Start your engines Warning: this is in no way the direct route. If that's what you're after, then it's straight up and over the Blue Mountains for you. Otherwise, leave Sydney via the F3 freeway bound for Newcastle, but turning off at Freemans Waterhole. Side-step busy Pokolbin by ignoring the Cessnock turnoff and head instead to Lovedale, where you'll find the likes of Gartelmann winery with its charming Magpie Café.
Keep on course for Greta, where you re-join the New England Highway. Greta Takeaway (61 High St, Greta, 02 4938 7786) mightn't look like much, but it makes an art form of all things fried, with excellent sweet potato scallops and the humorously named Triple Bypass Burger on the menu. It's the stuff of road-trip legend.
Keep on trucking Head north through the upper Hunter towns of Singleton - don't miss the excellent historical museum in the grounds of Burdekin Park - and Muswellbrook towards Scone, the horse capital of Australia and also blessed with Kerv Espresso Bar (108 Liverpool St, Scone, 02 6545 3111) for essential refuelling. The coffee here is consistently excellent.
Murrurundi, where Emirates has its huge horse stud, is a photogenic village at the base of the Liverpool Ranges. If you're here on a weekend, Café Telegraph (155 Mayne St, Murrurundi, 02 6546 6733), set by the Pages River, is picture-perfect, but we recommend holding out for Graze at the Willow Tree Inn, a further 20km up the highway. The service can be inconsistent, but the steaks, all from owner Charles Hanna's nearby Colly Creek farm, are excellent, and the Inn has a suite of surprisingly plush King Lodges should you wish to stay on.
Cross country From Willow Tree, it's a solid cross-country drive out to Merriwa through gloriously isolated countryside, past the state's largest mine at Ulan to Mudgee. The Ulan Road is home to many of the town's cellar doors, including the Paspaley family's Bunnamagoo Estate label, Robert Oatley Vineyards and Lowe wines.
On the other side of town, on Sydney Road at Apple Tree Flat, you'll find the futuristic cellar door of Logan Wines. Peter and Hannah Logan host twice-yearly chefs' dinners in their tasting room, with eyrie-like views out towards the Dungeree State Forest. Previous guest chefs have included Stephen Seckold of Flying Fish and Sean Moran of Sean's Panaroma.
For staying, the new De Russie Suites, in the town's former Mechanic's Institute, beautifully blends the building's historical attributes with the right amount of modernity. The result is truly elegant.
There's also The Tannery, a rustic workers' cottage a short walk from the tree-lined streets of the central business area. The self-contained two-bedroom retreat has a large backyard and is great for families and groups.
New to the scene, and a short drive from town, is Trelawney Farm. The glamorous five-bedroom farmhouse can be rented as two separate wings and features a dedicated kids retreat, operational outdoor clawfoot bathtub and 10 hectares of rambling gardens.
For eating and drinking, Roth's Wine Bar is brilliantly boisterous, with an excellent wine list (local labels feature heavily but not exclusively) and a great regular live-music line-up. There's also live music at the Mudgee Brewing Company, where Gary Leonard and co make a range of locally-crafted beers to go with some of the thoughtful items on the bistro menu.
Market Street Café's Friday and Saturday night prix-fixe menus feature predominantly local produce, including Ormiston free-range pork, High Valley cheeses and Maya Sunny honey. Food is simple and flavoursome; the space casual and intimate. The café also opens every day (except Tuesday) for breakfast and lunch, so take the time to grab a loaf of chef Aaron Cole's house-made sourdough and perhaps a jar of Angela's Edibles beetroot relish for the road.
The Butcher Shop Café (49 Church St, Mudgee, 02 6372 7373) packs them in for breakfast fry-ups and informal all-day dining while the Oriental Hotel serves up perfect pub-grub.
Heading home Heritage towns surround Mudgee from every angle. Gulgong, with its excellent Cudgegong Gallery, is well worth the drive, as is taking the scenic route, past the Victorian beauty of the homestead at Havilah Station (owned by members of the White family) through Lue and onto Rylstone, the gateway to Wollemi and the Gardens of Stone National Park. Artisan and produce markets are held on the second Saturday of every month in the grounds of the Rylstone Memorial Hall. After that, stop in for yum-cha, excellent dumplings and tea at 29 Nine 99, in the historic Bridge View Inn.
Follow the tourist drive into the Capertee Valley, the world's second largest enclosed valley after the Grand Canyon. At the end of the road is the town of Glen Davis, once home to a thriving oil-shale mine, which closed in the 1950s, leaving a ghost town with just a scattering of buildings, including the art deco Glen Davis Hotel. From here, it's a 50km climb back up to the town of Capertee, onto Lithgow, the Blue Mountains and back down the range into Sydney.
This web exclusive article was published in July 2012.