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Cycling Newcastle's Fernleigh Track and Foreshore

Alia Parker's picture
Cycling through the Fernleigh Tunnel rail trail, Newcastle Australia. Cycle Traveller

I watch cyclist commuting through the city as I sit looking out an open cafe window. There are recreational riders, teenagers too, along the foreshore and on the bike trails. Everywhere you look, the grand architecture of old buildings has been restored, new businesses are opening, buzzing cafes and fine restaurants are full, and there is an undeniable sense of positivity radiating from the local residents.

Whatever preconceived ideas you may have about the coal port of Newcastle, it's time to scrunch them up and start afresh. Newcastle is in the midst of a cosmopolitan renaissance and it's one of the most exciting pockets of Australia I have had the pleasure of visiting in recent years.

I'm here for a three-day visit to check out Newcastle's cycling trails, but within minutes of getting off the train, I know I'm in for a whole lot more. Call me simple, but it has everything to do with the ham and cheese croissant I have for breakfast at Estabar, a trendy little cafe overlooking Newcastle Beach. They've got some delicious chutney on it that, along with my piccolo espresso, lifts my mood after an early wake up and two-and-a-half-hour train trip from Sydney. I'm happier still when, shortly after, I meet the lovely Mary Stewart at Terraces for Tourists who checks me into a gorgeous circa-1885 terrace house built by her grandparents. The house, called Adeline, is situated on a quiet terrace-lined street in the East End close to the beaches, harbour and the main eating and shopping drags. Better still, there's a private courtyard out the back for my bike.

Fernleigh Track

Family cycling on Newcastle's Fernleigh Track rail trail. Cycle Traveller

All settled, I jump on my bike and head for the Fernleigh Track – a 16km rail trail that runs from the outer Newcastle suburbs of Adamstown to Belmont. One of the few rail trails in NSW, it's the main reason I'm here. There is a train from Newcastle to Adamstown, but I decide to ride the 8km to get there, navigating my way using Google Maps' bike function. I ride a combination of main roads and residential streets – all friendly to cyclists – and soon find myself cruising along the old Belmont rail line (1880-1991).

The Fernleigh Track was completed in 2011 and is a great example of how to develop a rail trail; the trail is clearly sign posted with suburb and distance markers, there are numerous entrances and exits, it is safe, well maintained, scenic and very popular.

Once on the trail, the hum of traffic quickly disappears as I enter a bush corridor full of bird song. I pass a father towing his son on a trailer bike, then a couple towing their rather large dog in a remarkable home-made contraption. I soon reach the highlight of the trail – the 181 metre Fernleigh Tunnel and I pause for a photo. I really don't know what it is that gets me so excited about tunnels, but judging from the numerous photos of other people cycling through it, I sense I'm not the only one. I reach the end and double back to take the view from the opposite angle. Overall, the Fernleigh Track is a very enjoyable day ride.

Nature Trail

Cycling along the foreshore, Newcastle. Cycle Traveller

Day two and I'm meant to be riding a 40km nature trail loop from Broadmeadow out to Blackbutt Nature Reserve, which is home to koalas, kangaroos, emus, wallabies and wombats. I've really been looking forward to this ride. Unfortunately, torrential rain has rolled in overnight and washed out my plans. I hope to get back up there to try it out sometime. Here's a map of the route. If you would like to try it, let us know what you think.

Despite the bad weather, I actually have a very enjoyable day hopping from shop to cafe to shop to stay dry while getting some Christmas shopping out of the way. Newcastle has some great quirky artisan shops along Hunter Mall and Darby Street, making gift shopping rather easy.

The Foreshore

Day three is really just a half day, with my train returning to Sydney just after midday. I wake to a few showers, but nothing as bad as the day before so after a quick breakfast I'm on my bike and checking out Newcastle's gorgeous foreshore. I pass historic Fort Scratchley, dating back to 1828, which overlooks Nobbys Beach. The Fort, which is open to visitors, has played a significant role in defending Australia and to this day remains the only seaside fort to have fired on an enemy vessel, attacking and driving away a Japanese submarine which shelled Newcastle in 1942.

The art deco Newcastle Bathers Pavilion

A shared path stretches past the fort, along the beach and out to a long breakwater. I get a kick out of riding my bike out into the ocean and enjoy the various views of Newcastle the breakwater provides. Then it's back past the fort and along Bathers Way, which runs along the ocean to a beautiful art deco public bathing pavilion. I absolutely adore this building and it's a testament to Newcastle that it is still here, loved and used by the locals.

