status as a gold mining town and Henry Lawson. The town buildings are heritage listed, and fascinating facts are easy to discover, such as the fact that Dame Nellie Melba performed in the Prince of Wales Opera House and it is the oldest performing arts venue still being used for its intended purpose. Have a poke around the antique stores or join in the Gold Mining Experience and try your hand at panning for gold.

Time your visit to Mudgee to coincide with one of the many events that are held throughout the year including the NRL Charity Shield in February 2021, Fermenta in March celebrating all things fermented, the Mudgee Classic a cycling event in May, Mudgeeque a BBQ, wine food and music Winter festival in June, the Mudgee Small Farm Field Days in July or the Flavours of Mudgee – a community street festival in September.

The Little Cooking School, Mudgee. Credit: Destination NSW

Perhaps you’d like to learn a new skill? In Mudgee, The Little Cooking School hold various classes throughout the year including Summer Pasta Sunday where you learn how to make fresh pasta then get to enjoy it with local white wines on Valentine’s Day, or cook up a Greek feast or learn about Ottolenghi. There are sourdough classes, brewing courses and wine schools, to name a few.

The restaurants are too many and too outstanding even to begin to make a list. Visitors are spoilt for choice, and there truly is something for everyone and every taste. Perhaps the Pipeclay Pumphouse at the Robert Stein Vineyard & Winery and the Zin House at Lowe Family Wine Co are worth special mention if you’re after a fine dining experience.

Similarly, the accommodation options are too numerous and too gorgeous to go through them all. There are bubble tents, teepees, farm stays, rustic cottages, luxury resorts, hotels, B&Bs – if you can dream it, Mudgee’s got it.

How to Get There: Hunter Expressway to the Golden Highway, then Bylong Valley Way and Wollar Road to Mudgee. Cost: Approximately $35 to $55 fuel cost. Travel Time: 3 hours, 35 mins.

Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains. Credit: Destination NSW

JENOLAN CAVES (4 hours, 2 mins SOUTH-WEST)

One of the most impressive cave sites in all the world, Jenolan Caves can be found in the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve in the middle of the Central Tablelands region, west of the Blue Mountains. Even though it’s almost a rite of passage for primary school children on school excursions, it’s worth taking the family for a more in-depth exploration.

Around 340 million years old, Jenolan Caves is the oldest known open cave system in the world. Formed over millions of years due to erosion and the natural weathering from the Jenolan River. The local indigenous people - Gundungurra and Wiradjury, originally called it "Genowlan" which meant "high place shaped like a foot". It was a sacred place of healing waters where they would take their sick to bathe in the underground rivers and pools.

It wasn’t until 1838 that the first recorded cave discovery was made by James Whalen. By the 1880s Jenolan Caves had become a genuine tourist destination, and the current Caves House was built in 1898 after a fire destroyed the original buildings. Cave discoveries continue to be possible with more than 300 already discovered although only 9–11 are open as show caves.

The number one thing to do at Jenolan Caves is to explore the caves* with plenty of options according to fitness and bravery levels. With prior notice, there is even limited wheelchair access. There are many guided and self-guided tours to choose from; there’s even an app. There are tours designed especially for children, Legends, Mysteries and Ghosts is an extremely popular after-dark tour, or there are multi-lingual tours. To challenge yourself consider an adventure caving experience where two qualified guides will take you into the heart of the mountain where you will crawl, squeeze and climb in undeveloped caves, with only a headlamp to light the way.

Cave tours are not all you can do at Jenolan Caves. The Jenolan River Walking Track, beginning from the Grand Arch is suitable for almost everyone and rewards with spectacular views of the river, the Blue Lake**, waterfalls and suspension bridge. Don’t forget your togs to take advantage of the swimming holes.

Blue Lake, Jenolan Caves. Credit: Destination NSW

When it comes to accommodation, the heritage-listed Caves House is a step back in time. There’s also a motel-style Mountain Lodge and a budget backpacker Gate House option. For more accommodation choices you can stay at the nearby town of Oberon where you will find a caravan park, cabins, cottages, retreats, motels, B&B’s and even a trout fishing farm stay.

Food becomes an experience in Chisolm’s Restaurant at Caves House, one of only two remaining Grand Dining Rooms in Australia or enjoy a drink at Jeremiah’s Bar & Lounge. Light food options are catered for at the recently renovated Caves Café.

