With our travel playground now strongly defined by state borders, our holidays have forced us to explore the riches right under our noses, or at least just a little further down the metaphorical garden path. When you add to this a teenager learner driver keen to chalk up his hours, you have the perfect recipe for slow, local travel.
These last school holidays we set off on a classic road trip. Playlists were made, mysterious configurations of the car’s sound system that did not involve CDs were put in place, L-plates were slapped on. The snack box and dog were secured in different sections of the car (file that under ‘lesson learnt’) and off we went. Our destination was a triangular section of New South Wales’ Central West comprising Cowra, Grenfell and Young. My son would be visiting school friends and I would be free to explore.
Our first stop was the prosperous market town of Boorowa. A late lunch of Duffy of Binalong pies and Bill’s Beans of Orange coffee from the Pantry on Pudman set the foodie theme for our trip. At 2pm on a Sunday they were already closing up, so we had to be content with takeaway. Note to self – leave earlier next time. The café is part of a terrific vintage emporium that begged for more detailed exploration.
Travelling with a pet requires careful planning. Even though the so-called fur babies are nowadays ubiquitous, not all establishments welcome them with open arms. Luckily, the Cowra Motor Inn is not one of them. I increasingly like to book directly with the place over the phone, keeping the profits where they need to be. And nothing on the booking sites covered rescue poodles. Nicole at reception was more than willing to chat and could accommodate us and pooch at no extra cost, as long as we didn’t leave him alone in the room and cleaned up any accidents. Given that he has now graduated to geriatric canine nappies (yes, they are a thing – reusable, of course) we felt pretty confident.
We were shown around town by son’s friend, who received an award from the ABC for being only one of two people in Australia under 30 with a very old-fashioned name from the Ida/Ethel/Edna/Beryl era. We caught the last 20 minutes of the Japanese Gardens for free and then dined on takeaway Chinese noodles at the picnic table at the POW camp. The irony of this was not lost on the teens, who declared it to be ‘meta’ and ‘random’. My education continues. From this, we learnt that not much is open on a Sunday night in regional towns, especially with the pubs closed. However, good local knowledge about the best cafes set us up for the next morning.
We were greeted in person by Nicole, who remembered me from the phone call. Our room at the Cowra Motor Inn was freshly painted in an Aegean blue and white, which belied the sub-zero temperatures outside. The room was warm and quiet, the beds were comfortable and the long, hot shower perfect. We missed the included continental breakfast but cruised up one of the many hills to the gorgeous heritage building of the Kendal Street café on our way out to Greenethorpe. I noted that there was a brow bar, the Browery, next to the café, but I would have to stay ungroomed this trip due to the teenage social schedule. I only took a nibble of the breakfast roll because a) I was saving myself for lunch and b) prices were at a premium, but it was declared by my son to be the best in the world due to perfect bacon and a special onion relish. The coffee was superb.
A pleasant 45-minute drive via the Olympic Highway saw the teen deployed at a gorgeous rammed earth house on a hill filled with even higher-spirited young people. (Group numbers respected pandemic guidelines). I set off, glad of my canine companion and trying to resist the melancholy of a flash-forward to emptied nests. As usual, a wide vista and some wind in my hair did the trick. The paddocks are once again green and breathing after the long drought. The small town of Greenthorpe has a bit of a hillbilly vibe and an interesting history. It was one of the few manorial/feudal setups of shared crop farming in Australia, based around Iandra Castle, which opens a few times a year for visits – check with Grenfell Tourism. There was a curious amount of caravans in the village, and a quirky caravan upcycler – Blue Sky Gallery, open weekends and at other times by arrangement. Circa 1935 is Greenethorpe’s café and BnB.
I arrived in Grenfell at lunchtime. The birthplace of Henry Lawson had me thinking about the harshness of life in the bush and the writing life, addiction and despair. Fittingly, a slightly gloomy mist had descended and business was slow. There was a bit of a wild west vibe here and Ennio Morricone woodwind themes played in my head. I definitely needed food. There seemed to be a lot of close- up shops and pubs with upturned stools. I determined to make up for my earlier frugality by contributing to the local economy. Fortunately, the Criterion Hotel was open and had an outdoor deck with log fire. Things were looking up. My first post lockdown pub lunch was instructive. All done to the tune of the neurotic poodle protesting at being tied up outside while I freshened up and ordered. Cutlery was provided in pre-packaged sets and hand sanitiser was encouragingly omnipresent. I set myself up with a glass of local shiraz and enjoyed the eighties pop music by the fire. We had the deck to ourselves. The sun came out and so did the best lamb cutlets in living memory – the fabled Cowra lamb certainly lives up to its reputation. The dog can vouch for the bones, but I didn’t leave much meat on them for him. Water was provided. Heartily cheered, we made our way to Young.
