Friday, 17 July 2020

The 20+ best things to do in Maitland, NSW

Maitland is a city nestled in the Lower Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest wine region and renowned for its iconic Semillions. It’s the perfect base for a couples weekend getaway with its blossoming cafe culture, local artisan producers, picturesque heritage villages and fine dining.

Morpeth Common

Where is Maitland

One of the things that makes Maitland so attractive as a weekend escape is how quick it is to get here. Yet once you arrive you feel like you’re a million miles away from the bustle and stresses of the city.

It’s only a 2-hour drive out of central Sydney, a quick and easy escape for Sydneysiders but we found its location surprising fast and simple to access from other major Australian cities along the east coast. Our flight in from Brisbane to Newcastle was just under 90 minutes followed by a leisurely 30-minute drive through to Maitland.

An interactive map of Maitland

20 Things to do in Maitland

With its relaxed country feel, well-preserved history, exception foodie culture and proximity to the wine region there’s a lot to enjoy about this part of the Hunter Valley.

For some of the best dining in the region check out our review of Maitland’s fabulous restaurants and cafes

1. Maitland heritage walk

Maitland has been settled and farmed since the early 1800s and was proclaimed in 1835. Many of the buildings in town date back to that period and the city has put together an excellent Maitland heritage walking map to see them and learn more.

Historic buildings in central Maitland on the heritage trail

There are 3 maps in total and any of them would be an excellent option to do. It’s easy walking and some fabulous buildings. I’ll link the East Maitland Walking Map and Morpeth Walking Map in case those take your fancy too. Personally we absolutely loved Morpeth and you need to do something active between eating and drinking I suppose.


2. Explore by bicycle

The area is well set up to explore by bicycle, whether these are available to borrow at your accommodation or you bring your own. Morpeth has a gentle gradient and quiet streets that are perfect to cycle into the town, the cafes and around the heritage trail if you are staying locally.

In Maitland they have a few extra options, there is a wide shared pathway around Maitland Park and along the Hunter River the shared path provides a scenic ride away from the busier city streets. If you stop in at the Levee and other spots around town we also noticed bike parking was available.

You can download a cycle map of the on and off-road options from the Council website.


3. Find your perfect hideaway

As nice as it is to get out and explore, it’s sometimes just as nice to take a bit of time to relax, unplug and enjoy time together. There is a range of welcoming, peaceful and cozy places to base yourself in the area but Morpeth is our pick, still convenient to central Maitland but smaller with a peaceful, relaxed and friendly vibe.

Patio outside The Villa in Morpeth

We loved the guesthouse at the historic Kia Ora Villa, known simply as The Villa for our couples retreat. The old stables have had a complete and classy makeover creating an intimate but well appointed hideaway. It has all the little extras you could want, a great location opposite Morpeth Common, a deep clawfoot bath for some pamper time. indoor and outdoor space to relax and the MOST comfortable bed. They also provide an excellent breakfast basket of goodies for a relaxed start to the day.

Another top option is the Bronte Boutique Hotel right in the heart of Morpeth. The period building is just across the road from the river and almost opposite Common Grounds, our favourite Morpeth cafe. The heritage property was once the home of pharmacy mogul, Soul Patterson and is tastefully decorated. There are cozy guest lounges available to relax and breakfast is served on the terrace overlooking the street.

See other accommodation options in Maitland and Morpeth


4. Hunter Valley Wineries

Maitland is nestled within the Hunter Valley and only a 30-minute drive from the heart of the wine region. As Australia’s oldest wine region it is best known for Semillion but it also produces some excellent classic shiraz alongside a range of newer styles which are well worth experimenting with.

Hunter valley vineyard

You can join a tour or plan out your own route through the vineyards. Tyrrells is often considered a must having been established in the Hunter Valley since 1858 and winning many awards during the years, make sure to try the Tyrells HVD Semillion produced from a block of vines planted here in 1908.

Some smaller and lesser known operators are equally interesting such as Lisa McGuigan Wines. As a 4th generation Hunter Valley winemaker she has the pedigree of success but isn’t afraid to move from her comfort zone to explore the wines she loves and I have to say the Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris from here are excellent.


5. Walk the Riverfront

The Hunter River runs through both Morpeth and Maitland but the best opportunity to spend some time alongside this important river is behind the Levee in Maitland. You can always sit in one of the restaurants and bars such as Coquuin that offer a fantastic view, grab a coffee to go from a convenient spot like The Bikesmith and Espresso and sit out at the public tables or walk off some of the indulgences of the weekend along the riverfront.

Walkway along the Hunter River behind the Levee, Maitland

The shared pathway runs riverside from the Belmore Road bridge behind the Levee through to Hunter Street.

