Tourist Drive 33

Some of the least-known places are the best to visit, as BRENT DAVISON discovered on a drive along the Central Coast Harvest Trail.

Without doubt, the biggest problem for anyone driving north out of Sydney is the M1 freeway. Yes, the good old M1 with its endless roadworks, convoys of trucks and bouts of road rage, is about as much fun as eating grass – but way more annoying. There is an alternative though and as a pleasant diversion we took the road less travelled, taking the Calga exit from the M1 to head along Tourist Drive 33. Taking the Peats Ridge exit onto Tourist Drive 33 opens up a whole new world, replacing the M1’s chaos with a road traversing beautiful countryside dotted with orchards, farms and sleepy villages all the way through to Wollombi, on the outskirts of the Hunter Valley wineries region. Relax, unwind, enjoy the drive and anticipate the food.

Why?  Because the other name for this stretch of blacktop is the Harvest Trail. The historic Great North Road (also known as The Convict Trail) still exists along this route, with evidence of convict road works and culverts easily seen by the roadside. More can be found with a bit of a walk but parts can be seen without much effort. It almost feels like a different part of the country through here, the road wandering between mountains, through lush valleys and tiny villages consisting of little more than a pub or a church, sometimes both. The road is also home to the Central Coast Plateau Harvest Trail with farmers, restaurateurs and other businesses along its length specialising in local, seasonal produce with a list covering everything from avocados to zucchinis and stops at all points in-between.

Making a few random stops soon gives a taste of the trail

After a small detour away from Tourist Drive 33, the Harvest Trail effectively starts at Wilhelmena ‘The Pecan Lady’ Hunt’s Somersby orchard, where visitors can ‘pick their own’, or at least collect them from under the trees. Pecan nuts, you see, are harvested by being shaken from the trees then swept into neat rows for easy collection. It’s a great winter outing but, for we lazy types, the pecans can also be bought shelled and prepacked direct from the Pecan Lady herself. A short drive from the pecan orchard and on through Peats Ridge finds Wyuna Farms at Kulnura, where Valencia and navel oranges are at their juicy best and on a beautiful property to boot. For a real treat, grab a glass of the locally processed orange juice made from – you guessed it – the same oranges being picked in the grove. Tours are available here too, making it another great winter activity.

Continuing along the Great North Road, past the Murray’s Run culvert convict road remains, soon brings the village of Laguna, a one-horse town with a wonderful pub and providore, into sight. It sets the scene for a visit to Little Valley Farm where guests can spend the night (or maybe two) in an old ‘Red Rattler’ train carriage converted into comfortable glamping accommodation, making it possibly the most luxurious ‘train’ in Australia. What sets Little Valley apart is the fact its owner, Daniela Riccio, breeds alpacas. Sitting on the train’s broad deck makes for a great vantage point overlooking a truly idyllic setting of green pastures in which baby alpacas frolic and their mums and dads happily munch the lush green grass alongside the local kangaroos.

In Laguna, the gateway to the Hunter Valley, the Great North Trading Post (or GNTP as it is known locally) is the place to be most nights of the week. Established in 1879, it has an authentic country atmosphere, local wines, cold beer and great meals cooked in Rosa’s Kitchen by Rosa herself who, with her partner John, has run the pub for the last six years. A roaring fire keeps the chills at bay and, strangely, people actually talk to each other. The secret? A total lack of mobile phone reception keeps the Apples and Samsungs in bags and pockets and off the tables.

Next door to the trading post, GNTP Providore is a greengrocer with a difference. Specialising in regional and seasonal produce, the happy little shop has a fantastic array of fresh fruits, vegetables, smallgoods and local honey for sale. While obviously supplying the local community, the Providore is also popular with passing tourists and day trippers wanting to sample the local produce. From Laguna it’s a pleasant drive to Wollombi, linking with the Wollombi Valley Wine Trail to drop into Noyce Brothers Wines and Stonehurst Winery, Krinklewood and Wollombi Wines and, at the Wollombi Tavern, the famous Dr Jurd’s Jungle Juice can be sampled.

Quieter times are offered at Myrtle House, opposite the General Store and Old Wollombi Dance Hall, where a café, bookshop and even overnight accommodation are all to be found. For a dash of something different, Panino’s Italian-inspired restaurant is on the ground floor of the former Gray’s Inn, a sandstone Georgian building shared with Noyce Brothers cellar door in Wollombi’s main street.

Art lovers have for years enjoyed another side to Wollombi, with the annual Sculpture in the Vineyards. Now called the Wollombi Valley Sculpture Festival, it runs from October 26 until November 10. Tourist Drive 33 continues from Wollombi to Branxton before filtering into Cessnock but Wollombi is the end of the Harvest Trail road trip. As a drive, this lovely little diversion can be easily completed in three hours but it would be easy to roll it across three days. It really is a world away from the usual drive north out of Sydney and the experience is well worth it. Let’s face it, there are not too many places within easy reach of Sydney, Newcastle and Gosford where local produce can be sampled with a side order of Australian history thrown in for good measure. ¯