Weekend breaks in the Hunter Valley used to mean a long day aof wine tasting and purchasing, then a longer night drinking all the bottles we’d purchased “to cellar”. The next day would be about nursing an epic hangover, knocking back some ibropufen, then doing it all over again.
But weekends like these were relegated to the back shelf when Raffles and Sugarpuff came along, because the two seemed wildly incompatible. But our quest for a short, fuss-free family break before the start of the school year has us revisiting the heart of the Hunter Valley with the kids in tow in a quest to find, we hope, a little more wholesome family fun.
Enter the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley, an award-winning resort just two and a bit hours drive from Sydney. It proves to be a haven for families, and is teeming with smiling kids and relaxed parents on our arrival. Phew.
Indeed, the resort is in full family swing when we check in and, along with our room cards, we are handed a Summer Holiday program guide packed with all kinds of family activities and events, which we promise to study intently when we settle into our room.
Of course that promise is immediately forgotten in the excitement of checking out our sprawling digs, as the kids are busily engrossed in bickering over who’s getting which room, a favourite holiday ritual of theirs.
The three-bedroom self-catering villa feels just like home except that unlike our actual home, it is tidy and modern, with loads of space and glorious frosty air conditioning. In other words it is just like home except that it isn’t a hot, untidy shoebox.
And I don’t usually arrive home to such a warm welcome.
Upstairs is a master bedroom with a lovely en suite bathroom.
Downstairs are two identical bedrooms with huge comfy beds, a full bathroom, separate lounge and dining area and a full kitchen, an added bonus when travelling with fussy young kids. For those families with babies and toddlers, the resort can also organise a portacot, high chair and baby bath (subject to availability).
Set slightly apart from the main hotel complex, Raffles is also excited to discover our villa is located right alongside a playing field, with a volleyball court and giant chessboard.
After the kids finally agree on who is sleeping where, we set off for lunch at Lovedale Bar & Restaurant where Mr Eats World takes one for the team, taste-testing a cider or two from the award-wining, in-house brewery.
As lovely as lunch is, once they spot the resort’s centrepiece swimming pool they lose interest in anything other than getting wet. Which is fair enough given we’ve chosen what must be the hottest day in recorded history for our stay. With temps at a sizzling 44.5 degree Celsius, the pool is the place to be and we’re soon diving into the cool water. And though every other guest in the resort has the same idea, the pool is so immense that it doesn’t feel crowded in the slightest.
We think about checking out the holiday program, consider a round of golf at the resort’s 18-hole championship golf course and even toss about the idea of heading out to explore the local area. But the heat has made us lazy and the pool has us in its dripping wet clutches. We simply can’t bring ourselves to leave its watery embrace, so instead spend the entire afternoon leaping (well, more lethargically meandering) between the Jacuzzi and the pool.
The kids are so engrossed in their watery bliss that they don’t even notice when I sneak off for a quick pedi at the resort’s Ubika Spa.
I do manage to extract the fam from the pool to take them and my prettily polished toes to the resort’s acclaimed RedSalt Restaurant for dinner, where we soak up the sophisticated atmosphere and glorious views.
I opt for a half dozen natural oysters accompanied by a superb lemon and red wine eschallot mignonette.
Both the boys enjoy plump scallops with spiced cauliflower purée, confit pork belly and pancetta soil.
And Sugarpuff demolishes a kid-friendly serve of fish and chips before raiding a stash of games and colouring-in pages that we hope will keep her busy while we enjoy our mains.
No such luck. When my mouth-watering Angus Tenderloin arrives she swoops on my plate like a seagull and I end up sharing my dinner with her, while the boys enjoy perfectly pink salmon with Béarnaise sauce. We finish our meal with a lemon tart, mascarpone and smashed lime meringue, which is nothing short of perfection.
Ready for a little post dinner fun, we head downstairs to catch a free family movie in the pop-up cinema. The kids kick back in beanbags and are soon lost to the magic of the silver screen, while Mr Eats World and I get lost in a glass or two of the Hunter Valley’s finest in the Lovedale Bar.
