A toast to indulgence

From helicopter thrills to cooking schools, there's more to the Hunter Valley than wine, writes Caroline Gladstone.

THINK of the Hunter Valley and a mellow glow is likely to come over you. Most people go for the wine, not surprisingly, as it is Australia's oldest wine region and home to 140 wineries and cellar doors.

But there's a lot more to the valley, including glorious gardens, spa retreats, gourmet restaurants, cheese provedores, art galleries and jazz, rock and opera concerts in the vineyards. Many treats are expensive, big-ticket activities but there are also some indulgences that won't break the bank.

Helicopter high

There's no better way to get a bird's-eye view of the valley, even if you're a bit scared of heights, than by taking a helicopter ride. For 10 minutes and $210 for three people (or two adults and two kids), you'll soar over the entire valley and swoop over the Brokenback Ranges.

Pilots point out the wineries and little villages and the lazy Hunter River meandering along. At this price, there's money left over for a swanky lunch and a few cellar door purchases before driving home, or an overnight stay.


Hit the road

Sit back and explore the valley in a stylish black four-wheel-drive with an expert local guide. Heidis Hunter Valley tours is run by Heidi Duckworth, who knows all the good places, having worked for Hunter Valley Wine Country Tourism for 12 years before starting her business.


She'll devise a tour that can include Krinklewood biodynamic winery to hear about the farming methods, the Small Winemakers Centre to taste top-shelf wines, Cafe Enzo for an alfresco lunch in a Tuscan-inspired setting, a cheese emporium and a boutique brewery for cleansing ale. Day tours are $400 for four people midweek and $500 on Saturdays; the price for one couple is $330.


Cook up a storm

Roll up your sleeves at weekend cooking classes at Majors Lane Restaurant, run by chef and noted locavore (a devotee of locally grown produce) Ben Sales.

Each weekend there's a Asian menu - Balinese, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese or Sichuan - with participants rustling up three to four dishes and savouring them at lunch. Classes are held Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 1pm and include a glass of wine or beer, apron and recipes to try at home for $105 a person.


Dine in style

If you'd rather someone else do the cooking and fancy sitting down to a slap-up meal, book one of the 16 places at Nine Restaurant housed in the imposing Tower Lodge. So named because the restaurant is nine feet below the ground - in the old vernacular - (it was the former wine cellar of the founder of Tower Estate, the late Len Evans), the degustation meal features nine courses.

Summer dishes may include the lip-smackingly good bread-crusted sand whiting fillet with light saffron puree. Tables are set with the finest linen and each wine is served in a specially designed Riedel glass.

At $180 a head (and $250 if you want seven matching wines), this is the valley's most expensive meal. However, if you eschew the matching wines and share a cottage with friends, you can still pull it off at an affordable price on a Friday night.


Rock and rieslings

You've missed Opera in the Vineyards and Jazz in the Vines is on next weekend but country music fans can boot scoot it to the fifth CMC Rocks the Hunter festival at Hope Estate in March. American country couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill head the international bill, while Aussies Tex Perkins and the Dark Horses, Lee Kernaghan and James Blundell will twang away. One-day tickets are $159 each.


Long lunch

The Hunter Valley took the idea of the progressive dinner and turned it into an institution. The Lovedale Long Lunch, held on the third weekend in May (May 19 and 20 in 2012), is in its 17th year. Patrons buy a $42 package that includes a commemorative tasting glass, meal ticket and dessert or cheese ticket and exchange them at any of the seven participating vineyards and wineries along the trail. Each venue has different dishes on offer and stages live music and art displays.


Relaxing rub

If you want to relax in your getaway cottage without moving a muscle, dial up Soul Temple's mobile massage service. The signature ka huna massage, a Polynesian style considered the Rolls-Royce of treatments, lasts a lingering 90 minutes andcosts $150.


All aboard

Families will be wiping the soot off their faces at the annual Hunter Valley Steamfest at Maitland in April. It's heaven for trainspotters and model-train fanatics with a program of steam-train rides, loco races and train-themed movies.

Family tickets for return train rides from Maitland to Branxton are about $115. Budget accommodation in Morpeth and Maitland makes this an affordable overnight stay.


The writer travelled courtesy of Tower Lodge, Slattery Helicopter Charters and Tourism NSW.