FLY, WINE AND DINE

Barry Oliver joins an in­au­gu­ral sea­plane flight to NSW’s Hunter Val­ley

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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

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