Gateway to the Hunter | A Weekend in Maitland

You ever had a crush on someone but they only ever paid attention to your sibling or close friend, as if you didn’t even exist in their eyes? Oh. Me neither – I never grew up in a TV drama and I sure hope you didn’t either. But perhaps that’s how the people of Maitland felt: the Hunter Wine Region 40 minutes to the left, the coastal city of Newcastle 40 minutes to the right, with Maitland having neither the former’s reputation for wine nor the latter’s beaches and harbour lifestyle. Who’s heard of it? Who’s been? What’s a tumbleweed?

When you’re the proverbial Malcolm in the literal Middle, leverage your strengths to stand out. In recent times, Maitland has taken tourism a lot more seriously, splashing cash on the Make it Maitland campaign and kicking #MyMaitland. With rich history in its favour, an up-and-coming food scene and a creative community that punches well above its weight, it’s beginning to become a serious contender to replace – or at least supplement – a traveller’s trip to what would otherwise only be its neighbours.

Date of trip: 16/Aug/2019 – 18/Aug/2019

The historic Maitland Post Office

Given Maitland’s rising tourism star, Destination NSW, in conjunction with Maitland City invited us on a largely-sponsored trip to Maitland and its surrounds for three days/two nights. It’s no secret that while I love to travel big, going off the beaten path is one of the more low-key joys – and this quaint town was just the weekend getaway ticket.

The drive to Maitland: 100% scenic

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Table of Contents

Day 1

JERF Cafe
Bronte Boutique Hotel
Morpeth
Donarch Fine Chocolates
The Rigby

We started our trip with a quick breakfast at my favourite cafe in Sydney (completely unrelated to the trip, and thus obviously not sponsored). After eating way, too, much, the realisation that we may have shot ourselves in the foot dawned on us a few bites of pasta too many.

I’m pretty sure that was the last time we felt hungry on the entire trip.

Helpfully, the elements stepped in, stoking up a bushfire right next to the Pacific Highway near Dora Creek just as we were approaching. The result? A parking lot along the M1 for nearly two hours. This meant that our stomachs could make a token effort at digesting some of the earlier eating, clearing room for…

JERF Cafe

Disclaimer note: we dined as a guest of Destination NSW to a pre-agreed amount, settling a small shortfall out-of-pocket.

The gigantic ‘BOTANICA 100% ORGANIC FAIRTRADE COFFEE’ barriers and umbrellas don’t give much confidence. While the look is undeniably generic, the dishes that come out of JERF Cafe’s kitchen are anything but. With a specific focus on catering for intolerances, allergies and dietary preferences, JERF’s appeal is broader than most. Given we were still reeling from Cavalier, we took it easy on the ordering: where a ‘light lunch’ still meant a wicked thick banoffee smoothie w/coconut milk & cream and house-made salted caramel, a cashew naan pizza w/Moroccan sweet potato & cashew sour cream, and ‘pumpkin & toast’ with cashew cheese & hummus.

Those living the vego/vegan life will know these ingredients well – particularly the multitude of ways in spinning cashew and coconut. I wouldn’t want to eat this kind of stuff every day, but I can say that for almost anything, really. Perhaps because JERF does it so well, these dishes were all delicious. With a full menu that caters to meat-eaters also, omnivores aren’t left out either – so if you can’t subscribe to a V-lifestyle, JERF won’t leave you hanging.

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Bronte Boutique Hotel

Disclaimer note: We stayed as a guest of Destination NSW under a bed & breakfast package.

The town of Maitland itself is technically just one part of the greater Maitland Council area, which includes the nearby towns of Lorn, Morpeth and Tenambit to name a few. While we were expecting to be lodged in Maitland, Destination NSW recommended us the 4-star Bronte Boutique Hotel, located directly on Morpeth’s main street. When we took in the hotel’s boutique charms and understated luxury appointments, I realised that the reason was simple: it’s probably the best hotel in the region.

In classic Maitland style, a history lesson: before its current incarnation as boutique accommodation, the Bronte was the house of Caleb Soul, the very man himself who, along with Lewy Pattinson, started the Washington Soul Pattinson chain of pharmacies and arguably the most successful listed investment company now on the ASX. A legacy that any self-respecting investor of Aussie shares knows – and the Bronte was a part of it.

