Oh I do love to be beside the seaside, but I also love a good, slow drive through the country-side. Tourist Drive 33, linking Sydney to the Hunter Valley, gives you the perfect combination of sweeping landscapes over the great Aussie bush, road-side fruit stalls to stop at and stock up on fresh fruit and veg., boutique wineries to taste a tipple or two, and the chance to explore the history of the convict-built Great North Road. It's 114kms in length from the southern exit on the M1 (the Calga/Peats Ridge exit) to its northern junction with the New England Highway at Branxton in the Hunter Valley, making it the perfect length for a day-trip or long weekend road-trip. There's a mix of the old and the new, the past and the present.
I head off early on a lazy summer Sunday morning and there's barely another car on the road. Roughly 20 minutes north or Hornsby I turn off the M1 at the Calga exit and I'm immediately transported into the lush green surroundings of Mangrove Mountain. Instinctively I slow down, wind down the window and breathe in the fresh air of eucalypts from the surrounding bush. I bypass a few farm buildings and dirt roads lead off in varying directions to who knows where. The only signs of habitation are the long rows of letterboxes on the roadside.
For a time, between 1974 to 1986, this route through Peat's Ridge and Mangrove Mountain was National Highway 1. The modern M1 expressway now by-passes these quiet townships, but thankfully the horse paddocks and fruit stalls remain.
The road is winding and in good condition so it's easy driving through valleys, past sandstone ridges and creeks. I pass stone culverts, historical remnants of the engineering feat of road-building by nine convict chain gangs that traversed gorges and towering mountain passes to provide this road link from Sydney to the north. Passing through Kulnurra, I stop a little further along at Laguna for a snack. Don't be put off by the imposing front of the shed. Inside is an authentic pub atmosphere with slab tables and chairs, a comprehensive breakfast and lunch menu of burgers, salads and wraps, and live music every Sunday afternoon. I grab a coffee and some bottled local bush honey that's for sale on the counter-top.
Back on the road, the creative heart of the Hunter Valley seems to jump out at you any chance it gets; quirky roadside artwork, signs advertising farm-stay accommodation and boutique wineries litter the countryside offering an escape from the ordinariness of life.
At Wollombi the road forks. One branch goes north through the upper Hunter Valley, the other east to Branxton. Wollombi was established as the administrative centre for the district and is now a popular stopping point for bikers, and anyone taking this interesting route as an alternative to the busy M1 motorway. It's the perfect place to have a spell from driving and it's well worth allowing yourself time to explore the historical village's past.
Continuing north, I pass through Millfield, an old region once full of cedar mills, then onto Bellbird on the outskirts of Cessnock. Signposts point towards the beautiful and majestic Brokeback mountain ranges and the plethora of wineries to visit, but that's for another day. I stop at The Bellbird Hotel, the quintessential, old Aussie pub, for a drink and amenities break. Cessnock is an old mining town, full of historical buildings and, more recently, a thriving arts community. From here there are so many options, but I need to be home in Sydney in time for dinner so I'll save all these for another day.