It’s impossible to measure the joy that comes from a lifting of travel restrictions across NSW, combined with a calendar that’s suddenly empty of obligations.
The roads are open, the horizon is more clear than it’s been in decades, so where to from here? Everyone knows about Byron and Batemans bays – but what about the lesser-known delights that beg us to shake off the shackles of self-isolation?
Head west for fine food, wine and country hospitality
When three people who haven’t met recommend the same restaurant, in Orange, it’s time to take notice. Raku Izakaya is so good that city foodies are booking tables – and takeaway – even before they’ve polished their RM Williams boots for a country weekend.
Raku’s contemporary twist on traditional Japanese food, using the best of Australian ingredients, set local tongues wagging as soon as the place opened in 2018.
Bookings essential (0478 759 050), Raku Izakaya
The surrounding high altitude, volcanic soils and cool climate of the NSW central west make the entire region exciting for viticulture. Orange Wine Festival in October offers a chance to get acquainted with local offerings and to relish the country life.
The Black Sheep Inn is a century-old corrugated iron shearing shed converted by the Napier family into a classy five-bedroom weekender. Painstaking preservation of the building – its sheep chutes and shearing machines still intact – immerses guests in rural memorabilia with peaceful views over the Molong Creek valley.
Be warmed by an old Coalbrookdale wood-fired stove in winter, with the best ever breakfast served on a restored wool-sorting table.
$270 per couple per night over a weekend, Black Sheep Inn
Head for a small town with big history
Taralga is a little-known community in the Southern Tablelands that’s got some big claims to fame. It’s one of the oldest rural settlements in NSW, settled by John Macarthur in the 1820s, and the 145-year-old Argyle Inn is the oldest still-trading hotel in town.
The inn has been lovingly restored, with gilt mirrors and crystal chandeliers, and a contemporary edge that runs all the way into the kitchen – it’s really hot in there.
Locals and out-of-towners have lined up for the seasonal specialities and, from June 13, you can book to dine again if you’re a weekend house guest.
Room rates from $220 include breakfast and the five-course set menu is $77 a head, The Argyle Inn
Go glamping by a mountain river
Turon Gates Mountain Retreat – a 2500-hectare Blue Mountains property about three hours’ drive north-west of Sydney – is idyllic.
There are comfortable cabins, a camping ground, and best of all, six new glamping sites at discreet distances overlooking the river. Under sturdy canvas, a four-poster bed is swathed in white netting, there’s a daybed and lounge area, an elegant bathroom, a kitchenette with a coffee machine, and a wood stove for cosy winter nights.
For those who do not know how to be passive in nature, there is horse riding, and civilisation is still within easy reach (Katoomba, Mudgee, Bathurst, Lithgow).
Glamping prices are from $230 per night, Turon Gates
Find a luxe lair
Plenty of bushfire-affected areas are welcoming a tourist-led socially-distant revival.
Kangaroo Valley, near Nowra, is a folksy throwback of a town set in a patchwork of farms and forests with plenty to explore. The Lair is a bucket-list worthy three-bedroom house about 10 minutes’ drive out of Kangaroo Valley. It’s an off-the-grid architectural dream on six hectares of pristine bushland with 180 degree views into the valley.
About $640 a night, depending on the season, The Lair
Walk a famously pristine beach
Imagine white beaches, turquoise waters, a menagerie of native wildlife out to play, and you are looking at White Sands Walk. It’s the hallelujah chorus of the NSW south coast.
The 90-minute return walk winds through forested Jervis Bay National Park and along some of the purest sands in the world. It begins at Greenfield Beach picnic area in Vincentia and passes Chinamans Beach before arriving at bijou Hyams Beach. You can also start at Plantation Point for a longer walk that includes Blenheim Beach.
Savour a summit view
Some of the state’s finest coastal views can be enjoyed in Tomaree National Park, near Port Stephens, a three-hour drive from Sydney.
Take the invigorating 2.2-kilometre walk to the summit of Tomaree Head to savour an unparalleled view of the picturesque north coast. From up top, you can see as far as Cabbage Tree and Boondelbah islands, nature reserves that are the world’s only nesting sites for the endangered Gould’s petrel.
From the south platform, there are views of Zenith, Wreck and Box beaches, Fingal Island and Point Stephens Lighthouse. The sunsets are lovely from this high and there are likely to be whale sightings in season from June.
Picnic in a vineyard, with postprandial sleepover
Picnic among the vines in the Hunter Valley’s Audrey Wilkinson vineyard, without having to BYO a single thing: Audrey Wilkinson Premium Picnic is a private al fresco feast, set up in the vineyard’s loveliest spots, with stocked hamper, chocolates, view and a bottle of wine signed by the winemaker.
As an entree, take a self-guided tour of the onsite museum, followed by a master class and tasting.
$200 per person. Afterwards, lulled into a state of bucolic pleasantry, you might like to check in to Spicers Guesthouse in the heart of the region at Pokolbin, fresh from its 18-month revitalisation.
Bed and breakfast from $249 a night, Spicers Guesthouse
The best of the B-list: Bellingen and Brunswick Heads
Bellingen is a vibrant and creative community between Sydney and Byron Bay. It’s a good base for exploring northern NSW’s natural beauty with a range of outdoor activities, fresh produce at farmers’ markets and cafes, local brews and good accommodation options.
Coastal Brunswick Heads, about three hours’ drive north from Bellingen, is another haven. Book well ahead for one of NSW’s top-rated regional restaurants, tiny Fleet and explore the mastery of Lucy Vanstone’s pottery studio.
Take a road trip
The Sapphire Coast – about six hours’ drive south from Sydney – is one of Australia’s best-kept secrets with blissful bays and a multitude of things to do (hiking, kayaking, canoeing, biking, surfing, diving and swimming).
The region was hit hard by the summer’s bushfires but is home to some of Australia’s most pristine oyster estuaries on the Oyster Trail. Eden is known as a paradise for whale watching and be sure to stop in South East Forests National Park near Bega for bushwalking.
Bermagui is one of Australia’s most popular coastal villages, edged by secluded beaches and Wallaga Lake, where many Aboriginal middens have been found. Birdlife abounds.
Big Sky to Lightning Ridge: The historic mining town of Lightning Ridge is just shy of nine hours’ drive from Sydney but there are plenty of stops along the way.
First Katoomba (check out those famous Blue Mountain views) then Mudgee (for food and wine), on to historic Gilgandra, then coffee in Walgett at Stone’s Throw cafe. At Lightning Ridge, you might tour an opal mine, try your hand at fossicking, unwind in one of the town’s naturally heated bore baths, or gaze up at the starry night sky.
The Mighty Murray River Drive: The Murray flows from the pristine Snowy Mountains down to Albury, joins the Darling River in Wentworth in far south-western NSW, and then twists its way to the Southern Ocean. It’s at the heart of Australia’s colonial history.
Start the four-day, 326-kilometre round-trip in Albury, drive through quaint heritage towns such as Corowa and Howlong before heading to the paddle steamer twin capitals of Echuca and Moama, and onto Deniliquin, home of the Deni Ute Muster.