I stick to the foreshore path, following it up an incline which leads to the Bogey Hole – a swimming hole carved into the rocks among the smashing waves by convicts in 1819. It was made for the personal use of Commandant Morisset and originally called Commandants Baths, but later locals adopted the Aboriginal name 'bogey', meaning 'to bathe'. The views along this stretch of coast are glorious.

Back on the bike I follow the road up a steep incline, past a park and back towards the main road. Out on the ocean I can see the weather once again coming in. It's all downhill from here back to my terrace, but I don't make it in time, with the torrential rain catching me a few blocks from dryness. Even so, I've had such an enjoyable little jaunt along the coast, I don't mind. In better weather, you could continue down to Merewether, or head in the opposite direction along Honeysuckle Wharf.

Social rides

The Bogey Hole swimming pool, Newcastle, Australia. Cycle Traveller

The weather and changed plans cause me to miss a Saturday Morning Social Saunter run by Newcastle Cycleways. This is a great bicycle user group that continues to play a very active role in making Newcastle bicycle friendly. Their website is a helpful source of rides information and there are also weekly social rides for varying abilities that anyone is welcome to join. If you like the company of a group, don't be shy – say hi!

Fast facts

  • Newcastle is the second oldest city in Australia, with the first coal mine set up in 1801 near Fort Scratchley.
  • Newcastle is the biggest coal port in the world.
  • It is Australia's seventh biggest city and the second largest in NSW after Sydney.
  • Fort Scratchley opened fire in both world wars and is the only Australian seaside fort to have fired on an enemy vessel.
  • Newcastle East Public School, established in 1816, is the oldest continuously run school in Australia.

Where to eat

There are countless great options for eating out in Newcastle. Coffee culture is also well and truly embedded, and with stiff competition, I can say I wasn't served a bad one anywhere. Here's a selection of places I visited and can personally recommend.

Sprout Dining – $$$ – Located in the new restaurant precinct along Honeysuckle Drive, Sprout Dining takes my mouth to a happy place. I'm not sure how they manage to squeeze so many flavours into a humble bowl of pumpkin soup, but it is without a doubt the best I've ever had. Their lamb with pea and fennel salad as well as the apple and rhubarb fritters are also to die for. I'm quite confident in saying this restaurant served me my best all-round meal of the year.

Newcastle social rides. Cycle TravellerCafe Zeytoon – $$ – A great place for hungry cyclists on more of a budget. Cafe Zeytoon opened its doors just over a year ago and as the first and only Persian restaurant in the Hunter region, it has fast become very popular. Run by a friendly husband and wife team, set four-course platters are just $35. The baklava here is absolutely mouthwatering and garnished with delicious rosewater-flavoured flossed sugar with tiny pearl honey drops.

Three Monkeys – $ – this owner-operated cafe has been a Darby Street icon for more than a decade. Three Monkeys has good pizzas, sandwiches, coffee, freshly squeezed juices and friendly service. Although I don't try one, their most popular staple is the 'Snickers' milkshake, which I overhear others raving about.

Goldbergs Coffee House – $ – Another popular Darby Street hangout is Goldbergs, which has a crowded and social coffee house charm. Nice coffee and people watching.

Estabar – $ – Friendly with a trendy beach vibe, Estabar has open views and serves great coffee with a selection of cakes, pastries and light meals.

23hundred – $ – A popular spot with the morning lycra-clad roadies, 23hundred is perfect if you need food on the run. Located near the train station, it makes good coffee fast with a broad selection of wraps and sandwiches.

The breakwater past Nobbys Head beach and lighthouse. Cycle Traveller

Conclusion

I was absolutely blown away by Newcastle. I went there expecting to enjoy the Fernleigh Track and found a vibrant city in the midst of a rebirth. I had no shortage of things to keep me busy – if anything, I needed more time to do everything I wanted to do, such as visit its well respected art gallery and the Newcastle Museum. And more cycling of course.

With beautiful beaches, bike trails, excellent cafe culture, bars, fine food and wine (it is located at the gate of the Hunter Valley region after all) markets and shopping, it may sound like a cliché, but there really is something for everyone. Well recommended for a weekend away with your lovely bicycle.

Images from top: Cycling in the 1. Fernleigh Tunnel, Fernleigh Track. 2. Family on the Fernleigh Track. 3. Newcastle Ocean Baths along Bathers Way. 4. The Bogey Hole, Newcastle. 5. Cycling along Newcastle foreshore. 6. On the Newcastle breakwall with Nobbys Beach and lighthouse in the background.

Note: The author was a guest of Newcastle City Council and parts of this trip were sponsored. All opinions are the author's own.

Comments

Thanks so much for visiting our beautiful town and seeing it in the best way possible - on a bike!

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