Do as the locals do and escape the city bustle for a relaxing regional mini-break.
By Anna Lavdaras
For Sydneysiders, escaping the buzz of the city for greener pastures is a common weekend activity. With so much happening around the city, it’s the perfect chance to surround yourself with scenery, wildlife and incredible experiences. Be it the wine regions of Mudgee and Orange, picturesque Mollymook, or even the nation’s capital city of Canberra (close enough for a two-day retreat) – the locals love a ‘weekender’. Surrounding the city of Sydney, there are many vibrant country and coastal towns just waiting to be explored. Clear your schedule for a couple of days and jump onto a car, train, or plane to one – or many – of these charming destinations.
The Hunter Valley
Just 2.5 hours north of Sydney, The Hunter Valley can easily be done in a day trip, but consider spending a few nights in the rolling hills of this stunning wine region to truly explore all the area has to offer. See it all from the sky on an early morning hot air balloon ride, or spend an afternoon horseriding through the vineyards, golfing (you're likely to spot kangaroos while you play), or exploring the Hunter Valley Gardens. Relax with an afternoon at a day spa or party into the night at an outdoor concert (Hope Estate has featured some of the world's top music acts). All the while you'll have plenty of opportunties to indulge in the region's incredible food and wine. Have lunch at one of the top restaurants in the valley or taste wine at a picturesque winery such as Tyrrell's, which dates back to 1858.
From surfing next to pods of dolphins to finding inner peace at a wellness retreat, Byron Bay has something to offer every type of visitor. This quirky and lively beach town was once known as a mecca for hippies, but today it's a massive drawcard for anyone seeking a city escape. Make the 8.5-hour road trip or fly just over an hour from Sydney to discover stunning beaches, friendly wildlife, hinterland hikes and incredible food. Spend a few days here kayaking, snorkelling or surfing, spotting dolphins and turtles everywhere you look. Walk the Cape Byron Track at dawn to be the first person in Australia to see the sun rise. Feast on farm fresh delicacies at Three Blue Ducks, or spend a few nights relaxing in the rainforest at Gaia Retreat and Spa.
Halfway between Sydney and Brisbane lies the subtropical tranquil rainforests and clean, uncrowded beaches of Coffs Harbour. Known for its banana plantations, it’s hard to miss the enormous homage to the yellow fruit, aptly named The Big Banana. There’s no shortage of kid-friendly activities to enjoy, like the Butterfly House, Dolphin Marine Magic, and Lee Winkler's Surf School. For the big kids, go white water rafting or take a 4WD tour along forest tracks. Soar over the beaches and mountains of the Great Dividing Range on a scenic helicopter flight or skydive over the beach with Coffs Sky Divers. Scuba divers, snorkellers and fisherman will have equal amounts of fun in the warm waters of the Solitary Islands Marine Park. And just a 30-minute drive away is the picturesque town of Bellingen, abundant with swimming holes, award-winning eateries, and a vibrant community of artisans, artists and farmers.
In 1888, Tamworth became the first place in Australia to turn on electric street lights. Some say it’s been a trend-setter ever since. Located a five-hour drive from Sydney or a short flight, Tamworth is known for its country music scene and flurry of unique venues. Come in January for the annual Tamworth Country Music Festival. Even if you’ve never listened to Australian country music, you’ll be swept up in the excitement of the second biggest event of its kind in the world (just behind Nashville’s annual bash). If you're visiting in April, be sure to check out the Taste Tamworth Festival. This 10-day extravaganza of food and wine focuses on the remarkable range of produce being cultivated in northern New South Wales. While you're here, experience farm life for yourself at the Goonoo Goonoo Station, a working cattle farm founded in the 1840s on the outskirts of town.
Canberra has a buzzing bar and entertainment scene flanked by incredible cultural attractions - all just over three hours south of Sydney. Start at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and learn about Aboriginal history. Delve into the nation's history at the Australian War Memorial and the National Museum of Australia, which has exhibits and artefacts spanning more than 50,000 years. Then head to Parliament House for a free tour to see how the country is governed. If you’re visiting in March, check out Enlighten Festival, where the city is transformed into a colourful arts precinct. Between September and October the city is filled with more than a million colourful blooms for Floriade. Fuel up with a visit to the Cupping Room for the best brew in town and see what the fuss is all about at the city's hottest restaurant, Monster. With national parks and wineries surrounding the city, you can easily spend a few exciting days here.
