Newcastle is New South Wales' second-largest city after Sydney and is becoming a regular fixture on several major cruise lines' itineraries. Set at the mouth of the Hunter River, a 162-kilometre drive north of Sydney, it offers the attractions of a big city while retaining the laidback ambience of a regional town.
Its history as a working port goes back to the early 19th century, when steamships carried coal to Sydney. And while today it is the largest coal exporting port in the world, Newcastle is also known as the gateway to the Hunter Valley vineyards and has plenty to offer in the way of cool bars, exciting restaurants, cultural activities and spectacular surf beaches.
The city was closely linked to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England -- where many of the coalminers migrated from in the late 1800s and nearby towns such as Morpeth, Jesmond, Wallsend and Gateshead are named after their English counterparts. Its convict past is evident in sites such as the Bogey Hole, an ocean rock pool that was hand-carved out of the cliff. For an insight into some of the city's historic buildings, the three-kilometre Newcastle East Heritage Walk takes in the Customs House, Convict Lumber Yard, Fort Scratchley, Christchurch Cathedral and various convict-era buildings. The Newcastle Museum is also well worth a visit.
Ever since the steelworks closed in 1999, Newcastle has been reinventing itself. Honeysuckle Wharf is now a lively promenade of waterfront bars and restaurants; Darby Street in Cooks Hill is becoming the hip and happening place for small galleries, cafes and curio shops; and wine bars and clubs are popping up in converted banks in the commercial district.
Not many ports in the world display a giant welcome sign for visiting vessels and none other than Newcastle marks their departure with a gun salute.
Cruise ships dock at the Channel Berth at the Carrington terminal. A free shuttle bus, organised by the Port of Newcastle, takes passengers to and from Queens Wharf, a 10-minute drive away, where you'll find a visitor information centre at the Maritime Centre, as well as a few waterfront places to eat and drink while watching ships, tug boats and a local ferry. A scenic tram ride departs from Queens Wharf, with commentary provided by the driver over 1.5 hours. Walk further up the street to the city centre, where there are numerous attractions, restaurants and beaches.
A new cruise terminal is set to be built on the same site in 2018.
Novotel Newcastle Beach: A great place for cruise passengers to stay is the Novotel, located near the beach, restaurants, cafes and bars, and a short stroll to art galleries, coastal walks and shopping areas. Guest rooms are modern and spacious, and family rooms are also available, with a restaurant and gym onsite. (5 King St, Newcastle; 02 4032 3700)
A volunteer meet-and-greet team is on hand at the Channel Berth as passengers disembark to answer questions, distribute the Cruise Arrival Guide and direct you to tour coaches, shuttle buses, taxis and private pick-up areas.
Although Newcastle is blessed with several beautiful surf beaches, you must always swim between the flags and -- if the beach is displaying a 'closed' sign -- don't give in to the temptation to go for a dip as conditions can be dangerous or there could be sharks in the area.
A free shuttle bus will take you from the cruise terminal to Queens Wharf. Once you're there, getting around Newcastle is easy, and there are several transport options.
By Bus: There's a free bus service in the central city zone and timetables are available at the Maritime Centre.
By Taxi: Taxis service the Newcastle, Lake Macquarie, Port Stephens and Hunter Valley areas and wheelchair-accessible taxis are available on request.
By Rental Car: Hertz car rentals is located at Maitland Road in the city centre; you can book in advance on the company's website.
By Ferry: If you're planning on an independent sand-dune adventure or just want to spend a day on Stockton Beach, the Newcastle to Stockton Ferry Service route runs every half hour from 5.15am to midnight every day; the Newcastle terminal is at Queens Wharf. Central Newcastle is very easy to walk around and if you want to go a little further afield you can hire a bike from Metro Cycles at 2 Bellevue Street.
By Rickshaw: Using pedal-powered pedicabs, Rickshaw Revolution (0477 776 245) offers a fun way to get around. City tours are also available with a rider-guide who shares stories of their personal and historic knowledge of Newcastle.
The local currency is the Australian dollar. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.xe.com. There are several ATMs and banks in the city for obtaining Australian dollars. Credit cards are widely accepted.
English, with an Aussie accent, is spoken in Newcastle. Locals are referred to as "Novocastrians".
Whether you're looking for a casual cafe serving fresh local produce, a stylish wine bar where you can sample some of Australia's finest wines over a light lunch, or a more substantial gourmet experience, Newcastle offers dozens of top-class eateries. The key dining neighbourhoods are The Boardwalk on Honeysuckle Wharf, overlooking the harbour; Darby Street in Cooks Hill, where you can browse galleries and secondhand shops among small, individual cafes and restaurants; the inner city and West Newcastle areas, where exciting bars and boutique restaurants are popping up in between commercial buildings; and Hamilton's Beaumont Street, which is lined with pubs and pavement cafes.
