Words: Roderick Eime Images: Eime, Paterson, Cross, Krause, supplied
The Hunter Valley, less than two hours’ ride north of Sydney, is a fabulous area to visit by bike. There are some awesome roads to the region from the south, north and west, and when you’re there there’s lots to explore, do and experience.
The Putty, Old Northern, Wiseman’s Ferry, Peats Ridge or Wollombi Roads connect to the Hunter from the south, the Glendonbrook Road and Thunderbolts Way from the north and the Bylong Valley to the west.
The Hunter is the birthplace of Australian wine — the region is overflowing with wineries offering tastings, gourmet food and cosy accommodation. Teetotallers too can find plenty to occupy themselves among the many and varied attractions anywhere from Cessnock to Branxton or Kurri Kurri to Broke. Meander museums, wander wineries, pop into op shops or just ride the roads until sunset and find somewhere to settle in.
ARR has enjoyed many adventures in the Hunter as well as the rides there and back. On this occasion we were invited specifically by Maitland City and their bike-friendly council. Some years back, the MCC even published a booklet especially for motorcycle-riding visitors and we used that as a guide in a previous feature in ARR #148. See end notes about how to get your free copy.
We set our base at the ultra-comfy Quest Maitland, right in the heart of town and an easy post-dinner/drink stroll to any of the eateries and waterholes located along the heritage-lined High Street or the revamped Levee. I confess to being something of a history nerd, so I was enthralled at the heritage on offer in Maitland itself and its dainty neighbour, Morpeth, both of which once served as important river ports for the early rural industrialists.
Celebrating 200 years since its founding, Maitland was one of many settlements carved out of the bush and rocks by the colony’s first and cheapest labour force, the convicts. Initially, it was timber, then coal shipped out via the river route. The railway quickly overtook the riverboats as the primary transport from the mid-19th century.
While many famous names such as Arnott’s began their ascent in and around Maitland, numerous sporting identities, rugby players, politicians and artists also made their homes there. Perhaps some of the best-known residents, albeit temporary, were those who enjoyed notoriety through their misdeeds. Edward “Teddy the Jewboy” Davis and Ben Hall were just two who derived some wealth in the region by less than honest means.
Maitland’s convict population remained steady up until 1998, when the 150-year-old gaol closed its doors for the last time. Since then the spooky old gaol has been open for visitors only and a tour of the sandstone penitentiary will open your eyes to life on the inside. The cells held some of NSW’s most infamous high-security “guests”, including John ‘Chow’ Hayes, Arthur ‘Neddy’ Smith, John Travis and the Murphy Brothers, Kevin Crump and Ivan Milat. (www.maitlandgaol.com.au)
Ride a Lap of the Hunter
If you’re a rider who likes a bit of structure, or you have a group to organise, then the booklet can be very useful. I’ve pulled this route map directly from the pages because it encapsulates all the best spots within the Hunter and includes the sometimes-overlooked corner of the valley with Maitland and Morpeth.
Call it ‘Hunter’s Greatest Hits’ if you like.
The council has also taken a lot of guesswork out of route planning and offers several themed drives/rides covering churches, countryside, bridges, gourmet and highways. There are companion walk maps in the various towns, but you can suss them out yourself. I’ll be riding.
Along the route you’ll find lots of opportunity for distraction and here are my “Best Ofs”:
The Australian Army Infantry Museum (AAIM) has to be on the list for all military buffs. The collection began more than 100 years ago and is being added to all the time. Originally at Ingleburn, near Holsworthy, the museum moved to these state-of-the-art premises about 10 years ago. You can see all kinds of small arms and infantry weapons dating back to the Sudan in 1885, right up to current times. There’s a half-decent cafe on the premises too. www.infantrymuseum.com.au
Campbells Store and Robinson Ordinance. Browse among the bric-a-brac and curios in the 170-year-old warehouse for as long as you like — it’s a great place for collectors of petroliana and garagenalia with a good selection of both original and reproduction items like enamel signs and garage tools and accessories.
