Australia's highest city celebrates culture, nature and hairy men, writes Caroline Gladstone.
Armidale is a gracious city on the New England Tableland, home to wealthy fine-merino wool farmers, heritage buildings and within striking distance of the majestic Waterfall Way - a trail of seven national parks (three are UNESCO World Heritage listed), gorges and numerous waterfalls. Visitors love the city's "four seasons", especially when ablaze with autumn colours.
What it's known for
Australia's highest city (1000 metres) is a cultural and educational hub housing the University of New England, the first university to be established outside a capital city, and traditional independent schools dating back more than 100 years. A great introduction to the city is the free heritage tour run by the visitors' centre daily at 10am, corner Marsh and Dumaresq streets, (02) 6770 3888. It visits sites including Hanna's Department Store, the cathedrals, the prestigious Armidale School, the Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place, the Railway Station Museum and the courthouse. Art lovers will enjoy the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM), which has more than 5000 works, including two of the most extensive Australian collections - those of Howard Hinton and Chandler Coventry.
What you didn't know
Armidale's main drag, Beardy Street, takes its name from two settlers who sported flowing beards. Every November Glen Innes, 95 kilometres to the north, holds the Land of the Beardies Festival in honour of the two hairy men - John Duval and William Chandler - who preferred a solitary existence. Those who also hanker for isolation should take the Green Gully Track, a four-day walking trail venturing deep into the national park with the added bonus of guaranteed hut accommodation along the way. Built by NSW National Parks for the fit hiker, the four-day/five-night walk is a snip at $120 a person.
National parks, particularly Oxley Wild Rivers, 30 minutes from the city and containing the spectacular Wollomombi Falls, the highest in the state, as well as Dangars Gorge. Further afield is the World Heritage New England National Park, whose standout attraction is Point Lookout. Another gem is Cathedral Rock National Park, dotted with huge boulders and sculpted granite tors, while Gara Gorge, 16 kilometres from town, has beautiful swimming holes.
NERAM has acquired Margaret Olley's famous Yellow Room Triptych (painting in three parts). Also new is the rock-concert-in-a-vineyard experience, A Day on the Green. The first, held at Petersons Winery this year, attracted 6800 patrons. Next year's concert is in March, on a date to be announced. dayonthegreen.com.au. Those who love fresh produce can pick up fruit and vegies at the Armidale Community Gardens, situated behind the art gallery.
Where to eat
Harvest Cafe at New England Regional Art Museum serves a selection of small plates using local produce. Owner-chef Rowan Tihema, who previously worked at Melbourne's two-hatted Pearl restaurant, uses acclaimed Milly Hill lamb in his delicious lamb, hummus and currant dish, and tuna from the Coffs Coast in the sashimi salad of yellowfin tuna. 106 Kentucky Street, (02) 6771 2907. Home-made breads, pastries, melt-in-your mouth Portuguese treats and coffee roasted on the premises are on offer at the Goldfish Bowl cafe. Chef Matt Westhorpe also teaches at the local TAFE college. (02) 6771 5533, corner Jessie and Rusden streets.
Where to stay
Petersons Winery, five minutes from town, is operated by the family that owns Petersons Champagne House in the Hunter. A romantic retreat set on rolling pastureland, the 1911-built house has a grand hall and stables, the latter used as the winery. Doubles from $200 a night with full breakfast and bottle of wine on departure; petersonsguesthouse.com.au. The Quality Hotel Powerhouse has doubles from $165 a night. qualityhotelpowerhouse.com.au.
How to get there
Armidale is halfway between Sydney and Brisbane on the New England Highway, about 525 kilometres from Sydney. QantasLink operates several services a day from Sydney.