Steel your­self for a sur­prise

A one-time industrial city has forged it­self a so­phis­ti­cated fu­ture

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia - JU­DITH ELEN

SEA AND SKY THE for­mer Steel City, two hours’ drive north of Syd­ney (or a scenic three-hour train trip via the Hawkes­bury), har­bours pock­ets of so­phis­ti­ca­tion while re­tain­ing its work­ing-class her­itage. Re­shap­ing its iden­tity since the steel­works closed in 1999, this hard-nosed city, shaped by its ocean-go­ing his­tory and rich Hunter Val­ley hin­ter­land, now hums with small bars, cafes and arts cul­ture. The city is sur­rounded by wa­ter. Its Pa­cific coast­line, swathed in white sand and washed by surf breaks, hosts in­ter­na­tional surfers, or­di­nary swim­mers and fam­ily beach days. Tow­er­ing cliffs and sweep­ing seascapes frame of­ten sparsely pop­u­lated beaches and in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic swim­ming pools. Walk or cy­cle the fore­shore, im­bib­ing views and salt air, or out on to the penin­sula past Nob­bys Beach to the light­house. Wan­der the light­house precinct and Nobby’s Head­land Weather Sta­tion, Sun­days 10am-4pm. At Bar Beach, a 40-minute walk from Nob­bys, is a newly opened, cut­ting-edge skate bowl at Em­pire Park. Bathers Way is the Head­land to Merewether Baths trail (free maps at vis­i­tor cen­tres). From New­cas­tle Beach, spot dol­phins or pass­ing whales in sea­son (June-Novem­ber). Col­lect a bi­cy­cle from au­to­mated sta­tions at Crowne Plaza, or nearby Mar­itime Cen­tre, op­er­ated by Spin­way New­cas­tle. Swipe your credit or debit card, choose a bike and hit the trail; one, four or 24-hour rentals (from $11) with free hel­mets, locks and maps, and 24-hour re­turns. More: in­ter­bike.com.au.

ON THE WA­TER­FRONT THE Hunter River and New­cas­tle Har­bour etch the city’s north­ern bound­ary. Honey­suckle Drive, along the har­bour front, is per­fect for watch­ing this ever-chang­ing sea port. The Honey­suckle Ho­tel, for­merly Lee Wharf C (opened 1910), stands on tim­ber piles over the wa­ter. Sit at an out­side ta­ble, har­bour at your el­bow, for a bistro lunch of, say, crispy-skinned bar­ra­mundi. By day or night, The Land­ing Bar & Kitchen is an­other cosy har­bour­side look­out. Run by Lisa Margan of the Hunter Val­ley wine­mak­ing fam­ily, this restau­rant of blond-wood in­te­ri­ors and out­side ta­bles (ham­burg­ers, seafood, share plates, Hunter Val­ley wines) now has a quirky, plant-wrapped, pop-up Hen­drick’s Gin Gar­den (6pm-11.30pm) and ex­pect an­other pop-up soon; sip de­li­ciously in­ven­tive cock­tails (gin with rose­wa­ter, pomegranate juice, tangy lime) as a pass­ing tug guides a gi­ant freighter into port. To get out on the har­bour, take the short Stock­ton Ferry trip from Queens Wharf. More: hon­ey­suck­le­ho­tel.com.au; the­land­ing.com.au.

HER­ITAGE BRICKS AND MOR­TAR HIS­TORIC Fort Scratch­ley, above Nob­bys Beach, is a labyrinthine com­plex with 360-de­gree views. Fa­mous for open­ing fire on a Ja­panese sub when it at­tacked New­cas­tle in 1942, the fort played a role in both world wars. Ex­plore build­ings, bar­racks, an­tique guns and mu­seum rooms, on self-guided tours; or un­der­ground tun­nels with a guide. The can­non is fired daily at 1pm; there will be a spe­cial Gal­lipoli ex­hi­bi­tion next month. Other her­itage CBD trea­sures are the Court­house, old Cus­toms House, Rail­way Sta­tion, Post Of­fice and Christ Church Cathe­dral (with an­other wrap­around view). Self-guided trails in­clude New­cas­tle East Her­itage Walk with maps avail­able from vis­i­tor cen­tres. More: vis­it­new­cas­tle.com.au. CAFE CULT NEW­CAS­TLE’S myr­iad cafes are too nu­mer­ous to list but the quirky lit­tle One Penny Black (Hunter Street) is on ev­ery­one’s lips. Sip a choc-based cock­tail and watch the Darby Street pa­rade from a front-win­dow ta­ble at choco­la­te­ria Coco Monde. Wick­ham Mo­tor­cy­cle Cafe serves or­ganic, free-range break­fasts, lunches and great cof­fee be­side the bikes. Saluna, an easy-go­ing spot in quiet King Street, has foot­path ta­bles and hearty cafe fare. Scotties Fish Cafe, New­cas­tle East, is a lo­cal in­sti­tu­tion, and on New­cas­tle Beach Es­planade, Estabar serves up cof­fee and gelato with a view. Up­ris­ing Bak­ery sells fab­u­lous breads, pastries, tarts, pies and cof­fee in sub­ur­ban Maryville (also at the farm­ers mar­ket).

