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No doubt, Hunter Valley is a wine region and true that you do need to be somewhat into wine to really enjoy and appreciate this wine country. I’ve been to Hunter Valley numerous times and seriously thought that I’d only need to visit this region a couple few more times then I am done, I’d have seen it all and no need to come back again. Unless your name is James Halliday and have visited all 125 wineries in the region, if not then my friend, there are still over 6,000 hectares of vineyards for you to unearth.

Our recent visit to Hunter Valley was more than just wine and food. This time, we also got to discover the oldest wine region in Australia from a different perspective and learn about the early beginnings of Hunter Valley. Everything is a little bit different from how you’d imagined to spend a weekend in Hunter Valley, we even found our own little piece of Tuscany outside Rome.

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Tower Lodge

Tower Lodge is a boutique retreat nestled amongst the Tower Estate property and vineyard in Hunter Valley. As part of the world’s most prestigious hotel group Relais & Chateaux, you just knew you’d be treated like a Roman king and queen as soon as you step inside the hotel. The lodge comprises only 12 luxury guest rooms including two suites, guest dining room, bar and lounge room, gym and a roman spa bath for weaken souls, and the Mediterranean inspired central courtyard where guests can enjoy breakfast and take in the tranquil surrounding.

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Our room is not shabby, not shabby at all! Andrea Bocelli’s powerful voice was echoing through the stereo from wall to wall as we entered our room. The Mediterranean theme carries on with intricate decor in the room, terracotta tiled floor draped with Persian rug, furniture covered in rich fabrics, antiques and China dotted around the room, even our ultra comfort king size bed has a bed head plastered with a profile portrait of a Roman’s historic figure.

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The attention to details in the room is remarkable, Molton Brown amenities never fails to make me a tad special. But if there is one thing what I think can be improved is to have free Wi-Fi access in room. As I would have loved to be able to get online rather than only available in the lounge and the lobby.

We had a few hours to kill before dinner, so I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the lodge and got myself lost in the shades of Tuscan red.

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As I walked through the corridors, I really felt like in a film set, imagining everyone should be wearing white togas, lying on the day-bed, drinking red wine out of goblets and getting fed with a bunch of grapes. Spartans battle in the courtyard for entertainment perhaps? Or maybe not. But all this food talk is making me hungry, time for dinner me think.

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Robert’s Restaurant

There is a fine dining restaurant in the Tower Lodge called Nine, as it is housed underground nine feet below the surface in a sandstone cellar. However, we wouldn’t be dining here tonight as a table was already booked for us at Roberts, which is also located within the Tower Estate compound, walking distance from the lodge.

The name Robert Molines is no stranger in the Hunter Valley. He is the pioneer of the culinary scene who helped to shape the dining experience here in this wine region. Roberts was his first restaurant but had moved on over a decade ago and Molines at Tellvera Grove is now his new playground. Without changing the restaurant name, George Francisco is now the Executive Chef at Roberts, leading a team of passionate chefs to create a fine dining experience of modern European cuisine.

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This restaurant itself is actually filled with history. As we opened the front door and stepped inside, we suddenly found ourselves inside a slab cottage, which is dated circa 1876. There is a lounge room where guests can enjoy a quiet drink in front of the fireplace, a bedroom which is now a private dining area; but somehow these empty rooms have an unsettling eerie feeling to it.

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The main dining area at the back is a new extension to the cottage, a huge open space built almost entirely in timber gives the atmosphere a country comfort, a perfect spot for wedding reception.

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L to R: Capsicum tomato gazpacho with basil oil; Tower Estate Hunter Valley Moscato

Two glasses of Tower Estate Moscato arrived at the table as soon as we seated, followed by amuse bouche of warm capsicum tomato gazpacho with basil oil to open up our appetite.

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Beef Carpaccio – red capsicum mayonnaise, olive, organic Arugula and Parmesan Beignets – 28.00

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Charred garam masala scented Foie Gras – 30.00

We started the meal with entrees of beef carpaccio and charred garam masala scented foie gras. The wafer thin raw beef slices were velvety smooth served with rich red capsicum mayonnaise that had a subtle heat kick, and I simply adored the parmesan beignets that had gooey and moreish innards with crispy crusts on the outside.

Instead of goose liver, I believe the foie gras was simply duck liver coated in garam masala ground spices then charred to a blackened exterior. The richness of the liver lighten up with tangy cinnamony candied lemon peels and spiced jus, whereas pea shoots and rose petals added colour and texture. But how I wished I had a slice of toast to spread the liver on it.

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L to R: Tower Eastate; Roulade of duck breast and Jamon – 43.00

Our meal tonight was accompanied by Tower Estate Pinot Noir from Tasmania that had the complexity of all spice and cherry to go with some red meat and the roulade of duck breast and jamon was a good choice. The duck was cooked to a perfect blushing pink, the sweetness of the tender duck meat was elevated with pickled baby beetroot and the creamy aioli.

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Mandagery Creek Venison – 45.00

I purposely ordered the Mandagery Creek venison to go with the wine, it is a match made in heaven. The gamey red meat was meltingly tender, served on a bed of glazed savoy cabbage, while sweet potato crisps added crunch. There were also a couple of pillowy agnolotti made with pumpkin foraged from the garden that worked extremely well with the venison.

