Anne-Marie de Bruin builds an appetite with a hair-raising ride.
Rick Stein's name is synonymous with great seafood. From the Cornish kitchens where he started out, the Stein empire has grown so broad it touches the coastline of the South Pacific, on the shores of Newcastle, in New South Wales.
At Bannisters Port Stephens, the seafood celeb has found a place amid one of the world's greatest seafood repositories.
Our visit to the restaurant had been cut short by that most Australian of reasons: bushfires. But the seafood served was divine and certainly made up for it. Oysters were on the menu, as were magnificent Moreton Bay bugs and prawns that delivered tasty, tender crunch. All were served in ice, and accompanied by an excellent introduction and explanation of local seafood and Rick Stein's fare.
It's a glorious location; there's a hotel on-site with magic views looking out over the water and a blissful infinity pool. One of the good things about staying in the Hunter Valley, which I was visiting for the first time, was the chance to explore some top eateries and wineries in the area. The area is renowned for its shiraz and semillon wines, and artisan food producers, making cheese, chocolates, olives and more.
Our first stop was Pepper Tree Wines for a wine tasting.
We were first taken on a tour of the wine-making operation and learned about the oak barrels and the process involved.
Pepper Tree Wines has a garden-like setting in Pokolbin, with whitewashed buildings, winemaking facilities on-site and a specialised tasting area.
For me, the highlight was seeing the vines and touring the facility, where I acted like a typical tourist and took lots of pictures.
Barrels had a specific aged oak, each adding different flavours to the wine.
When their time is up after a few years, these barrels get turned into furniture or parts are recycled into new barrels.
This winery has gained many awards and in The Vault tasting room, we learned why, when we tasted a selection of wines and cheeses.
We tried semillon, a rum-spiked sherry, shiraz and bubbly. I am not a wine buff but can report that the bubbly was my favourite.
We headed to the nearby Ben Ean, another winery and restaurant where food was hearty and wines were again plentiful.
Ben Ean is part of the Lindeman's estate.
It has recently been refurbished and is now owned by the McGuigan and Peterson families, who, staff said, are keen to emphasise the families' dedication to history and craftsmanship — tradies have been working on-site to restore the winery and vineyard to be authentic to its more than 170 years of operation.
There are also cheese and olive oil retail spaces and a restaurant called Baume.
We ate very well, feasting on calamari rings, smoked ham with pea arancini, tomatoes and feta.
We had dinner at Muse Restaurant in Pokolbin, which had a degustation menu with an emphasis on seasonal foods. Our menu included items I'd never heard of or tried, such as celeriac, "hung" yoghurt and "truffled pecorino", "wagyu tortellini", raw fish and seaweed.
The food was, of course, great and a different experience for me.
There were plenty of ways to build up an appetite around Newcastle — we attended a V8 Supercars Race, took a hot lap and roared across desert dunes on quad bikes.
Riding through the sunbaked emptiness with Sand Dune Adventures was a cool experience. The mounds — the largest moving sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere — were tall, and the views were great.
Our guides were indigenous Australians, who gave us some cultural insights into the area, the local Worimi people, and their traditional way of life, which included living off seafood.
In this ever-shifting environment, human remains are sometimes found.
Our guide explained the rituals involved with the return of the remains to the sand and proper burial.
The V8 hot lap is an experience for true motoring enthusiasts and it was, without a doubt, the most hair-raising ride of my life.
Pitside at the Newcastle 500 V8 Supercars race I was suited up, donning a hot and tight safety suit, hairnet and helmet.
It was stifling, giving me a peek into the tough job the drivers handle.
When it was my turn to take a ride, I was helped into Kiwi driver Richie Stanaway's car by the officials, with the helmet on and a safety brace of some kind attached.
From there, it was all on. The car looped around the track and I was shaken up as if I was on a ground-running roller coaster.
If you're a speed freak, a car enthusiast or V8 mega-fan you will love this ride.
Virgin Australia flies from Auckland to Newcastle with one-way, all-inclusive fares starting from $239.
For information on Spicers Guesthouse, in the Hunter Valley, go to spicersretreats.com