Stuck in a rut

Debra Jopson finds herself on the edge of wine country and in the middle of deer mating season.

The first stag you come across at Cedar Creek Cottages is dead. His gigantic head, mounted on the wall of the cellar door at the entrance to this Wollombi Valley vineyard and farm, imperiously oversees wine sales.

He thought he'd got lucky when he jumped the fence to get at a harem of hinds. But they were promised to someone else. He was, literally, stuffed. Now another stag is king on the gentle green slopes between a gurgling creek and the craggy outcrops of beautiful bushy hills. When we leave our cottage for a modest bushwalk, our hostess from the big house on the property, Phillipa Heslop, says: "I'll have to ask Daryl if the rut is still on."

We could walk through the deer paddock except the stag sees even humans as competitors, so visitors must stay out. Daryl confirms it could still be dangerous to set foot on his territory. We stick to the bush track halfway up the hill, the lush valley unfolding below, olive-grey eucalypt and she-oak with its wind-chime needles above. There is a soundtrack of birdsong, cattle bellow and, in the distance, cars zooming like aircraft along Wollombi Road.

The Heslops's cattle have pushed over red arrows indicating the paths around this 7.2-hectare farm but it is easy to find your way about and to enjoy getting city feet back on ungroomed soil at a retreat about two hours' drive from Sydney. Here the couple farm fallow deer and red deer, which they explain are like Bambi, and they produce organic semillon, chambourcin, chardonnay and sparkling wine, sold under the name Stonehurst Cedar Creek.

They seem to be skilled at farming tourists, too. There are six cottages on the property, all designed for couples. We are allocated Howell's Cottage, a modern studio-style house with big wood-framed windows, a verandah overlooking rows of grapevines, an outdoor brick barbecue and indoor wood fire to give it an old-fashioned, gracious air. One of the imposing sandstone rock formations characteristic of this area sits like a statue beside the cottage, which is perched on a slope with a wide outlook.

There are a spa, TV, DVD player and kitchenette, so suburbanites can cope with all that country and rich starry sky.

We arrive at this Hunter Valley gateway on a Friday night after work and thoughts turn quickly to food in the clear, cold air. The first disappointment is that Panino, the Wollombi restaurant Phillipa has recommended, is booked out and the phone rings out on the answering machine.

Animated middle-aged drinkers cluster outside the famous Wollombi pub, which has a fire roaring in its sandstone hearth, but we are directed to a greasy, sad little dining room upon which two noisy groups are about to descend, the harried women sweating over the preparations tell us.

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Lucky we have bought emergency supplies of steak and salad, conjured into a meal back in our kitchenette. Not all the condiments that Phillipa mentioned on the phone are there, so we make do with the tomato sauce provided, then scoff the complimentary chocolate.

But the breakfast provided for us to assemble, including cereal, eggs, bacon and tomatoes, is generous, with the country indulgence of thickcut white bread to toast. The morning brings a dramatic mist, burnt off by the sun as it rises above the mountain to the north-east.

In summer, the Heslops say, you can swim next to Cedar Creek bridge, where there is a ninemetre- deep swimming hole. They will lend lines to fish in the creek and racquets to have a hit at the tennis courts in Wollombi.

But we decide to drive north, along Wollombi Road, turning left on to Mount View Road, winding into a series of tight hill-folds and sweet valleys angled to whet the curiosity of stickybeaks in cars.

They are dotted with houses speaking one minute of long-term farm families wed to old weatherboard and the next of rich city slickers fond of expansive glass and cedar.

A heady upward spiral takes the car to Bimbadeen Lookout, with views all theway to the lower Hunter, then a descent on the other side lands us for a late lunch at Molines Bistro. A place is found for us on the patio, where diners look over grassy slopes, a dam and vineyards to a valley rich in paddocks and produce, smoke curling from a couple of burn-offs on the horizon.

A quick look at the menu and prices leads us to devise a strategy – splurge now and have a modest meal at our cottage tonight. The menu changes daily but it is largely about fresh, local produce with a French twist. My favourite is an entree of braised globe artichokes in a garlic broth with parmesan tuile ($22). We dawdle here until the sun slips behind the next fold of mountain.

Next day we could have popped into Wollombi village, 190 years old and still not very big. I have poked around its charms before, from the sandstone courthouse and museum to the deck of the tavern crowded with leather-clad middleclass bikers who day-trip there.

Instead we amble along the farm tracks and make such good friends with Seamus, a black Labrador, he tries to jump into our car and come home with us. It is nice to feel loved by the locals.

VISITORS BOOK
Cedar Creek Cottages
Address Wollombi Road, Cedar Creek, Hunter Valley.

The verdict A swift transition to country life and bush regeneration for jaded city dwellers.

Price $398 a couple for two nights on weekends, plus $55 a night for use of a sofa bed and $30 a night for a child. Bookings Phone 4998 1576 or email relax@cedarcreekcottages.com.au.

Getting there From Sydney, a two-hour drive north from the CBD (depending on traffic) via Peats Ridge.

Perfect for Couples seeking to cocoon, or to strike out on Hunter Valley explorations. Also for small, young families who want to use a comfortable base where self-catering can help cut costs. Two of the six cottages accommodate slightly larger groups. Wheelchair access No.

While you're there Cruise the local wine trail, find Aboriginal rock art in the national parks, enjoy the Georgian buildings inWollombi village and mingle with the weekend bikers at the pub.

Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.

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