Rustica: Open for lunch Thursday to Sunday, the waterfront Rustica has jaw-dropping views across Newcastle Beach. The menu features Mediterranean cuisine, from tapas to seafood, focusing on local produce such as Port Stephens oysters, Upper Hunter lamb and Hunter Valley wines. Vegan and kids meals are also available, as well as liqueurs, whiskeys, spirits and cocktails. Groups are welcome with a booking. The $20 express lunch menu is top value, especially with that ocean vista. Choose from Moorish spiced squid, pork belly, herb and lemon crumbed chicken schnitzel, fish and chips, ratatouille salad or house-made spaghetti bolognese. If your cruise departs at night, an early dinner is possible: eat at 5.30 pm and be done by 7pm ($70 for lamb shoulder, vegetables and a bottle of wine). For a later dinner, the six or eight course banquets are highly recommended. Rustica is a short stroll from the Novotel Newcastle Beach.
Paymasters: Head for Paymasters on the harbour foreshore for lunch with a side order of history. This Heritage-listed building was once the home of the railway paymaster and is on the site of the historic Convict Lumber Yard, next door to the Customs House Hotel. Starters include a delicious smoked duck salad and baked Binnorie goat's cheese (Binnorie is a well-known Hunter Valley dairy). Lamb two ways and a classic eye fillet of beef are on the mains menu, along with seafood dishes such as barramundi and risotto. (18 Bond St, Newcastle; 02 4925 2600; open for breakfast 9.30 to noon at weekends; lunch Wednesday to Sunday, from noon to 2pm; dinner Wednesday to Saturday, from 6pm)
The Landing Bar & Kitchen: This place combines a busy bar, outdoor water-view lounging deck and a lower-level dining area in an open, contemporary space. While the cocktail menu is very attractive, a cider brewed in nearby Scone is the perfect accompaniment to a whopping big Wagyu beef burger. The menu has sharing plates -- mushroom and taleggio arancini and chicken wings -- as well as pizzas, imaginative salads, and good old fish and chips. (1 Honeysuckle Drive, Newcastle; 02 4927 1722; open for lunch Friday to Sunday, from noon to 3pm; dinner Wednesday to Monday, from 6pm until late)
Reserve Wine Bar: If you don't fancy a day trip to the Hunter Valley, check out the super-stylish Reserve Wine Bar in the former ANZ bank building in Hunter Street. The wine list, which is regularly updated, boasts more than 350 wines with the focus on regional NSW and ACT wines and a substantial representation of wines from the rest of Australia and around the world. The atmosphere is informal and fun while the service is top-notch -- knowledgeable but friendly. Light bites include a house-made duck liver pate and terrine, an excellent cheese plate with imported and local cheeses, and more substantial dishes include Angus beef sliders with aioli, rocket and tomato chilli relish and Moroccan lamb skewers with couscous. (102 Hunter St, Newcastle. 02 4929 3393; open Tuesday to Friday, from noon; Saturday from 3pm)
Merewether Surfhouse: You can't beat Merewether Surfhouse for lunch with panoramic ocean views. Surfhouse Cafe on the promenade level is a top spot for a late breakfast, lunch or afternoon coffee; the beachside pizza shop is open from 4pm onwards, while the Surfhouse Restaurant on the top level serves Mod Oz cuisine for lunch and dinner. The terrace bar is popular with visitors and locals alike and is open from 11.30am until late every day. (Henderson Parade, Merewether Beach; 02 4918 0000; open Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 3pm; dinner from Wednesday to Saturday, 6pm - 9pm)
The Tea Project: This gorgeous tea room is ideal for a quiet cuppa and a snack. The passionate staff, including the owner, present the teas in beautiful pots, cups and saucers in a ceremony style. There are almost 100 high-quality teas to choose from, which can also be served iced. Food includes a selection of fabulous cakes, house-made scones with fresh cream and rose water jam, and even steamed dumplings, which go surprisingly well with tea. High tea is also available for $65 per person, with vegan and gluten-free options available. (177 King Street, Newcastle; 02 4906 1125)
Pick up some retro, vintage or antique pieces at one of the 25 specialised shops in the Centenary Centre (29 Centenary Road). The Newcastle Museum shop (6 Workshop Way) has a good range of local history books, artist-designed Newcastle-branded T-shirts and unusual jewellery.