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A road trip to remember; Sydney may be its shining light but there's much more to see in New South Wales. Susan Griffin goes in search of secluded coves and scenic wine valleys.

MY friend reassures me it wouldn't be a proper road trip if there wasn't an element of adventure. We've been driving down a winding, gravel track surrounded by wild bushland and perched between a vertiginous gorge and a rocky ridge for more than two hours.

We haven't passed another vehicle, the petrol gauge is worryingly low, and it's getting increasingly difficult not to recall every road trip horror movie we've ever seen.

It's my fault. As navigator, I was the one who decided to forgo the map in the hope of taking the scenic option.

We're definitely somewhere within the depths of Yengo National Park, in the heart of New South Wales, south-east Australia. What we don't know is if we'll ever find our way out. And to think it had all started so smoothly.

Embracing the spirit of adventure, we'd decided to embark on a driving holiday Down Under through one of the country's most scenic states, New South Wales. The first few nights we spent at Manly Beach, a laid-back surf town just a 30-minute boat ride from Sydney's Circular Quay where the long stretch of white sand, stylish restaurants and chilled bars that line the promenade provided the perfect place to recover from jet lag.

Refreshed and raring to hit the road, we left Manly and Sydney's sprawling suburbia on the Pacific Highway. A road that runs north along the east coast to Brisbane, towards our first port of call, Port Stephens - a beautiful peninsula dubbed 'the dolphin capital of Australia'.

The drive was glorious, offering vast views of lush meadows sprinkled with the sparkling lakes that surround the Central Coast's popular beach towns of The Entrance and Terriga.

Even at a leisurely pace, it takes less than three hours to reach our hotel, Peppers Anchorage Resort. Sitting right on the marina, the hotel's airy rooms have private verandas from which we breathe in the soul-enriching sea air.

With its tranquil inlets, 20-plus sandy beaches and sub-tropical climate, Port Stephens is a favourite weekend destination for affluent Sydney dwellers and we while away the days beach-combing and reading on the secluded beaches of Zenith and Wreck.

For an adrenaline kick we drive over to the magnificent Stockton Bight sand dunes and eschew quad-biking in favour of sand-boarding.

It's a hotter, sandier version of snowboarding, involving sitting on a board and launching yourself off the peak of a dune. But the climb to the top is exhausting, after four runs we're were done (in). A trip to Port Stephens wouldn't be complete without catching a glimpse of the local bottlenose dolphins and if you visit between May and November you may even catch migrating hump-bank whales too.

After bidding adieu to Port Stephens with dinner at The Point restaurant at Soldiers Point, a fantastic location to watch spectacular sunsets, we drive on towards Hunter Valley. It's a two-hour drive inland on a route reminiscent at times of the Wild West with dusty roads forging through small townships.

As we approach wine country, the view morphs into neat vineyards, and Tuscan-style villas sitting prettily atop rolling hills while kangaroos graze in pastures. One of the oldest wine regions in Australia, there are more than 140 cellar doors to visit in Hunter Valley, where we find experts on hand to talk us through wines for free in the hope we'll leave clinking with bottles.

Accommodation is Spicers Vineyard Estate, a five-star guest house located on a private vineyard.

There are only a handful of rooms at this peaceful retreat, each decorated in Mediterranean terracotta colours and the subdued lighting, chilled music and panoramic views make it impossible not to sit back and enjoy the easy life.

Hunter Valley is an area that revels in gastronomic delights, so we're spoilt for choice for eateries, but a favourite is Shakey Tables at Hunter Country Lodge with its colourfully eclectic decor and taste-bud popping cuisine.

Wine supped and bellies full, we move on towards the Blue Mountains, a million hectares of mountainous terrain named after the blue haze of eucalyptus emitted from the forest of gum trees beneath.

To keep things interesting we forgo the highway in favour of the historic Old Great North Road, an example of 19th century convict road-building - aka the scenic route.

It should have only added 45 minutes on to a two-hour journey but at some point the wrong turn is taken, and we find ourselves in Yengo National Park, and apparently on the road to nowhere.

We do make it to the Blue Mountains, finally. Four hours later than expected, and having boarded a car ferry, and travelled through remote forestation and plains that wouldn't look out of place in Jurassic Park.

As we arrive, the mountains are shrouded in a dense mist, so we call it a day and hit the pillow at the cosy Kubba Roonga Guesthouse in the small town of Blackheath, so called because of its wild, moor-like scenery.