As we were booked under a B&B package, breakfast is served at the terrace.

As a hotel, it’s a delightfully eclectic place: Victorian antiques, Asian art, boudoir undertones. It’s hard to put a finger on the property’s style; the owner must be well off, for this screams ‘fun pet project’. As such, the stay was inevitably a good one.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. While the hotel only has 6 rooms and thus will never seem busy, the wooden floorboards meant that footsteps – infrequent as they may be – were a creaky cacophony, and the carpet’s colour and state meant that it was hard not to notice that it’s seen better days.

You can book the Bronte Boutique Hotel here.

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Morpeth

Morpeth looks every bit the poster child of a regional town steeped in the past. Originally the ‘Gateway to the Hunter’, Morpeth (and Maitland, more generally) played a key role in facilitating trade and expansion into the Greater Hunter region back when there were no inland roads from Sydney (can you imagine???). Back then, boating in supplies from Newcastle was the done thing.

I’d be lying if I said there’s plenty here to keep you occupied. Pretty much everything worth a gander is located on the main street: Morpeth Sourdough (more on this in day 3), the historic Campbell’s Store & Ginger Beer Factory, but most of all, the bucolic surroundings completed by the Hunter River.

A beautiful Morpeth sunset

Then again, not doing much in beautiful surroundings is the point of a weekend getaway. On that, Morpeth delivers in spades.

Not one of my finer moments

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Donarch Fine Chocolates

Disclaimer note: we were treated to a complimentary chocolate tasting, and independently paid for various chocolates to take away.

There’s always that one random artisan chocolatier for every regional district. In Maitland, that’s Donna Archer, of Donarch Fine Chocolates. And while seemingly random, she’s the best. The story goes that one day, she was craving raspberry chocolate, but couldn’t find one that suited her tastes, nor were any made from real raspberries. So she took it upon herself, using Callebaut & Cacao Barry (technically Barry Callebaut but I digress) – AKA the good stuff – to produce a ‘raspberry heart’ that went on to win two gold awards. Obviously, Donna’s use of fresh ingredients plays a big part in this – the honey chocolates, for example, are made from bees she keeps herself (to me that’s crazy deserving of respect), and all fruit-included chocolates use 100% bona fide product.

Here’s the kicker: those fancy, artsy chocolate shells? Hand-painted. There’s a reason they’re $2.5 a pop. For me, it wasn’t even a question shelling out $40 for a box…and a few milk choc honeycombs…and a few dark choc disks. Suffice to say, didn’t get much change from a watermelon.

I’ll say it again: the best chocolates in the entire Hunter Wine Region.

Too good not to take back home!

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The Rigby

Disclaimer note: we dined as a guest of Destination NSW to a pre-agreed amount. A small shortfall was then paid out-of-pocket.

The Rigby

Self-described as a Melbourne-style wine bar, The Rigby – cafe by day, bar-restaurant by night – makes the most of the 1870s heritage building in which it resides. It’s full of character, a lovely space to be in whether seated at the casual-but-plush lounge area for a couple of tipples, or in the restaurant space for a full-blown dinner.

The father-and-son team run a slick operation: the ambience is spot-on (even if at the same time it’s the bane of food photographers), the service effective, and other than a particularly bland side of beans that really shouldn’t have been, the food was delicious.

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Day 2

Icky Sticky Patisserie
Coquun
Fratelli Roma

Icky Sticky Patisserie

Disclaimer note: we were treated to a sampler of 8 pastries/cakes including drinks, courtesy of Destination NSW. We then bought a set of pastries to take home.

I knew we were in for something good, when on day 1, the Instagram Direct Messages began pouring in from followers telling/asking/hoping/imploring us to visit Icky Sticky Patisserie. Before this, I expected a good – though possibly mediocre – regional pastry shop. After the opinion crowdsourcing? I got my hopes up.

