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Myth busting Newcastle

story by: Anna Sarjeant

Think you know Newcastle? Think again. While it might not be the most sought after destination in New South Wales, it’s the dark horse that always exceeds expectations. Here we address every preconception about Australia’s most underrated city.

Newcastle’s beaches are as beautiful as Sydney’s, and better still, the swarms of beach-goers are all but airbrushed out. From Bar Beach, which is fully patrolled and perfect for families, to Merewether, where world-champion surfer Mark Richards first learnt to surf, if you thought this city was all concrete and coal, wake up and smell the salty ocean air. Newcastle has more stretches of glorious beach than you could shake your fancy jandals at, so embark on a ‘beach crawl’ and hop from one sun-drenched patch of sand to the next. Bathers Way is one of the most scenic ways to soak up glittering sea views and spans from the lighthouse at Nobbys Head to Merewether. Hire a bike from Spinway, Newcastle’s automated bike rental service, and cycle the 5km coastal pathway via several idyllic beaches. Once the mid-afternoon sun cools, ditch the bike and hop onto the Newcastle Memorial Walk. Connected by a stairway (hence the bike drop), this clifftop stroll features a 160 metre clifftop bridge lined with the silhouettes of steel soldiers. Installed to commemorate the centenary of Anzac, this impressive overpass also affords stunning 360 degree views of the city, its adjacent coastline and dramatic crashing waves.

Newcastle was an 'accidental find' by Lieutenant John Shortland in 1797, just nine years after Sydney. History abounds. Is there anything more invigorating than an early morning swim - the sun rising over a watery horizon and the smell of the ocean flooding your nostrils? As much as Newcastle’s easygoing charm invites visitors to simply chill, some things are definitely worth getting up for. An early morning dip at the Newcastle Ocean Baths is one of them. Dating as far back as 1922, the restored Art Deco pavillion on the shores of Newcastle Beach envelopes an enormous saltwater swimming pool; basked in sun and thrashed by Tasman waves. Open year round and free to the public, there are well maintained changing facilities and warm showers, with 50 metre lanes for Olympic wannabes and a quieter, shallow paddle pool for parents with pint-sized tykes. Forty lengths after sunrise, once you’re sitting poolside, sipping a coffee and reading the paper, you’ll realise you’ve been transported to a bygone era. When leisurely pastimes were as simple as early swims and morning sunshine.


Gastronomical surprises exist on every corner and gourmet is on the rise. Newy’s chefs can dish out a taste sensation to rival the best of them. In coastal cities where the bohemian vibe is as vivid as Newcastle’s, the surf might be strong but you can bet your bottom dollar the coffee’s even stronger. If there’s one characteristic all beach flanking towns possess, it’s indie-cool coffee shops. Newcastle is little different; each day brings the fresh aroma of ground coffee and eggs benny wafting down its streets. And when the locals whisper of lip-smacking buttermilk pancakes and the best smashed avos in the state, they’re probably gushing about One Penny Black. Just ten steps down the road from Stu McDonald’s dazzling street artwork, this dark and mysterious coffee shop invites punters inside for great food and double shot coffees (because that's standard good café behaviour). Cosy and verging quite nicely on cramped, brush shoulders with surfers fresh out of the sea, lycra-clad joggers and dog walkers already caked in sand.


Newcastle boasts one of the most diverse art scenes in the country. Newcastle’s transformation from a former steel city to bristling art hub is a result of its new-age beatnik thinkers. Hipsters, for want of a better word. These liberalists shunned the Sydney rat race and fostered a thriving community of artists, free-thinkers and super cool creatives. As a result, the city’s calendar is rich in diverse art events. The much celebrated This Is Not Art festival, better known as TiNA, brings together the ideas of less mainstream artists, from writers to painters, comedians and musicians. Held every year over the October long weekend, it’s a collaboration with four sub-festivals, including the National Young Writer's Festival, Critical Animals, Electrofringe and Crack Theatre Festival. The creatives flock to the city, bringing with them an eclectic body of work. It’s experimental, it’s irregular, but there are plenty of artisans to admire and workshops to attend. As laid-back as it is learned, attendees fill their days with equal parts discussion and equal parts beach - a frosted beer never far from hand.


There’s plenty, and you can thank a man called Marcus Westbury. Not so many years back, Newcastle’s Downtown was derelict. Over 150 empty storefronts stood desperate and destitute. Then Marcus Westbury, a festival director and proud Newcastle man, conjured a cunning plan: borrow the empty storefronts and invite fledgling designers to use the stores for free, or at least until they could afford to pay rent. It worked. Downtown is now a vibrant art district, and Westbury is commonly acknowledged as the community's saving grace. Success stories aside, Newcastle boasts many gorgeous pockets of inspiring shops and niche boutiques. From indie designers to hidden enclaves, there’s a shop selling every slice of oddity you could wish for. From the Vintage Grocery Store Museum which replicates an old general store, to the bric-a-brac must-haves discovered on Darby Street, you’ll find a never-ending collection of cool clothes and beautiful antiques. But the gold medal for retro splendour goes to Strip of a Lifetime, a bespoke vintage hire shop and art gallery. Worth a look, if only for the original 1960s photo-booth, which is in perfect working order.


Far removed from the chaos of most cities, Newcastle boasts a small town vibe with big ambition. This city's charms are its sun, surf and total sedateness. At day’s end, why do anything more strenuous than happy hour cocktails followed by fish and chips? Load up on the city’s infectious laid-back ambience; lap up the coastal air and do as the locals do: chill out. It’s basically medicine. Speaking of which, so are cocktails. If you’re looking for refreshment, Newcastle takes the agony out of feeling parched. From former banks transformed into little French establishments, to seductive lounge-chair basements, there are bars and beach-tickling pubs, not-so-secret speakeasies and every other type of drinking hole to satisfy. And when the time comes, descend on Scotties' fish and chip shop. Foremost a restaurant, the simple aesthetics spill onto the street, with coloured lightbulbs sprinkled in the trees and waves crashing spectacularly in the distance. Pull up a pew and order battered fish; the side of fat golden fries are obligatory.

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