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Where Shall We Hop To Next?
Around Sydney

by Sarah Shuckburgh

After seeing Sydney's landmarks, check out the region's other attractions, writes
Sarah Shuckburgh.

You know you want to visit Sydney, and you know what you want to see - the bridge, the harbour, the Opera House, Bondi. . . But what about after Sydney? Before dashing off to Melbourne or the Barrier Reef, spare a thought for the city's hinterland, which has a superb medley of sights, landscapes and other attractions suitable for day trips, short excursions or longer itineraries. Below are 10 of the best, one or more of which could easily form part of a longer Australian tour, or keep you busy as part of a self-contained holiday devoted to Sydney and its environs.

1. Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains are an extraordinary mixture of impenetrable forests, canyons and waterfalls - and they really do look blue (something to do, they say, with the mist of eucalyptus oil that rises from the sun-drilled forests). Along the two-hour approach from the city - the congested Great Western Highway - there is an unappetising 50-mile sprawl of suburban ribbon development. The mountains are superb, however, particularly the National Park area - no wonder they have been declared a World Heritage Site.

Don't let the weekend crowds or occasional commercialism put you off. There are lots of pretty hotels and guesthouses - and plenty of boltholes where you'll find peace and quiet. The Three Sisters are the area's most celebrated natural features, reputedly a trio of Aborigine maidens turned to stone by a sorcerer. But for a real sense of the wilderness, head off with a guide and learn about bush tucker and the culture of the Aboriginal people who once lived in these seemingly inhospitable valleys. Contact Treadlightly Eco Tours (0061 02 4788 1229) or Cox's River Escapes (02 4784 1621). For more general information visit www.bluemountainstourism.org.au.

Among the many lovely places to stay, Lilianfels Hotel (www.lilianfels.com.au) near Katoomba is the most luxurious, and is widely considered one of Australia's best small hotels. Book in the UK through Orient Express (020 7805 5100). Or try Echoes (02 47 82 1966), also in Katoomba, a comfortable, stylish guesthouse with 12 rooms, all with wonderful views.

2. The Hunter Valley

The Hunter Valley is Australia's oldest and best-known wine region. The Lower Hunter region, two hours from Sydney, is a pretty area of colonial mansions and rolling farmland, with more than 80 vineyards. The Upper Hunter Valley, 50 miles west of Cessnock, the area's main centre and best base, has fewer vineyards, and fewer visitors. For an unhurried tasting, visit a vineyard near the sleepy town of Denham.

Vineyards in both regions welcome visitors and offer tastings of Semillon or Chardonnay white wines, and Pinot Noir or Shiraz reds. Pick up a map from Pokolbin or Cessnock. Avoid drinking and driving by taking a tour with Hunter Valley Day Tours (02 4938 5031) or Hunter Valley Tours (02 4991 1659). Alternatively, take a guided bicycle ride with Grapemobile (02 4991 2339), or pedal off unaccompanied. Consider watching the sun rise over the vineyards from a balloon with Balloon Aloft (1800 028568). The February Vintage Festival in Cessnock attracts huge crowds - visit midweek if you can.

For information, contact the Hunter Valley Tourist Office in Pokolbin (02 4990 4477) or Wine Country Tourism in Cessnock (02 4990 4477; www.winecountrycom.au).

3. Mudgee

To escape the tourists, visit Mudgee, an old country town between the Great Dividing Range and the vast plains of the Outback to the west. It's a short flight from Sydney, or four hours by road. Its main attractions are its wineries, which are smaller than the more corporate concerns of the Hunter Valley. Wines here used to be known as "Mudgee mud", but have improved greatly in recent years: Cabernets and Shiraz are good, and the best wineries to visit are Pieter Van Gent, Poet's Corner (with a fine restaurant), Miramar and Huntingdon Estate. The area is ideal for exploring by bike. Hire cycles, and pick up a vineyard map, from the tourist office (02 6372 1020; www.mudgeewine.com.au). The nicest place to stay is the Lauralla Historic Guesthouse (02 6372 4480; doubles from £45).

