Katie Milton visits the New South Wales coastal town of Port Macquarie and finds a thriving gourmet food and wine destination
It’s a balmy Sunday afternoon when we drive into Cassegrain Wines Estate just 20 minutes’ drive from the centre of Port Macquarie. The sublime weather is not unusual for this delightful NSW coastal town, located about four hours north of Sydney and blessed with one of Australia’s most temperate climates.
Towering jacarandas with lilac flowers in full bloom flank the entrance drive to Cassegrain’s expansive gardens and vineyards, which I later learn can also be explored on horseback or enjoyed with a picnic basket prepared by the on-site Seasons Café Restaurant.
We descend the stairs into the wine cellar and continue down a path with shelves stacked high with wine barrels and illuminated by strings of fairy lights. As we turn the corner of this enchanting passageway, we are handed flutes of sparkling wine and ushered into the barrel room.
Beneath a soaring cavernous ceiling, long tables are lined with candles, casting a warm glow over the setting for the Cassegrain Wines Long Lunch – a five-course degustation menu that embodies the spirit of Port Macquarie and its burgeoning gourmet food scene: unpretentious, local and underpinned by quality.
This once-sleepy coastal town is located where the Hastings River spills into the ocean, bordered by kilometres of glorious coastline and an abundance of nature reserves and World Heritage rainforest. With these spectacular surroundings, it’s little surprise that Port Macquarie is forecast by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to be one of the State’s fastest-growing cities in the coming decades.
Its rapid growth is reflected in the trendy local cafés and quality dining venues that have sprung up in recent years – in laid-back haunts like Salty Crew Kiosk overlooking Town Beach; community-minded cafes like Drury Lane Eatery and Blackfish Coffee in the town centre; the ocean-to-plate experience at Bill’s Fishhouse; and the chic Bar Florian with it 1960s-inspired Italian décor and a high-octane cocktail list to rival any capital city bar.
And when a relatively small coastal town gets its first coffee roastery – with the arrival of Peak Coffee Brew Lab and Roastery – that’s a sure sign of official entry into the foodie scene.
All of this, helped along by the crowds and producers flocking to the region for the annual Tastings on Hastings Food and Wine Festival – which is taking a hiatus in 2018 to make way for a series of bicentenary celebrations – has seen Port Macquarie evolve into a low-key foodie hotspot serving up some of the finest regional cuisine in New South Wales. And therein, lies its luxe appeal.
My sister and I settle in for a weekend of relaxation and indulgence the morning after our delightful Cassegrain experience with a facial and massage at Aqua Vitae Day Spa.
The double treatment rooms are modest but cosy and while I sip a post-treatment herbal tea, my therapist offers some personal skin care recommendations. My mind however is firmly fixed on lunch.
In service since 1972, Whalebone Wharf Seafood Restaurant on Hastings River Drive has been recently renovated, giving the laid-back waterfront establishment a polished urban edge.
If you’re looking for a celebrity-worthy entrance, Port Macquarie Seaplane runs scenic flights along the town’s breathtaking coastline that ends with a splashy landing in front of Whalebone Wharf.
From our reserved window table, we enjoy a delicious seafood lunch accompanied by local sparkling wine and intoxicating views of the afternoon sun strafing the Hastings River.
Dinner that night is at the much-lauded Stunned Mullet. Owned by Lou Perri and David Henry, it is the only restaurant in the Port Macquarie region to be awarded a Good Food Guide Chef’s Hat and can be partly credited with putting Port Macquarie on the foodie map.
Set across the road from Town Beach with a glass-wall front, the restaurant is the perfect spot to sample the region’s famous oysters four ways with a glass or two from Perri’s 27-page wine encyclopedia (for lack of a better description).
And while I want to say we spent the final day of our visit walking the iconic nine-kilometre Port Macquarie coastal track, taking in beautiful ocean views at six local beaches and exploring the coastal rainforest at Sea Acres National Park, I’d be lying.
The temptation of a brunch overlooking the Hastings River at paddock-to-plate enthusiast Todd Richardson’s café LV’s on Clarence proved too great and we happily succumbed to one final gustatory experience.