In the shadow of the more famous Hunter Valley, Sheriden Rhodes takes in historic towns, fine food and country charm.
It's a little act of kindness from an Italian nonna, delivered in her farmhouse kitchen, that defines my visit to Maitland. We decline an offer of afternoon tea on our arrival at Bunna Bunoo Olives in the hamlet of Fishers Hill, near Gresford in the Hunter Valley, but say yes to a glass of water, parched as we are from a few hours of wine tasting in Hunter Valley vineyards. But Irma Iacono doesn't send out a glass from her kitchen. From a beautiful stainless-steel jug, her son, Greg, pours us Irma's home-made lime juice: icy cold, slightly sweet and adorned with a sprig of mint. We'd come to hear about the olive grove but it is the Iaconos' country hospitality we're still talking about.
Earlier that day, we'd set off from Maitland, regarded as one of Australia's most important heritage cities and the eastern gateway to the Hunter Valley. We follow the winding Hunter River, surrounded by lush farmland, past an old advertisement for Dr Morse's Indian Root Pills painted on the side of a shed at Raworth and to the historic town of Morpeth.
This charming riverside town was once the site of Australia's busiest port - lined with sailing vessels and paddle steamers carrying goods destined for Newcastle and Sydney. Morpeth's days as a river port ended about 1890 but the town's comparative seclusion and National Trust classification mean its historic shop fronts, wharves, sandstone kerbs, gutters and even the hitching posts along Swan Street remain intact.
Shops worth visiting include the stylish Belle and Georgie for designer womenswear and the Morpeth Trading Post, a trove of antiques and collectables. A little twee, Miss Lily's Lollies has tastings of fudge made on the premises. Nearby you can taste-test ginger beer brewed on site at Ma Beattie's Ginger Beer Factory. Upstairs, Morpeth Gallery has original artworks and prints from local and other Australian artists, including a series of landscapes by John McCartin, often described as ''the other Hans Heysen''.
At Morpeth Wine Cellars, in a historic sandstone building known as Surgeons House, Graeme Levick sells whisky distilled on site, called Morpeth Moonshine, among his other stock of Hunter Valley and Australian wines.
All roads here lead to Morpeth Bridge. Built in 1898, it is one of three surviving examples of an overhead-braced Allan truss road bridge (there's another nearby at Hinton). Unpack a picnic on the river bank, listen to the clip overhead as Juliet the Clydesdale takes tourists on horse-drawn carriage rides through town and imagine yourself in another era.
The building that houses Morpeth Sourdough has a fascinating history. The baker, Stephen Arnott, is the grandson of Geoffrey Arnott (chairman of Arnott's before the takeover by Campbell's Soup in 1992) and the great-great-great-grandson of William Arnott, the founder of Arnott's Biscuits and one of the Hunter's early baking pioneers.
In the 1860s, the bakehouse, shop and residence were the home and workplace of Arnott's, featuring possibly the oldest original Scotch oven in the country, a rustic brick wood-fired oven with a heavy iron door. (The basement oven can't be seen at the moment but the plan is to open it to visitors in the future.)
The building was first used as a bakery and then as a jam factory at the turn of the century before becoming a private residence and falling into disrepair. Stephen Arnott bought the property in 2003 and began its restoration. A few years later, the Arnott family launched Morpeth Sourdough, which symbolised the family's return to baking. The bakery produces about 8000 loaves a week. Pick up a loaf of the traditional casalinga and the dense fruit-and-nut loaf.
Above the bakery is Arnott's Bakehouse Restaurant, which serves the best of the region's produce and overlooks the Hunter River. Housed in the original Arnott's residence, the restaurant has three elegant spaces: the river room, the master bedroom and the verandah.
Formerly the head chef at Margan Restaurant at Broke, Jose Miguel prepares stylish seasonal menus, perhaps duck-liver pate with port-wine jelly and fresh sourdough from downstairs, and house-made linguine with wild mushroom, soft-poached egg and parmesan.
Across the street is Bronte Guesthouse. The room at the front of the heritage-listed building has a balcony overlooking Swan Street, while the suite at the back is spacious and looks out over a quiet country lane.
Further afield, Bunna Bunoo Olives is a 23-hectare farm near the Paterson River (watch for roos on the drive out) in a climate not dissimilar to Lipari, the Aeolian island north of Sicily where the Iacono family originates. Chris and Irma and their two sons grow five varieties of olives. The extra virgin oil varieties, frantoio and correggiolo, are pressed locally and bottled and labelled on the farm. The table olives (jumbo kalamata, kalamata and manzanilla) are cured using a traditional Italian method. If you're staying at self-catering accommodation or have a cooler with you, stock up on frozen take-home meals from Irma's kitchen; I can recommend the beef ragu and lasagne.
