Lee Atkinson finds tranquillity, great walks and tasty cheese in the Port Macquarie hinterland.
The mountain-top village of Comboyne, 700 metres above sea level in the Port Macquarie hinterland, is surrounded by verdant farmland and rainforest. Getting there is half the fun: it's a lovely rainforest drive from Port Macquarie via Wauchope or Kendall. And if not for the Australian bird calls ringing out of the bush, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd emerged from the forest and landed in rural England, with a patchwork of green pastures rolling off towards the horizon in all directions.
What it's known for
The lush grasslands around Comboyne and Wauchope have always been prime dairy country, and Wauchope was once famous (or infamous) for its 14-metre-high Big Bull, made of cement. It was pulled down a few years ago, and even though there are fewer dairy farms now than there used to be, the area still produces some great dairy products, including the wickedly rich Comboyne Culture cheese, which you can buy at local food stores and farmers' markets.
What you didn't know Boorganna Nature Reserve, about six kilometres from Comboyne on the southern side of the plateau, is such a hidden gem that half the locals don't know it's there. Established in 1904, it's the second-oldest nature reserve in the state and the subtropical rainforest is full of old-growth red cedar, bird life and waterfalls. Follow the walking track to the lookout over Rawson Falls. It will take about 1½ hours; or if you're feeling energetic, take the longer, 2½-hour walk to the dip-worthy plunge pool at the base of the 40-metre-high falls.
Bago Vineyard near Wauchope has just opened the largest hedge maze in NSW. The rather confusing labyrinth of interlocking spirals made from native lilly-pilly rainforest trees has two kilometres of pathways spread across more than a hectare and is best attempted before, rather than after, you head to the cellar door for a wine tasting. Inside the maze are two lookout towers where you can try to plot your escape from above. Kids love discovering the giant musical chimes, recycled bells (made from gas cylinders) and marimba (a cross between a piano and a xylophone) along the way. The vineyard also stocks a range of local produce at the cellar door (including 12 local cheeses) and hosts Jazz in the Vineyards sessions on the second Sunday of every month. Entry into the maze is $10 for adults, $7 for children. The cellar door (no entry charge) is open daily from 9.30am to 5pm and the maze is open daily during school holidays and public holidays (9.30am-4pm), but outside holidays, the maze will be closed Mondays and Tuesdays (for clipping, no doubt). Milligans Road (off Bago Road), Wauchope. bagovineyards.com.au.
Kids also love Timbertown at Wauchope. It's a re-creation of a 19th-century timber-getting village complete with steam-train rides, horse-and-carriage rides, Clydesdale horses, a working bullock team, blacksmith, and whip-cracking and timber-cutting displays. Entry (includes all rides) is $19.50 for adults, $16 for kids and $65 for family tickets. Open daily, 9.30am-4pm. Oxley Highway at the western outskirts of Wauchope. timbertown.com.au.
Where to eat
The Udder Cow in Comboyne does simple cafe fare but is hard to resist with a name like that. It's at 1 Comboyne Street and is open daily, 9.30am-4pm. The Lorne Valley Macadamia Farm Cafe does good light lunches, cakes and chocolate-coated nuts. You'll find it at 1181 Lorne Road, on the way to Kendall, open 9.30am-4pm, Wednesday-Saturday. Best spot for a long leisurely lunch is on the back deck at Blue Poles in Byabarra, about halfway between Comboyne and Wauchope. It's licensed and the valley views are sensational, but it's popular on weekends so you'll need to book. Open Thursday-Sunday, 10am-4pm (closed during February).
Where to stay
The studio apartment at Blue Poles shares the same sublime views as the cafe, and the staff will serve you dinner in the cafe as long as you let them know when you book; otherwise you can order a barbecue pack and cook your own on your private deck. Rates start at $175 a couple a night and include a continental breakfast. 1086 Comboyne Road, Byabarra. (02) 6587 1167, bluepoles.com.au.
How to get there
Comboyne is 370 kilometres north of Sydney (or 60 kilometres south-west of Port Macquarie) via the Pacific Highway, about a 4½-hour drive. Both Qantas (qantas.com.au) and Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) have regular daily flights to Port Macquarie from Sydney.