Where Sydney locals escape to: The Hawkesbury Region
With its gateway, Brooklyn Village, only about 50 km from Sydney's CBD, the Hawkesbury Region is a great place to escape to if you need a break from the big city. This area to the northwest of Sydney is named for the Hawkesbury River which winds its way down to the coast. Unlike the beaches, you don't need to wait for perfect, warm summer weather to enjoy everything this inland paradise has to offer. And to be sure, there are plenty of things that the region has to offer: from historic little villages to mountains, wilderness and rivers for outdoor pursuits.
Because it's so close to Sydney, you can easily make a day trip to the Hawkesbury Region but why not hire a car and take your time exploring? Distances between towns and villages here are small for Australia, so either sleep in a different place every night or choose that one town you like best and make it your base for an unforgettable country getaway.
History and heritage
The Hawkesbury Region was the site of one of the earliest colonial settlements in Australia, with people of European descent moving in since 1794 to farm and produce food for nearby Sydney's population. In 1810, New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie established five towns that became known as the Macquarie Towns and they're all in this region. The Macquarie Towns are Castlereagh, Richmond, Windsor, Pitt Town and Wilberforce.
Richmond, one of the larger Hawkesbury towns, was the site of the Battle of Richmond Hill between the settlers and the Durag people. It's centrally located and makes a great base from which to explore the area. There are quite a few heritage buildings here, among them Bowman Cottage from around 1815 and the St Peter's Anglican Church and Cemetery, with the cemetery dating from 1811 and still in use.
Windsor is about 7 km from Richmond and has a wealth of buildings dating from the first half of the 19th century. Simply stroll down Moses or George Street, for instance, for a trip back in time. The Hawkesbury Regional Museum is also located in Windsor. Cross the river and drive about 6 km northwards to Wilberforce or stay on the eastern side of the river and make your way to Pitt Town, about 7 km away. Both Wilberforce and Pitt Town are also absolute treasure troves of historic sites that will give you that olde worlde feeling. The Australiana Pioneer Village in Wilberforce brings the colonial past to life in a fun way with a range of activities and demonstrations, from riding unicycles to watching a blacksmith at work. For the oldest existing church in Australia, head to Ebenezer, about 8.5 km northeast of Wilberforce. There, learn about the region's Aboriginal heritage by taking a guided tour at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden in Mount Tomah.
There are several heritage trails in the Hawkesbury Region but even if you don't really care about old piles of brick, take the road up to Wisemans Ferry, again located along the river. After all, it's not every day that you get to drive on a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is it? The Great North Road starts in Five Dock in Sydney and goes on towards Newcastle, but passes through Wisemans Ferry too. It's one of the Australian Convict Sites listed on UNESCO's World Heritage List because it was built between 1825 and 1836 by, you guessed it, convicts. At Wisemans Ferry, take the ferry across the river and continue on to St Albans, home of the Settlers Arms Inn, one of the oldest Australian pubs. Just remember to stay over if you're going to enjoy a lager - don't fall foul of Australia's strict drinking and driving laws.
Shopping and eating
There are galleries, craft stores and excellent restaurants throughout the Hawkesbury Region so there's no need for your credit card to feel neglected on this road trip. Naturally in this farming country there's so much fresh produce to enjoy that you'll never go hungry. Follow the Hawkesbury Harvest Farm Gate Trail and eat your way all the way from Hornsby to Mount Irvine. No matter what time of year, you'll find something in season here, whether it's juicy strawberries, cherries, citrus fruits, vegetables or nuts. Several farms even offer you the opportunity to pick your own fruits and nuts. At Tizzana Lagoon, stop at the Jubilee Vineyard Estate, otherwise get some Hillbilly Cider in Bilpin for something to quench your thirst. Or why not do both?
On the second and fourth Saturday of every month, Castle Hill has a Farmer's and Fine Foods Market where you can stock up on all manner of delectable goodies too.
The great outdoors
The Hawkesbury Region gives you the perfect excuse for all that eating: You need the energy for all the active pursuits the region offers. Much of Hawkesbury consists of nature reserves, parks and conservation areas, including the Blue Mountains, Cattai, Scheyville, Wollemi and Yengo National Parks. Go canyoning, rock-climbing, mountain-biking, horse-riding or explore the region's caves, where you may very well see glow worms. Bushwalking is a very popular activity here and there's a trail for everyone, whether you live for those steep and difficult routes or whether you just want an easy stroll. Bring your binoculars for bird-watching and a tent for camping. Featherdale Wildlife Park in Blacktown is the place to go if you want to be guaranteed of wildlife viewing. Here you even get to feed the kangaroos and wallabies and cuddle the koalas.
Of course, if what floats your boat is being in or on the water, you're in the right place too. Closer to the Blue Mountains you'll find plenty of opportunities for white-water rafting, especially along the creeks that make their way down towards the Hawkesbury River. The Hawkesbury itself tends to be tranquil and wide, especially towards the east, making it perfect for canoeing, water skiing and wakeboarding. Why not stay on a houseboat for a couple of days too or take a river cruise? There is no shortage of swimming spots in the region either.
Want to get a bird's-eye view of the countryside? Head to Annangrove and book a flight in a hot-air balloon. Check the horseracing schedule for the Hawkesbury Race Club in Clarendon and spend an exciting day in style. Wilberforce and Karrajong both have go kart tracks so the kids can get an adrenalin rush too. Glide along the treetops at Trees Adventure in Grose River Park, where there are even courses for little ones between the ages of 4 and 7. If you brought your golf clubs along 'just in case', you made the right decision because there are great golf courses in Richmond, Windsor, Cattai, Wisemans Ferry, Pitt Town and Kurrajong.
Where to stay
Throughout the Hawkesbury Region you'll find a range of accommodation options to suit different budgets. There are motels, B&Bs, guesthouses, cottages, retreats and resorts, caravan parks and campsites, not to mention houseboats.
When to go
The Hawkesbury Region generally has hot summers and cool winters. Summer is a great time to be in the area for water sports and of course for all those summer fruits in season. Spring, autumn and winter are best for activities like bushwalking since the weather is cooler and there is a lesser risk of bushfires or storms. The region doesn't experience snow.
Throughout the year the Hawkesbury Region hosts some fun annual events. It starts at the end of December and through most of January, when Windsor is the setting for the Hawkesbury International Sand Sculpting Championship. Here's your chance to unleash your inner child, get your hands dirty, take a workshop and learn how to create your own masterpiece instead of a boring old sandcastle.
Towards the end of April, head to St Albans for the St Albans Folk Festival. Camp on the banks of the Macdonald River and enjoy the performances by local and international artists. Either in March, April or May, the Hawkesbury Showground in Clarendon hosts the Hawkesbury Show. In May, share the excitement of the Bridge to Bridge Powerboat Race.
In October, it's time for the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic, where hundreds of paddlers navigate their way down the river from Windsor to Brooklyn. The race takes place at night, with the moon and stars providing the lighting.
One of the most famous events in the Hawkesbury Region takes place in November. The Bridge to Bridge Water Ski Classic starts at Dangar Island's Hawkesbury River Bridge at mouth of the river and has its finish line 112 km upriver at the Windsor Bridge. The start of the race especially is something to watch, with hundreds of boats, skiers and spectators all contributing to the festive atmosphere. Dangar Island itself is a wonderful destination to explore too, with its magnificent homes, heavy forest and the fact that there are no private cars on the island.
In addition to the annual events, there are often special events held in the region. Simply check the local listings to see what's on, but let's face it: You don't really need an excuse to visit the area, do you?