Tamworth is famous for country music but, says Emily Herbert, it’s not just Golden Guitars and Slim Dusty statues that make this New England city sing.
Things to do
We just have to say it: country music diehard or not, every Australian should experience the Tamworth Country Music Festival once in their lives and this year it’s on January 20 to 29. Regardless of when you visit Tamworth, gateway to NSW’s north-west, you’ll find a rural hub with a cosmopolitan edge evident in its polished eateries, pretty boutiques and excellent sporting and entertainment facilities.
Tree-lined Peel Street is the main urban artery, a thriving thoroughfare lined with outdoor cafés and shops. Follow your nose to The Other Shop, where a vanilla-caramel candle perpetually burns. Here you’ll find high-end Australian fashion labels and cool seasonal one-offs. Once you’ve donned your Camilla caftan, float across the street to French Style (02 6766 5663) for Bensimon sneakers and French espadrilles, before heading to Tarnished Interiors (0429 073 030) for new and vintage homewares and furniture.
Nearby, the city’s cutting-edge playgrounds are a drawcard for children of all ages. The Tamworth Regional Playground, a $2.2 million development in Bicentennial Park, includes the nine-metre-high Skywalk, a flying fox and bike track. While the kids play, grown-ups can pick up coffee and brownies from the on-site Hopscotch Restaurant & Bar.
For less bustle and more view, head up the hill to the Tamworth Marsupial Park (0429 007 918), where close encounters with kangaroos, emus and cockatoos await. If the kids haven’t had enough of playgrounds, there’s another one right here; the locally designed Adventure Playground – adding weight to Tamworth’s claim to the title of “playground capital of NSW”.
Alternatively, you might want to hit the nature trails nearby. The Kamilaroi Track will take you on a ramble to Flagstaff Mountain and further on to the Oxley Lookout for a panoramic view of the city.
If you’re not in Tamworth during festival time, get your country fix at The Big Golden Guitar Tourist Centre, which has wax figures of Chad Morgan, Jean Stafford, Johnny Chester and the like. The Australian Country Music Hall of Fame is run by volunteers and is bursting with memorabilia, from spangled stage costumes to the well-strummed guitars of Australia’s country music greats.
To get the most out of this region, having a car is a must. Forty minutes out of town is the picturesque village of Nundle, at the foot of the Great Dividing Range. Some 600 metres above sea level, it’s a refuge in summer from the sometimes brutal heat of Tamworth and was originally a goldmining encampment in the late 19th century. Its heritage endures in antiques shops and the Nundle Woollen Mill (nundle.store), where fleece is spun on vintage machinery and the resulting yarn is for sale in the mill shop.
Make like a fossicker and hire a kit and a mud map from the Mount Misery Gold Mine Cafe then pan for the yellow stuff in the nearest creek – good luck!
For lunch, grab picnic supplies from the Friendly Grocer on Jenkins Street (02 6769 3000) and head to Hanging Rock Lookout for views of the Nundle Valley. Or dine on hearty pub grub (the herb-and-parmesan-crusted schnitzel is our pick) in the leafy beer garden at The Peel Inn.
An hour’s drive from Tamworth, up the New England Highway, is the outstanding Eastview Estate. Drop in for an afternoon tasting at the estate’s retro Speakeasy saloon and sip your way through an extensive list of homemade gins, vodkas and craft beers. Stephen Dobson, the co-owner of this distillery/brewery/restaurant, is happy to share stories about his previous life as a Hollywood cinematographer-director.
Drive about 40 minutes north-west of Tamworth on the Oxley Highway through undulating farmland to Lake Keepit State Park (02 6769 7605). At three-quarters the size of Sydney Harbour, this shimmering expanse of water is a magnet for locals trying to escape the summer heat. And this is the season to take to the mega dam, which is at unprecedented levels after record rainfall last year.
If you have the time, camp or hire a cabin here and spend a couple of days canoeing and fishing for yellowbelly and Murray cod. The excellent facilities include barbecues, a skate bowl, a water park and tennis courts. It’s hard to beat water skiing in the golden last hours of the day as cockatoos take to the sky in a white plume above you.