A ART FIX THE Art Gallery is a con­stantly shift­ing space, with vis­it­ing artists (most re­cently, Pa­tri­cia Pic­cinini and her goblin-like sculp­tures) and walls that move to make way for new ex­hi­bi­tions. The place hums with fam­i­lies; there are artists’ talks, work­shops, chil­dren’s art trails and week­end in­ter­ac­tive Art Cart. At the uni­ver­sity, Watt Space Gallery shows emerg­ing stu­dent artists. More: nag.org.au; wattspace­gallery.word­press.com.

BATHING BEAU­TIES SEA­WA­TER pools here range from the south­ern hemi­sphere’s largest ocean baths com­plex (the just-re­fur­bished Merewether Ocean Baths, opened 1935) to the Bo­gey Hole, carved from sea­side rocks by con­victs. All on Bathers Way walk­ing trail, New­cas­tle Beach Ocean Baths (1922), with its art deco fa­cade, is near the head; Bo­gey Hole fur­ther along, near King Ed­ward Park; and Merewether Ocean Baths at the end.

S SHOP FINDS MANY orig­i­nal shopfronts sur­vive to give streets a unique flavour. Browse an­tiques gal­leries at Hamil­ton train sta­tion, then head for town. Stroll trendy Darby Street where Cooks Hill Books (No 72) is a trove of sec­ond-hand finds and, at No 74, the three Foong sis­ters, “cloth­iers & ar­ti­sans”, pre­side at High Tea With Mrs Woo. Hunt & Gather Mar­kets are an ex­plorer’s par­adise (third Satur­days, Pa­cific Park). Twice-weekly farm­ers mar­kets and the Fish­er­men’s Co-op are musts. More: new­castlecity­farm­ers­mar­ket.com.au; fish­coop.com.au. SUBO, a small crowded room in the en­tre of town, leads the charge of the most highly fi­nessed kitchens. Sea­sonal set menus are in­ven­tively fo­cused on in­gre­di­ents such as “duck from Young” braised and adorned with tamari, David­son plum mas­ter­stock, cherry, sesame and shiso. Chef Beau Vin­cent (Syd­ney’s Tetsuya’s, Guil­laume, and Assi­ette) is im­pec­ca­ble. (Restau­rant Ma­son is re­put­edly No 2 in the city.) With an edgier vibe, The Bowery Boys are hip spe­cial­ists in smoked, cured and pick­led pro­duce (97 Darby Street). More: subo.com.au; restau­rant­ma­son.com; hunter­hunter.com.au.

AF­TERA DARK NOTH­ING is su­per late (the “New­cas­tle lock­out”, which stops en­try to li­censed premises in the wee hours, be­gan here). At Le Passe Temps, vel­vet arm­chairs, chan­de­liers and a great sit-up bar trans­form a spa­cious old bank build­ing. Groups oc­cupy for­mer glass­par­ti­tioned of­fices and there is dining up­stairs. What bet­ter pas­time than loung­ing, cock­tail in hand, a creme brulee at your side, at­tended by owner Serge Laugier and his charm­ing team. Un­marked but un­miss­able, Coal & Cedar is a dark, wa­ter­ing-hole in the wall reached via an un­named door (380 Hunter Street). Amer­i­can prohibition-era vibe, run by The Bowery Boys restau­rant gang. More: le-passe-temps.com.au; coa­land­cedar.com. THE choice is beach­side, har­bour front or in­ner city. Novo­tel New­cas­tle Beach is the new­est place in town, a glass-fa­cade tower with many of its rooms over­look­ing the Pa­cific, or har­bour to the east; easy beach, wa­ter­front and city cen­tre ac­cess. Of 88 mod­ern stu­dio-style rooms, the best have bal­conies and ocean views; there’s a gym, steam room and spa . On the har­bour, Crowne Plaza (Honey­suckle Drive) of­fers suites with sep­a­rate living area and kitch­enette, in-room Wi-Fi ($19 ac­cess fee), bike hire sta­tions at the door; and self­ca­ter­ing Chi­fley Ex­ec­u­tive Suites are in a vin­tage build­ing just back from the har­bour fore­shore. On in­ner-city Hunter Street, The Lucky Ho­tel, a re­fur­bished old-time pub, with tim­ber-beamed restau­rant and bou­tique ac­com­mo­da­tion, is a buzzy al­ter­na­tive. More: novotel­new­castle­beach.com; crowne­plaza.com; sil­verneedle­ho­tels.com; thelucky­ho­tel.com.au.

Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Visit New­cas­tle • vis­it­new­cas­tle.com.au

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