The drinks must soften us up, as when they come bounding out demanding to visit the resort’s new video amusement and arcade games … we cave in. And when I say we, I mean Mr Eats World because he is as keen to hit the arcade as they are. I’d rather do just about anything else, so I take the opportunity to knock back a quick rose in the quiet of the lobby’s Vista Lounge.
This proves a mistake, as a game of Jenga appears in the bar at the same time as my family. Needless to say with a three-wine handicap, I’m responsible for the demise of the tower of timber bricks. Every. Single. Bloody. Time.
The buffet breakfast at RedSalt is fantastic, though we would recommend arriving as early as possible to avoid a wait for a table.
The breakfast is good. Eggs Benedict aficionado Raffles goes back for three hollandaise-smothered servings of the popular dish before packing in a big bowl of fresh fruit, nuts and yoghurt.
Sugarpuff is equally enamoured with her fresh pancakes and Mr Eats World with his made-to-order omelette, stuffed full of wads of mushrooms, ham and cheese. Then the kids challenge each other to a juice off, creating and comparing their own fresh squeezed juices from a huge selection of fruit.
And for those travelling with under 5’s – little ones breakfast free with a paying adult at the resort!
We help Raffles work off a little of that Hollandaise sauce with a walk around the resort past pretty lakes and lagoons, stopping only for a game of chess and a spot of table tennis.
It’s hot and sweaty work, but thankfully the resort has chilled water available all over the resort to help guests combat the heat.
We check out Water Dragons Kids Club, where a team of experienced childcare professionals provide a range of games and activities for little guests aged between three and 12.
We’re dragged onto the Dragon’s Express by an eager Sugarpuff and chug our way around the resort, before she trades the train for a unicorn, which she takes for a couple of laps of the carousel.
Inspired by her successful unicorn jockeying she then insists on riding every inanimate equine creature we see around the resort. And there are more than a few. Raffles also saddles up, but it would appear horse anatomy isn’t his speciality.
The on site kids club means that mum and dad can pop out for a spot of wine tasting, sans offspring, knowing their children are in safe hands. At least other mums and dads can. Our children refuse to let us go anywhere for fear they’ll miss out on some new adventure. And because they’re bastards. But unless we’re prepared to have AVO’s taken out on them, our vineyard hopping will have to be done with kids in tow.
Once again, Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley comes to our rescue with a ready prepared cheat sheet outlining some of the best family friendly vineyards in the area. It turns out there are many, some boasting playgrounds and cafes, others large grassy play areas the kids can run amok in.
Our favourite is Gemelli Estate, a picture perfect European style vineyard with a pretty courtyard overrun with riotous pink blooms. There’s a glorious weeping willow (that is too tempting for a small boy not to climb) shading tables and chairs for thirsty visitors. And it all overlooks Chardonnay and Muscat vines heavy with grapes, almost ripe enough for picking.
The wine produced by said vineyard is suitably lovely, but it is the welcome that makes this place so special. There’s a cubbyhouse for littlies, and a great grass expanse with bocce, totem tennis, and a soccer ball should your child feel the need to kick one.
But as it is unreasonably hot when we visit, anything active is off the agenda. So Raffles and Sugarpuff make themselves comfortable fine-tuning their Chinese Checker skills under the shade of a vine and lazing on the hot pink beanbags with an ice cream.
Indeed, they’re so happy in this tranquil and enchanting place that it takes almost as much convincing to get them to leave as it does to get their mother to stop drinking all the wine. Almost.
Family packages at Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley also come with a complimentary family pass to the fabulous Hunter Valley Gardens. As we’ve already visited the incredible Christmas Lights Spectacular we decide instead to venture into the gardens in the light of day to hunt for enormous insects and roaring dinosaurs, part of their school holiday Mega Creatures exhibition.
But the lure of that swimming pool proves too great a temptation for this family, so after dodging a pterodactyl and attempting to scale a giant caterpillar, it is back to the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley and into the water where we blissfully soak away the afternoon until we turn pruney.
With two more weeks left of the NSW school holidays, families looking for a last minute getaway with the kids will be pleased to hear that Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley still has some vacancies.
Disclosure: The Eats World stayed as guests of the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley for one night but all experiences and most meals were at our own cost and discretion. All opinions remain our own.