Sunday, April 18, 2010

Easter in Mudgee

Believe it or not, Australia is in some ways more Christian than even the US is. Or, at least it maintains some traditions relating to the national holiday calendar that the American separation of church and state policy left by the wayside. In other words, Easter is a four day weekend in Australia; woo hoo! But because everyone has a lovely long weekend off (or more if you're on a school schedule), hotel rates are sky high; boo!

So, we replaced our grand plans to rent a fashionable beach house with more modest plans to spend the weekend in Mudgee, a wine-producing region of country New South Wales, four hours drive northwest of Sydney. (Quite a step down if you compare sand and surf to a town whose name starts with M-U-D). No, seriously there was nothing muddy about Mudgee. The weather was warm and clear and our accommodations at Wildwood Guesthouse were comfortable and relaxing.

Mike, Laura, Jennie, Mickey and I piled into Chris and Jess' car for the mostly traffic-free journey. We took a delightful lunch break at the Secret Creek Cafe in Lithgow, almost certainly superior to the "workie's club" in town, an RSL-type establishment offering "family food" (shudder). In addition to the restaurant, the Secret Creek property also includes a small, native animal sanctuary.

We were seated at a table on the porch and were enjoying watching a trio of brightly colored rosellas flit from tree to tree when the silence was suddenly shattered by a chorus of animal howls. It was probably just a couple of dingos and some dogs, but the way the yelps echoed in the small valley made it sound like a whole pack surrounded the restaurant. Yikes. Among those not joining in the chorus were a pair of emus called Dumb and Dumber. When I saw Dumb look through the window of the cabin where their food is kept while Dumber made a break for the open door, I wondered how apt their names really were. We met a small marsupial named Randy on our way back to the parking lot. The keeper explained that Randy was a wallaroo, neither wallaby nor kangaroo, but an entirely different species. When we started asking more questions about this species we had never heard of before, he backtracked, "yeah, it's like a kangaroo and a wallaby." Hmmm...

Because Laura was eager to see an Australian Big Thing, we stopped at the Big Miner's Lantern to snap a few photos before continuing on to Mudgee. We made our first wine tasting stop at Logan, a fantastically situated winery serving okay wine disguised by great labels.

We relied on Google Maps to guide us to Wildwood and had a good laugh when, 1.8kms down a dirt road in the middle of the bush, the friendly navigation voice stated "you have arrived at your destination." Oops. Fortunately, a woman who had more reason to be on that dirt road explained how to get to Wildwood. In a few short minutes, we arrived at our destination for real: a beautiful property with gum trees, ponds, birds and roos. Our little party rented three of the B&B's four rooms so we pretty much had the run of the place. Wildwood offers cozy beds and a healthy dose of peace and quiet, but no TV and only spotty internet reception so we were forced to entertain ourselves the old fashioned way: board games and actual conversation. I can't complain; I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Pictionary and learning Pass the Pigs.

I ordinarily would have been a mess after two days of wine tasting, but thankfully discovered the art of taking a sip or two and spilling the rest of the generous pour into the spittoon. That way I could taste a lot of different wines without the headaches and dehydration. It shouldn't have been such a revelation, but for me it was. We couldn't help but compare Mudgee to the Hunter Valley, the more commercial wine producing region only two hours outside of Sydney. I didn't detect any major differences in quality, but I have to give points to Mudgee wineries for their relaxed, inviting atmospheres. Many, Di Lusso especially, had patios with stylish tables and chairs for patrons to use while enjoying a bit of wine and cheese and contemplating the good life. Almost all of these patios looked out onto neat rows of vines and endless blue sky. I guess the spectacular weather didn't hurt either.

We avoided electing a designated driver on day two of wine tasting by renting bikes. Laura, Mickey and I were lucky enough to score comfort seats, the big cushy kind for those of us who prefer beach cruisers. Another great reason to go wine tasting via bicycles is that the extra exercise helps one justify consuming more cheese. Win win.

Wine and cheese aside, though, we don't believe that Mudgee is the foodie town that it thinks it is. On our first night we ended up at the Wine Glass, a brasserie with the reputation of being one of the better restaurants in town. The food was decent, but they actually served a wine that had gone off. The fact that it was on special for $20 a bottle could have been a clue, but we were in a wine town, not a Shakey's Pizza in Canton, Ohio for heaven's sake. We scored a booking at Blue Wren for dinner on Easter Sunday, by some accounts the best restaurant in Mudgee. We were immediately impressed that they pick up and drop off diners at their hotels for no extra charge. Despite the extra service, though, the food didn't blow us away.

Though as an adult I haven't been way into Easter, I decided to organize an egg hunt for my friends on Sunday morning after breakfast. I scoured my favorite discount stores for plastic eggs, but they were nowhere to be found. It turns out that Australia's Easter traditions are cemented around chocolate; only chocolate bunnies, bilbys and eggs will do. I can't say they're missing out on much regarding Peeps (sorry, Jess), but jelly beans and plastic eggs would be lovely. Anyway, Mickey and I woke up early on Easter Sunday and tiptoed around the B&B's porch, stuffing eggs in planters, hedges and outdoor furniture. Sadly, the owner's dogs found a couple of the chocolates before our friends did, but they still appreciated the effort.

Overall, Mudgee is a great long weekend getaway from Sydney. Even if you're not into wine, the bird and roo watching were really rewarding. We saw four black cockatoos fly overhead one afternoon and I spied tons of tiny birds chasing each other through the gum trees. The sights and sounds of the country are appealing enough to make me ponder what life there would be like. Then again, the kookaburra's 5am cackle reminded me that Sydney's not so bad either.

Photos courtesy of Laura Wandke. Thank you, Laura.

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