Wineries, watersports and wildlife - a week off the beaten track in New South Wales
PUBLISHED: 12:55 02 December 2019 | UPDATED: 13:54 02 December 2019
From the dry bushland of the outback to surfers catching waves and barbecues on beaches, the images of Australia that spring to mind can be familiar to the point of cliché.
But when JESSICA FRANK-KEYES got the chance to visit an undiscovered part of the country, she found a place that offers so much more than kangaroos and koalas....
Waking up as our flight touched down at Sydney airport was the first lesson in how this trip was going to be all about the unexpected.
Whether it was the fact I'd been wide awake with adrenaline the night before, or the cosy, darkened cabin, I was pleasantly surprised to have slept most of the way from Abu Dhabi.
Australia was already different from how I'd imagined.
Refreshed after a night at the Citadines Connect airport hotel, we were ready for a week of watersports, wineries and wildlife, and exploring the undiscovered delights of New South Wales (NSW).
Nicknamed the First State, NSW boasts Australia's most populous city as its capital: the home of the iconic Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
And looking out towards the glittering lights of the city, it was impossible not to feel butterflies at what the next few days had in store.
For anyone visiting Sydney for the first time, ticking off the tourist highlights is best begun with a stroll along Circular Quay.
Inject a dose of culture into your visit with an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where British artist Cornelia Parker's first major showing is open until February 2020.
Marvel at the waterfront views over lunch at the museum's harbourside restaurant, Graze, with menu highlights including the glazed salmon and fresh fish and chips, before wandering along the quay towards the opera house and bridge.
Time your visit right and soak in the sight of the sun sinking beneath the waves, or sample Sydney's famous ice cream at Gelato Messina before an afternoon browsing upmarket shopping district The Rocks.
If you have longer in the city, escape the central business district (CBD) for sights beyond skyscrapers and jacaranda trees.
Visit Watson's Bay, the site of the first contact between colonial invaders and the native Australian people, for an Aboriginal-led tour of the protected wildlife in the bay area.
The guides will get you sampling native plants, from ground bush tomatoes (a spicy, paprika-flavoured powder) to juicy, purple brush cherries (a superfood on par with the South American goji berry), and spotting kookaburras and squawking lorikeets in the gum tree branches.
Australians begin public events with what's known as an acknowledgement of country, a recognition of the original Aboriginal custodians of the land, and this tour was no exception, with the guide paying homage to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.
It was a truly eye-opening few hours, and a worthwhile history lesson.
You can also take in a walking tour of Newtown, an inner-western suburb of Sydney featuring some of the city's best coffee, famous street art, motorcycle cafes and an Instagram cult favourite watermelon cake (trust me, you need to try it).
Enjoy souvenir shopping in the bustling streets and sample fantastic pizza at Newtown's eateries, before taking the train back into the city.
You can book a tour through Culture Scouts, who will walk you through the quirky area's dazzling, site-specific murals and vivid splatterings of graffiti.
But for an authentic taste of what NSW has to offer, leave Sydney behind and head down the South Coast and up into the Southern Highlands.
The region's cool climate has seen it develop into an up-and-coming wine area, and its vineyards boast an array of complex and creative wines, with sustainability and natural fermentation a particular trend for many of the region's vintners.
If you're venturing far beyond the urban centre, the best way to enjoy the rolling hills and open highways is to go by road.
You won't be short of entertainment with sweeping views and the constant hunt for native wildlife sightings to keep you busy.
Tucked into the hills behind Milton, south of Sydney, is the boutique destination winery and vineyard Cupitts.
Enjoy the stunning surroundings before sampling a variety of estate-grown wines during their cellar door tour.
Food highlights in this part of the state include freshly-caught seafood, with the Rick Stein restaurant at the Mollymook hotel Bannisters by the Sea offering a world-class fish pie and perfectly spiced fish taco.
And for more casual dining, try the charming cafes in towns from Berry to Berrima, where everything from the Aussie speciality of smashed avocado toast, to sharing tapas plates and iced coffees are prepared to perfection.
Don't forget to treat yourself to a cinnamon-dusted ring donut from Berry's famous donut van, before exploring the town's antique and homeware shops.
However, it wasn't until we drove inland, away from the beaches and highways I'd come to recognise, that the really unexpected side of NSW came to light.
