Newcastle is New South Wales' second-largest city after Sydney and is becoming a regular fixture on several major cruise lines' itineraries. Set at the mouth of the Hunter River, a 162-kilometre drive north of Sydney, it offers the attractions of a big city while retaining the laidback ambience of a regional town.
Its history as a working port goes back to the early 19th century, when steamships carried coal to Sydney. And while today it is the largest coal exporting port in the world, Newcastle is also known as the gateway to the Hunter Valley vineyards and has plenty to offer in the way of cool bars, exciting restaurants, cultural activities and spectacular surf beaches.
The city was closely linked to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England -- where many of the coalminers migrated from in the late 1800s and nearby towns such as Morpeth, Jesmond, Wallsend and Gateshead are named after their English counterparts. Its convict past is evident in sites such as the Bogey Hole, an ocean rock pool that was hand-carved out of the cliff. For an insight into some of the city's historic buildings, the three-kilometre Newcastle East Heritage Walk takes in the Customs House, Convict Lumber Yard, Fort Scratchley, Christchurch Cathedral and various convict-era buildings. The Newcastle Museum is also well worth a visit.
Ever since the steelworks closed in 1999, Newcastle has been reinventing itself. Honeysuckle Wharf is now a lively promenade of waterfront bars and restaurants; Darby Street in Cooks Hill is becoming the hip and happening place for small galleries, cafes and curio shops; and wine bars and clubs are popping up in converted banks in the commercial district.
Not many ports in the world display a giant welcome sign for visiting vessels and none other than Newcastle marks their departure with a gun salute.
Cruise ships dock at the Channel Berth at the Carrington terminal. A free shuttle bus, organised by the Port of Newcastle, takes passengers to and from Queens Wharf, a 10-minute drive away, where you'll find a visitor information centre at the Maritime Centre, as well as a few waterfront places to eat and drink while watching ships, tug boats and a local ferry. A scenic tram ride departs from Queens Wharf, with commentary provided by the driver over 1.5 hours. Walk further up the street to the city centre, where there are numerous attractions, restaurants and beaches.
A new cruise terminal is set to be built on the same site in 2018.
Novotel Newcastle Beach: A great place for cruise passengers to stay is the Novotel, located near the beach, restaurants, cafes and bars, and a short stroll to art galleries, coastal walks and shopping areas. Guest rooms are modern and spacious, and family rooms are also available, with a restaurant and gym onsite. (5 King St, Newcastle; 02 4032 3700)
Although Newcastle is blessed with several beautiful surf beaches, you must always swim between the flags and -- if the beach is displaying a 'closed' sign -- don't give in to the temptation to go for a dip as conditions can be dangerous or there could be sharks in the area.
The local currency is the Australian dollar. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.xe.com. There are several ATMs and banks in the city for obtaining Australian dollars. Credit cards are widely accepted.
English, with an Aussie accent, is spoken in Newcastle. Locals are referred to as "Novocastrians".
Pick up some retro, vintage or antique pieces at one of the 25 specialised shops in the Centenary Centre (29 Centenary Road). The Newcastle Museum shop (6 Workshop Way) has a good range of local history books, artist-designed Newcastle-branded T-shirts and unusual jewellery.