It's hard to resist the clear turquoise waters and white sand beaches of Jervis Bay, three hours south of Sydney. The beaches are among the safest and most beautiful in the country, making this region a must-visit for swimming, scuba diving, whale and dolphin watching. Hyams Beach has some of the whitest sand in the world, but be sure to check out the equally stunning Huskisson Beach and meet the resident kangaroos of Pebbly Beach. Wherever you decide to lay your towel, you'll find great spots for snorkelling, stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking. Keen birdwatchers should follow the two-kilometre (1.2-mile) return Hyams Beach Trail and keep an eye out for eastern and crimson rosellas. You can head out on a boat tour with Dolphin Watch Cruises and Jervis Bay Wild to spot marine life off the coast, or learn about bush tucker at the Booderee Botanic Gardens.
About a six-hour drive from Sydney, the Sapphire Coast is all about pristine nature, uncrowded beaches and enjoying fresh produce. The area is home to some of Australia's most pristine oyster estuaries, which you can explore on the Oyster Trail, from Bermagui in the north to Wonboyn in the south. Eden is also home to the much-loved national cheese brand Bega. Visit its headquarters at the Bega Cheese Heritage Centre to taste the entire Bega Cheese range, along with fudge, milkshakes and more made from Bega milk. The cafe is a lovely spot for lunch while the story of local dairy farming is told through photographs, film and the upstairs museum. Eden is also one of Australia's best whale watching locations and boasts the third deepest natural harbour in the Southern Hemisphere. The port of Snug Cove is a great place to see fishermen return with their fresh catch. Or pop in to Sprout Eden for breakfast or lunch of local produce.
With its golden sand, clear blue ocean, and top-notch eateries and resorts, Mollymook is a star attraction on the South Coast. Just over a three-hour drive from Sydney, it's the perfect spot to spend a few days soaking it all in. Mollymook Beach is famous for its playful local bottlenose dolphin community and regular visits from migrating humpback whales. If the surf is not for you, you'll find walking trails, golf and even a local winery. Stay at the boutique Bannister’s Pavilion Hotel, with 32 suites and two penthouse apartments conveniently located just steps from the beach and book in for an incredible lunch at the on-site restaurant, Rick Stein at Bannisters. There’s also an award-winning eatery next door called Tallwood, offering exceptional cuisine, an outstanding wine list and a menu drawn from executive chef Matt Upson's extensive travels.
What the country town of Mudgee lacks in size it makes up for in gourmet experiences. It is almost a four-hour drive west through the Blue Mountains (or you can fly), so settle in for a few days. Start your explorations at a few of the local wineries, such as Lowe Wines, Logan Wines and Gilbert. When you've had your fill, stop at The Zin House for their six-course weekend lunch menu featuring produce grown on site. Alby & Esthers offers healthy comfort food and a range of cooking classes, while Pipeclay Pumphouse is all about paddock-to-plate food, with just about everything homegrown or locally sourced. It wouldn’t be a trip to the country without exploring the local Farmer’s Market (third Saturday of every month). Peruse the tasty delights undoubtedly grown, reared, caught, brewed, baked or bottled within the Mudgee region.
Take in rolling green hills, heritage landscapes, and some of the nation's finest cool-climate wines in Orange, a 3.5-hour drive west of Sydney. You can explore the wineries and culinary delights on your own, or come for one of the festivals. The annual F.O.O.D (Food of Orange District) Week is regional Australia's longest running food festival, held each April. The annual Orange Wine Festival (held in October) showcases the region's world-renowned cool-climate wines over two weeks. Outside of festival season, visit the smashed avocado oasis that is Factory Espresso. Neighbouring Good Eddy looks like it belongs down a Sydney laneway, with super sleek white and wood tones and specialty coffee blends. Lolli Redini basically put Orange on the map with multiple awards thanks to chef Simonn Hawke who prides herself on sourcing sustainably from the local region.
The Australian Alps
The best way to explore the Australian Alps is by car. It's a 5.5-hour drive from Sydney to Jindabyne, the gateway to Thredbo, Perisher and Charlotte Pass. If you're visiting during winter (June to August), hit the slopes at one of the many ski resorts. Come summer (December to February), there are equally as many fun activities to do - book a day out with Absolute Alpine, climb to the top of Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko, ride a mountain bike along contour-hugging trails, bushwalk to a heritage hut or horse ride along alpine tracks. In Kosciuszko National Park, near Tumut, you can melt away stress in the thermal pool of the Yarrangobilly Caves. Fish for trout around Tumbarumba and historic Cooma, or throw your line in Lake Jindabyne. There are also a number of food and wine trails to enjoy, like the 10-kilometre (6.2-mile) Pedal to Produce Trail from Milawa to Oxley - simply borrow a free bike from Brown Brothers winery.