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Two petite cream filled profiteroles were brought out to us as a little break to slow down the pace  before hitting the home run with desserts.

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Caramelised pineapple and passionfruit creme brulee Napoleon – 16.00

It was a little difficult to grasp the concept of a creme brulee in a Napolean mille-fuille style. Between the layers of thin pastries were thick slices of passionfruit creme custard, torched to a caramelised charred exterior. I really wish I could crack a toffee window into shards with the spoon like how you would with a creme brulee, nevertheless the passionfruit custard is creamy and smooth,  and we wiped the plate clean.

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‘For chocolate lovers only’ – 16.00

A dessert that named ‘For chocolate lovers only’ no doubt is deliciously sinful. The chocolate cake itself was comprised of chocolate ganache, cake and mousse, overlapping into seven layers of textural wonders. A heavy dose of chocolate heaven to conclude our meal this evening.

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Our waiter offered us coffee to cap the night off, which to be served at the lounge room in the cottage where we can chillax in front of the fireplace. We asked her jokingly whether this place is haunted, immediately there was a twinkle in her eye and we were probably not the first to ask the same question.

Apparently the cottage is haunted by a lady called Elizabeth who still moaned over the loss of her child who was drown in the bath tub. The restaurant staffs have encountered a few phenomenons happening in the cottage, they came to work in morning and found the fireplace has been lit up overnight and set the fire alarm off, picture frames being knocked down off the wall and the occasional laughter echoing through the wall.

The spine shivering stories made our walk back to the lodge in pitch black a hell lot spookier. It would be an early night for us as the alarm was set for a 5am wake up call and ready for our next adventure, up in the sky!

 

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Hot air balloon flight with Balloon Aloft

The 5am wake up call was brutal, but the thought of floating in mid air at 3,500 feet high was hard to resist. We made our way to Peterson’s Champagne House to check in with Balloon Aloft. I am not lying if I wasn’t feeling a bit anxious about open air flying inside a tiny woven cane basket, carries by nothing but a giant balloon! But I knew I was in good hand especially Balloon Aloft has over 30 years flying experience in Australia to reassure us that safety comes first.

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After a short safety briefing, we were also given a few instructions on how to jump onboard once the balloon is inflated as you definitely do not want to miss the flight. Guests’ participation were strongly encouraged to help setting up the balloon – we pulled, we stretched, and then someone volunteered to hold the chute as the balloon being inflated by industrial fans.

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Hot air was pumped into the balloon from the ferocious flame shot out of the propane gas burners, eventually the balloon started to tilt on an angle and straighten up. “Climb onboard now!” As our pilot yelled out, everyone quickly climbed over the basket within a short time frame and we were off!

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Our balloon slowly hovered over the misty lake was simply magical!

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As our balloon slowly climbing to a higher altitude, it offered a spectacular view of the sunrise over the horizon. Suddenly the whole valley was woken up and came to life; misty fog slowly dissipating, roos were hopping in the woods looking for morning feast, tiny humans were out jogging and golfing. There is no steering wheel, our balloon just glided in the mid air and let the wind took us far and high.

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There was absolute silence when we were floating at 3,500 feet high; no wind, no chirpy birds, but only the sudden bursts of roaring flames now and again to keep the balloon aloft and also keeping us warm. It was so serene and peaceful.

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The basket can hold up to 16 passengers plus the pilot, it was actually quite cosy with no much room to move. Everyone was also quite transfixed with the incredible panoramic view of the valley, it was exhilarating and I was literally in cloud nine.

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We spent almost an hour in the air, as the wind took us a lot farther than we had anticipated. The Balloon Aloft convoy followed us from the ground until we found a field that was safe for landing. Air vents on top of the balloon were opened to release hot air and slowly we were descending with a thud as we touched down. I was super impressed by our pilot’s wind navigation skill and landed us safely, as it could ended up horribly wrong tangling at the power lines nearby by a tiny miscalculation.

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Hopping out of the basket was just as funny and awkward as hopping in, eventually both feet touched the ground and I could let out a sigh of relief. We all joined effort to fold the balloon into a flat pack, all nicely fit into a trailer and towed away.

If only you could hear my tummy by now, you would know is brunch time!

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Peterson’s sparkling bubbly were poured, hearty hot full breakfast was served. I scoffed down within seconds, I felt elated and content, it could be the sparkling or it could be the flight, but either way, my head was still in cloud nine, imagining myself as the little fat kid in the Pixar film ‘UP’.

[to be continued…]

Tower Lodge
(Inside Tower Estate complex)
6 Halls Road, Pokolbin, NSW 2320
P: 02 4998 4900

Roberts Restaurant
(Inside Tower Estate complex)
Halls Road, Pokolbin 2320
P: o2 4998 4998

Opening hours: Lunch Sat – Sun, Dinner seven days

Balloon Aloft
P: 02 4990 9242
Operates daily

More info – http://www.visitnsw.com/destinations/hunter/hunter-valley

[A Table For Two visited Hunter Valley as the ambassador blogger for Wine Country Tourism]