Exploring the Upper Hunter Country - our days in the NSW Country
Continuing our road trip from the Hunter Valley, we headed further north to the Upper Hunter Country region. Though certainly less known by tourists (and most NSW locals too) than its ‘cousin’ in the valley, when researching for this road trip I noticed the efforts and emphasis put on tourism by the Upper Hunter and wanted to come and see, and enjoy, it for myself.
Driving through in the springtime (October), the area is extremely lush and the drive is beautifully backdropped by rolling green landscapes. Most of the drive is done on highway roads but passing through the city centres of smaller towns like Singleton, Muswellbrook and Aberdeen, to name a few. The size of each town varies significantly - some being extremely small, whilst others offer streets worth of great stores and cafes. Wherever you go, you get the overwhelming feeling of being welcomed everywhere by locals - it's definitely the sort of place where everyone seems to know everyone and I love that about it.
Each of the towns of the Upper Hunter seems, from my research, to host a different annual festival. Not being the season for these festivals, it is easy to notice how quiet some of the towns are when one can only imagine the hustle and bustle of them during festivals such as the Rosto Festival of the Fleeces in Merriwa (a running of the sheep festival wherein the sheep wear red socks - held every June), the Aberdeen Highland Games in July and Scone’s Horse Festival in May, to name a few.
The tranquility of the area now, in October, is certainly appreciated - it is a beautiful time of year to visit thanks to the budding flowers and beautiful colours of the trees and grass. That said, to be honest, much of this area looks somewhat hungry for a tourist dollar, although many local business owners have mentioned to me that the closing of state borders in New South Wales has led to many more locals visiting the area which has been great for their tourism.
Like us, NSW residents seem keen to explore and whilst we may not be able to leave the state, this crazy Covid period has definitely given us a lot more opportunity to explore prats of the state we wouldn’t have otherwise seen and that which lies beyond Sydney…which we have been enjoying immensely.
Now that you have the lay of the land, back to our drive =)
Leaving the Hunter Valley we took the highway towards Muswellbrook. There are multiple routes by which you can head from the Valley to the Upper Country towns but the most popular seem to be either via Broke (heading towards Denman and on to Merriwa), or, as we chose, past Muswellbrook (in the direction of Aberdeen, Scone and eventually Murrurundi).
Our first stop was Muswellbrook where we visited the Hunter Belle Cheese factory. This company is quite well known for their cheeses but in Muswellbrook, their cafe serves more than just their staple item with a full menu on offer as well. Cheese and fudge tastings are available at the factory as well as a wide array of gifts and some homewares available for sale.
I indulged in a pizza made with their cheeses as a way of trying their products in use =). Though not my favourite lunch of the trip, I thoroughly enjoyed the stop in general. There are many local products on the menu (including local beers and wines) and the cafe is open 7 days a week until 4pm, bar public holidays.
From there we decided to beeline towards Murrurundi, one of the northern most towns of the Upper Hunter. In just shy of an hour from Hunter Belle, we reached our destination and headed on to enjoy what this small town had to offer.
Where Scone is famous for horses, Murrurundi is known as the arts and crafts capital of the Hunter region and surrounding rural towns.
We headed directly for this town as it was high on my to do list as a creative myself, and many of the galleries are closed for multiple days during the week. If you’re visiting the area, my advice would be to go Thursday-Sunday when many of the galleries seem to be open, or to check the specifics of the gallery you’re interested in visiting.
Our first stop was the Michael Reid gallery. This particular gallery is the rural counterpart to Michael Reid’s Berlin and Sydney outlets. The day we went seemed to be an exhibition change over day so only half of the small collection was on show, which was a shame but still, worth the visit! Though the art was nice, the property on which the gallery sits, with beautiful gardens and a great concept store attached to the gallery, definitely steals the show.