4. Whale watching

Each year in June and July, whales migrate up the New South Wales coast to the tropics, and between September and November they return to the Antarctic. Australia is now one of the world's leading whale-watching nations. Pods can often be seen from Sydney's ocean beaches and clifftops, but for a close-up view, a whale-watching cruise is best.

Out of Sydney, head for Eden, an historic whaling town, two and a half hours south of the city. A whaling festival is held here in October to coincide with the southerly migration. Or visit Montague Island near Narooma, two hours south of Sydney. It's great for seeing whales, but is worth a visit at any time of year - snorkelling and diving are good and fairy penguins nest here, along with many other seabirds. A couple of hours north of Sydney, Port Stephens also offers dolphin and whale watching, but is part of a rapidly developing resort.

5. Jenolan Caves

The earliest European visitor to these limestone caves about 25 miles west of the Blue Mountains National Park was an escaped convict. When he was tracked down in 1838, the surface caves were officially discovered and excursions to Australia's first tourist attraction began. Other caves were discovered during the late 19th century, and five more were found in 1904, including the colourful Temple of Baal with its 30-ft hanging shawl, the River Cave with its deep underground pools, and the Ribbon Cave with its fragile helictites. Other parts of the system remain unexplored.

A tolerable three-hour drive from Sydney and manmade tunnels make for comfortable caving - the main challenge is to escape the crowds: aim to arrive by 10am, and avoid weekends. Guided tours last about two hours, and vary in difficulty from easy to highly adventurous. Jenolan is also a good base for bush walks long and short, and marks the start of the Six Foot Track, which covers 26 undulating miles to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. Further information on the area from the Jenolan Caves Reserve Trust (02 6359 3311).

6. Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and Hawkesbury River

The peaceful Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park is little visited, despite being only 15 miles from the heart of Sydney. Ringed by water on three sides, its 60 miles of coastline boast calm, fjord-like inlets shimmering between densely wooded peninsulas. Dozens of spectacular walking trails wend through forest and over heath and open scrubland. One of these, the Basin Track, leads from the West Head road to the sparkling expanses of Pittwater, past Aboriginal engravings of whales, fish, wallabies and mythical characters, symbols of fertility and initiation. Another trail at the end of this peninsula takes you past caves with more Aboriginal images and down to a series of secluded beaches; then it climbs to the West Head lookout, where an astounding panorama opens up across Broken Bay and Barrenjoey Head to the ocean beyond.

You can also take a boat from Pittwater to Bobbin Head, a popular picnic spot, while nearby Palm Beach is one of northern Sydney's loveliest stretches of sand. Drive beside Coal and Candle Creek to Cottage Point for a delicious lunch of local fish at Cottage Point Inn (02 9456 1011), eaten as you gaze out across Cowan Water and the vast, uninhabited ridges beyond.

Immediately west of the park, the beautiful Hawkesbury river - an hour north of Sydney - flows between narrow and densely forested banks dotted with small settlements, and then opens into a series of tranquil bays and inlets before reaching the sea. The best way to explore the river is by boat - either hire your own from Berowra Waters or join a group: Wiseman Ferry Cruises (02 4575 5387) runs two-hour trips and provides picnic hampers.

Or you could board the superb Riverboat Postman mail boat (02 9985 7566) which sets off from Hawkesbury River station on a four-hour round trip every weekday morning.

Alternatively, charter a seaplane from Sydney (www.sydneybyseaplane.com) to fly you up the river, drop you at a waterside restaurant, and return later to pick you up.

Good lunch spots include Berowra Waters Restaurant (02 9456 1027), or Cottage Point (02 9456 1011) on Cowan Water. Rent a houseboat at several waterside villages, or stay in one of the 19th-century inns at Wiseman's Ferry or St Albans.

