The unassuming ethos of this buzzing seaside city hasn't gone unnoticed, writes Sheriden Rhodes.
Newcastle has been in the news lately. Lonely Planet crowned it one of the hottest cities to visit this year. Newcastle! Its inclusion at No. 9 is surprising, given Sydney and Melbourne have never featured on the list. ''Today's new Newcastle is a unique blend of imagination, sophistication and laid-back surf culture,'' Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011 says.
While nearly every other city or region featured on the list of this year's must-see sites was quick to blow its trumpet, little was heard from Newcastle. This more or less sums up the place. It's a genuinely underrated destination, with most of the amenities of Sydney but on a smaller scale and without the traffic, overcrowding and frightening property prices. Yet it has never shaken off a certain degree of small-town parochialism and remains in the shadow of its larger neighbour. The collapse last year of a $600 million project to redevelop the central business district was a blow to the city's confidence.
Formerly known as ''Steel City'', Newcastle has undergone a transformation in the past decade from an industrial town - home to BHP Steelworks for more than 90 years - to a buzzing, compact and highly liveable city with a vibrant culture of cafes, food and wine, surf, art, theatre, music and fashion.
Though BHP closed its steelworks at the end of the 1990s, Newcastle retains an edgy industrial feel juxtaposed by affluent beach and harbourside suburbs, leafy neighbourhoods and the Hunter wine region and Port Stephens beyond.
In the inner city, historic neighbourhoods such as Cooks Hill, The Junction and The Hill have graceful terraces, restored workers' cottages, lovely parks and smart boutiques.
Along Newcastle's stunning stretch of surfing beaches are million-dollar real estate, historical sea baths (including the largest in the southern hemisphere, at Merewether), trendy cafes and the iconic Beach Hotel.
At the mouth of the Hunter River, the Honeysuckle precinct on Newcastle Harbour (the largest export harbour in the Commonwealth) has had a facelift. It now features contemporary hotels and waterfront apartments, hip bars including Silo and restaurants from which you can watch tugs and cargo liners ply the waterway and the seaplane service from Sydney come in to land. Further along, at Queen's Wharf, is the highly regarded Nor'East restaurant.
Without inside knowledge, a visitor could easily miss the best of the city. Head to Newcastle's east, where a bunch of new operators is rejuvenating this once-grand end of town. Here you'll find Sprocket, a quirky cafe and roaster; East End Enetoca, a small Italian wine bar; the refurbished Great Northern Hotel; and Bocados, a fabulous Spanish tapas bar. Restaurant II and the one-hatted Bacchus are also in this district and are firm foodie favourites.
The most significant recent change has been the redevelopment of the old Royal Newcastle Hospital site fronting Newcastle beach. Part of the project is the stylish, 4½-star, 88-room Sebel Newcastle Beach, built and owned by Mirvac, which includes retail, residential and public space. It's the first Sebel to be built from the ground up and the first full-service 4½-star hotel to open in Newcastle in almost a decade.
The Sebel's rooms are contemporary and comfortable, though on the small side. Most rooms, however, have views of either the ocean or Newcastle Harbour, Nobbys Lighthouse and Stockton Beach. The hotel is steps away from the beaches, the harbour and Hunter Street Mall (check out Make Space, part of the innovative Renew Newcastle project, and have coffee at the new One Penny Black).
From the hotel, my friend and I take a walk to the historic Newcastle Ocean Baths, with its restored art deco facade. The city's baths are what persuaded me to relocate from Melbourne to Newcastle two years ago.
From here we walk along the harbour breakwater to Nobbys Lighthouse, spotting giant cargo ships coming into port on one side and surfers riding waves on the other.
Later we have dinner at the hotel's Bistro Dalby. The food, by chef Justin Rose, formerly of the Hunter Valley's Chez Pok, Molines and Sydney's Quay Restaurant, is impressive. Another of the hotel's assets is the adjoining and privately operated Bar Petite wine bar (where David Beckham was spotted twice during his stay in November). The bar spills on to an open-air public atrium, which it shares with the hotel. In a city with a strong pub culture, the eclectic mismatched furniture and relaxed vibe of Bar Petite is instantly appealing.
A new day spa off the atrium is scheduled to open soon and a beachfront Mediterranean restaurant, Rustica, run by Mark Hosie, who operates the excellent Bistro Tartine in inner-city Hamilton, will also open as part of Mirvac's Royal Newcastle development (which includes the Sebel) in the next couple of months. Nearby Estabar Cafe has a terrific beachfront position, good coffee and excellent house-made gelato.
Just over a kilometre's stroll from the hotel is Darby Street in the leafy Cooks Hill precinct. This is the city's most exciting strip, with great boutique shopping, busy cafes, pubs and restaurants. The hottest spots include Delucas for rustic Italian fare (the pan-fried gnocchi is always good); the Depot, a wine and tapas bar; and 3 Monkeys, with its interesting menu and lively atmosphere.