On the outskirts of the village of East Gresford and beside the Allyn River is Camyr Allyn Wines. When Judy Ever's sister and brother-in-law put their share of the grazing property on the market 13 years ago, Judy and her husband, John, jumped at the chance of realising their dream of turning the land into a vineyard - long ago, it had been one the region's earliest vineyards. The cellar door (open every day except Tuesday) overlooks the river, gardens and a restored post-Federation farmhouse. The vineyard's sparkling merlot shiraz, sparkling rose´ and the Ruins liqueur verdelho are noteworthy.
Bolwarra and Lorn
There are two towns that demand exploration on the drive back to Maitland. Bolwarra lies on a ridge to the north of Maitland and features architecture from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The friendly, old-fashioned Bolwarra General Store sells great milkshakes and local produce.
And for lodgings with charm, Maddies of Bolwarra is a bed and breakfast and cafe just off the main drag, Paterson Road, surrounded by scenic farmland.
The genteel riverside town of Lorn lies just before historic Belmore Bridge from Maitland. With its tree-lined streets, lovely old houses and village atmosphere, Lorn is a great spot to stroll before lunching at No.13 Cafe and Gallery. Run by chef Michael Watson, formerly the head chef at Jonah's on the Beach in Newcastle, this gallery-cafe is popular with locals. Take a seat in the Tuscan-inspired courtyard and dine on modern Australian cuisine and Hunter Valley wines.
The Old George and Dragon restaurant has been operating on the same site since 1837, with a traditional French menu using regional produce. The owner, Jennifer Nichols, and new chef, Gavin Forman, achieved a chef's hat in the 2010 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.
With its high ceilings, fireplace and antiques, the restaurant has a formal feel and the wine list is extensive. Next door, the separately owned Old George and Dragon Guesthouse has comfortable accommodation in a heritage building and provides a good option for those dining at the acclaimed restaurant.
In a Federation gothic building, Maitland Regional Art Gallery reopened last year after an extensive restoration and extension.
It has regularly changing exhibitions of local and international art (including the Archibald Prize regional tour), a flourishing art workshop and a gallery shop.
Some of Australia's most notorious criminals cooled their heels in Maitland Gaol. There are tours by former warders run weekly, in addition to the popular tours by former inmates.
And for an aerial perspective of the region, buckle up in a bright-yellow 1943 Tiger Moth with pilot Trevor Bright. A local and highly experienced Tiger Moth pilot, Bright runs scenic flights from Maitland Airfield.
Sheriden Rhodes travelled courtesy of Maitland Tourism.
Maitland is about two hours' drive from Sydney's CBD, north on the F3 freeway and New England Highway, and 25 minutes from Hunter Valley wineries. There are daily rail services between Sydney and Maitland. Maps of the area and details of most sites mentioned can be found at maitlandhuntervalley.com.au. Phone the Maitland Visitor Information Centre on 4931 2800 to request a free ''Step into the Story'' brochure, or collect one from the centre, corner of New England Highway and High Street, Maitland.
Morpeth Wine Cellar, 173 Swan Street, Morpeth, phone 4933 2612, www.morpethwinecellar.com.au.
Morpeth Sourdough and Arnott's Bakehouse Restaurant, 148 Swan Street, Morpeth, 4934 4148, www.morpethsourdough.com.au.
Bunna Bunoo Olives, 237 Fishers Hill Road, Fishers Hill, 4938 8086, www.bunnabunooolives.com.au.
Camyr Allyn Wines, 65 Allyn River Road, East Gresford, 4938 9576, www.camyrallynwines.com.au.
Bronte Guesthouse, 147 Swan Street, Morpeth, 4934 6080, www.bronteguesthouse.com.au.
Maddies of Bolwarra, 35 Paterson Road, Bolwarra 4930 1801, www.maddies.com.au.
The Old George and Dragon, 48 Melbourne Street, Maitland, 4933 7272, www.oldgeorgeanddragon.com.au.
Tiger Moth flights from Royal Newcastle Aero Club cost from $206 for a 30-minute flight for one person. At 604 New England Highway, Rutherford, 4932 8888, www.rnac.com.au.
Maitland Regional Art Gallery, 230 High Street, Maitland, 4934 9859, www.mrag.org.au.
No. 13 Cafe and Gallery, 13 Belmore Road, Lorn, 4933 5213, www.no13cafe.com.au.