Hermitage Road is a quiet Hunter Valley backwater with a particular upmarket attraction - Spicers, writes Daisy Dumas.
If there was one good reason (and there isn't: there are many) for not criss-crossing the Hunter Valley with a giant star chart-like web of coal seam gas wells and pipelines, it's this sleepy patch of our well-trodden wineland.
Lying amid all that manicured and wild green, surrounded by sinewy gums between Broke Road and the New England Highway, Hermitage Road's length is strung by vineyards small and not so small, their wines of varying stature.
Less assuming than some is Spicers Vineyards Estate, not easy to see from the road and sitting with a view over Broken Back Ridge, a range that, depending on the light, can either appear brilliantly bold and close by, or reclining and watching on from the wings, overlooking tourists and their wine glasses from afar.
A five-star weekender with a romantic heart and a pragmatic bent, Spicers is supremely comfortable and professional, with sharply-honed service from start to finish (it's ranked in the top 25 hotels for service in Australia). It ticks all the boxes in a down-to- earth, non-dreamy kind of a way, with something to please almost all and offend very few. There are granite fireplaces and baskets of logs, oozy sofas, DVD players and book shelves in the large bedroom suites, and noughts and crosses boards on low tables in open, recliner-strewn walkways. Sheets are starchy and weighty, towels, fluffy and warm. Giant chess is hidden for explorers to find in the bush backyard, beyond the kitchen garden and eight acres of vines.
Breakfast in Botanica restaurant, set away from the main living area and with a view over the twisted vines, is a crockery overload, an onslaught of pots and dishes and kinked plates and square plates and teapots and saucers that beg sympathy for the washing up hands but house some of the best poached eggs, glossed in melted butter and parsley, I've had in years. A tiny portion of home- made yoghurt next to a dollop of local fresh jam is served beside a plate full of fruits and a frothy fresh fruit juice comes with ice knocking around the tumbler. Breakfast in the bedroom is not as theatrical, nor as well thought-out.
This weekend is all about doing things properly, systematically, even, so I pad off to the hotel's new Spa Anise for a mid-morning aromatherapy facial. It does what it should, leaving me light-headed and sheeny, but what really got me going was Zowie's hands. Wondrous fingers. Magical manipulators. Ask her to do the sublime digit-on-the-forehead thing.
An early evening swim - it would have been a bonus to see the view of the valley to the north rather than the eaves of the hotel, but who can quibble over a dip at the end of a day tasting wine and wandering through the bush? - comes with a magically-appearing cocktail, a fruity, cold something or other that was probably more dangerous than it tasted.
Dinner is a three-course romp with matched wines. It gets hazy after a sundowner and a few wines, but stuffed zucchini flowers from the kitchen garden are salty, fatty, crunchy and hot, their tender little fruit a fresh bite on the end of each. Scallops are plump and kingfish on the overdone side comes with a toothsome salsa verde. Pink veal is spot-on, quarters of fresh fig cutting in where all else is rich and nutty. A semifreddo brings up the rear with another glass of shiraz, ticking off a Hunter day.
The Hunter Valley can come close to Disneyfying the art of wine - those tour buses, rumbling through Pokolbin loaded with daytrippers, cameras aloft, as they pull into architect-designed monuments to the Anglo Saxon drinking culture fuel a year-round schedule of Jazz in the Vines, Bruce Springsteen-type concerts and Tea on the Green events.
It's perhaps no surprise, then, that the twee-looking Wombat Crossing estate, across the road from Spicers, has a sign on its fence, besides rose bushes, that informs visitors of "no single bottle sales". Hermitage Road does not play in the mega-vineyard group catering to the souvenir crowd - and it is all the more lovely for it.
Tyrell's sparkling wine - we're in the Hunter Valley grandpa's backyard here - seems to go hand-in-hand with weekends like this, but it's rewarding to explore some of the smaller wineries and Spicers (where plenty of Tyrell's is available) is a 10-minute drive from one of the region's gems, Pierre's Wines in Branxton.
Duck into Peter Went's unassuming cellar door and be prepared to try his six methode traditionelle single vintage sparkling wines, the most impressive of which are bone dry, explode with minute bubbles and give some of the best and oldest champagne houses a run for their money. His verdelho is a winner, too, with locals lapping cases of the summertime tipple up each and every season.
Like much of the Hunter, Spicers is a place for couples, hushed, wine-loving, each other-loving, couples. At meals, we are surrounded by them; the pool, ditto. I'm with a girlfriend and we laugh in our billowy beds, enjoying the set-up's romance factor - sunsets up the valley, walks down it, the odd pink cockatoo and bounding kangaroo.
Besides us and the odd minivan disgorging tipsy tourists and their half dozens, it is silent. The bush, the view, sunsets, stars, great wine: all as it should be on a weekend away from the city.
The writer stayed in the Hunter as a guest of Spicers Vineyards Estate.
Pokolbin, Spicers' nearest town, is a 2½ hour drive from Sydney. You can also take a bus or train from Sydney, with a number of train stops near the Hunter, such as Scone. See sydneytrains.info for details.
Weekend B&B rates for a king spa room from $495 a night; luxury spa suite $595 a night. All rates inclusive of complimentary arrival mini bar, luxury accommodation and gourmet breakfast. Gourmet getaways available from $599 a night a couple midweek. Package includes: one night's luxury accommodation, welcome mini bar and cheese plate on arrival, five-course degustation dinner at Restaurant Botanica Gourmet Vineyards breakfast; see: spicersgroup.com.au/property/spicers-vineyards-estate-hunter-valley-nsw.
SEE + DO
Wine might or might not be your thing. Regardless, a nice way to round out a trip to the Hunter is to drop in - 24 hectares of spectacular display gardens at the foot of the Brokenback ranges; huntervalleygardens.com.au.