Where to eat
For the best soft tacos in town, take a trip to the Tortilla Cartel (02 6766 6363) in The Albert Hotel, where the street-style food is a mouth-watering fusion of American and Mexican. Down a cloudy apple cider and dig in to Southern fried chicken burgers, jalapeño poppers and pulled lamb burritos.
The Post Office Hotel (02 6761 3322), on Fitzroy Street, has decent and well-priced pub fare – we’re talking chicken schnitzel and rump steaks for under $20.
The busy Ruby’s Cafe & Gift Store (02 6766 9833) is a local favourite. For brekkie, try the Red Ruby: poached eggs, beetroot relish and Egyptian dukkah topped with Persian fetta. The garden setting offers an escape from the crowds during festival time.
At Teamo Teahouse, take your pick from more than 50 loose-leaf teas, all of which can be served iced; try a tea-based cocktail for a little more kick.
Across the Peel River, Le Pruneau is a touch of France at a busy Tamworth intersection. As well as hosting an organic market every Saturday, the restaurant makes everything on site, from pastries and cakes to house-cured meats and preserves. The energetic owner, Phillippe Kanyaro, also teaches cheesemaking at the local TAFE.
If you want to spot a real cowboy any time of year, head to The Longyard Hotel, next door to the 12-metre-high Big Golden Guitar. The hotel can get jam-packed, as it’s only a stone’s throw from the Australian Equine and Livestock Events Centre, but the bistro pumps out flavoursome steaks with admirable speed.
The Pig & Tinder Box serves terrific tapas, as well as wood-fired pizza and elegant cocktails (the spiced apple margarita is a standout).
For espresso made by baristas with big-city CVs, head to Addimi, a family-owned café that’s a pre-work favourite for busy locals.
You’ll want to order the 14-hour slow-roasted New England lamb shoulder at The Workshop (02 6766 7000), set within the newly refurbished Quality Hotel Powerhouse. The fine-dining restaurant is a special-occasion staple for locals and has just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Executive chef Ben Davies worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe before moving to Tamworth in 2005.
For a long lunch, head to Graze at the Willow Tree Inn, a 45-minute drive south of Tamworth. The restaurant and bistro produces its own beef and lamb on Colly Creek Station, within cooee down the road. The steaks, dry-aged for five weeks on the premises, are worth the drive alone.
If you want to enjoy the wine list, take the train from Tamworth – which pulls up just in time for lunch – or grab a room at the inn and stay over (but be sure to get in early, as Saturday nights book out quickly).
Places to stay
At leafy Paradise Tourist Park on the Peel River, a few minutes’ amble from the CBD, you can book a cabin, pull up with a caravan or pitch a tent. Its meticulously-kept facilities include a communal kitchen and – the best thing during a Tamworth summer – a swimming pool.
For a quiet night in the countryside, McNevins Tamworth Motel (02 6760 9200) is 10 minutes out of town with a rural outlook. While it has run-of-the-mill décor, the motel welcomes pets and there are even facilities for a horse or two.
The heritage-listed CH on Peel, right in the heart of the city centre, was transformed from a pub into an Art Deco hotel in 2014. You can still enjoy a beer or a glass of wine in the bar downstairs while watching the world go by on Peel Street.
Overlooking town on the east side, the Quality Hotel Powerhouse is popular with corporate crowds but apartments and bunk suites mean it’s good for families, too.
The only five-star accommodation in Tamworth, The Retreat at Froog-Moore Park is a boutique hotel on the periphery of town. Each of the five rooms has a theme, including Moroccan Fantasy and Maeda Japanese. Reserve a table for dinner – owners Peter and Sandy Moore are passionate about food and grow the limes, plums, figs and vegies that end up on their guests’ dinner table. Sandy describes herself as a “flavour cook”; you’ll know what she means when you try her Moroccan lamb tagine.
If themed rooms aren’t your thing, you’ll find more understated chic at Beethovens B&B, a historic homestead close to the CBD. ￼
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