Pulling back the curtains the next morning we're greeted with sunshine. Surprisingly, given the previous day's events, we eagerly get back into the car but this time it's a mere 15-minute drive to Katoomba, the tourist hub of the Blue Mountains. The view at Echo Point induces an awed silence among us tourists as we look down upon a vast green blanket of trees, rugged cliffs and sandstone plateaux including the famous Three Sisters rock formation.

We take the Skyway ride, sold as the 'walk on air' experience because of a glass floor that allows you to look down on the valley beneath you, across to Scenic World's Top Station. From here, the short but near vertical railway takes us into the depths of the valley where we wander the walkways, taking in the sights and smells of the exotic foliage.

Our adventure almost over, we pack our suitcases into the car one last time. The road trip's been exhilarating, eye-opening and not a little exhausting at times, but lessons have been learned.

As we take the turn that will take us back into the heart of Sydney, this time the map's firmly clenched in hand.

GARDENING LONG-HAUL * MALDIVES: Thomson Tailormade (0871 664 0273) offers seven nights' full-board at Vilu Reef Beach and Spa Resort from pounds 1,295, saving pounds 528, for deps June 20-July 21, incl return SriLankan Airlines flights, seaplane transfers * INDIA: Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2200) offers 10 nights' luxury B&B from pounds 1,995, incl two nights each at the Oberoi hotels in New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and four at Wildflower Hall, Mashobra. * THAILAND: Bailey Robinson (01488 689 777) offers seven nights' B&B at Six Senses Samui from pounds 1,990, saving pounds 690, ex-Heathrow July 16-Aug 31. * PUERTO RICO: BA Holidays (0844 493 0758) offers seven nights' room-only at four-star Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa from pounds 1,019, for travel until June 18 LATE DEALS and with BA flights ex-Gatwick. * BAHAMAS: BA Holidays (0844 493 0758) offers seven nights' room-only at 4.5-star Atlantis Paradise island resort, Nassau from pounds 1,369, for travel up to June 22.

THEMED HOLIDAYS * RAILWAYS OF RHINE: Treyn (01904 734 940) offers four-day escorted rail tour from June 24 and July 1 for pounds 405, via riverside town of Remagen, two days of excursions, three nights' B&B, ride on Vulkan Express and tour manager throughout. * RAILING ACROSS THE USA: Great Rail Journeys (01904 521 980) offers 21-day escorted tour from June 27 & 29 for pounds 2,795, incl flights into New York and return ex-San Francisco, 16 nights' room-only hotel accom, three overnight train journeys in two berth roomettes, five guided city tours (New York, Washington, Chicago, Hollywood and San Fran), harbour cruises (Manhattan and Alcatraz), all transfers and tour manager throughout.

CRUISES * NORWAY: Silversea (0844 251 0834) offers 17-day voyage from pounds 5,583 ex-Copenhagen July 30 to Alesund, Geiranger, Helleysilt, Leknes, Lofoten, Tromso, Honningsvag, Murmansk, Archangelsk, Hammerfest and Kristiansund. Package incl share of Vista Suite, return flights, with $500 per suite onboard spending credit.

CARIBBEAN CRUISE & STAY: Virgin Holidays Cruises (0871 781 9893) offers four nights' room-only at Quality Inn International, Orlando, plus three nights on Monarch Of The Seas ex-Port Canaveral to Nassau, Cococay from pounds 799, incl Virgin Atlantic returns ex-Gatwick June 13.

BEST FOR: Experiencing ever-changing scenery. TIME TO GO: May to November if you want to see migrating hump-bank whales off Port Stephens. DON'T MISS: Dolphin-watching and FACTS sand-boarding in Port Stephens, Table Shakey in Hunter Valley and Echo Point in the Blue Mountains. * NEED TO KNOW: Even at peak season, last orders at restaurants tend to be about 9pm.

DON'T FORGET: Your sun cream, your maps and to take your time.

For further information on Australia and to plan your holiday now, visit australia.com GET THERE KE* Susan was a guest of Tourism Australia and stayed at Peppers Anchorage Port Stevens (www.peppers.com.au), Spicers Vineyard Estate (www.spicersgroup.com.au), and Kubba Roonga Guesthouse (kubbaroongaguesthouse.com.au). * Austravel currently offer a seven-night holiday in New South Wales from pounds 1,659 per person based on two people sharing, including return flights ex-Gatwick into Sydney and room-only accommodation in three and four-star hotels in Manly, the Hunter Valley, Port Stephen, and the Blue Mountains.

To book visit www.austravel.com or phone 0800 988 4834.

CAPTION(S):

1. Zenith Beach, Port Stephens; 2&3. The vineyards of Hunter Valley Wine Country
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 4, 2011
Words:1573
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