Among the boutiques here is High Tea with Mrs Woo, with unique, wearable East-meets-West pieces designed in Newcastle and made in Australia. Guanabana has an exotic, bohemian range of womenswear, which is designed, manufactured and sold in Newcastle. Guanabana designer Linda Bergskas made her debut at Australian Fashion Week last year with a dreamy collection inspired by the ocean. Blackbird Corner shows the work of local designers, and Honeybee sells Australian-made fashion, fair-trade and organic and sustainable goods.
To meet and buy from new designers, time your visit to coincide with the Olive Tree Market on the first Saturday of the month at The Junction, a few kilometres from the Sebel. The market features Newcastle's contemporary art, craft, design and fashion directly from the artists; every item on sale is handmade. Red Lantern Night Markets, an offshoot of the Olive Tree Market, run in November and December and are within walking distance of the hotel. These markets transform the inner city, with open-air stalls, rickshaw rides, street entertainment and more.
The city has plenty of cafes but, arguably, the best coffee can be found in Hamilton's Beaumont Street. Here, Three Bean Espresso Bar uses organic and biodynamic goods where possible, including produce grown by the local primary school. Next door to Hamilton railway station, Rolador does a roaring takeaway trade through its hole-in-the-wall roller door, employing creative street art and a retro fitout. The owners of Rolador, Phil and Fiona Smart, the latter a Novocastrian who returned after running a highly successful similar venue in St Kilda East, have introduced to Newcastle a Melbourne-style cafe experience and superb coffee.
Cross the rail line and on the wrong side of the tracks is the graffiti-splattered grunge cafe Suspension, which serves good coffee to a largely bohemian crowd.
Don't postpone a visit to Newie, as it's known. It won't remain underestimated for long.
Sheriden Rhodes stayed courtesy of Mirvac Hotels.
Newcastle is 160 kilometres or a two-hour drive from Sydney CBD. Trains between the two cities run regularly (2hr 40min).
Sebel Newcastle Beach has 88 rooms and a gym, spa, steam room and onsite restaurant. Rooms cost from $199; see mirvachotels.com.
Crowne Plaza Hotel Newcastle has 71 city suites and 104 harbourside suites, some with balconies. Within walking distance are Darby Street, coastal walks and waterfront restaurants and bars. A 25-metre pool sits on the harbour edge. Rooms are from $235; see ichotelsgroup.com.
Cooks Hill Cottage is a boutique, self-contained, two-bedroom house a short stroll from Darby Street. From $185 a night for two people for weekly bookings (minimum two-night stays); see cookshillcottage.com.au.
Bocados is a Spanish tapas bar in Newcastle's rapidly changing east end. Save room for the Portuguese tarts. 27 King Street, Newcastle; 4925 2801.
Bistro Tartine serves some of the city's best food, backed by a terrific wine list in a lively bistro off Beaumont Street. 52 Cleary Street, Hamilton, 4965 3648.
The Beach Hotel, a Newcastle landmark, has a laid-back vibe overlooking Merewether Beach. 99 Frederick Street, Merewether; 4963 1574, see thebeachhotel.com.au.
Estabar has a prime position opposite Newcastle Beach with great breakfasts and best gelato in town. Shop 1/ 61 Shortland Esplanade, Newcastle; 4927 1222.
Silo Restaurant & Lounge on the harbourfront has local wines, cocktails, wood-fired pizzas and more. 18/1 Honeysuckle Drive, Newcastle; 4926 2828, see silolounge.com.au.
Bacchus, with a Chef's Hat award, is housed in a grand old theatre with an excellent modern European menu, attentive staff and sensational wine list. 141 King Street, Newcastle; 4927 1332, bacchusnewcastle.com.au.
Rolador makes some of the city's best coffee and is run by Novocastrian Fiona Smart, formerly a partner in Melbourne's Las Chicas Cafe. 1 Beaumont Street, Hamilton; 4969 1786.
One Penny Black is a sweet little cafe serving excellent coffee, handmade chocolates and moreish toasties. Corner Hunter and Morgan streets, Newcastle; 4929 6969.
Nor'East is a wharfside brasserie with a menu by talented young chef Tony Harrison. 150 Wharf Road, Newcastle; 4929 6444. See noreastdining.com.au.
The Olive Tree Market, is held on the first Saturday of the month 9am-3pm. The Junction Public School, Union Street, The Junction, 0439 649 058.
Guanabana is making waves with its mix of relaxed glamour and high-end bohemian style. 1/ 115 Darby Street, Cooks Hill; 4926 1273, see guanabana.com.au.
High Tea with Mrs Woo is a theatrical East-meets-West label designed in Newcastle by the talented Chinese-Malaysian Foong sisters. 74 Darby Street, Cooks Hill; 4926 4883, see highteawithmrswoo.com.au.