Steel yourself for a surprise
A one-time industrial city has forged itself a sophisticated future
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