Tonic Hotel, Hunter Valley review: Tonic at a premium

Read our writer's views on this property below

After the initial price shock, Kelsey Munro relaxes into designer luxury.

It's the moment, late in the afternoon when we wander out of the cellar door as the sunlight hits the trees horizontally, that life takes on a golden glow – that unwinding you look for in all holidays, however short. A small girl is sitting outside on the grass, leaning against the winery's benevolent golden retriever and, as we put our bike helmets back on, she chats to us about her family holiday.

Such can be the transformative effect of a lovely afternoon: can it really be a matter of hours since we arrived? Yes, hours, a strenuous bike ride, a superb lunch and a bottle of wine.

Tonic Hotel is tucked in the north-eastern corner of Lovedale in the Hunter Valley, a fair distance from Pokolbin – a distance we are to appreciate later. Promising a "chintz-free zone" and rustic-meets-designer luxury, it is a cluster of gleaming corrugated-iron clad huts staggered up a gentle hill above three dams. The land is cleared and grassy, light brown. A striking white sculpture by Newcastle artist Braddon Snape presides over the top dam.

There is no formal check-in or check-out – Niccy, the owner, simply appears to welcome us and tells us the PIN access for our room. Your bill is tallied and charged to your credit card later.

Mark, from Hunter Valley Cycling, is patiently waiting to hand over two hired mountain bikes for our afternoon.

That done, we enter our room and are underwhelmed: it's nice but the luxury we'd imagined from a hotel that costs $425 a night ran to something more.

The narrow entrance passage houses a tiny galley kitchen and wardrobe. The room is square, high-ceilinged, with polished concrete floors and white walls. There's a large black-and-white cowhide rug on the floor, a small table and chairs and a huge bed with a jumble of white linen pillows. A chalkboard on the far wall holds a scrawled welcome message.

Sliding doors open to a wooden deck and a view calibrated perfectly for sundowner drinks. The bathroom is big and bright, with an unwalled shower in the corner and a large bath, one end of which disappears under the double-sink bench – a design flaw, we decide. How might two people fit? My boyfriend's long-held views about expensive hotels are confirmed. No way, he insists, is this worth that kind of money.

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But by consensus, over our weekend, it becomes clear that Tonic's price is (almost) justified by the classy details: Aesop hair and skin products, a good mattress and choice of pillows, superb linen and towels, heated bathroom floor, beautiful tea and coffee, a great DIY breakfast in the fridge, gowns, slippers, thoughtful lighting design. Everything in the room is for sale – if you like the bedding, or the body wash, you can buy it, and so on. A clever business model, I suppose, but we resist.

Comparing notes with friends who'd recently paid less to stay at the five-star Philip Treacy-designed G Hotel in Galway, we decide prices are still a bit steep, much as we loved our weekend.

We stay in on the first night, heating up a tasty kitchen curry from the freezer for dinner. In the morning we wake in the second dust storm of the week – a lurid ochre sky encases our little haven, wind whipping viciously outside. We shut the glass louvres and hunker in, lingering happily over a long, two-course breakfast. Delicious.

By lunchtime, the sky has cleared enough for an afternoon's wine tasting, during which we learn that our distance from the busy spots around Pokolbin is a blessing. At one of the big wineries, a coachload of girls on a hen's outing descends, squealing, on the tasting room; at another, young guys from a backpacker bus wrestle each other on the lawn, beer spilling everywhere. Hunter Valley Gardens is literally overrun with visitors – we retreat quickly, without stopping.

Still, we buy wine from friendly staff at Brokenwood and McGuigans and enjoy ourselves despite the weather.

The hordes are in stark contrast to our peaceful first afternoon on the bikes in Lovedale, even though it turns out to be a lot of slogging uphill on dusty roads. Cars pass occasionally and we probably look hilarious. But we earn our lunch. Sweating and happy, we turn into Wandin Valley Winery and sail down a gently curving hill, passing a pretty cricket pitch, before braving a short stretch on the main road to reach the restaurant Leaves and Fishes. We take a table in the sunshine, a bottle of verdelho, oysters and ocean trout. Yes, life is good.

Then we ride down Wilderness Road and stop on a whim at Sandalyn Winery, where we taste wines and chat to the girl and pat the big dog, whose name is Hunter. We have to leave to get back on the bikes before sundown. We make it, elated and temporarily transformed.

Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.

VISITORS' BOOK

Tonic Hotel

Address 251 Talga Road, Lovedale, Hunter Valley.

The verdict Lovely, understated, classy — but not cheap.

Price $850 for a two-night weekend stay including breakfast; minimum two-night bookings on weekends.

Bookings Phone 4930 9999 or email stay@tonichotel.com.au.

Getting there About 2 hours' drive north of Sydney. Head up the F3 and take the Cessnock turn-off into vineyard country.

Wheelchair access Yes.

Perfect for A wine-soaked romantic extravagance.

While you're there Hire bikes, taste wine, eat a lot.