Well, notwithstanding the fact that I’m obligated to write about it (hahaha), I would have done so anyway. The pastries out of this kitchen are nothing short of exceptional. The SO, herself a baker – and with a far more sensitive palate than I – opined that Icky Sticky’s cakes are on par with the best Sydney has to offer, with the viennoiseries coming close. They were crunchy, flakey & buttery, while mousses were light and airy, chocolates rich and creamy, and tart bases satisfyingly friable. The skill was evident, sugar levels low, and satisfaction levels oh so high.

On the feel-good front, they use local produce where they can, with only ethical free-range eggs. Worth writing home? Come on – don’t just write home, bring home.

You bet we brought home alright

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Coquun

Disclaimer note: we dined as a guest of Destination NSW to a pre-agreed amount. A small shortfall was then covered courtesy of Coquun’s generosity.

One of Maitland’s newer food destinations, Coquun is a bit of a do-it-all: cafe, restaurant, small cafe, and deli – depending on the when, and where you visit in its multifunctional space. It makes the most of the architecturally-designed Riverlink Building in which it’s situated, and with the stunning Hunter River framing its backdrop, the restaurant is quite easily the most gorgeous in the land.

In the language of the traditional custodians of the land – the Wonnarua People – Coquun means ‘fresh water’, and is one of the original names for the Hunter River. The tie-in is not a coincidence: Coquun pays homage to the soil on which it rests and the people who are its original custodians. Yes, this is, to use an imperfect analogy, a baby Orana. In naming the restaurant after a Wonnarua word, owner Daniel O’Leary (also part-owner of Redfern small bar The Dock) makes it clear that Coquun takes inspiration directly from the ‘native food bowl’. Produce is obviously local, ingredients quintessentially Australian, and menu items are marked with Wonnarua words: karay means meat; makurr fish, and kukirr house.

And the food sings. Not in the experimental – or challenging – way as you’d find at Jock Zonfrillo’s fine diner, but given its bistro setting and price point, it shouldn’t be – Coquun was always meant to be accessible. What it should be is delicious, and to not mince words: it sets a new bar for dining in the area. I wouldn’t be surprised if Coquun earned itself a regional chef’s hat down the line, as it becomes more discovered.

The Hunter River AKA the view out from Coquun.

I used the term ‘food destination’ to describe Coquun. A deliberate choice, for if a single restaurant could distract a traveller intent on visiting the Hunter and its fair share of excellent dining, it would be Coquun.

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Fratelli Roma

Disclaimer note: we dined as a guest of Destination NSW to a pre-agreed amount. A small shortfall was then covered courtesy of Fratelli Roma’s generosity.

Fratelli Roma

What’s your favourite Italian restaurant? Let me guess: probably a local, husband-and-wife operation, one you’d consider your own ‘hidden gem’? A reasonably-priced menu, modest decor, and things made from scratch – not in a factory?

Fratelli Roma is exactly that for Maitland’s residents – and any inquisitive foodies. Co-owners Daniel & Christine make the most of the humble space, serving pasta and gnocchi made daily from scratch. There’s probably a bit of love in there too, whatever that actually means: coz wew, nothing was compromised in making that pasta. Textbook-perfect, but served with unfussy presentation – as if it were your proverbial nonna behind the pots and pans. A highlight-worthy of its reputation: yes, the Instagram messages came coming in for this little number as well.

Guess it wasn’t really a hidden gem after all. Just a gem.

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Day 3

Cunning Culinarian
Morpeth Sourdough
Maitland Gaol
Seraphine Cafe & MRAG

Cunning Culinarian

Disclaimer note: we dined as a guest of Destination NSW to a pre-agreed amount. A small shortfall was then covered, courtesy of the Cunning Culinarian’s generosity.

Our last day in Maitland kicked off with a breakfast at The Cunning Culinarian, a lovely – some would describe it as ‘cute’ – cafe with expansive, kid-friendly seating areas and coffee by The Little Marionette.

The food is self-described as rustic, though I’d also probably also have to add mediocre to the adjectives list. Being my usual frank myself, this was the one food experience on the trip that didn’t hit the mark. It’s a bit of everything really: portion sizes were overly generous, presentations were well-intended but unworkable, and the food itself was typical at best.

Excellent coffee. The chai is okay.

An instance of the ‘unimpressive cafe’ stereotype? Afraid so, based on this one limited data point. While the food may not have wowed, the coffee certainly impressed: it’s the best one I had on the trip.