We’ve already mentioned the gaol, so why not get a dose of culture at the Maitland Regional Art Gallery (mrag.org.au) where there are classy permanent exhibits as well as travelling ones to enhance your erudition of all things arty. Apart from the galleries and arthouses, Maitland struck me as something of a hub for “op shops” and vintage shopping. Apart from the regular Salvos, Vinnies and Anglicare outlets, there were numerous private stores carrying everything from vintage fashion and artefacts at stores like Junkyard Gypsies through to comics and hanging art. Great photo opportunities at the Walka Water Works heritage industrial site. (mymaitland.wpengine.com/explore/shop/antiques/)
If you or any of your riding mates are suffering from surplus testosterone, get along to Go Karts Go Hunter Valley at Kearsley, just outside of Cessnock. These guys use the latest-specification European RIMO Go Karts as well as specially designed Junior Go Karts and twin seaters on a fast 850m track. There are corporate packages for groups too.
The Airfield and Aviation Museum just east of Branxton is worth investigating just to catch a glimpse of one of their magnificent vintage Tiger Moths in flight. It’s primarily a private airfield and restoration facility, but you can visit and have a look at whatever aircraft are there on the day. The first Saturday of the month is the best day.
There are heaps of wine tour operators in the region, so if you want to have a day off the bike and get chauffeured around to various wineries and eating establishments, it’s easy to organise. Alternatively, in Maitland’s High Street you can settle in for a session at either or both The Pourhouse, where there’s a cool retro pub feel and lots of great regional beers and ales on tap, or across the road at The Whistler, where it’s a bit more “first date” fancy. Morpeth boasts The Commercial, with its own microbrewery, and is also a great spot for a super pub lunch. Beyond that, there are at least a dozen more bars, breweries and pubs to wet your whistle. If spirits are your thing, Hunter Distillery at Pokolbin is the only certified organic distillery in the Hunter Valley producing quality gins and vodkas as well as flavoured liqueurs.
There are around 50 listed eating venues of all types and styles through the Maitland district with plenty of cute surprises. This is what we did.
We had a funky breakfast at The Rigby in High Street, a shop that began life as a stationery store and retains a nod to its ephemeral past with vintage decor. Lunch was at COQUUN on The Levee. This was a bit special and is a brainchild of local indigenous chef and culinary entrepreneur, Daniel O’Leary, who likes to infuse native ingredients and flavours into his adventurous dishes. If you’re looking for something more conventional, pubs abound and The Commercial at Morpeth is as good as you’ll get anywhere.
Our dinner was another classy affair at Fratelli Roma. I best not complain about the service because we kept chef, Daniel Kibble, chatting about our favourite Harley-Davidsons. Dan rides a magnificent FXDLS Low Rider S with all the tricks, so it was a delightful argument to have.
In Lorn, now a suburb of Maitland, we found the worst-kept secret in the Hunter Valley. The Icky Sticky Patisserie makes delectable pastries and sweet cakes that are so gorgeous it’s almost a crime to eat them. But get in early, because more often than not they are sold out well before the advertised closing time of 3pm.
It would be my heartiest recommendation to stay over for the full experience and there is a plentiful selection of accommodation across all price points, starting at $50 for basic bed only at the historic River Royal Hotel in Morpeth, through to schmick boutique digs at either The William Arnott Hotel in Morpeth, where you might find Stephen Arnott running one of his sought-after sourdough classes, or across the road at The Bronte, a plush 1822 terrace house decorated in classic Victorian style with a vintage Asian twist.
We chose the sensible option at the Quest Maitland, a reliable, centrally located and comfortable property with spacious open-plan serviced apartments complete with their own kitchens, should you prefer to eat in.
A full menu of activities, events, food, drink and accommodation along with more suggested routes can be found at the council website www.mymaitland.com.au, or you can pop into the Maitland Visitor Information Centre in Ministers Park, just off the highway for human guidance.