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A Wollombi weekender

Escape to wine country, without the crowds. Wollombi sits quietly on the fringe of the Hunter Valley, making it the perfect destination for a quiet weekender.

Being among the Hunter Valley’s tapestry of vineyards, makes time slow down to an unhurried pace. This idyll draws in visitors by the bus-load, so we’ve found an alternate destination for you on the edge of the region. Enter, Wollombi – a village that proudly hangs onto its heritage and welcomes you with its plethora of places to pull up for a quiet weekend stay.

A winding eighty-minute drive from Newcastle will bring you to this quaint, ‘blink and you’ll almost miss it’ village. There are a handful of places to base yourself in town, plus secluded country cottages dotted throughout the surrounding valley. For many Newcastle and Sydney folk, the village has become a favoured day trip pilgrimage, but you’ll reap the full restorative effect of Wollombi by staying for a night or two. (Heads up: Weekends are the best time to arrange your visit, because many shops and cafés close on weekdays).

The village was established in the 1820s as a place to stop on the Great North Road, which was a key travel route at the time. Highways and motorways now bypass the village, but a dedicated few visitors have set down roots here and are rejuvenating the town without sacrificing the charm of its historic sandstone buildings and leaning shacks.

One of those travellers is Bruno Giagu and his wife Victoria, who own the town’s Italian eatery, Panino Caffé Restaurant. The former publisher of RUSSH Magazine spent the bulk of his career in the thick of Sydney’s fashion media scene. Then after just one trip to Wollombi, he uprooted his life and now runs an all-day restaurant inspired by his Sardinian heritage.

Like any village, the pulse of Wollombi is best felt at its general store (or, after hours, at Wollombi Tavern). Wollombi General Store is housed in a building that dates back to the late 19th century, and today it is far more than a place to stock up on provisions. Grab a coffee while you’re there, pick up jams and relishes made in the area, and see artworks by local artists.

There is a healthy creative community within Wollombi Valley, and the annual Sculpture in the Vineyards festival gives you an idea of just how many artists inhabit studios nestled in and around the village. The festival is a village-wide outdoor art exhibition that brings a buzz to the region in late October and early November. The massive Wollombi Markets also draw a lot of visitors into the area as they only happen four times per year, on the Monday of each long weekend.

Les and Christine Robertson; the owners of café and bookstore Myrtle House, have preserved an old cottage and turned it into a community hub that not only serves food, but also holds regular events to bring locals together. Breakfast and lunch are a daily affair and the kitchen stays open for dinner on Fridays too. Make sure you take a lap around the bookshop while you’re there, because you will find pre-loved books, local artisan wares and tomes by local authors, with The Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper and The People Smuggler by Robin De Crespigny coming highly recommended.

After breakfast, it’s time to get better acquainted with the village by taking a stroll. Everything is clustered together on a single street, so it’s easy to take it all in. The Wollombi Forge will quickly catch your eye, where artist Bhret McIntyre and Michael West curate an eclectic assemblage of curios that includes antiques, vintage clothing, tools and pieces made by Bhret. The shop takes its name from the history of the site – a former forge – and stands in homage to Bhret’s mother, who had always dreamed of having an old house with a shop down the front.

Your wandering will also take you past Studio Gleaned, which is a small jewellery studio by Kes Harper. Another of the area’s creatives, Kes makes her own art and upcycled jewellery, and you’ll often see her at work inside the studio. You can’t miss the store – just look for an old, leaning barn. Then finish your shopping foray next door at Twine Collective, which has a contemporary selection of homewares and fashion, yet is housed in Wollombi’s oldest cottage.

Everywhere you turn, Wollombi’s history is on show. It’s one of the few convict villages in Australia that remains intact and history buffs can learn more at the Wollombi Endeavour Museum. The Little Yengo Room is also worthy of a visit, where you will find a collection of Aboriginal paintings and artefacts. There is a wealth of Indigenous history in the area and if you’re up for an easy bushwalk, you’ll find a lot of ancient rock art along the Finchley Cultural Walk in Yengo National Park.

And what about the wine? You are in wine country, after all, and after exploring the village you will have earned a glass or two.

Stay local and head to Noyce Brothers Wine, which occupies the same building as Panino and specialises in Semillon, Verdelho, Chardonnay and Shiraz. Michael Noyce is one of three brothers the winery is named after, and he is as much an authority on Wollombi history as he is on vinticulture. One of the other Noyce brothers is currently based in Sydney researching a PhD (it’s wine related, of course), while the other directs films and is best known for Rabbit Proof Fence. You’re most likely to run into Michael on your visit, who holds down the ropes on the family farm.

Come late afternoon, swap your Semillon for a glass of famed Dr Jurds Jungle Juice at Wollombi Tavern. The signature drink was concocted from leftovers back in the 1950s and became so legendary that it’s still available today (and you can even pick up a few bottles to take home). Wollombi Tavern may be a humble country pub, but the views are some of the best you’ll ever have while tucking into a parmie. You’ll find the convivial tavern on the edge of town overlooking the Verdant Valley – arrive before sunset to soak its rustic vistas.

As you look out over the valley from Wollombi Tavern, you’d be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much else within cooee of Wollombi, but just six minutes down the road you will come to Laguna. This village may be smaller than Wollombi, but no less worthy of a visit. Most of the activity happens at the Great Northern Trading Post – a rustic old pub that was the second licensed venue in New South Wales. The place is teeming with nooks and crannies to explore. Wander out to the old pool room, grab some sun on the outdoor deck and check if there’s anything on in the band room. Weekends also see the pub open for breakfast and coffee and there’s Laguna Village Providore next door where you can stock up on locally made cheeses plus plenty of extra trimmings for your next cheese board.

Having a renowned cluster of vineyards on your doorstep is a rare treat, no matter how interested you are in wine. The next time you entertain the idea of a visit to the Hunter Valley, venture beyond Polkobin and the small villages beyond will give you warm sense of how life moves in this idyllic part of the world.

As seen in Swell Issue 4. Grab your copy here

Words: Melinda Halloran | Photography: Zoe Lonergan

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