If you’ve taken the classic East Coast road trip from Sydney to Brisbane, you’ve probably driven through Northern NSW’s lush Tweed Valley. You may have stopped to straddle the state border – one foot in New South Wales and one in Queensland.
While most holidaymakers flock to Tweed Heads for a coastal getaway or carry on to Surfer’s Paradise, those who venture inland from here are in for a treat. A getaway in the Tweed Valley region offers just the right dose of relaxation and exploration.
Mistere Spa and Retreat – A five-star rainforest paradise
It’s not something you’d expect – bumping into Predator while walking through Australian rainforest. My partner and I are on a sculpture walk around the 20-hectare grounds of Mistere Spa and Retreat in Urliup. We’ve come to this forest-laden retreat for a few glorious days of nature and art. The quirky Chinese Zodiac walk twists and turns through the stunning mountainside property, crossing creek beds and ravines. Flanking the path are the creatures of the zodiac – hefty cast bronze heads sitting atop wooden posts. We pass Pig, Dragon, Snake, Horse and Sheep and then lost in conversation, take a wrong turn.
Suddenly Predator is standing before us in all his hideous glory. As though he’s been hacking his way through the undergrowth, he stands in a tangle of tree ferns. A killer scythe in one menacingly outstretched hand and a metal ball on a chain dangling from the other, its razor-sharp spikes longer than my fingers. But rather than the 1987 version that Arnold Schwarzenegger was up against, this Predator is more approachable. We close in on him and discover that he’s been built entirely from bicycle and motorbike parts. It’s a clever assemblage of pieces so meticulously fitted together that he looks perfectly armoured, if he should happen to come to life and meet some like-minded ‘folk’.
We wander past a dam almost completely covered in lily pads. Here, we spot a pair of silver dancing brolgas made from thin metal glint in the sun as a fountain showers them from above. A toy-like wooden boat for two is anchored to a raised wooden seating area and bridge, placed there for those who’d like to paddle out and enjoy the rainforest from the water.
Mount Warning – Australia’s Green Cauldron
Arriving back at our five-star villa tucked discreetly into this magical landscape, we make tea and sit on the enclosed balcony. It’s exceedingly spacious – big enough to fit a barbecue and lounge setting. The suite is fully self-contained, so you don’t need to go anywhere else if you don’t feel like it. It has a room off the enormous bathroom with a spa that could fit 10. There’s also a two-person sauna sitting out front that has a perfect view of the Tweed Valley.
This morning, thick mist is swirling across Mount Warning’s midriff and the sun is breaking through the low-lying clouds. Bird calls emerge: bellbird calls chime with the jolly warbles of magpies.
Mount Warning is the largest erosion caldera in the Southern Hemisphere and is one of the world’s natural wonders. In layman’s terms, a caldera forms when a major eruption occurs, causing the mouth of the volcano to collapse. Astonishingly, the caldera valley is more than 1000 metres deep and has a diameter of some 40 kilometres. It’s even larger than Tanzania’s famous Ngorongoro Crater.
As the mist lifts, some of the area dubbed ‘Australia’s Green Cauldron’ appears. The uber-green scenery has grown on the fertile folds of lava that spewed from the monstrous volcano 23 million years ago, when its peak was 1.9 kilometres above sea level.
You can explore Mount Warning and surrounds on a day hike. Find out more here.
Murwillumbah Art Trail and Tweed Regional Gallery, NSW
Our accommodation in Urliup is a short drive from the picturesque riverside town of Murwillumbah. Every year, this northern NSW community hosts the Murwillumbah Art Trail which runs for around 10 days. The event includes pop-up galleries, art workshops and more than 25 local music acts entertaining the ever-growing culture vulture crowds that pour into town. There are comedy shows, art river cruises and a film night at the local Regent Cinema (that has thankfully retained its old-world character). There’s even a VIP progressive dinner through galleries after hours (labelled as ‘not snobby’), and an arty picnic in a sculpture park.
The festival wraps up with an evening at a pop-up gallery in a warehouse. There’s music, entertainment and the crowning of the winner of the Border Art Prize (BAP), a competitive exhibition that runs at the Tweed Regional Gallery for three weeks every second year. The major prize is $3,000, and this year Trinity Leonard from Lismore won first place for her oil painting titled Hannah.
