This year my birthday conveniently fell on the Easter weekend. So I decided to make the most of the long weekend and turning a year older, and drag my husband Jude on a 1000-kilometre drive to the Hunter Valley, which is a surprisingly easy, nine-hour, dual carriageway road trip that anyone can do. Even the most challenged of drivers.
Here’s what we did, what we ate, what we drank and what we bought:
Friday: Sydney to the Hunter Valley
We had this well thought out plan that we’d crash in Sydney Thursday night, avoid the masses evacuating the city on Good Friday eve, and then make our escape to the country in the morning. It was a fail. We ended up hitting a brick wall of motor vehicles that were going slower than Optus’s internet speed, all clearly with the same plan as us.
Lucky Jude and I hadn’t spent nine hours in the car together the day before and had plenty of things to talk about…
Emerson’s Café & Restaurant
When we eventually arrived to check into our Hunter Valley accommodation*, the owner was quite horrified to discover that we didn’t have a dinner reservation.
“It’s Good Friday!” she explained.
Yep, I think we’ve worked that out given we’ve just been navigating a parking lot called the Pacific Highway for the past four hours. Fortunately, she was way more attentive than the concierge at the Rydges and jumped on the phone to make us a booking at the local café.
Later on that night, we rock up to this said ‘café’, only to find ourselves in a fine dining restaurant. Of course, we were pleasantly surprised, just somewhat underdressed in our thongs and t-shirts.
The degustation menu and wine pairing at Emerson’s Cafe & Restaurant looked incredible, and if I weren’t on an un-paid creative sabbatical we might have treated ourselves to this $140pp feast. Having said that, the pan-fried local snapper and 12-hour braised Black Angus beef brisket was also an unexpected treat.
When you look at the dessert menu and can’t choose what dish you’d hypothetically have, you know dessert is an inevitable. We couldn’t decide between sharing a chocolate doughnut/ice cream combo or a smashed lemon meringue pie/curd mess, so we got both. And proceeded to roll back to our accommodation.
Emerson’s Café & Restaurant | 492 Lovedale Road, Lovedale, New South Wales
Phone: (02) 4930 7029
*We stayed at this odd-in-a-good-way, loft-type bed and breakfast perched above the Tranquil Vale cellar door, overlooking the vineyard and friendly owner’s family home. We didn’t have high expectations given we hadn’t taken out a loan to fund our Easter weekend accommodation. But we were pleasantly surprised, with yummy breakfast provisions, housekeeping and a bottle of champagne on arrival all included in the price, along with access to a gym, pool and tennis courts. The only downside was that it’s a bit of a hike from the main cellar door drag.
Tranquil Vale | 325 Pywells Road, Luskintyre, New South Wales
Phone: (02) 4930 6100
Saturday: a spot of wine tasting in the Hunter Valley
A VIP wine tasting at Tempus Two Wines
Easter Saturday was my actual birthday, and as a present my friend Belinda had organised a private tasting at Tempus Two Wines to kick off a day of wine tasting. Best. Friend. Ever.
Over the weekend, the Hunter Valley was absolutely mental, overflowing with hoards of people thrusting their tasting glasses out to be topped up, screaming Rod Stewart fans and umbrella-wielding tourists (like us). Whether it was a combination of Easter, the non-stop rain that had been turned on exclusively for my day of birth or the weekend’s Rod Stewart concert, I don’t know. Regardless, we were very grateful to leave the heaving Tempus Two cellar door and be escorted into our own private, cordoned-off tasting room, with our own private sommelier.
Introducing herself as ‘Trish the Dish’, our Tempus Two host reminded me of a funny Mrs Doubtfire with a Scottish accent. Abiding and helpful, she expertly walked us through the tasting list, teaching us about the Hunter Valley as a wine region, opening up special bottles for us to try, and fattening us up with offerings of chocolates and organising platters of crackers and nibbles. It was a great experience for a self-confessed wine lover.
We left very well informed on all things Semillon, and with our two boxes of purchased wines in tow – I cannot wait to try their Copper Series verdelho and the Oscar-shaped botrytis semillon dessert wine.
Tempus Two Wines | Corner of Broke and McDonalds roads, Pokolbin, New South Wales
Phone: (02) 4993 3999
Lunch at Emma’s of Lovedale
Being the great, organised husband that he is, Jude started researching birthday lunch venues as we were leaving Tempus Two Wines. Deciding that it was a pizza kind-of-day, he took me to a wood fired pizzeria. Only we arrived to find no wood fire nor pizza, with the wood fired pizzeria having closed two years ago.
In its place was a cellar door, art gallery, restaurant and accommodation venue called Emma’s of Lovedale. It was wet and cold, we were hungry and there were several very happy faces dining in the restaurant, so we decided to take a gamble and stay here for lunch, even though there weren’t any pizzas on the menu.
Great call! Sitting outside on the courtyard, sheltered from the rain, we devoured a chargrilled vegetable risotto topped with a tower of parmesan and King prawn spaghetti, which were the best meals of the weekend.
Update: Emma’s of Lovedale now goes by the name of Nanna Kerr’s Kitchen.
Emma’s of Lovedale | 438 Wilderness Road, Lovedale, New South Wales
Phone: (02) 4998 7333
Wine tasting at Peterson House
Have I mentioned that Jude doesn’t actually like wine? He enjoys a sav blanc as much as I enjoy chilli in my eyes. As a reward for spending the day wine tasting with me, without so much as a complaint, I included on our itinerary sparkling specialist Peterson House – sparkling being the only wine he does enjoy.
In the hands of cellar door manager Shane, we tasted so many varieties of bubbles, white bubbles, red bubbles, pink bubbles, that we had bubbles coming out our nostrils. Shane blessedly tried very hard to impress, so I felt kind of guilty when we only bought several bottles of their staple Pink Blush, along with a dozen Pink Blush-scented candles. I also felt compelled to buy the bubble machine on display.
Peterson House | Corner of Broke Road and Wine Country Drive, Pokolbin, New South Wales
Phone: (02) 4998 7881
Dinner at the best pub in town – the Royal Oak Cessnock
For my birthday this year, I didn’t want diamond earrings, I didn’t want a gold necklace. I just wanted a nice weekend. And given that I’d planned it all (excluding our non-pizzeria lunch), I asked Jude to book somewhere nice for dinner and surprise me.
Simple. Right? Wrong! Booking ‘a nice place for dinner’ caused Jude much angst in the week leading up to Easter, and culminated in him wanting to do a drive-by on the Friday. So there we were on the Friday pulling up to a pretty-standard looking pub.
“Jude, honestly, it will be fine. It’s special because you chose it,” I tell him, feeling like a parent telling their child the picture they painted isn’t a complete mess. “If it turns out to be a dive, at least we’ll be able to laugh about it.”
Nope, sense of humour out the window, Jude was adamant that I needed to scope out the inside of the venue to make sure it passed my apparently high standards. Inside, as I was taking in the white tablecloths and gerbera arrangements, Jude was wearing a hole in the carpet, pacing back and forth, as though waiting for our first-born rather than my verdict.
But it was perfectly fine; in fact, it was very fine. Another evening of unexpected fine dining. This time in a peculiar pub setting. Don’t know what he was worried about.
Royal Oak Cessnock | 221 Vincent Street, Cessnock, New South Wales
Phone: (02) 4991 3700
After a bucket load of wine tasting and some amazing meals, it was time to head back to Sydney, with all our purchased wine chinking in the back. Although, not before a detour to Watagans National Park to see Gap Creek Waterfall. You can read about that and my introduction to New South Wales leeches here.