“Cool” might not be the first word that springs to mind at the mention of Newcastle, the gritty port town just two hours north of glittering Sydney. No, it’s more likely to be “coal” or “steel”, “dockyards” or even “earthquake”. But the city has reinvented itself big time in recent years, due in major part to the belief and hard slog of some plucky locals. Among its best features: abundant foodie factor (great coffee and cafes, buzzy bars and bistros, a top notch restaurant or two, farmers’ markets and specialist delis); ample natural beauty (ocean baths and surf beaches); art and architecture (The Lock-Up artspace, This is Not Art festival, Customs House), and an easy-going, come-on-in, Novocastrian attitude. After a few days schlepping about the city, these are my picks to sit, snap, sip and shop.
Darby Street: A Veggie Monkey breakfast–eggs, hash brown, garlicky mushrooms, spinach, tomato relish, haloumi & chunky toasted sourdough–at the Three Monkeys Café. A caffeine reboot at Frankie’s Place with a side order of head tatts and beanied noggins. Smoked salt & vinegar crisps followed by juicy pink rib eye with sweet and sour peppers at The Bowery Boys. Stop off at High Tea with Mrs Woo if only to lean on the gorgeous wooden counter and eye the esthetic dresses and ceramic bowls. Buy cowboy boots and a very flash Bonzai Kitten flamingo print underwear twinset to pair with them at Ramjet. Or grab a flitty Miss Twiggy dress for extra coverage. Fantasise about redecorating at Willows Home Traders–that Scando style sideboard in sleek blonde wood, Ali MacNabney-Stevens daubings, the Bonnie & Neil cockatoo crested tea-towel, an Icelandic sheepskin butterfly chair, the white marble dining table, those green velvet pillowcases all in a van on their way to my house–now! Snap up gloriously retro tin can candles–Dr Salty’s Carribean Spice, Snake Oil or Lightning Moonshine all made in the Hunter Valley by the Anvil Creek Co–at Blackbird Corner. It’s a locavore kind of vibe–they do their own screen printed t-shirts (Anorak), along with their line of funky print dresses with labels to match (My Fascist Mother, Wayward Girl), plus handmade cards and notebooks from all over, jewellery, Blossom & Cat hottie bottie covers, and cluey, creative mags the likes of Peppermint, Wooden Toy Quarterly, and Frankie. The perfect place to browse and buy–something, everything.
Hunter Street: Healthy, wholesome and housemade baked beans in a red-hot ramekin beside a serve of corncakes, avocado, bacon and tomato salsa at Blue Door. Lots to like about the food, the breezy welcome and the berry, mango and mint frappé. Take a stroll across the road and around the corner to Centenary Antiques Centre chockful of retro collectibes and nostalgic tat, including a vintage (aka pre bags of single origin coffee beans) grocery store. It’s all about the vine at Reserve Wine Bar, apt given the proximity of the vinuous Hunter Valley. Offerings veer from a Riverina Pinot Grigio to a Provençal Rosé, from a Murumbateman Merlot to a Spanish Rioja via a Fat Lamb Shiraz. Buffs and bozos alike fit right in here because these guys believe that the best wine is the one you actually like, not the one you’re supposed to like. Phew! Try the just battered flathead with truffle chips at lunchtime, washed down with a glass of cool rosé. Take in the hubbub of architectural styles–Art Deco, Federation, Italianate, Victorian–up and down the street as you head for contemporary art space The Lock Up. The city’s main police station in a previous life, it plays host to a series of installations, exhibitions, workshops and talks, but nowadays visitors are free to leave the cells and use the loos at any time.
Elsewhere: Rent a Spinway bike from in front of the can’t-miss-me Crowne Plaza Hotel and cycle the waterfront to Nobby’s Beach, pause for a dip there or at the Newcastle Ocean Baths or press on along Bathers’ Way to the huge Mereweather Beach and Ocean Baths. Slake a thirst on your return at the waterside Honeysuckle Hotel, or wander back cityside to The Edwards, an ex-coin-op laundry turned all round great bar. The brainchild of Chris Johnston (owner of cult cafe Suspension Espresso and cult bass player Chris Joannou (ex-Silverchair), the timber heavy hot spot dishes up cocktails, craft beers, and rich satisfying food: roast pork shoulder with hot smoked apples, lemon-herb whole roast chicken, garlicky mash, and an ice-cream sandwich with caramelised banana and squashed brittle bits. Oh yes! If you’re at a loose end on a Sunday morning (or Wednesday evening outside of winter), head for the ‘Newy’ Farmers’ Market and stockpile cream-topped Over the Moon milk, free range hens and farm-laid eggs, Red Belly organic beef snags, Mill Creek Shiraz, Wollombi olive oil, and locally picked fruit and veggies.
My first trip back in a long, long, long time, and it won’t be the last.