Thursday, 19 May 2016

Newcastle: The historic beach city

Most Australians have probably never really considered Newcastle as a holiday destination. Perhaps because it has just always been there. After all, we're talking about Australia's second oldest city, established way back in 1804 as a settlement for unruly convicts to dig for... you guessed it, coal. Today, Newcastle may be the largest coal exporting port in the world, but for the average Aussie tourist such as myself, there is a lot to like about a city whose heritage skyline is pressed hard up against the sea. For any visitor to Newcastle, the best place to begin exploring the city is from where I am pictured standing above, at Newcastle's Nobbys Beach.

Fort Scratchley overlooks the mouth of the Hunter River, and admission is free. Photo 2016.

Perched high on the hill above Nobbys Beach, Fort Scratchley is a wartime fort that can lay claim to defending our country back in World War II. Fort Scratchley returned fire on an invading Japanese submarine on the evening of 8th June, 1942 after the submarine had unleashed 34 shells on the city.

The guns were last used in WWII against an invading Japanese submarine. Photo 2016.

Today, city volunteers take paid visitors on a guided tour through the tunnels and secret bunkers built beneath the large mound that overlooks the narrow entrance to the Hunter River. Admission to the Fort Scratchley site however is free.

The view from Fort Scratchley over The Foreshore is one of the best of any Australian city.

Fort Scratchley also provides one of the best views of any city in Australia. Looking down on The Foreshore area that skirts the Hunter River, it is easy to forget that such a lovely view is pressed up against the backdrop of a heavily industrialized port.

I shot this photo of the Newcastle Ocean Baths on a sunny day in May 2016.

View-able immediately to the south of Fort Scratchley is the historic facade of the Newcastle City Council Ocean Baths that date back to 1922. The giant saltwater pool still remains one of Newcastle's most popular attractions year-round.

Newcastle has some of the best beaches in the country. This is Newcastle Beach, photographed in 2016.

Immediately south of the Ocean Baths you'll find Newcastle Beach. It's hard to believe that the surf lifesaving club is situated only a block or so from downtown Newcastle, and the beach makes for an ideal meeting place of old and new. Visitors to Australia, and especially Sydney-siders, may rave about Bondi Beach, but I think Newcastle's beaches are better.

Bar Beach is a little further south and offers some amazing scenery. Photo 2016.

If you're feeling adventurous, take a short drive to the other side of the sprawling King Edward Park and you'll find the picturesque Bar Beach. Apart from having some of the best surfing conditions in the city, the beach is also connected by a spectacular walkway and the pedestrian-only Anzac Bridge that skirt the cliffs that can be seen in the photo above.

Newcastle's Custom House stands opposite the old railway station. Photo taken 2016.

Following the road back to Watt Street will return you to Newcastle's city centre. The Customs House stands opposite the old Newcastle Railway Station and from a distance you can be forgiven for thinking that the historic clock tower is part of the railway station. It isn't. Newcastle's old train station stands dormant across the road from the 1877 Italianate Renaissance styled building. A project to convert the old railway line into a tram line linking downtown Newcastle with a new modern railway station to the west at Wickham is already well underway, and will only further revitalize Newcastle's historic precinct.

Coal is Newcastle's most famous export, and the giant ships pass close to the city foreshore.

There are many things I could call Newcastle, but perhaps the best title I could label this former steel city with would be The Historic Beach City. On one side you have the ocean, while on the other side you have the Hunter River. It is possible to watch surfers at Nobbys Beach at the same time you watch a coal ship sail out through the breakwater. The older industrialized fringe areas are slowly being transformed into cafes and art galleries. Perhaps that is why the city welcomes you with the large sign; Newcastle, See Change.

I couldn't find a better cafe than the one on Queens Wharf. What a great view! Photo 2016.

The Queens Wharf precinct makes for an ideal end to a morning or afternoon exploring Newcastle's beaches. Lunch or just a coffee or glass of local Hunter Valley wine is just the thing to accompany the view looking across to Stockton on the other side of the river. And while Newcastle may not trump itself as The Venice of The South or offer fancy gondola rides, there is the local ferry service that crosses the mouth of the harbour from Queens Wharf to Stockton for those who want to appreciate the city from the water.

What I liked: The amazing contrast between the older historic feel of the city and the beaches that are among some of the most beautiful in Australia.

What I didn't: The parking meters, particularly around the Hunter Street Mall area limit you to a maximum of 2 hours, which is hardly enough time for a visitor to do lunch and some shopping.

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