10 free or affordable things to do in the Hunter Valley
The Hunter Valley region has many low-budget or even free activities, alongside the premium wines and activities you can splash out on. Here’s how to experience the region for less.
Exploring the Hunter Valley doesn’t have to blow your budget – think creatively, look to nature, go beyond the vines and join affordable events, and you’ll find it’s easy to explore Australia’s oldest wine region on a shoestring.
Sip for free (or very little!)
You’ll have to spend a nominal fee to taste the wines at most cellar doors in the Hunter Valley, but there are a few that will cost you nothing at all. McGuigan Wines in Pokolbin offer complimentary 30-minute tastings of their sparkling, white, red and dessert wines. Just a few minutes down the road, Piggs Peake Winery is also free for groups of up to six – book ahead to make sure you nab a spot. Keep in mind these tastings shouldn’t just be considered as a place for a free drink, take the opportunity to ask cellar door staff questions about winemaking style and the flavours you’re tasting, and discover your wine preferences – this is where the real value lies. It’s worth noting that the fee at other cellar doors for wine tastings is only $5 or $10 per person, which is often redeemable on bottles you may buy later.
Pass on the price
It’s not only wine on show in the Hunter. If you’re an animal lover, the Australian Wildlife Parks annual pass may seriously save you cash. The $140 pass ($115 if you’re a student) provides unlimited free entry to the Hunter Valley Wildlife Park, Featherdale Sydney Wildlife Park and Mogo Wildlife Park on the South Coast. Not only can you visit all the parks as many times as you like throughout the year with your pass, but you’ll also get a 20% discount on anything you eat at the zoo's food outlets, fun animal encounters (like feeding the giraffes) and any treasures you decide to bring home from the gift shop.
Festival in the valley
The Hunter likes to party, and at many of its festivals you can experience the food, drink, music and culture of the region, all in one spot for just the price of an entry ticket. Some are even free to attend, like thein May, which combines jaw-dropping fire performances, music, laser and light shows and delicious food stalls, food trucks and laneway bars. Ticketed festivals like the in April and the in November (held in the former maximum-security Maitland Gaol) include free tasting tickets with entry.
The Hunter Valley is a famous cheese-making region, and if you visit the award-winning Binnorie Dairy in Lovedale, you can watch the cheesemakers whip up their marinated feta, triple-cream brie, goat’s cheese and more for free in their cheesemaking room. The Binnorie Dairy cheese shop also offers free tastings, but don’t leave without buying your own wheel to pack for a picnic in the vines.
Pack a picnic
Once you’ve got your cheese, pack a hamper with other picnic staples – crusty bread, dips and Hunter olives are essential – then lay down your rug on the grounds of one of the Hunter Valley’s scenic wineries. Tyrrell's Wines allow visitors to their cellar door to have a picnic on their pretty grounds. Pop into the cellar door to grab a bottle of wine and some glasses, then pick a table or grassy patch and enjoy the scenic surrounds with rolling rows of vines wherever you look. Two Fat Blokes in Pokolbin sells gourmet deli goods as well as picnic packs and fresh sandwiches for your alfresco lunch, and delicious desserts are available at Sabor Dessert Bar in Pokolbin or Icky Sticky Patisserie in Maitland.
Find outdoor art
Another winery with views from every angle you can’t help but photograph is Winmark Wines in Broke, covering 52 gloriously green hectares that include the eye-popping (and free to visit) outdoor Winmark Sculpture Park. The estate’s owners are keen collectors, and their art portfolio is on display amid vines and the native forest. Follow the sculpture walk and be sure to grab a happy snap in front of the larger-than-life Ceramic Lollipops.
Lace up your hiking boots
The Hunter Valley is just a short drive to some of NSW’s most incredible wilderness areas, and the best bit? You don’t need to spend a cent to access them. Just an hour from Singleton, Mount Royal National Park is part of Gondwana Rainforests of Australia's World Heritage area and a mecca for native wildlife from the parma wallaby to the paradise riflebird and glossy black cockatoo. Explore hiking tracks on foot – challenging tracks lead you to the summit of scenic rocky outlooks like Pieries Peak – or bring your 4WD (or hire one in Newcastle) then pitch your tent at Youngville campground.
Step back in time
The Hunter Valley is the oldest wine region in Australia, but its quaint towns are built on their own unique histories. East Maitland has quite the story, as you’ll discover on the town’s self-guided Heritage Walk. You can pick up a free map and brochure from the visitor centre, then wander between 28 marked buildings and sites including Caroline Chisholm's cottage, Maitland Gaol, East Maitland Court House, Glebe Cemetery and St Peter's Church of England. Aboriginal communities have made the Hunter region their home for more than 30,000 years, and a wander along the free Finchley Cultural Walk through Yengo National Park will uncover Aboriginal rock engravings in lush bushland.
Enjoy a dose of culture
There’s plenty on offer for art lovers on a budget. Each year between November and May, the free Wupa Aboriginal Art Trail takes you through Hunter Valley vineyards that are exhibiting traditional and contemporary works of local Wanaruah artists. There's also plenty of inspiration on display at the Morpeth Gallery, which attracts a standout roster of resident artists. The calibre of art on the walls is impressive, and regularly changing exhibitions mean you’ll likely be treated to different works every time you visit. Look out for pieces by the likes of Ann Morton, Garry Fleming, Ian Hansen and Jennifer Marshall.
Save on a tour
While you’ll have to shell out for bigger up-front cost, buying a ticket for a tour may likely end up saving you money, time and energy as many tours include the cost of transport (to the Hunter Valley and in-between venues), cellar door tastings, meals and even accommodation. On a day trip with Zepher Tours – tastings at wineries, the Hunter Distillery, lunch and transport from Sydney or Newcastle are included. Dave’s Tours has a similar offering, as well as more niche tours that focus on the region’s craft breweries. The Hunter Valley Resort offers a unique Hunter Valley By Train Package: you’ll get train tickets to Singleton, transfers, two nights’ accommodation, a vineyard tour and private tasting, breakfast and more.
Driving is your best bet for easy, affordable travel – it’s just a two-and-a-half-hour journey from Sydney and you’ll have access to your own car without the need for taxis. If you’d prefer to take public transport, the NSW Train Link from Sydney’s Central Station rides all the way to Maitland Station via Newcastle, and from there you can take a bus to Cessnock – all for less than $25. Pokolbin, another key Hunter Valley hub, is difficult to access without a car.