When you think of a Hunter Valley weekend getaway, you think food and wine. But why not add beer and balloons to the package too? The hot air variety of balloon, that is.
Hot air ballooning in the Hunter Valley
Few humans enjoy getting up at 4am, surely? But if the promise of floating above the world as the sun rises is part of the deal, alongside an impressive fry-up and a glass of Peterson’s sparkling wine, then the prospect of arriving in a dew-soaked paddock at 5am gains appeal.
That’s exactly where my partner and I find ourselves on our wedding anniversary morning. With a hot cuppa in hand, we’re standing in a Hunter Valley paddock where cows stare at us through a wire fence. A reddish glow plays across the horizon. An enormous purple, yellow and green hot air balloon is lying on its side. Gusts of fire shoot at well-timed intervals into the opening at its base. Then slowly, gracefully, the balloon stands up. We board the attached basket, as instructed, climbing up the footholds in its side.
The ropes connecting our party of 10 to the truck are then untied and that’s when the magic unfurls. There’s utter silence in the basket as everyone watches the ground drop away. Silently, peacefully, we ascend into the sky. We’re heading towards the red glow that has now mellowed into streaky hues of golden-purple and orange.
Within minutes we’re looking down and across vineyards, ponds, dams and treetops as we glide straight into the sunrise. No one speaks at first, but there are a few gasps and sharp intakes of breath before people find their voices. They begin to point out a flock of ducks or a farmer there, and two horses cantering. A group of Eastern European visitors spot two grey kangaroos boxing one another playfully as their mob looks on.
The ride with Balloon Aloft lasts for just over an hour. We cruise for some eight kilometres, drifting across homes, shacks and sheds. We float over resorts, cellar doors, the Roche Estate outdoor music stadium, the spectacular Hunter Valley Gardens and, of course, row upon row of tethered vines. Then, as gently as we took off, we land in another paddock. A herd of cows gives us the once-over before turning to the more urgent matter of eating grass.
Want to experience a hot air balloon ride over the Hunter Valley? Try this one.
The morning continues with a fry-up and a glass of bubbles at Peterson House. (Try the pink sparkling as well while you’re at it – how often do you get offered sparkling wine at 8am?). Then it’s time to do what most people descend upon the Hunter do: sample wine and delicious local produce. We’ve decided to add beer as well.
Keith Tulloch Wine in the Hunter Valley
We start our exploration of local goodness Field of Mars. This renowned vineyard is run by local legend, Keith Tulloch, who comes from four generations of winemaking. It’s actually his 21st birthday – in terms of how long he’s been making wine anyway. You can do a basic tasting for $5, but the premium tasting, at $25 is well worth it.
Our favourites were the wonderfully aged Field of Mars Semillon (the Hunter Valley’s signature wine), and a peppery, long-legged red, the 2014 Field of Mars Shiraz. Keith doesn’t create his Field of Mars wines unless it’s an exceptional year. When it is on offer, you know you’re getting his personal favourites from the best vintages in his collection.
Peter Drayton Wines and Potters Hotel Brewery in the Hunter Valley
Both of us being lovers of beer and cider, we then swing by Peter Drayton Wines. Peter also comes from a huge wine legacy – six generations of them, in fact. Peter’s brother went on to make great wines like their parents, while Peter established Ironbark Hill Brewhouse within his own winery. Whoever said that wine and beer flights don’t go hand in hand, quite frankly has no idea.
They have great ideas at Peter Drayton, such as big communal benches under the trees. When you add cider and pizza to the mix, you’ve almost nailed the perfect Hunter Valley weekend getaway. The pear and apple cider have the light bubbles of a sparkling wine, are super-dry and the fruit flavours will have you smiling. Isn’t that what cider is for?
Continuing with the beer theme, we book an entertaining beer tour at Potters Hotel Brewery and Resort. Our guide explains the impressive range of signature beers such as the Hunter Kolsch and Hunter Witbier. We also sample scrumptious seasonal beers such as the Chocolate Porter and Christmas Cheer. The resort’s courtesy bus seats 11 people so the friendly staff can pick you up from wherever you are and then drop you back at a desired location after you test a couple more samples of the good stuff.
Fancy taking a cheese, chocolate, vodka and wine tasting tour around the Hunter? Check this out.
Accommodation in the Hunter Valley
We booked into Potters for the first night of our Hunter Valley weekend getaway. It is really affordable as it’s on the periphery of wine country. You can rent a simple, large two-bedroom cottage with its own back porch and grassy lawn. There’s also a pool in the middle of the resort where you can cool down after a big day out in the valley.
If you need a break from all of the glorious food and wine, Ubika Spa at Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley is a top pick. It’s a refreshing sanctuary surrounded by picturesque vineyards and golf greens, all framed by the rugged Brokenback Ranges. The spa is famous in the Hunter for friendly, professional service provided by some of the region’s top therapists. The spa menu features a diverse selection of therapies for both men and women, that aim to regenerate and restore.
A newcomer on the accommodation scene, and one that is ideal for a group of friends or an extended family, is Rock Cottage at Winmark Wines in Broke. Formerly Poole’s Rock (renowned for its chardonnay), this stunning property on 116 acres has been lovingly restored and features three double bedrooms. There is an alfresco area, loungeroom and cosy living space with a fireplace. Enjoy the veranda with the spectacular scenery. Wander amongst the vines and watch the sun set around the famous sculptural rock.
Maybe you’d prefer a farmstay? We’ve done a round up of our top 10 in Australia here.
Fine dining in the Hunter Valley
After our delightful Hunter Valley weekend getaway, we’re pretty chuffed to have gathered a nice wee collection of locally, lovingly made drops. These spoils represent a new era filled with interesting things going on in this valley that has been producing wines since the 1820s. We’ve bagged a growler of Drayton’s lip-smackingly dry cider, a couple of Hunter Kolschs – hand-filled, hand-capped in Champagne-style bottles (they even apply the labels by hand) – a few of Keith’s awesome Field of Mars wines to cellar (we’ll try) and a bottle of white Muscat from Mistletoe for those times when a wine or a beer simply won’t do.
Our final stop is the icing on the cake. This is something we’d planned well in advance to coincide with our actual anniversary (doesn’t everyone have a week-long anniversary party?). After a light lunch at Goldfish restaurant on Roche Estate, we drive to Spicers Vineyards Estate. This is part of a collection of superb retreats that offer the epitome of relaxed luxury in a beautiful environment where privacy is key.
The onsite fine-dining restaurant, Botanica, is set in a cosy, stylish homestead where glass doors open onto sprawling native gardens and vineyards. The wine list is nothing short of sensational and the degustation menu is as artful as it is delectable. The offerings vary in tune with the seasons and what Mother Nature has offered up to the kitchen.
We linger longer at our table, the stars shining bright above the vines, and then wander back to our room. The sound of frogs and the rustle of the wind in the trees offer a calming night song, perfect for drifting off to sleep.
Looking for more food and wine getaway ideas? Read our write up on the Margaret River region.