Everyone says, ‘Oh, you’re going to Young? You MUST visit Wilders Bakery in the main street. It’s famous.’ I am not one of those people. I knew I was in trouble when I overheard the girl at the coffee machine – I hesitate to say ‘barista’ – ask if you just run it longer for a double shot. No, I wanted to scream, you do not! But by then it was too late to run for my life. I bravely and politely drank my beverage – again, I hesitate to call it coffee – and imbibed the 50s vibe of the cherry pie driven produce. Maybe I just caught them at the end of a long day. I decided the town looked far too established and happening to be without gastronomic reward, and I was right. Riding on the back of the goldrush and now the cult of the cherry season, there are few empty shops or parking spaces here. My foodie antenna did not let me down. Dog and I explored and found a splendid bookstore and gift shop – The General Store, Boorowa St – full of things you didn’t know you needed. Now, it is a truth universally acknowledged that people who frequent bookstores know their food and coffee. I got out my notebook and started asking questions. We were set. I purchased Julia Baird’s terrific tome ‘Phosphoresence’ and so now also had food for thought. We repaired to the Colonial Motel (who charge a small extra fee for pets) and ordered in lasagne and tiramisu from legends Salami Bros. On the phone, I asked if they did a side salad, as there wasn’t one on the menu. A small salad arrived, no extra cost. I felt like a cossetted princess – again, the room was fresh and updated, the bed comfortable, the rates reasonable. No complaints from me.
The next morning, we breakfasted outside the Art of Espresso roastery and café in the winter sun. The breakfast roll and coffee did not disappoint. Local farmers and gym ladies would seem to agree. After a rewarding browse through the op shops, I grabbed a fresh green juice at the Shack, a mecca for vegetarian and vegan visitors and residents alike. Their tongue-in-cheek No Bull Burger was outstanding. Sim.ple is a terrific bespoke clothing and gift shop in the main street that also has a hole in the wall espresso bar. Also highly recommended by the bookstore foodie for lunch and breakfast were s&aj Café, the Green Ivy Café – housed in a historic school building behind the Lambing Flat Museum, also serving Art of Espresso coffee – and Elliotz, for good food at night. Apart from the latter, the only evening dine-in options were the local Chinese, Indian, Thai or pubs and services clubs.
With a few hours to fill before reuniting with my chauffeur, I headed out to a place of local beauty, Koorawatha Falls, a few kilometres off the Olympic Highway and right in the heart of Ben Hall country. There is a pub at Koorawatha, but again, it was closed, so take a picnic and decent water supplies. This is an off-road adventure and only suitable partway with a four-wheel drive. I crossed the creek, following the signposts, and parked after about three kilometres, as my urban driving nerves deserted me. I continued on foot, enjoying the red dirt and the quiet. The first water I heard was a weir. About twenty minutes further along the deeply rutted track, I began to hear the mighty thud of falling water. Luck was on my side, as the recent rains promised a spectacle. Apparently, unless there has been rain, the falls don’t fall. The access to the actual foot of the falls, where I had hoped to take a dip, is up and over a considerable rock scramble. I was more than up to it, but the geriatric hound was not. I tried carrying him, but the rocks were damp and mossy, so I did the uncharacteristically adult thing and turned back, after admiring the water and the mist from a short distance. I made a note to myself to investigate a doggy backpack.
After dragging a reluctant teen from the tail end of the party and slapping on the L plates, we made our way back slowly to Boorowa on Murringo Road, lovely rural vistas on tap. As it was nearing dusk, kangaroo peak hour, we had a quick snack at the picnic tables by the river and headed out to the Hume Highway, our leisurely road trip loop in our lovely state drawing to a happy if sleepy end. Another Central West visit is being mooted for next holidays and I have no problem with that.
Hero shot: Mayfield Gardens