One of the top 10 most liveable cities in the world, Sydney, finds a mandatory place in the itinerary of anyone planning a trip to Australia, and the harbour city hardly disappoints anyone who touches its shores.
Home to over five million people, this high-energy city offers plenty of things to do and see beyond taking selfies with the iconic Opera House and the Harbour Bridge in the background. Some visitors, after exploring these key attractions, prefer to spend a few days at a relatively quieter and less crowded but interesting destination, not too far from Sydney. Port city Newcastle, just 160km north of the city, fits their purpose most appropriately.
Here, the land meets the Pacific Ocean dramatically, myriad beaches become playgrounds for water sports lovers, colonial history shakes hands with modernity, 19th-century architecture captivates photographers, art stored in museums and on the street walls satisfies aficionados, and a host of multi-cuisine restaurants and cafes reward epicureans. This is where many Sydneysiders head to, an escape from the big-city syndrome upon which they can recharge their batteries.
Like its same-name city in England, this coastal settlement is also famous for coal, as the surrounding region holds an abundance of it. Following the famous idiom (“don’t carry/bring/sell coal to Newcastle”, which means something redundant), my recent trip there was not to carry coal but to dig into its 200 years of intriguing past which I picked up from a local history enthusiast at Fort Scratchley, the city’s historical symbol.
It was built in 1882 as a coastal defence installation to shield the domain against a possible Russian attack.
First named Coal River, then Kingstown and finally Newcastle, the land was first explored in 1797 by Lieutenant John Shortland, making it, Australia’s second oldest settlement after Sydney.
Like Sydney, it started its journey as a penal colony and soon gained a reputation for being a “hellhole”, as the most dangerous convicts were sent there to dig in the coal mines – the region is rich in underground reserves of the black diamond. This continued until 1822; after the removal of the last convicts in 1823, the town was freed from the infamous influence of the penal law.
I came across some painful facets of convict history which rises above ground at the Convict Lumber Yard – once an enclosed arena to store convict-produced coal, timber and lime. The site was the subject of an extensive archaeological dig between 1989 and 1992, resulting in the discovery of hundreds of objects dating back to the first days of the Newcastle penal settlement.
There are information panels erected around the site, detailing aspects of the harsh convict life.
Ending its penal life, Newcastle began to acquire the aspect of a typical Australian pioneer settlement, and a steady flow of free settlers poured into the hinterland.
Availability of coal and sea frontage made the town progress industrially, with the city boasting the nation’s first port (1799) and is still operating today. These facilities led Aussie industry giant BHP to build its massive steelworks in 1935 and operate it for the next 84 years.
I got to witness some of the excitement, colour, drama and noise associated with the steel-making process when I watched a dramatic audio-visual program at the Newcastle Museum. This is a great place to know the stories of both ordinary and extraordinary Newcastle through their collections, exhibitions, and audience engagement programmes.
While browsing through the exhibits I saw a big display of memorabilia from Arnott’s and learnt that the legendary Australian biscuit manufacturer started its journey from Newcastle in 1865 when Scotsman William Arnott opened his first factory there.
It was surely an impressive discovery for me.
Equally interesting was to see some old tram cars which I learnt rattled along the streets from 1887 until 1950 as an efficient mode of public transportation. However, after a gap of almost 65 years, trams – now called “Light Rail” – are back on the Newcastle streets as the most effective mode of public transportation.
When done with history, I shifted focus to the city’s other attributes, which include appreciating the beauty of old colonial buildings like the City Hall, Customs House and the Newcastle Cathedral, enjoying art at the Newcastle Art Gallery and performing arts at the 1,450-seat Civic Theatre, exploring the port which is the world’s largest coal shipping harbour, getting seduced by good food and wine and finally, getting totally immersed in nature.
Its beautiful coastline is a natural playground enhanced by several parklands edging the coastline.
Perched on the hillside overlooking the sea, the Victorian-era King Edward Park is worth visiting to enjoy breathtaking views of how impressively the city meets the sea. All of these make the nation’s second-oldest city a must-visit destination for an experience of a different kind.
Getting there: Malaysia Airlines operates regular flights from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney from where Newcastle is three hours by rail or road.
Accommodation: The Rydges Newcastle has great views of the harbour and is one of the few local-owned hotels in the city.
Website: Visit NSW (visitnsw.com)