With only one main road, finding more art stores and displays wasn’t too tricky (although I believe some of the other galleries are on the streets jetting off from the main road) and driving through the town on a self devised arts treasure hunt was definitely enjoyable! The town features some really cute classic Aussie style architecture - like this
And my fave
We also stopped by the swinging bridge to take a look as it is listed by the Murrunduri community as an attraction of the town. Though pretty with a creek running beneath it, the historical significance of this bridge to the town definitely outweighs its appearance as far as an attraction to call tourists to. The bridge was built before WWI and is the third bridge on this site. Beyond the bridge is the courthouse and police station and so, back in the 1860s when both the courthouse and the new Royal Hotel were built, the bridge was instrumental in aiding transport between the two sides of the town in times of flood or high tide. The visiting judges who presided for the courthouse would all stay at the Royal Hotel and so this bridge provided all the necessary access to link the sides of the town, as divided by the river below. I note this because I think if you see the bridge without understanding its significance to the happenings of the town, it would be easy to overlook.
Much harder to overlook, however, is the wonderful Darcy and the Fox store back on the main road. Not only is this one of the cutest boutique stores, with some of the most carefully curated gifts for sale, it is also the studio for Archibald winning David Darcy, who was painting up back when we arrived in the store. David’s piece, Tjuparntarri, won the people’s choice award in 2019. Click on this link to see the painting and learn more about the piece
Darcy’s works are really quite breathtaking and the store features a few of his wonderful pieces across each of the walls. All portraits, they are unbelievably lifelike, the detail extraordinary! Previously a photographer before picking up a paint brush only a few years ago, it is almost impossible to believe that this is an artist with no formal training, and limited years experience - he truly is a master of his craft.
After talking to David and learning more about his journey and his works, I was treated to a sneak peak of his studio and the current paintings he is working on now. I also saw the painting he has done of his partner which was his entry into the Archibald this year. It is incredible.
Next door to David’s store is this very cool gas station come art store - don’t know much about it except that I loved how it had been repurposed and wanted to share.
You don’t need long to explore Murrunduri - half a day is sufficient - but if you are in the area, you would be remiss to miss this town.
From there we drove back down the highway to Scone, and specifically to find our accommodation to check into. We booked the Strathearn Lodge after finding it on hotels.com and I cannot recommend it highly enough. A B&B, this 4 room house sits on an expansive property, with no other houses or neighbours nearby. Just a 5 minute drive (on the highway) from the town centre, I couldn’t recommend this accommodation for those visiting Scone highly enough.
Our room was enormous with a bed, lounge area, small dining table, fire place, large bathroom (including a huge jacuzzi tub) and private garden to boot. They are well equipped with facilities, especially with the inclusion of an Apple TV with Netflix per room - liked that! The property has an indoor pool (which we didn’t use) and access to facilities like a barbecue (also didn’t use) if you want to stay in. There is a large lounge room which doubles as the breakfast room and though breakfast is limited to yoghurt and cereal, it is really the ambiance of the place, and kind hosts, that charms you anyway. As a note, for those brekkie lovers (which we admittedly are not), the wonderful hosts do offer a hot breakfast if ordered the night before for a small additional fee. Tea and coffee, of course, are available.
Scone as a town is limited in its offerings but very cute. We enjoyed the Thoroughbred pub one night for dinner - a typical Aussie style pub menu but with good quality food...
and particularly liked Asser House’s lunch.
From Scone we opted to drive to Merriwa one day to have a look at their large painted silos and visit the town. Unfortunately, being a Monday (and/or being Covid time) much was closed and the canola flowers that I had so wanted to see were really only still blooming another 20-40 kilometres further than Merriwa. Having already driven for just shy of an hour to arrive at Merriwa, we were happy to just take in anything available to us and then head back to Scone.
Unfortunately our return journey was plagued with car troubles when our car decided to blow steam on a country road with no phone service…just our luck. Why tell you about this affair? Just to give a shout out to the absolutely lovely locals who saw us in trouble on the back country roads, stopped to help us out and point us in the direction of the nearest NRMA (back in Merriwa). A couple hours and an oil change later and we were good as new but really, without the help of the locals, this small ordeal could have been a big problem!! Thank you very kind people of Merriwa!!
Everywhere that we went in the Upper Hunter, one key thing remained true and that was just how nice all of the locals were! We really enjoyed our time in the area.
Although sad to leave our great room, we were ready to continue our NSW road trip and after 5 days exploring the country, it was now time to head to the coast.
Port Stephens, here we come.