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Morpeth Sourdough

Disclaimer note: Destination NSW recommended Morpeth Sourdough as a destination; however, we bought its products with our own money.

The historic Arnott Bakery, where it all started

William Arnott ought to ring a bell or two: after all, it’s quite possible that no other name adorns as many products in the snacks aisle than the Arnott’s brand. While no longer an Australian business, its origin story is down under, and it all started when William and his brother David started the original business at the bakehouse in the 1850s, now called the Historic Arnott Bakehouse. It is said that the heritage-listed building is home to the oldest remaining wood-fired Scotch oven in the Southern Hemisphere.

It’s perhaps fitting and a return to form that the current business-in-residence is another bakery. But here’s the ‘holy sh*t’, ‘I’m not making this up’ part: the founder/owner of Morpeth Sourdough? None other than William Arnott’s great-great-great-grandson, Stephen Arnott. In 2001 he visited the then run-down site, felt his blood stir – destiny, he called it – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Stephen Arnott

A visit to Morpeth is not complete without taking home one of its loaves!

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Maitland Gaol

Disclaimer note: Destination NSW comp’d us the cost of an Escapes Day Tour.

Usually, when people visit gaols*, it’s not for the best of reasons. Well, now that this most notorious of prisons ceased operating some years ago, you won’t have to worry about your own prison break, and instead hear the tales of others that have tried.

Maitland Gaol – like the region its in – is full of history. 150 years of it, in fact. It would have been a shame if the place was closed off forever, which is exactly what didn’t happen. Now, the gaol is one of Maitland’s biggest attractions, with an all-year program of events, tours and other activities – and yes, I’m actually linking the brochure as the event roster is genuinely impressive, many of which are family-friendly. We were treated to an Escapes Day Tour, which is a guided excursion of the gaol’s facilities, made immensely engaging by virtue of our guide regaling us with some of the gaol inmate’s more daring escape attempts. Spoiler alert: it was a great gaol – successful escapes were few and far in between.

Who’d have thought going to gaol would be on anyone’s wish list?

*UK/US English speakers, in case you’re scratching your head right now: this is how we spell jail. Don’t ask – I didn’t invent AU English!

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Seraphine Cafe & Maitland Regional Art Gallery (MRAG)

Disclaimer note: we dined as a guest of Destination NSW to a pre-agreed amount. A small shortfall was then covered by the cafe. Entry to MRAG is free.

The MRAG lobby

Maitland’s not just for the history or the food – I didn’t even mention the markets – art buffs will find plenty to like at the Maitland Regional Art Gallery (MRAG). It’s a multi-use space: exhibition, retail and the Seraphine Cafe. MRAG also hosts design markets, though it wasn’t running while we were there.

I’m no aesthete, but even I can appreciate creative works while I burn off the calories ingested from Seraphine Cafe. I admit I didn’t think a gallery-adjunct cafe could be any better than serviceable; I underestimated. The food is a bit predictable, but the dishes manage to stray from the norm just enough to be interesting, and most importantly, everything was cooked ‘correctly’, and flavours were satisfying. Don’t skip the chips – golly, they’re a must.

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#MyMaitland

When I initially told people I was headed to Maitland courtesy of Destination NSW, variants of ‘where?’ and ‘why?’ were the most common responses. Understandable. It’s a destination that’s for too long been overlooked for its more famous neighbours. For yours truly, this was particularly true: it was after ten visits to the Hunter Wine Region and four to Newcastle, and it still took an invitation from Destination NSW for me to be even aware of Maitland’s existence. I know I shouldn’t be sorry for this – fermented grape juice commands a strong marketing budget and if it comes to coast vs hinterland, coast usually wins.

Not any more for this town. If it were even for a short amount of time, Maitland deserves the attention – and that it manages to do so without the allure of alcohol makes it all the more impressive. The buildings, richly-imbued with their own stories, restaurants like Coquun that bring out the flavour of the land on which it sits, and the agrestic atmosphere of the region means it’s the kind of getaway that makes few demands. And hey, the Hunter is only 40 minutes away.

Want a taste of life in the slow lane? Find out more here.

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