Lee Atkinson heads to a friendly country town, rich in history and endless, spectacular vistas.
Gateway to the World Heritage-listed Barrington Tops, Gloucester is a quintessential country town, where the locals are friendly, the streets are wide and holidays are very much of the get-back-to-nature kind.
The green foothills that surround the town are studded with wilderness retreats, which offer extensive horse riding and bushwalking trails and the rivers have some great white water sections good for kayaking and rafting, water levels permitting.
What it's known for
The rainforest and wilderness of the Barrington Tops National Park sits at one of the highest points of the Great Dividing Range, high enough for the occasional dusting of snow during cold winters. The park is in two main sections; the linked plateau of Barrington Tops, halfway between Gloucester and Scone, and Gloucester Tops, about 45 minutes from Gloucester. Both offer great bushwalking trails, scenic drives, camping and jaw-dropping lookouts.
What you didn't know ...
Notorious bushranger Captain Thunderbolt (aka Fred Ward) hid out at Gloucester Tops in the mid-1860s. Known as the gentleman bushranger, Ward was an expert horseman who seldom fired a shot and has often been quoted as saying that "a racehorse was a better weapon than a revolver".
He also, rather famously, used to buy his victims a round of drinks with the money he had just stolen from them. His lover, Mary Ann Bugg – rumoured to be one of the few female bushrangers in NSW – was a Gloucester girl, and it is believed the nearby hamlet of Wards River is named after the dashing outlaw.
Barrington Outdoor Adventure Centre has a new guided tour of Barrington Tops in a four-wheel-drive that includes several short walks through sub-alpine wetland, lookouts, known lyrebird habitats and a visit to Little Manning Falls. The full-day sightseeing tour costs $165 a person and includes lunch as well as morning and afternoon tea. The centre also has a range of guided kayaking and mountain bike tours. boac.com.au.
A must-do day trip when in the area is the Barrington Tops Forest Road. It runs from Gloucester along Tourist Drive 29, over the mountains and through the national park to emerge on the western side of the range at Moonan Flat. Although sections of the road are unsealed, it is fine for conventional sedans.
The panoramic scenery along the route is breathtaking as you pass from the grassy foothills into the rainforest and up onto the plateau, and there are numerous places along the way to stop at lookouts and go for a short walk or enjoy a picnic.
Where to eat
Perenti Cafe on the main street of Gloucester does a great late breakfast and lunch with mainly local ingredients and a wide selection of gluten-free cakes and good coffee. They also have a good range of home-made preserves and chutneys if you are planning on packing a picnic to take up into the national park. 69 Church Street, open 8am-5pm on weekdays, 8.30am-3.30pm on weekends. (02) 6558 9219.
Roadies Cafe, a popular spot for touring motorcyclists, is another good place for breakfast and lunch (open daily). They also do dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 6pm and their wood-fired pizza is pretty good. 77 Church Street. (02) 6558 2772.
Where to stay
Tops Organic Retreat (formerly known as Hookes Creek Forest Retreat) is 40 kilometres from Gloucester in the foothills of the Barrington Tops just off the Barrington Tops/Scone Road. Accommodation is in self-contained wooden loft cabins and cottages, each with open log fires and balconies with fabulous views of green rolling hills and bushland. Some have spa baths. Meals are served in the main lodge, and everything is certified organic.
Facilities include a swimming pool and tennis courts, and there are 30 kilometres of walking tracks as well as a number of good trout-fishing spots, but most people come here to go horse riding, which costs $60 for a two-hour rainforest ride. Rates start at $250 a cottage, midweek. thetopsretreat.com.au.
In Gloucester, A Room with a View B&B has just two suites and the verandah delivers the promised vistas. Rates start at $170 a night, midweek and include breakfast for two. aroomwithaview-bb.com.au.
How to get there
Gloucester is 265 kilometres north-west of Sydney, via the F3, Pacific Highway and the Bucketts Way. Allow at least three to three-and-a-half hours' driving time.