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If you look at the entry for “ Newcastle ” in most travel guides you’ll see something that reads rather like the review of earth in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Mostly Harmless”. This is a major upgrade from earlier entries which read more like: “Harmless”. But seriously, Newcastle is becoming more of a destination for tourists even if it isn’t on the usual itineraries.
In recent years some large cruise ships have sailed into town, including The World. People aboard these ships have been quoted as describing the entry to the harbour as one of the most picturesque ports they have sailed into. These visitors have also been quoted as praising the friendliness of the locals. Our most recent cruise ship visit was greeted by a special turn out including market stalls in the Hunter St Mall, hands-on reptile displays, and street performers. I was walking my dog through the Mall on the afternoon of this visit and I heard for myself the appreciation of the town’s charm and the friendliness of the locals.
Not that we aren’t without attitude, and the nightlife can get a bit “hairy” into the early hours of the next morning, particularly in the less well populated parts of town such as the western end of Hunter St.
Generally, Newcastle has all the features of most cities, except in a miniature scale. We have some splendid examples of architecture with styles reflecting Australia ’s brief history. Everything from convict ruins to the palladian architecture of the now abandoned Newcastle post office, the gothic revival majesty of the Anglican cathedral, to the post-modern architectural styles represented by the David Madisson Building and the Police Station. Sadly, the post-office is suffering from neglect, but we locals retain some hope that someone will be enlightened enough to preserve it.
Our art gallery is also rather lovely and frequently has significant exhibitions. The art scene is complemented by a number of other private and public galleries in the local area. Next to the art gallery, in Laman St , is the art deco library. This has a good collection of local history and also houses the Lovett Gallery which features exhibitions of rare books, documents and images.
Across from the library, and through Civic Park , is the Civic precinct. This area surrounds the City Hall, and includes the magnificent art deco building now known as University House and which features briefly in the movie Superman Returns, and the gothic-style Civic Theatre. This part of the city is kept lively in summer through publicly sponsored outdoor entertainment programs which include mass dance classes and street performances (see www.livesites.org.au).
Beaumont St in Hamilton is like a mini-version of Lygon St in Melbourne with an array of Mediterranean-style restaurants mixed in with some specialist fashion shops. There are also a number of hotels (pubs) dotted along this street and most have been jazzed up to provide a choice of night-time activities including dancing, Karaoke and quizzes.
The Foreshore, The Junction and Darby St provide other bustling restaurant zones. The Junction Tavern (pub) has just been remodeled and makes for an impressive space to drink or dine. The Boardwalk area of the foreshore at Honeysuckle is a popular meeting and eating spot in summer, with a choice of indoor or outdoor dining options. Further east along the Foreshore, the more established bars and restaurants surrounding the Brewery offer a more relaxed atmosphere. It’s a favourite afternoon pastime to have a drink at the Brewery and watch either a luxury yacht pull in for refreshments or a massive tanker being tugged into our out of the harbour. It doesn’t get any better. There is frequently a band playing and it’s your choice or not whether you want to get up and dance, or just watch the scenery.
If you fancy an “overseas trip”, you can pay a few dollars and take a ferry ride to Stockton . Here you can take in a view of the Newcastle harbour while drinking a refreshing cold beer at the pub just beyond the ferry wharf, or you can enjoy the Stockton beaches, walk out along the break wall, join the locals in a spot of fishing, and view the remains of some of the many ships that have been wrecked on the coastline. You can take a four-wheel drive tour up the beaches to the wreck of the Sygna a bulk carrier that was wrecked in 1974. It was nearly superseded as the most recent wreck by the running aground of the Pasha Bulker in 2007. This brought our city a brief piece of international fame and became a popular, although short-lived, tourist attraction.
Darby St has a trendy mix of cafes spreading north and south of the Delaney Hotel. The street is also worth a walk during the day for the quirky shopping opportunities, including a chance to purchase items from local designers and artisans.
Newcastle is a great place to walk around. The locals have a long history of “promenading” of an afternoon and so there are many walks along the harbour and around the beaches, and all the way along the break wall to Nobbies headland.
The beaches offer fantastic surfing and swimming opportunities. The Soldier’s pool south of Nobbies Beach is a good safe place for snorkeling, it isn’t very deep but it’s deep enough for swimming and is often teeming with fish. The ocean baths north of Newcastle Beach are popular for swimming, and are also worth a look just for the fabulous art deco entrance façade. The nearby “map pool” offers a shallow sheltered spot for toddlers and less adventurous bathers.
The surf beaches can be very rough and there are strong rips. The surfers sometimes use the rip as an advantage to carry them out beyond the breakers, but the ordinary swimmer can easily get into trouble. Overseas visitors are especially vulnerable and we have had tragedies.
Most of the surf beaches do have safe patrolled swimming zones manned by lifeguards. We have some of the best beaches in the world, and plenty of them, and we are concerned for safety.
At the east end of the harbour there is a sheltered beach known as Horseshoe Beach, this beach is not patrolled and is also one of the few beaches that allows dogs to run free on the sand and in the water. It’s a delight to see dog lovers and their dogs running free and enjoying the magnificence of the harbour and delighting in the liberty afforded by the shore and sea. It’s also a great social venue, where like minded people and dogs get to know one another and appreciate the affection between man and beast. It’s common to be walking in other parts of Newcastle and run into dogs you have met at the “dog beach”.
The area between King Edward Park and Shepherd’s Hill is another place where dog lovers get together and let their dogs run free. This area also offers fantastic views over the east end of the city and the beaches. It’s also a popular spot for sliding down the grassy slopes on pieces of cardboard. A resident Hawke soars above looking for small rodents in the grass (and maybe little dogs).
A walker can continue over the Hill, stopping to explore the ruined military installations constructed during the Second World War to protect Newcastle from invasion. Keep going, and you will pass other walkers pushing up the Hill from Bar Beach . You can walk all the way along past Bar Beach, Dixon Park Beach and over the Hill to Merewether. Bar Beach and Merewether Beach both have popular beach front cafés that offer coffees as well as the expected fish and chips and hamburgers.
If you are looking for something harder to drink, then head across the road to the Beaches Hotel. This is an iconic location with a great atmosphere. Or if you wanted to you could keep walking along the Bather’s Way to Glenrock Lagoon. Or if you really wanted to you could embark on the Great North Walk all the way to Sydney . But its 250 km long, and there really is so much else to do in Newcastle you shouldn’t leave just yet.