A day spent visiting wineries in the Southern Highlands, including a whisky distillery in an abandoned mining valley - and a night spent in a Scottish-inspired farm and guesthouse - left us with a whole new impression of the region.
At Tractorless Wines, Jeff Aston's biodynamic blends are a vegan, sulphate-free example of the area's natural wine trend, which the 40-year-old winemaker tells us he sees becoming the norm, with Australia's growing Chinese market "interested in eating and drinking organic, natural foods".
The taste of his natural rose was unlike anything I'd ever drunk before - and I could only compare the appealing flavour to the fizz of kombucha.
Just a few miles away, at the Joadja Distillery, former backpacker-hostel owners Elise and Valero Jimenez produce Australian whisky from barley grown on-site and water from their own spring, before maturing the product in Spanish sherry barrels - all in the evocative surroundings of the 'ghost town' of Joadja.
Visit for a taste of the smooth, uniquely flavoured spirits - including Pedro Ximenez, a fruity, fortified wine - during an open-day tour of the crumbling old town with its former school and post office, and a potential sighting of wild grey kangaroos hopping through the lavender bushes.
We learn businesses in the highlands are working together to open the region's huge varieties of food, drink and landscapes up to visitors via the Chamber of Commerce network, while local landowners are standing firm - for now - against plans to bring mining back to the Southern Highlands.
Fears the Hume Coal Mine could crack the water basin, affecting the budding wine industry, have sparked the campaign, Battle for Berrima, to protect the area - and it's easy to see why they feel so strongly.
Heading back towards Sydney, and home, offered time to reflect on our experiences in NSW.
The state, in the south-east of Australia, felt like it truly offered something for everyone, with plenty of activities whatever your interests and abilities.
If you're visiting as a family, the wildlife, empty beaches, and huge open spaces - as well as options for kayaking, and paddleboard lessons - will keep children entertained.
While if you're planning an adults-only trip, the range of wineries, distilleries and history, not to mention the variety of incredible restaurants and hotels, will make it a holiday to remember.
And for adventure-seekers, the mountains, surfing and hiking along the rugged coastline complete the picture of the place that has it all.
All too soon, it was time to say goodbye.
- Jessica was a guest of Destination NSW. She stayed in Sydney and New South Wales from November 11 - November 17.
Visiting New South Wales
Flights - the group flew with Etihad Airlines from Heathrow via Abu Dhabi.
Average prices for one adult, economy class, in November 2020, range from £257-£588. [Source: Skyscanner, prices correct as of November 2019]
Accommodation - Citadines Connect Sydney Airport, (£79-90 per night); Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour, (£200-227 per night); Bannisters by the Sea Mollymook, (£217-234 per night); Dovecote Luxury Coastal Accommodation: The Headland, (sleeps eight, £1823 per night); The Loch Berrima, (£250-300 per night); and Harbour Rocks Hotel Sydney, (£126-137 per night). [Prices correct as of November 2019.]
Tours and activities - Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCAA), Sydney, free entry, not including some exhibitions; Sydney Opera House tour, £22.20pp; Cupitts Winery, Tour and Taste Experience, £21.40pp; Coastal Paddle Surf paddleboarding experience at Narrawallee Inlet, one-hour group lesson, £21.40pp; Far Meadow Table private dining experience, from £42pp, eight person minimim; Grape Escape Southern Highlands Wine Tour, full-day tour, £63.41-89.95pp; WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo, Australian wildlife tour, £52.32pp; Watson's Bay Aboriginal Walkabout Tour Kadoo Tours, £21.13pp; Culture Scouts Inner West Street Art Tour, £34.35pp. [Prices correct for one adult as of November 2019.]
Restaurants - Graze MCAA, Circular Quay, Sydney, mains from £13-21; Anason, Barangaroo, Sydney, sharing dishes from £5-25; Crooked River Wines, Gerringong, two course menu £34pp; Rick Stein at Bannisters, Mollymook, mains from £18-25; The Garden, Berry, lunches from £7-18; Josh's Cafe, Berrima, mains from £13-21; Eschalot, Berrima, chef's 'feed me' menu £34pp; Beach Club at Watson's Bay Boutique Hotel, Watson's Bay, Sydney, mains from £12-14; nel. restaurant Land and Sea NSW, Wentworth Avenue, Sydney, sample 12-dish tasting menu £67pp or £177pp with matched wines. [Prices correct for one adult as of November 2019.]