Visit Jenolan Caves now for a more intimate experience or wait till the renovations are complete later in 2021. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

*Note – due to covid, cave tours are limited and have become exclusive experiences that on weekends include various dining or accommodation options. On weekdays it is still possible to choose a cave only experience, but they are limited in number. With fewer people allowed on the tours, the experience becomes even more special and memorable.

**Note – work is currently being undertaken to dredge the lake and upgrade the facilities. Once complete the $20m upgrade will provide boardwalks, viewing platforms and an education centre—completion due mid-2021.

How to Get There: Pacific Motorway M1 toward Sydney, M2, M7, M4 towards Katoomba. Pass Katoomba, then at Hartley Historic Village, turn left at the Jenolan Caves turnoff. Check for road closures on Jenolan Caves Road. Cost: Approximately $29 to $43 fuel cost + tolls. Travel Time: 4 hours, 2 mins.

The Lighthouse and Blowhole, Kiama. Credit: Destination NSW

KIAMA (3 hours, 31 mins SOUTH)

Located on the Illawarra south coast of NSW, Kiama is where the beach meets the escarpment. The area is most famous for its spectacular coastline, iconic lighthouse and one of the world’s biggest blowholes that delight visitors of any age. Rolling green hills dotted with cattle spill down to the sea and the natural wonders of the Minnamurra Rainforest and Saddleback Mountain are not far away and totally worth exploring.

Named after the indigenous Wodi Wodi name Kiaram-a which means “where the sea makes a noise”, a reference to the blowhole, Kiama was a heavily bush-clad region through which the nomadic Dharawal people regularly travelled before white settlement. In 1797 George Bass sailed alongside the blowhole and became the first European to witness this spectacular sight. He also noticed the red cedar rainforests, and by 1812 the white settlers had begun clearing the land. Basalt also attracted settlers, and by 1832 the first permanent residence was established.

To immerse yourself in the history of the area pick up a heritage walks brochure from the visitor information centre. Explore Pilot’s Cottage Museum, a maritime and regional museum that was built in 1881, that provides information on history relating to shipping, the cedar industry and basalt quarries or walk to the historic Terrace Houses, originally built for the local quarry workers in 1886 and now house a unique selection of eateries, crafts, collectables and clothing stores.

Kiama has been one of Sydney’s favourite holiday spots since the train line was opened in 1893 and also boasts one of Australia’s most scenic coastal walks that stretches 20km from the mouth of the Minnamurra River south through Kiama to Gerringong’s Werri Beach. With easy access points and suitable for most fitness levels, there’s no better way to take in the natural beauty of the area. Don’t forget your swimmers so you can take a dip, your binoculars to whale watch and your camera/phone for those insta-worthy snaps.

Markets, Kiama. Credit: Destination NSW

Kiama has a special seaside vibe that’s enhanced by the rural villages and farmlands surrounding it. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the weekly Kiama Farmers’ Market held every Wednesday at Coronation Park, right next to Surf Beach – local produce is the name of the game, and you can chat to all the local farmers and food providores as you fill your food basket. If arts and craft are more your thing, then time your visit for the third Sunday of the month so you can enjoy the Kiama Seaside Markets where over 100 stalls offer everything from handcrafted gifts, locally designed clothing, jewellery, art, vintage and upcycled products.

Kiama is a true foodie haven with more than 50 cafés and restaurants to choose from, wineries and micro-breweries just down the road in Gerringong and even hands-on farmhouse workshops where you can learn cheesemaking, breadmaking, baking, jams and preserves, kombucha and even coffee bean harvesting.

Surf beaches, water sports, beach life – it’s all there just a stroll away from one of the many accommodation options available. And there’s a lot of accommodation to choose from, with everything from glamping, resorts, b&bs, self-contained cottages or units, pubs and a large number of caravan parks. Kiama has been showing holidaymakers a good time for almost 130 years, so it really knows what it’s doing!

How to Get There: Via Pacific Motorway M1, M7, Hume Motorway, M31 bypassing most of Sydney city. Cost: Approximately $30 to $50 fuel cost + tolls. Travel Time: 3 hours, 31 mins.

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