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Town and country

11/01/2014
Novotel Newcastle © Town and country Novotel Newcastle

From heritage style to hipster hangouts, you'll find it in Newcastle, writes Danielle Teutsch.

This scene looks familiar. A hip cafe serving up free range eggs on sourdough. A curving beachfront sweeping up to a headland. Dudes with beards and arty tattoos. It looks just like Bondi, but wait - there's no queue of cars or wait for a table.

Or Sydney attitude, for that matter. And that's because it's Newcastle Beach.

It's no secret that rough and ready Steel City is becoming gentrified at a rapid pace. The city famous for hardcore surfers and coal shovelling, beer barns and bulk carriers has smoothed out many of those rough edges.

Schooners are being replaced by wine by the glass and craft beer, while cafes and tapas spots are springing up in the once desolate CBD. The Honeysuckle development has added an industrial chic to the harbourside.

And as for the beach - we are sitting at Estabar enjoying scrambled free range eggs with Morpeth sourdough and Binnorie Dairy Labna, with a single-origin coffee. They even compost, for heaven's sake. Who needs Bondi?

I'm here on a girls' weekend, and after a lazy breakfast we head across the road to the beach with our kids. There is a shallow rockpool perfect for them to splash in and hunt for jellyfish while we chat in the sand. Later we head to the 1920s Newcastle Ocean Baths, with its art deco pavilion, a local landmark.

The morning is glorious and laid-back, and that sets the tone for the whole weekend.

Our digs are in the Novotel Newcastle. Apart from being reliably comfortable and well serviced, this hotel is all about location. It's four blocks from the train station for those who want to travel by public transport, and overlooks Newcastle Beach.

But the exciting part is the renaissance in this eastern end of the city, again powered by its food and wine scene. A few blocks back from the hotel in King Street there is Good Brothers Espresso, which has an inner-city vibe and has fast gained a reputation for cranking out excellent coffee. It would be right at home in King Street, in Newtown in Sydney, or even in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.

Also on the same street is Bocados, a Spanish tapas bar in a handsome heritage building with outdoor seating, serving up classics such as paella alongside marinated chilli squid and duck leg with orange glaze.

Newcastle may be absorbing big-city sophistication but it still has a lovely small town feel, with its graceful old buildings and palm trees. The 1929 Civic Theatre is a jewel, with its grand marble staircase and leadlight entrances, while the Spanish baroque style City hall is another impressive historical landmark.

Driving down Hunter Street I'm reminded of that country town feeling again, with the city's wide thoroughfares and blissfully uncomplicated grid.

I pass several bridal shops and the defence force recruitment centre, which seem to hark back to earlier times when girls might aspire to get married and boys might dream of being in the navy. Now, of course, it's different. But it is this mix of country and city, old and new, which makes Newcastle such an interesting place to visit.

The area is rich in history. The Bogey Hole, at the foot of Shepherd's Hill, was hand-cut out of a rock platform by convicts and was the first ocean baths to be built in Australia. Fort Scratchley and its barracks are a must-see for those interested in military history. The fort also is a popular vantage point for whale watching in the migratory season.

We wind up the weekend with hot, salty chips eaten on a bench overlooking the beach. The kids are sunkissed and dishevelled. There's nothing gentrified about this particular scene, and in many ways, it's the highlight.

The writer was a guest of Destination NSW.

GETTING THERE

Newcastle is about two hours' drive north of Sydney. There are also frequent rail services from Sydney. See cityrail.info. Newcastle Airport is 30 minutes from Newcastle's city centre. Regional Express offers direct flights from Sydney. See rex.com.au. Jetstar and Virgin Australia operate direct daily flights between Melbourne and Newcastle. See jetstar.com and virginaustralia.com.

STAYING THERE

Novotel Newcastle Beach has doubles from about $199 a night for a superior room. With family packages, two kids stay free in their parents' bedroom and get a free breakfast, plus late checkout on Sundays at 5pm (check with the hotel for more details, package subject to availability). 5 King Street, Newcastle, (02) 4032 3700. See novotel.com.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitnsw.com.au.

Good as new: Novotel Newcastle overlooks the beach in the eastern part of the city, which has a burgeoning food and wine scene.

Good as new: Novotel Newcastle overlooks the beach in the eastern part of the city, which has a burgeoning food and wine scene.
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