Crooks Park Estate, Dungog review: Off the rails but well on track

Read our writer's views on this property below

Andrew Taylor discovers some beautiful old carriages on a train-loving homestead near Dungog.

The path to every man's heart runs through his stomach and that journey is best taken by rail, a red-rattler carriage to be precise. Perched on top of a hill at Crooks Park Estate near Dungog, Rattlers Restaurant, part of Carriageway, is a magnet for hungry travellers with fond memories of childhood train sets or of reading Murder on the Orient Express.

But not all train journeys are a cause for misery. Nor do they have to end, like Agatha Christie's novel, with spilt blood. This weekend did – but more on that later.

Carriageway is set among rolling green hills and lush pastures that are home to dairy farms, horse studs and, this being the Hunter Valley, the odd grapevine. Nearby, a train wolf-whistles as it chugs through a corner of the property towards Newcastle.

I feel like wolf-whistling too as we step inside the Flyer, one of four restored red-rattler carriages that previously ferried commuters around Sydney's much-maligned rail network and now accommodate visitors. Carriageway has a surprising range of accommodation, including cottages, spa suites and the historic Crooks Park homestead, but the carriages are the most unusual.

Each has a queen-size bed at one end and a small kitchen, living room, four bunk beds and bathroom at the other. Walls and ceilings are painted a crisp white, with polished wooden joinery and detail.

The furniture is functional, if not fancy, and the carriage's layout seems perfect for families, offering plenty of space (and a TV) between hungover adults and excitable, early-rising children. The original iron fittings and low ceiling may be a hazard for the clumsy, though.

After massaging the couch watching the footy for a while (we're disappointed the Newcastle TV station only broadcasts thugby), the boys go exploring. The sun is sliding out of the sky, turning it the colours of nanna's Tupperware, as my friend Harin and I set out to check out the Crooks Park homestead.

Built in 1873, the apricot-coloured residence is surrounded by shrubbery and manicured lawns ideal for garden parties, weddings and drunken croquet matches.

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The tennis court has seen better days and only an Eskimo would brave a dip in the swimming pool until summer arrives.

Inside is a fantasy of high ceilings, five bedrooms, a well-equipped kitchen, countless bathrooms (including one with a claw-foot tub) billiards room and an enclosed veranda with bucolic views.

It's a 19th-century McMansion that would make any Sydneysider forced to live in a shoebox drool with envy. We quickly decide to spend our second night in the homestead.

That night we eat at Rattlers – the $45 six-course degustation menu, with a bottle of local red thrown in, is let down only by a rough piece of meat. At breakfast the next morning we're served home-grown eggs, courtesy of fowls that had tried to rumble us the previous night.

It's Mother's Day and Sharon is in charge, having received early morning hugs from her five kids – one more than office manager Jo-anne, which makes us wonder if there's something in Dungog's water.

Perhaps. There's certainly something dangerous in the air, according to Dungog's tourist information centre, which has a pamphlet listing local aeroplane disasters dating back to 1945.

We settle for a dodgy sausage roll and a quick recce of the town, including the historic James Theatre, which hosts the Dungog film festival, and an antiques shop housed in the elegant old bank building. We then drive to Chichester Dam on the edge of Barrington Tops National Park, and take a quick bushwalk along the Jerusalem Track.

The dense tree canopy keeps most of the heavy rain off but we get drenched in the last 100-metre dash across the car park.

Driving back, Harin has an itch that needs attention. But as his fingers search for the irritation he suddenly let's out a screech and stamps his feet. "Leeches ... urgh, get off me," are among the few printable things he says, picking off one, two, no there's another one sculling his hemoglobin.

In contrast, the leeches I pick off have barely started their degustation.

Back at the homestead, wine is poured, baths run and a hearty meal cooked as the sun falls off the horizon. Another wolf-whistling train chugs past in the distance, taking the memory of those hungry bloodsuckers with it.

The writer was a guest of Crooks Park Estate and Tourism NSW.

TRIP NOTES

WHERE 4426 Clarence Town Road, Dungog. Phone 4992 1388, see carriageway.com.au.

HOW MUCH Weekends (Fri-Sat) for a carriage are $155 for two adults; $50 for each extra adult. Includes continental breakfast in Rattlers. Homestead is $600 a night.

BEST THING Each carriage has a screened veranda that offers a refuge in summer from the mozzies.

WORST THING Being chased by nasty-looking chickens that looked like they wanted to mug us. Well, it is a working farm. We also met calves that seemed disappointed we didn't have udders.

LOCAL SECRET Check out the donkey sanctuary at nearby Clarence Town. Open only on selected days or by appointment. See donkeyrescue.org.au.