7. Southern Highlands

Two hours south-west of Sydney, the Southern Highlands have been a favourite weekend retreat for Sydneysiders since the 1920s. The area combines "English-style" villages, farmland and rugged wilderness and was one of the earliest inland European settlements. Nostalgia for the northern hemisphere lives on with "yuletide" celebrations in July. The region contains several huge national parks with opportunities for canoeing, riding, cycling and bushwalking.

Berrima and Bundanoon are good bases. Berrima, founded in 1829, preserves many original buildings, including the courthouse and jail, as well as the Surveyor General, which claims to be Australia's oldest inn. Bundanoon holds a festive Highlands Day in April, with kilts, highland games and Scottish dancing. Hire a cycle and pedal round nearby villages, admiring views over gorges and gullies. Bowral is essential for cricket fans: Sir Donald Bradman lived here and is remembered in the Bradman Museum.

If you approach the region from the coast, take the winding road over Cambewarra Mountain to the lakes and waterfalls of Kangaroo Valley, and on to Fitzroy Falls, past a landscape of steep, forested escarpments.

8. Royal National Park

This park protects the spectacular coastline 20 miles south of Sydney, where creeks and waterfalls cut through steep cliffs, a view you can enjoy from the scenic Sydney to Wollongong railway. Trails run from many of the small stations en route, though the key hike is the 16-mile Coastal Walk path, one of Australia's most dramatic walks. An easier option is to drive from Sydney to the beautiful Garie beach and then walk south past Era and South Era beaches to the remote and romantic Burning Palms beach, which is accessible only on foot or by boat. As well as hiking and biking trails, you can row or canoe on the picturesque Hacking River. Hire bikes and boats from the visitor centre in Audley. Seasonal changes here are wonderful: in May and June you may see whales off shore, while in October the park is covered with spring flowers.

9. Central Coast

The Central Coast combines the best and worst of Australia. It has fine surfing beaches, tranquil lakes and protected forests - but also miles of uncontrolled suburban sprawl. Its string of coastal lakes and inland waterways starts where Sydney's northern suburbs stop, and where the Hawkesbury River meets the shimmering estuary of Broken Bay. Visit "The Entrance", a lovely spot where lakes meet the sea, to see pelicans and to fish or hire boats.

Lake Macquarie is the largest saltwater lake in NSW, four times the size of Sydney harbour, but much of the shoreline, sadly, is developed. Quieter retreats include Pearl Beach, a pleasant resort, and the more jaunty Terrigal, which buzzes with activity and surfers.

West of the lakes, the forested Watagan Mountains embrace 12 national parks, with plenty of walking trails, while to the north is Newcastle, NSW's second largest city and the region's northern limit. Like its British namesake, it is a former blue- and black-collar town, with a mining history, but it is worth a visit, with its surfing beaches and thriving artistic and musical communities. It's also a possible base for the Hunter Valley. For further information on the region, visit www.cctourism.com.au.

10. Illawarra Coast

The Illawarra Coast stretches south from the Royal National Park to the Shoalhaven River, and has spectacular beaches beneath massive cliffs, and an unspoilt hinterland of rainforest and waterfalls. All along the coast you'll find fine surfing beaches and vantage points for spotting migrating whales. Driving south, avoid the freeway and take the smaller Route 68 which, like the railway, hugs the coast all the way to Wollongong.

Wollongong is NSW's third-largest city, but despite its industrial sprawl, it has a relaxed feel, with working fishing boats in the harbour and some good seafood restaurants. The city is backed by the lush Illawarra escarpment, which provides spectacular views.

To the south, Lake Illawarra is popular for water sports. Nearby Shellharbour, one of the region's oldest towns, was a thriving port in 1830 and is now a busy holiday resort. Farther south, Kiama has seaside cafes and craft shops, and you can admire its dramatic blowhole. The inland town of Jamberoo, with its many historic farmhouses, hosts a folk festival in March, with music, poetry, bush dances and yarn spinning.

First published by the Telegraph
İSarahShuckburgh

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