Miracle on chic street

Kate Cox strolls a city on the must-visit list of international trend-setters.

NOVOCASTRIANS are excited. There's a spring in their already-springy step. You can touch the joy in the air as the city has been named one of the top-10 must-see destinations this year. Lonely Planet's assessment of ninth in the world placed Newcastle above the longstanding accolade magnets of Paris, London and Sydney.

The country's second-oldest city, locals say, is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, with not one mention of coal or steel, for perhaps the first time in its history.

It's not hard to see why. For the past few years, the once laid-back surfie town has been working eagerly on an image overhaul.

There have been groovy arts projects, including grassroots photographic and art exhibitions, and a council initiative that involved leasing out ugly, empty shop fronts to creative types for use as pop-up stores and galleries.

A slew of funky fashion and homewares boutiques has opened, as well as cool bars and cafes run by passionate locals. There's a newish party precinct on the harbour - Honeysuckle - with yet more bars, cafes and restaurants. There has even been a visit from the image-overhaul expert, David Beckham.

The latest step in Project Chic is the transformation of the former Royal Newcastle Hospital site across the road from Newcastle beach. It's an upmarket revamp but one that retains its historical character. There are significant buildings nearby and I'm sure I hear church bells when I arrive at midnight.

Mirvac has worked for three years on the site, with the Sebel Newcastle Beach opening in November. It's luxurious (4½ stars, concierge, sauna, gym, parking and all the trimmings) and slick, with fantastically friendly service and chic extras such as stylish blue and white beach towels. The food (and coffee) from its restaurant, Bistro Dalby, is fresh and delicious. The only fault we can find is there are not enough rooms with balconies, although there are fabulous floor-to-ceiling windows.

Still, there's joy to be found in the hotel's surrounds. This revamped area will be the city's new hubbub.

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Bar Petite, attached to the Sebel, is sister to the Small bars of Crows Nest and Sydney's central business district and furnished even more sumptuously, with wonderful cocktails and staff. It is unlike any other bar in the city: no pokies, no tap beer, no TV. Beckham popped in for a boutique beer on his recent stay in the city but the world's most famous metrosexual didn't have a chance to suss out the nearby Royal Day Spa - it opened this month.

In the same complex, an upmarket restaurant, Rustica, will open in a few weeks and Elements Deli Cafe has been pumping for a couple of months.

It's a great base for a weekender that combines beach bumming with boutique browsing.

Newcastle's main beach is across the road from the hotel, an ideal starting point for a stroll: around the spectacular coast, up to Nobbys Head and into Newcastle Harbour; or inland along the Newcastle East heritage walk.

All the former hospital site needs is a couple of groovy boutiques. Until then, when it's shopping time, seek out Darby Street, where, among cafes and restaurants, you'll have no trouble emptying your pockets.

Start at the end of Darby Street (see panel) and work your way up: there's lots to cover.

The writer was a guest of the Sebel Newcastle Beach, King Street, Newcastle, 02 4032 3700, mirvac hotels.com. Rates from $155 a night for a studio room .

Darby Street's shops

1. Blackbird Corner (70 Darby Street, 4929 4350) If you love frankie mag and all the wonders it depicts, not only can you purchase it in this cute store but you'll love the handcrafted kids' clothes, groovy boho skirts and original trinkets.

2. High Tea with Mrs Woo (74 Darby Street, 4926 4883) Super-chic purchases — think French colouring-in books, gorgeous cords, sculpted clothes — in a beautiful, calm interior.

3. Ramjet Assortments (78 Darby Street, 4926 2839) If you have time for only one store, pick this. Hip jeans (love the Wranglers), super-friendly staff, hot cowboy boots and beautiful dresses. My Fever dress ($165) has received dozens of compliments.

4. Blue Star Elements (106 Darby Street, 4926 1993) Loads of groovy gifts, from plants to one-off children's toys.

5. Abicus (124 Darby Street, 4929 7278) A massive range of on-trend shoes and clothes, from style meisters such as Mink Pink, Wish and Ladakh.

6. Honey Bee (162 Darby Street, 4929 1886) Stop here for an organic coffee and a wee browse of the alternative threads — and then cross the road and walk back down Darby Street.

7. Betty Mim (167 Darby Street, 4926 1420) Yet another cute-not-kitsch independent design store with a decidedly community feel, selling homey fashion and fashionable homewares.

8. Goodie 2 Shoes (155 Darby Street, 4929 3839) From Birkenstock sandals to electric blue stilettos, this is a shoe haven worth stepping into.

9. Crystaland (91 Darby Street, 4929 5899) Because we all need a jewellery fix.

10. Overt (89 Darby Street, 4926 1704) Achingly hip clothes, shoes and accessories, blending loads of Newcastle designers with the latest from labels such as Lee, Insight, Religion and Ray Bans. Good prices, too.

11. Rag & Bone (37 Darby Street, 4927 1000) The spot for funky tees.

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