The Hunter River is important in the history of the area. It brought the communities or Maitland and Morpeth into existence with boats bringing people and supplies from Sydney as early as the 1820s. By the same token as those that live in river cities know only too well, rivers are constantly changing and evolving and flooding is a constant threat.

Long before European settlement, the traditional landowners, the Wonnarua people, told a story of a spirit that created the rivers and hills. It would be fascinating to hear the full version of the story as a prehistoric event really did create the Hunter as we know it today.

Back in Gondwana, some 180 million years ago, the continent was flat and the rivers ran from east to west, when the Great Dividing Range formed the river systems changed dramatically. Archaeologists believe there is strong evidence that the Hunter River that flows from west to east did once run in the opposite direction.


6. Morpeth Museum

The museum is housed in the old Morpeth Courthouse constructed in 1863 and holds a fascinating history of the area. While Morpeth is a small town today back in 1860 it was the 19th largest in the colony.

Morpeth museum is located in the old courthouse

The courtroom setting looks much as it did the last time it was used and all of the rest of the space and rooms have been filled with memorabilia and stories from what was once the major river port of the Hunter Valley and surrounding districts.

The friendly and knowledgable volunteers make the museum well worth the gold coin entry fee.


7. Maitland Regional Art Gallery

The gorgeous building that houses the Maitland Regional Art Gallery is quite the features in itself. On the outside, the 1910 front facade and rear building dating from 1912 were joined together in 2009 to create the fabulous artspace they have today. Inside is warm brick with wooden floor, natural light, exposed industrial features and dark panels with polished concrete. Each sections collection making the most of the gallery features.

Inside Maitlands Regional Art Gallery

The art draws from all disciplines and mixed media but one of the displays we loved the most during our visit was a collaboration with 7 local high schools titled ‘Stories from Wonnarua Country’.


8. Street Art

Given the prevalence of heritage buildings, street art murals aren’t a significant feature of the city but there are a few good pieces to keep a watch out for as you move around the city and side streets.

I have to admit falling in love with this one between the fantasy style red trees and the adorable owl. You’ll find it on the walk through between The Levee and the river.


9. Ancestors to the Tim Tam were baked here

Hands up if you’re a fan of the Arnotts Tim Tam? We now know even Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister is!

If you wander down the picturesque main street of Morpeth you’ll notice one particular building undergoing some TLC, this heritage building was for a time the Arnotts bakery.

William Arnott, a baker and confectioner came from Scotland and settled Morpeth in 1847 where he began baking sourdough bread. In 1865 he began baking biscuits and cakes and the rest as they say is history over 150 years later.

Down the back of the Morpeth property is what is thought to be the oldest Scotch oven remaining in the southern hemisphere and now his great great great grandson Stephen bakes sourdough in the same Morpeth bakery.

The building wasn’t at it’s picturesque best when we visited being covered in scaffold and safety tape. Being deemed in danger of collapse the family and NSW Government are working together to preserve it. I can’t wait to check in again and get a loaf the next time we are down that way.


10. Watch the sunrise or set

With spending so much time on the coast you get used to having either a good sunrise or sunset, depending on where you are. The beauty of a relatively flat rural area is that whether you’re an early bird or a night owl you can enjoy natures beautiful display, especially if you are visiting at a slightly cooler time of year the colours are even better.

Sun rise from Morpeth Common

This one was taken on an early morning spring walk through Morpeth Common but views down by the river, across the old bridge or capturing the golden light on the heritage buildings also make the most of the soft light.


11. Head to Icky Sticky Patisserie

If an early start has you feeling peckish then the team at Icky Sticky open up from 7.30am. Based in Lorn, a suburb between central Maitland and Morpeth they are clearly loved by their local community who visit in a constant stream.

You can pick the out-of-towners like us who stare in wonder at the cabinet and keep moving back in the line unable to make a decision. We’re only partially helped by the friendly locals many of whom suggest their own favourites that must be tried and which fully cover the spectrum in front of us.

Cakes at Icky Sticky Patisserie

It’s run by husband and wife team, Phillip and Jessica together with their locally trained team.

Phillip and Jessica are a husband and wife team who brought together their significant skills, food memories from their extensive travels and quality ingredients, to create incredible patisserie delicacies here in Lorn, a suburb of Maitland. They clearly get great support from their local community dropping by to stock up but there was a significant portion who were clearly willing to travel a fair way for these wares.

I’m going to say to head here for the best pastries you’ll find in the Southern Hemisphere, and I know someone will argue but just don’t unless you have actually been there.


12. Sip on a craft beer in Morpeth

You’re in the Hunter Valley after all so wine is a popular choice but the beer drinkers aren’t forgotten and there are some great craft brews available. The old Commercial Hotel is home to Morpeth Brewery a microbrewery that holds true to artisan principles using the best quality ingredients and no additives of preservatives to deliver the best possible flavour.