Tweed Regional Gallery punches way above its weight in terms of the gallery itself and the artwork on display. Six exhibition spaces host all kinds of art events during the year. The modern, light-filled building – set on a hill and surrounded by beautiful gardens – has magnificent views of the Tweed River.
Must-read: Top art galleries around Australia
Margaret Olley Art Centre (MOAC) in the heart of Tweed Valley
Down by the Tweed River you can see the old farmhouse where renowned still-life painter Margaret Olley lived as a child. Her father rowed her across the river every weekday to school and she grew up surrounded by cane fields and nature. Olley died in Paddington, Sydney in 2011 but she bequeathed $1 million to Tweed Regional Gallery for the creation of the Margaret Olley Art Centre (MOAC).
MOAC is a mind-boggling re-creation of Margaret’s former home in Paddington. On display are more than 20,000 items that she collected and arranged (somewhat haphazardly) for subjects in her paintings. Original architectural elements from her home were also relocated or re-created. These items include windows and doors, allowing visitors to literally peek into her home. Visitors would see the piles of magazines, hundreds of vases and flowers that she liked to collect (she’d let them die and then paint them years later as dried flowers), and the most fascinating details of her life as a prolific artist. I think it’s as close as you’ll ever get to being able to step inside an extraordinary artist’s mind, if you’re not one yourself.
“I like working in the kitchen, much to the amusement of my friends,” she said in an ABC TV interview with Peter Thompson. “They come and say they could tidy it up and I say, ‘Excuse me! It’s a very unique kitchen. It’s a studio first and a kitchen second.’
“If you think about it, I suppose my painting is an extension of my life, and my life and surroundings are part of my paintings, so I feel I’m in harmony with where I live and who I am. So, I’m at one with the painting.”
Mavis’s Kitchen in Uki – A true taste of the Tweed Valley
After our fill of art, we decide on local institution Mavis’s Kitchen for dinner. This gorgeous restaurant is housed in a classic white-washed weatherboard Queenslander. It has a romantic picket-fence-like staircase and verandas hugging it on every side. The building has been pulled apart and moved twice – the owner was attached to his old Aunt’s place where he grew up. It now rests on verdant pastures where much of the menu’s organic produce grows. Mavis’s calendar is full year-round, mostly for weddings. It’s a fairy-tale setting that cries out for ladies in lacy white dresses to grace its green pastures.
House of Gabriel and Husk Distillery in Tumbulgum, NSW
There are so many wonderful eateries in these parts, but another that stands out is House of Gabriel. Situated in the riverside village of Tumbulgum, this establishment is famed for its charm and delicious, homemade fare. Don’t leave town without trying the corn fritters and arancini balls. If you fancy an afternoon tipple, fit in an Ink Gin cocktail. The creators (Husk Distillery) are just up the road and recently launched a new kind of rum created from the sugarcane plantation that surrounds the distillery. At the end of 2018 saw the launch of a rum bar, café and rum-tasting experience. Guests can tour Husk Farm Distillery, experience the bottling, fermenting and distilling process, and enjoy tastings along the way.
A delicious river cruise at the foot of Mount Warning
On our last day we took a three-hour, five-course Seafood Degustation Cruise on the Spirit of Wollumbin. The immaculate vessel is a traditional Huon pine river ferry. The onboard catering team are a delight, entertaining guests as they dish up delectable dishes of local seafood and produce and foraged bush food ingredients. A soft-shell crab salad is superb, and the pumpkin soup is as good as mum makes it. Garlic prawns and Balmain bugs sizzle on a camp stove. Wine glasses swirl as the boat glides down the river.
Interested in taking a cruise down the Tweed River? Check out Mount Warning Tours to find one that suits.
Before us is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of local life. Dense, bird-filled rainforests and mangroves, sprawling sugarcane fields, farmhouses with families fishing off pontoons and river clifftops. Tweed Valley locals are set up on the riverbanks with picnics and eskies. Everyone is enjoying the good life. By the time we dock in Tumbulgum, we’ve made some friends and learnt about the many villages, towns and farmlands that make this region so special. Rising above us and the breathtaking scenery is majestic Mount Warning. I can see why thousands of artists continue to fall in love with every day as they attempt to capture its ever-changing moods and faces. Rising into the sky, like a giant capturing clouds and sunshine on its hat, it’s a stunning backdrop tying every one of our days here to the glorious Green Cauldron.