1 The vineyards Two hours north of Sydney, the Hunter Valley is one of Australia's top winemaking areas, so any trip there must include a tour of the vineyards, tasting their offerings at the cellar door. Some, such as McGuigan Cellars and Hermitage Road Winery, offer tours so you can learn how the grape makes its way to the bottle. Lunch can be an event in itself, with many award-winning restaurants, or you can make a picnic of it after tasting the handmade gourmet cheeses at the Cheese Factory. Depending on when you visit, there are annual events such as Jazz in the Vines and Opera in the Vineyards, both in October, and concerts by bands such as INXS ( www.winecountry.com.au ). 2 Hot-air ballooning Out of bed before dawn, jumping into a car and trundling along the back-roads of the Pokolbin area in the dark, you wonder whether you've gone mad. But as day breaks and the hot-air balloon rises into the cool morning air, another world unfolds with vineyards, golf courses and hills drifting by. Judy Lynne of Balloon Aloft quotes her mentor veteran pilot Peter Vizzard's explanation of why it's all so still: 'You've become the wind, you're travelling at the same speed.' Several balloon companies operate in the Hunter Valley. 3 Hunter Valley Gardens The 25 hectares of the Hunter Valley Gardens ( www.hvg.com.au ) allow you to wander the world as you pass the Italian Grotto's statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Japanese Garden with its pagoda, red footbridge and lotus-filled streams, and enter the Chinese Garden through a moon gate guarded by bronze temple dogs. The Sunken Garden features a soothing waterfall and a rose garden with 8,000 varieties. The Storybook Garden is home to figures of nursery rhyme characters, including Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill and Alice in Wonderland at the Mad Hatter's tea party. 4 Magical history tour Established in 1821 on the banks of the Hunter River, the town of Morpeth was once the second-busiest river port in the colony, peaking in the 1860s. Changes in transport brought about its decline, but in recent decades the village has been revitalised and is listed for its heritage value by the National Trust. Weekends are extremely busy when visitors from Sydney enjoy not only the historic ambience of its sandstone colonial buildings, but its cafe culture and unusual offerings, from teapot festivals to teddy bear and gollywog shops ( www.visitmaitland.com.au ). 5 Maitland Gaol For a macabre view of the area's history, take a tour of Maitland Gaol ( www.maitlandgaol.com.au ), the former maximum security prison that housed some of Australia's most notorious murderers and rapists, including serial backpacker-killer Ivan Milat. Closed in 1998, it can now be inspected on a guided tour led by an ex-inmate. Or there's a historic tour and one with a psychic twist. Maitland is the only surviving example of the so-called Inspector's Gaol, the sandstone structure having been designed by colonial architect Mortimer Lewis in 1844. Sixteen men were executed by hanging there, the last in 1897, and the state's last legal flogging was administered there in 1905. Tour prices vary from A$12 (HK$75) to A$24. 6 Hunter Wetlands Centre The area was listed in 2002 as a protected area under the international Ramsar Convention. You can paddle through the wetlands from the visitors' centre by canoe, enjoying a sense of peace while developing an under-standing of the watery ecosystem ( www.wetlands.org.au/hwca ). Walking tracks pass ponds crowded with magpie geese whose southern colony was almost extinct in 1980. The flock of 100 is now fed daily. At various times residents may include Royal Spoonbills with their black spoon-shaped beaks, white ibis, Eurasian Coots (little ducks with white noses) and nesting egrets in the paperbark forest, visible from a viewing tower. The site is also home to the endangered freckled duck. A total of 213 bird species has been recorded at the wetlands centre. 7 Take the plunge Swimming in the Pacific Ocean from one of the delightful beaches or in the seawater baths is almost mandatory at Newcastle. The Bathers Way walk, which connects them all, is a five-kilometre path from the lighthouse overlooking Nobbys Beach, passing historic Fort Scratchley and leading to Newcastle Baths, which feature an art deco pavilion and saltwater pool. Farther along is the secluded Bogey Hole. The path then heads past King Edward Park to Strzelecki Lookout, with splendid coastal views. Hang-gliders can be seen here when the wind is up. Then there's a splendid stretch of golden sand from Bar Beach to Merewether and its ocean baths ( www.visitnewcastle.com.au ). 8 Go bushwalking The northernmost part of Kelvingrove features the Barrington Tops National Park, 75 per cent of which is wilderness. The natural environment ranges from World Heritage-listed subtropical rainforests to the sub-alpine woodland of the plateau, with its winter snows. Bushwalking is popular, tracks taking hikers past waterfalls, through Antarctic beech forest, into the rainforest and up mountain peaks ( www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au ). 9 Dolphin and whale watching Port Stephens forms part of a 97,000ha maritime park. One of the most relaxing ways to see some of its pod of 100 bottlenose dolphins is aboard the large ocean-going catamaran Imagine. From late May to November whale-watching cruises allow visitors to see the magnificent humpback whales migrating along Australia's east coast. There's nothing quite like the thrill of seeing one of these huge creatures breaching, leaping high in the air and landing with an enormous splash before its flukes disappear into the deep blue ( www.imaginecruises.com.au ). 10 Sandboarding Adrenalin-induced yells mark one's rapid descent down a 60-degree slope of a 50-metre sand dune on a small board. Sandboarding is one of the highlights of a four-wheel-drive tour of the Stockton dunes. Along the way, we find pipis (small bivalves) in the sand, drive past fishermen on the 26km beach, see aboriginal shell middens and marvel at our driver's skills as he takes us up and over the towering sands. The photogenic wreck of the Sygna, a Norwegian bulk carrier that ran aground in 1974, is the site of our afternoon tea stop. We inspect Tin City, a Mad Max-like collection of corrugated iron fishermen's shacks, on the return journey ( www.moon shadow4wd.com.au).