Commercial hotel and Morpeth Brewery heritage building

You can view the brewery through a glass panel inside the pub and on weekend afternoons they have tasting sessions. At other times you can always taste the latest brews on tap.


13. Ponder what the heck is Indian Root?

You’ll no doubt pass the massive painted barn bearing the Indian Root advert multiple times during your stay in the area. It’s hard to miss but if it’s your first time passing you wouldn’t be the first to wonder what the heck is Indian Root.

Highly recognised barn in Morpeth on big advert for Indian Root pills

Normally no one would care about massive billboard but this one is a little different. The product was a medicinal tonic marketed from 1854 and hasn’t been sold for decades. The barn though was such a fun mix of street art and history that a group from the area got together and received permission to restore the faded slogan to it’s former glory. I suspect this is probably one of the most recognised barns in Australia.


14. Sip, shop or generally pass some time at The Levee

In the heart of town is The Levee, a shared zone (cars and pedestrians) that is the city’s a commercial, retail and restaurant precinct. Situated on the banks of the Hunter River there is usually got something going on down here and if you walk around behind the shops you’ll find restaurants, a walking path and an attractive place to sit above the river.

Twice a month on a Thursday the slow food earth market is held here selling produce that is fresh, local, seasonal, clean and at a price that is fair to the consumer and sustainable to the producers.


15. Take a heritage tour at the Maitland Gaol

The Maitland Gaol operated from 1848 -1998 in a different time of incarceration and expectation of rehabilitation. Today it is open to visitors either independently, with an audio tour through their app or on a guided tour. We highly recommend joining one of the guided tours that run fairly frequently throughout the day.

Entrance to the historic Maitland Gaol

We did the Escapees tour and our guide was fantastic really bringing the place to life with her energy and the detail in her stories.


16. Cross the historic Morpeth Bridge

Running parallel to the main street in the heritage town of Morpeth is the Hunter River crossed by the historic Morpeth Bridge. It’s an operational vehicle crossing built on timber trestels with an iron span support that was opened in 1898.

The heritage Morpeth Bridge over the Hunter River

They could never have imagined the size or quantity of traffic that would flow over it at the time it was designed but fortunately it was built to last. The seating area of the Common Grounds cafe has a great view of the river and bridge. It’s wide opening windows and great food make it the perfect place for lunch on a sunny afternoon.


17. Try the Farmers Wife’s Gin

I first tried this delightful craft gin sitting in Daniel O’Leary’s Coquun restaurant overlooking the Levee. It was simply adorned with a tangy quandong, a sweet and tangy fruit from the native food bowl as most of the innovative fresh and local menu is.

The Farmers Wifes craft autumn gin surrounded by botanicals

The Farmers Wife craft gin has won silver in London and I subsequently discovered it could be purchased at the Morpeth bottle store along with a vast selection of local Hunter Valley wines.

The current autumn range is a dry London style gin with its distinctive juniper layered with uniquely Australian and other surprise botanicals. You might detect lemon myrtle and tangy kaffir lime, the zing of pepper berry, native sage and the mellowing effect of honey.

If you feel like a short drive it’s around 40 minutes from Morpeth to the distillery door on Buckett’s Way and you can pre-arrange a tour and tasting Kylie.


18. Shop for a tasty gift or your next chocolate fix at Donarch Fine Chocolates

When you can combine art and chocolate everything is right with the world. Donna Archer here at Donarch has a passion for chocolate making that drew here to take a class at one of our other favourite chocolate spots, Josephan’s in the township of Leura in the Blue Mountains.

Donarch fine chocolate hand painted raspberry heart

From there fate took over and this little masterpiece, the raspberry swirled heart won gold as her first Royal Sydney show entry. And yes it tastes as good as it looks!

The store looks classy but understated from the outside, a chocolate store in our Australian climate can’t have a display window but inside it is lined with shelves and display cabinets of exquisite chocolates. We, of course, make a beeline for the counter where the fresh handmade chocolates live.

Handmade chocolates like these don’t have the shelf life of commercial boxed chocolates, they use top quality fresh ingredients and need to be stored and enjoyed with love and appreciation.

If pushed to pick a favourite it is difficult, these raspberry hearts have to be in the mix, they really are divine and we do eat with our eyes too. They make a strong appearance in the box we put together to take home and share with friends. On balance though it’s one that pushes the boundaries that nudges into the lead. A salted caramel filled chocolate that gives more than a nod to the ‘salted’ in its name. The perfection of the balance is what does it, at first hit you’re almost ready to say they have it wrong, the salt is too sharp but it’s only a split second then the chocolate and caramel warm and meld with it creating a balance that is truly is perfection.

