FLY, WINE AND DINE
Barry Oliver joins an inaugural seaplane flight to NSW’s Hunter Valley
THE plan is for a bit of a bash: champagne, Cessnock’s mayor, the NSW Tourism Minister and a few other bigwigs toasting the arrival of Sydney Seaplanes’ inaugural flight to the wine-growing Hunter Valley, north of Sydney.
Unfortunately, the area’s recent floods have put a dampener on proceedings and it is decided such celebrations aren’t appropriate. So our arrival last week in a brand new $3 million turbo-prop Cessna Caravan is a low-key affair, though a few curious locals turn out to form a welcoming party (and are rewarded with a joyride flight).
I’m curious as to how a seaplane is going to put down in the inland Hunter Valley but all is revealed on arrival at Rose Bay in Sydney’s eastern suburbs: the 12-seater Cessna is, of course, amphibious, with a set of tiny wheels neatly tucked into the floats.
It joins Sydney Seaplanes’ fleet of three sixpassenger de Havilland Beavers and a fivepassenger Cessna 206 used for local sightseeing trips. The bigger newcomer with wheels has made the Hunter possible for the first time, reducing a two-hour drive from Sydney to 30 minutes aloft, mostly at 666m, a good height for taking in everything that’s happening on the ground.
The company has linked up with the wine region’s tourism operators to offer flightinclusive packages with a choice of a round of golf, lunch, spa visit or an overnight stay.
Pilot Perry Saunders gives us a taste of the commentary tourists receive on the scenic flights: Rose Bay, we’re told, is — or was — Australia’s first international airport, going back to the golden age of flying boats in the 1930s and ’ 40s, when a flight to England was a leisurely nine-day affair.
There was only one class (first), and so much room that a game of mini-golf or quoits wasn’t out of the question.
No golf for us, but there are great views of Sydney Harbour before we pass over Palm Beach, Broken Bay and the central coast, taking a brief detour to marvel at the grounded tanker on Nobbys Beach near Newcastle. We decide it looks stuck there for the duration.
The bird’s-eye view of the Hunter’s floods is sobering and NSW Tourism Minister Matt Brown shakes his head in disbelief. Someone likens the scene to wet-season Kakadu in the Northern Territory. To lighten the mood we discuss the in-flight service (there isn’t any) and the choice of films (ditto).
Saunders’s landing in Cessnock is pillowsoft, earning him applause. Well, he’s got to be careful, he does have a minister on board. As one bright spark remarks, at least we know the wheels work, even if they look too small for the job. Saunders says that if there had been much more rain we could have made a water landing.
On the ground and photographs over, we learn that not all locals are happy about the champagne staying corked. They want the message to go out that it’s business as usual for most operators (see box).
After lunch at Rock Restaurant, overlooking the original block of 90-year-old shiraz vines at Pooles Rock Winery, we head back to Sydney, thankful that on this occasion we don’t face a two-hour drive.
Sydney Seaplanes sales and marketing manager Maureen Fitzgerald reveals the airline plans to continue spreading its wings. Plans are being hatched for flights to Canberra, with a landing on Lake Burley Griffin on the cards. Now that would have the champagne flowing. Barry Oliver was a guest of Sydney Seaplanes.
Flight-inclusive Hunter Valley packages include: midweek overnight accommodation and breakfast at Peppers Convent, $700 a person; wine-tasting tour and lunch at Bimbadgen Estate, $735; and three-hour pamper package at the Golden Door Spa at Cypress Lakes Resort, $980. More: 1300 732 752. www.seaplanes.com.au www.rockrestaurant.com.au www.peppers.com.au www.bimbadgen.com.au www.cypresslakes.com.au
Spreading its wings: Sydney Seaplanes’ new turbo-prop Cessna Caravan crosses the harbour, en route to the Hunter Valley