The Central NSW city of Orange has attractions for every traveller. It’s a city where you can experience the seasons, from warm bright summers to winter snow settling on the vines, from the falling of autumn leaves to an apple blossom spring.
The town had been waiting for us to discover it since 1850, when the first gold was found nearby at Ophir. Until now, the holiday vision of many Australians tracked either overseas or along the coast, but with an increasing awareness of country, perceptions are changing.
Orange is increasingly on the radar of domestic travellers and with good reason. With a high reputation for its food and wine production, its stunning landscapes and fascinating history, Orange is conveniently located just three hours’ drive from Sydney or Canberra and two hours’ flight from Brisbane (with Fly Corporate), making it the perfect getaway.
Instead, we choose to drive from the Gold Coast through Tamworth and along the Golden Highway via the Black Stump. While some farms are green with crops ready to bale, other paddocks are reduced to parched earth, with cattle and sheep being grazed in ‘the long paddock’ (the grass beside the road) as a means of survival.
When we arrive, Orange is resplendent with spring blooms framing elegant 19th century architecture. Many buildings have been beautifully restored with stained glass windows and pressed metal ceilings. Cobb & Co once carried the mail down these wide tree-lined streets. We follow heritage trail signs to find the birthplace of Banjo Paterson and the home of one of Australia’s most highly regarded Prime Ministers, Ben Chifley.
Today, however, Orange cannot be defined purely by its history. It is a hub of growth and activity, undergoing both social and economic rejuvenation. Renewal is in the air with an influx of younger new life moving into the area to make their mark with energy, skills and fresh ideas.
Old buildings are being repurposed. We visit vineyards such as Nashdale Lane and Ross Hill whose cellar doors are housed in converted apple packing sheds, the Hotel Canobolas (where part of the Orange Wine Festival is held) restored to its former glory, cafés and shops in gentrified vintage buildings.
On the outskirts of town, our first stop is at the Agrestic Grocer. If the rustic straw bale and brick building doesn’t convey the message well enough, the rusty iron plate fronting the alfresco dining area does: “Rural – rustic, unpolished, No waxed apples here, maybe just a little uncouth.”
But not unrefined, as the produce, food and wine show us, their provenance closely tied to the surrounding farmland. Grocer and gift shop, restaurant and function space, The Agrestic Grocer is a joyful celebration of harvest and community; everything we love about Orange bundled up in one place!
The newly-opened Schoolhouse Restaurant, housed in the heritage-listed 1857 Union Bank, brings big city talent to country life with Head Chef Dom Aboud (ex-Rockpool) melding international flavours into fine dining.
With bountiful fresh produce and an eclectic mix of dining offerings, Orange has been dubbed the ‘Food Capital of the West’.
From award-winning restaurants such as Lolli Redini to funky Asian-inspired fare at Sweet Sour Salt, the split-personality quirkiness of Charred/The B-Side Café and trending coffee spots such as Bill’s Beans, Factory Espresso and the Byng Street Store, visitors and locals are well catered for.
With memories of a boat trip between Australia and New Zealand in the 1960s, we stay in the 1960s motel Oriana which has been lovingly restored to gorgeous retro glory. The 4-star travel-themed motel shows off owner Espen Harbitz’s own art collection: paintings by European masters collected by his grandfather and hidden during his imprisonment in WWII, as well as vintage travel posters from the Orient where Espen spent decades working. The Oriana itself is a destination housing a bar, restaurant and function area, gym and even a poolside bar. We love it so much we may never leave!
Like the Tweed area, Orange draws life from an extinct volcano, Mt Canobolas, which brought the region its fertile soil and rich underground streams of alluvial gold. While the nature of the area’s ‘goldrush’ may have changed, nearby CVO by Newcrest is one of Australia’s largest gold mining operations.
The lush area around Orange has long been recognised as a ‘fruit bowl’ of NSW, producing apples, pears, cherries and grapes.
In its early days of viticulture, half of the region’s grapes were sent to established Hunter Valley and Mudgee wineries, blended and marketed as wine from those regions. However, in the past five years there has been an increased confidence in the primary production of both food and cool climate wine in the region. A relative newcomer to winemaking, Orange is well-regarded as a region for its exceptional wines due to its cool climate, elevation, volcanic basalt soils and sustainable viticulture practices.
Dominating the landscape, Mt Canobolas brings a Bordeaux-like climate to the region, oversees wine production and defines identity. Those wines closest to the mountain at an altitude over 600m ASL are designated as being from Orange, while those below 600m are from the Central Ranges.
Though wine pioneers only planted grapes commercially in the region in 1980 at Bloodwood, there are now about 60 vineyards and 40 cellar doors, many of them family owned.
James Halliday describes the wines of the Orange region as having “elegance and fine-boned intensity across all styles”. Yet still the region is ‘emerging’ and rarely noted on its wine labels.
Experienced winemakers such as Philip Shaw have passed on a fabulous legacy, with winemaking in many wineries moving on to the next generation (such as Damian and Daniel Shaw, William Rickard-Bell, Steve Nobbs and Nadja Wallington) to continue in their own way, reinventing and representing wine to a new generation.
Being a comparatively new region to the Australian wine scene, Orange winemakers are intent on finding new ways of using sustainable agriculture and far less pesticide as demanded by contemporary markets. Ross Hill, for example, became the first carbon neutral winery in Australia. Nashdale Lane uses sheep and llama to control weeds during autumn and winter. They also offer minimal impact accommodation in glamping tents.
Wineries have expanded into dining. New business models have been introduced into other areas of agriculture as well, with many ‘Pick your own fruit’ farms replacing more traditional fruit picking, packing and transportation models of distribution. It’s an age of innovation.
Ferment: The Orange Wine Centre and Store is a great introduction to some of the hard-to-get wines of the region, acting as a central location for winery information, retail wine sales and bar. Owner Simon Forsyth hosts a personalised experience of some of Orange’s most highly awarded wines and, following a tasting, we leave with several cases of wine to savour at home.
Festivals such as the Orange F.O.O.D Week and the Orange Wine Festival provide a focus for the burgeoning food and wine scene of the region, while cycling and triathlon events draw others to visit for lifestyle reasons. With many major events as drawcards, visitor numbers have doubled in five years to over a million visitors in 2018.
It’s fitting that, when we visit in spring, apple blossoms are in bloom and we see Orange, in its splendour, as the ‘new green’. The largest city in the central west, Orange is not only a service centre to over 100,000 people, it is also a destination, a city to visit in any season, each one with its own treasure.
NOTE: Good Food Gold Coast visited Orange as a guest of Central NSW Tourism, Orange 360 and the Oriana Hotel.