You can find Donarch Fine Chocolates at 49 Maize St, Tenambit, NSW


19. Grab the makings of a picnic and head for a local park

We stayed at the Kia Ora Villa (I’ll share some more information down below) and it came complete with a picnic blanket and basket and each morning a beautifully wrapped basket of goodies for breakfast. This one had croissants, ham, swiss cheese and tomatoes plus locally made chocolate, fruit, nuts and extra capsules for the coffee machine. It would make an ideal picnic at one of the rural parks like Morpeth Common which was just across the road.

Our beautifully wrapped breakfast basket at Kia Ora Villa in Morpeth

If you don’t have the makings of a picnic in your room it’s still easy to find some fantastic staples in the local deli’s, bakeries and shops. Actually that could also be an excellent excuse to head back on out to Icky Sticky Patisserie for a few treats.


20. Get your fix of really excellent coffee

I have to admit to a kind of coffee crawl during our time in Maitland, the local baristas really know their stuff. We just kept finding one excellent spot after another. Alina at the Cunning Culinarian is a great example, it was so interesting to talk to about her search for the right roasting partner for their business and the convoluted path that brought her and her team together with craft roasters, the Little Marionette Coffee from Sydney West.

Bobs hand drawn Maitland Coffee map

She wasn’t alone though and when we popped into an artisan leather shop in town we got talking to Bob and he shared a copy of his fabulous hand drawn coffee map and a few of his personal favourites. Several of which we’d already wandered into and a few more joined the list. It’s OK though because I guarantee I’m going back.


Where to stay in Maitland

There is a good variety of boutique and mainstream accommodation options spread across the area but we stayed in Morpeth at a great little property called ‘the Villa‘. The guest accommodation is in the old stables at Kiora (Kia Ora) Villa that has been lovingly restored and now tastefully fitted out by Chris and Kerrie making the ideal couples hideaway for a few days.

From outside the guest accommodation at The Villa in Morpeth

The Villa is on high street in Morpeth directly opposite Morpeth Common, a lovely spot for a walk or to relax with the picnic rug and hamper from the room. It’s also an easy mostly flat walk from the main shopping and dining street of Morpeth.

It’s tastefully fitted out with many interesting collectables and items to make for an easy and comfortable stay.

Lounge area inside The Villa guest house
Inside the sudiio guest house at The Villa

I still can’t decide if the favourite feature was the deep and relaxing claw foot bath or the incredibly comfortable bed. This Morpeth hideaway is an ideal spot for some together time in beautiful surroundings.

Claw foot bath at The Villa, Morpeth

Being half Kiwi’s we were particularly taken with the heritage of the property that hosted the first touring All Black team to Australia during their 1903 tour and it takes its name from the Maori greeting, ‘Kia Ora’.

The Villa Morpeth

Check prices and availability at The Villa in Morpeth

Where to eat in Maitland

Perhaps this should be at the top because the food culture in Morpeth and Maitland was so good we have an entire article dedicated to the best restaurants and cafes, if you are headed that way you really should check it out, there are some stellar spots that you won’t want to miss. These are just a few to get you started!

The coffee game is strong here, so is actively pairing the dishes with Hunter Valley wines and using the fresh and best local produce. You really feel that this is a foodie community that supports it’s own and it’s no wonder when the quality is exceptional.

You’ve got cafes like the Cunning Culinarian where Alina and her team have created a beautiful and delicious space. You won’t find many cafe owners who put as much thought and research into their coffee partner as Alina has and they certainly do the roasters, Little Marionette Coffee, proud with every cup.

Through in Morpeth you’ve got options like Common Grounds positioned up above the river with airy open windows and a delicious menu. They have a good selection of gluten free and vegan choices and their organic chai is absolutely delicious.

For dinner you’ll hope you’ve booked at least a couple of nights because having to choose could bring on a big dose of FOMO. Two experiences you absolutely must include are Coquun and The Rigby.

Coquun’s menu is stunning and unique, I highly recommend the degustation as a way to try the diverse flavours and inspired combinations. The menu draws inspiration from ingredients found in the native food bowl and has a strong commitment to local suppliers and produce.

The Rigby also manages to encapsulate the local ingredients and producers in their menu and the dishes are simply delicious. Drew and I have a bit of a game picking a winner between us on what we ordered for each course, the deciding factor is usually small but honestly, we just couldn’t that night.

If you aren’t limited in your choices I’d highly recommend letting yourself be guided by recommendations from your waiter, they know the menu and the wine list and can match them up perfectly. I’m also eternally grateful to the waitress who challenged the notion of being too full to try the pudding at the end of the night, she was right, it would have been so wrong to have missed that.

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