BEN GROUNDWATER learns from his mistakes and heads straight to the most family-friendly resort he can find for a mini-break with his son
It’s the tractor. After all this work, after all this careful planning and the perfect execution of the mini-break of a lifetime for a three-year-old boy, a holiday that features the ideal combination of crocodiles and dinosaurs and waterslides and Frozen on an iPad, it turns out the highlight of the journey is … the tractor. In the hotel carpark.
Let’s go back a bit, to the beginning of the trip. I’m desperate to make this experience a better one than the last family holiday, the time my partner and I decided that nothing had really changed in our lives since having kids and we could take our children on a long road trip to the Victorian wine country and everything would be OK. Of course, everything was not OK. Because everything in our lives has changed.
But this time is going to be different. This time, it’s just me and my eldest son, Angus. This time I’m keeping the driving minimal, with plenty of breaks along the way. I’m planning things for him, just for him. In fact, I’m making the whole trip about him. We’ve got one night away from Sydney, a whirlwind getaway, and I’m going to make this thing fun, or I’m going to collapse in a heap trying.
And so we head north from Sydney, and it feels like we’ve barely even started on the highway before it’s time to pull over for one of the guaranteed highlights: the Australian Reptile Park. A few days ago, I had been pumping this place up for Angus. “Do you know what we’re going to see on Wednesday? A CROCODILE.”
“Whoa,” he replied. “But… it’s not a real one, is it Dada?”
“It’s a real one buddy.”
His eyes shone. “Whoa.”
And so here we are, ready to see a real, live crocodile. Angus is wearing his favourite T-Rex T-shirt, to make sure, he tells me, “we can scare the crocodile if he tries to roar at us”.
The reptile park is pretty old-school, without too many bells and whistles, and it’s also absolute paradise for a toddler. There are kangaroos loping around a central clearing, echidnas snuffling about in a pen, koalas asleep in trees, snakes slithering around in glass cases, tarantulas teetering on hairy legs, statues of dinosaurs, and there’s Elvis, a 500kg, 4.5-metre-long saltwater crocodile. A real crocodile.
You should see Angus’s little face. He’s mesmerised. He’s overjoyed. He lets out a roar of excitement – he’s three, it’s what he does – and Elvis, scaly and huge, responds by snapping his gigantic jaws. You couldn’t ask for anything more.
Then, all of a sudden, we do find something more. Angus spots, far off in the distance, something even more exciting: a playground. Elvis is no match for a swing and a slide.
Back we go onto the highway, to drive another hour up to the Hunter Valley. Angus spends this time watching Frozen for about the 56,000th time on our iPad. I spend it listening to the radio, and before too long we’re pulling into the long driveway at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley.
My partner and I have previously chosen some wild, wild accommodation for two people with young children in tow. And by that, I mean wildly inappropriate: the apartment in Bologna with the collection of cacti at toddler-eye-height; the place in the kasbah in Tangier with a million stairwells and steep drops; a houseboat in Venice with no railings. Terrible, terrible decisions.
And now here I find myself at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley. This isn’t just good accommodation, I quickly realise. It isn’t just nice. It’s appropriate. It’s made for families. It’s designed for people who are travelling with children. And that’s just about the best thing you could ask for.
Angus and I check in, change into our swimmers and head to the pool deck, where there are yet more things designed just for Angus. There’s the Splash Park, a series of waterslides and fountains and buckets of water that tip onto your head. It’s a bit hectic for a three-year-old, but there’s also a jacuzzi and a small paddling pool which is absolutely all you require to keep a small kid having the time of his little life for hours on end.
We have dinner at the poolside bistro. They have meals designed for children. Suddenly, this is all falling into place for me. This is how you do family holidays; this is how to make things fun and relaxed. There are wineries around here to visit, a golf course on site, plenty of other adult-friendly activities on offer that I can, and probably will, enjoy some other time.
But there are also things for kids. Just for kids. The penny is dropping. Angels are chorusing. I understand.
After dinner Angus and I make our slow way back to our one-bedroom villa, exploring the resort grounds, checking out the putting green, wandering past the onsite brewery, passing a carpark where Angus suddenly stops dead and points with excitement. “Dada!” He starts sprinting off. “It’s a TRACTOR!”
Indeed, a tractor is parked over near a shed. Something like an hour later we manage to head back to the villa and get Angus ready for bed. As I’m tucking him up, I ask about his favourite part of what has been a huge and successful day. “Was it the crocodile? The waterslide?”
Angus pauses, thinking. “Hey Dada,” he eventually says. “Do you think, tomorrow day, we can look at the tractor again?”
The writer was a guest of Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley.
Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley is located at Lovedale, a two-hour drive north of Sydney and one-hour from Newcastle.
The luxury resort with a huge variety of accommodation options, from standard hotel rooms to three-bedroom villas. It has the Water Dragon Kids Club, for children aged three to 12, Splash Park, games room and teen lounge. Miniature trains and a carousel operate at set times during the school holidays.
Three other things to do in the Hunter Valley with kids
Hunter Valley Gardens
This popular attraction has ten internationally-themed gardens to explore, including the magical Storybook Garden. There are also five rides open during school holidays and event periods, including a carousel, swing chair, giant ferris wheel, 35m-long super slide and teacup ride. Its Christmas Lights Spectacular, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest lights display of over three million lights, is on until January 26, 2022.
Hunter Valley Wildlife Park
See animals including African white lions, cheetahs and lemurs, kangaroos, koalas and Tasmanian devils at Hunter Valley Wildlife Park. You can also get up close with meerkats, tamarins and marmosets by booking an encounter.
There are several wineries catering to families. At Tulloch Wines, children aged four to 12 can enjoy a special Junior Tasting Experience which consists of three snacks paired with three non-alcoholic drinks. There’s also a dedicated kids’ zone at Misty Glen Wines, indoor and outdoor games at Scarborough Wine Co., a cubby house at Whispering Brook, and play equipment at Gemelli Estate.