Heights of the Hunter

The Hunter Valley, around two hours north of Sydney, has over 100 vineyards making it one of Australia’s major wine-growing regions. However, the Hunter today is famous for much more than its exceptional wine, with an entire lifestyle now thriving in the area, including sprawling resorts, gourmet dining and food shops, golf courses and even adventure activities including the ever-popular hot air ballooning. Hit the road and make the Hunter your perfect all-round weekend escape from the bustling city.

The drive out to the Hunter Valley is picturesque in its own right. Drive up in the sunny afternoon and pass by rows and rows of vineyards among rugged bush landscapes. Nestled within this scenic wine region is the sprawling 25-acre property, Oaks Cypress Lakes Resort. Having just undergone a $20 million refurbishment, Cypress Lakes Resort is the perfect retreat to enjoy your weekend away. I check into my spacious and modern one-bedroom private villa, and head straight to the balcony overlooking natural scrubland to enjoy a glass of wine from a surrounding vineyard and cheese from the nearby Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop, a must-visit to pick up some local produce while in the area.

After a self-guided tour of Cypress Lakes’ expansive grounds, which include tennis courts, three swimming pools and sprawling golf greens, our party enjoys an early dinner onsite at The Restaurant @ Cypress Lakes, serving up mouthwatering, honest meals dedicated to local producers. We have an early wakeup call in the morning to experience something truly magical—a hot air balloon ride over this serene location. Oaks Cypress Lakes Resort is commemorating its 25th anniversary with the launch of its very own hot air balloon in partnership with Balloon Aloft, recognising the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this experience is.

My alarm goes off in the darkness of 4.30am, but, as somebody afraid of heights, I’m already wide awake with nervous anticipation. We head to Peterson House to meet our fellow hot air ballooners before driving out to a field that makes a suitable launch site for this particular morning’s wind and weather conditions. Our balloon pilot informs us the take-off and landing sites are different with each fly—since the balloons aren’t able to be fully controlled they go where the wind goes, adding to the adventure!

The experience, from start to finish, is hands on with guests contributing to blowing the balloon up, and folding it back up at the end. Once the balloon is upright and full of hot air, we begin to mount into our equally weighted sections of the wicker basket, and then we’re up, up and away as the early morning darkness turns slowly into light. We gently float higher and higher above the magnificent panoramic views of the wineries and surrounding areas; it’s an overcast and drizzly morning but that takes nothing away from the beauty unfolding beneath us as we graze the treetops and beyond.

During the strange sensation of soaring through a cloud at 3,000 feet our pilot warns us to have cameras at the ready. We silently pop up above the clouds and suddenly we’ve left the drizzly day below. Our surrounds have been replaced with blue skies and a stunning sunrise, all open air from the wicker basket with no sound but the roar of the flame in our ears—it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

Back on solid ground we indulge in a champagne breakfast at Peterson House and chat excitedly about the flight, all in agreement that this is such a unique way to take in the spectacular sights from the ultimate vantage point.

Being one of Australia’s major wine growing regions, it’s a must to visit the vineyards to take a tour and sample some of the incredible wines. Head to McGuigan Cellar Door, on the corner of Broke and Mcdonalds Roads, and go on a journey to discover the complex ways each different wine is made and stored, then taste their award-winning products. Having won international winemaker of the year for a record fourth time, they know what they’re talking about when it comes to quality wines. Be sure to try their signature Black Label red, a personal favourite of mine, or the incredibly light Cellar Select pinot grigio, refreshingly perfect for that warm summer evening.

After sipping on wine at McGuigans, a relaxing afternoon might be just what the doctor ordered. Cypress Lakes Resort has you covered with its three swimming pools to lounge by in the sun—grab a book and laze the afternoon away. For those after something a bit more active, playing a few holes on the Championship Golf Course is the way to go, this perfectly manicured, 18-hole course is ranked among the top resort courses in Australia. I’m surprised by the amount of young people getting involved, an indication of the growing popularity of the sport.

After waking up in my huge, comfortable bed with the sunlight streaming in, I head to the buffet breakfast to relax into the morning. Serving everything from eggs, bacon, beans and grilled tomatoes with fetta, to croissants, pastries and fresh fruit, and even an espresso coffee machine, there’s something for everyone.

With a deliciously full stomach and my coffee fix, I set off on the trip back to Sydney. Driving past the picturesque vineyards outside my window, I reflect on a perfect weekend getaway combining relaxation, great food and delicious wine with just the right amount of that sky high adrenalin rush. I’ll definitely be back to the Hunter Valley for another weekend retreat.


Getting there
The Hunter Valley is a two-hour drive from Sydney. Hire a car with Avis, Budget or East Coast Car Rentals. avis.com.au, budget.com.au, eastcoastcarrentals.com.au

Where to stay
Oaks Cypress Lakes Resort: 15 Thompsons Road, Pokolbin. minorhotels.com

What to do
Peterson House: Broke Road and Wine Country Drive, Pokolbin. petersonhouse.com.au
Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop: 2188 Broke Road, Pokolbin. smellycheese.net.au
McGuigan Cellar Door: Corner of Broke and McDonalds Roads, Pokolbin. mcguiganwines.com.au
Hot Air Balloon with Oaks Cypress Lakes Resort. minorhotels.com

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