Take the ‘slow’ road to St Albans.
7 May 2021
Take the ‘slow’ road to St Albans.
7 May 2021
Green. Everywhere you look is shimmering emerald green. In a parched continent such as Australia, where drought and bushfires have left so much of the landscape desiccated, the river flats that open out along the Hawkesbury River and its tributaries really are a sight for sore eyes.
The run from Sydney to St Albans, a tiny hamlet snuggled up beside the Macdonald River, can be made in about an hour and a half, so it’s popular for weekend day trips. But hit the road on a weekday, and you’ll likely have most of it to yourself – especially once you’re on the road out of Windsor. A couple of detours are definitely worth considering, though. After all, who can resist a river ferry crossing or two? We can hear the kids cheering from here.
From Sydney, the quickest route to Windsor is via a series of toll-heavy freeways. Efficient, but not exactly thrilling. It’s not until you peel off the freeway and hit the Old Windsor Road that things start to get interesting. Get to Windsor in good time to explore this still-charming historic town (despite its controversial new road and bridge works) that hugs the Hawkesbury River. First settled in 1791 and originally dubbed ‘Green Hills’ for its lush, fertile terrain, Windsor boasts some of Australia’s oldest convict-built heritage buildings, including St Matthew’s Anglican Church, designed and overseen by Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s official architect, Francis Greenway. Along the riverbanks stretch lovely parklands that are an ideal spot to stop and stretch your legs, too.
Hitting the Wilberforce Road out of Windsor, it’s detour time. Choices, choices. The fork in the road at Wilberforce onto Sackville Road offers a couple of options. You could continue at a lively pace straight to the Sackville Ferry, or hang a right at Tizzana Road, a couple of clicks north-west of Wilberforce on the Sackville Road. This particularly scenic loop will still bring you out at the ferry, but also leads you to Ebenezer Church, the oldest surviving church in Australia. Admittedly, this would be a slight detour within the detour, but well worth it. Lovingly maintained, the church and schoolhouse also have a little tea room with a pretty garden courtyard. Swathes of lawn slope down to the steep, tree-lined banks of the Hawkesbury, and invite exploration before you hit the road again.
Back on Tizzana Road and heading up to Sackville, the driving gets more interesting – and the scenery more photogenic – as the road winds through river flats of lush pasture dotted with fat cattle. There’s even a short, well-maintained unsealed section to put a versatile SUV such as the Mercedes-Benz GLB through its paces. The GLB’s off-road drive mode optimises traction on loose surfaces and adapts the power delivery and stability control, while the 4MATIC all-wheel drive delivers a high level of driving dynamics so you can move confidently over light off-road terrain.
Vineyards appear on opposite sides of the road – to the right, the eponymous Tizzana Winery, to the left, Jubilee Vineyard Estate, its serried vines bordering Jubilee Vineyard Creek. Further up, the Hawkesbury reappears as the road follows its winding path towards Sackville. Here, the first ferry trip awaits, but there’s another diversion to consider before you drive on board. Indeed, this may well be as far as you get on this road trip.
That’s because, just up the hill from the ferry is Cooks Co-op – your gourmet Sunday-lunch option. Owned by former Sydney chef and restaurateur, Martin Boetz, of Longrain fame, the property sits high on its rugged sandstone perch above the Hawkesbury. Up here, visitors get a bird’s-eye view of the Sackville Ferry plying back and forth across the water. Boetz has created a spectacular industrial/rustic-chic dining and event space (‘space’ being the operative word – it’s huge), affectionately dubbed The Shed. Here, he puts on regular Saturday BYO ‘locals’ dinners’ and Sunday lunches, frequently joined at the stoves by some of Australia’s most fabled chefs, including Christine Manfield.
When he first moved here, Boetz was also growing produce down at river level, supplying a number of top Sydney restaurants. He’s now giving his aching back a break to concentrate on cooking – and cooking up new projects, including regular weekend takeaway meals designed to make the local produce sing.
Still, St Albans remains our ultimate destination, and there’s a second ferry to catch before we get there, not to mention some fun driving to be had. Sackville Road segues into Wisemans Ferry Road, winding between native bushland and slabs of sandstone before merging with the convict-hewn Old Northern Road. Stop at Hawkins Lookout at the top of the escarpment for eye-popping views along the Hawkesbury River, before descending through to Wisemans Ferry via some exhilarating hairpin bends. You’ll understand why this route is so popular with our two-wheeled fellow travellers, too.
This little township, clustered along one of the Hawkesbury’s own hairpin bends, is the location of not one, but two ferry services – Webbs Creek and Wisemans – and is a pleasant spot to stop for a coffee or to fuel up. If you’re not stopping, just take the left fork and head straight down to the Webbs Creek ferry ramp for your next river crossing.
The final 50-minute run to St Albans follows the winding course of the Macdonald River – so close at times you could almost dip your hand in. Dense stands of eucalypts open out suddenly into broad sweeps of fertile grazing land, the occasional handful of houses dotting the route. Then, suddenly, as you descend once again to river level, the heritage-listed Macdonald Road Bridge beckons. Swing right over the bridge and the road delivers you straight to the welcoming sight of your destination, the Settlers Arms Inn at St Albans.
This historic outpost, once a major stop-off point for Cobb & Co, was built in 1836 by convicts from local sandstone. It’s set within a large, tree-shaded garden, presided over by two splendid peacocks – one vivid technicolour, the other, pure, glamorous white – where you can sit and have a hearty, home-cooked lunch, a coffee or a beer. The view from the garden up to the escarpment behind the village is lovely, while the interiors are a trove of antiques, photographs and memorabilia. Out the front, the long, broad verandah is a perfect spot to drink in the atmosphere, and there’s even a little kids’ playground just over the road. If you’ve brought a picnic, you could simply wander a little way along the riverbank and spread out a blanket. There are even a few swimming spots if weather permits. And for those who need a break from driving, the Settlers Arms offers accommodation, too.
So – what about the return journey? Once again, it’s a matter of choice. For maximum river-ferry fun, you could simply retrace your drive in reverse, then cross the Hawkesbury twice back at Wisemans Ferry – using both the Webbs Creek and Wisemans services – to pick up Wisemans Ferry Road.
Otherwise, you might head back to Sydney via Settlers Road, which hugs the Macdonald and Hawkesbury rivers along their eastern banks and merges into Wisemans Ferry Road (no ferries required). While this is perhaps even more spectacular than its west-bank counterparts, there are about 10 kilometres of unsealed road to navigate along its route. Nothing a GLB couldn’t handle, of course, but slower going than returning along St Albans Road.
Both options will take you on a fairly circuitous, albeit delightfully traffic-free, route back to the Pacific Highway at Peats Ridge; but, for thrill-seeking drivers and scenery-loving passengers alike, Wisemans Ferry Road is a blast. This route weaves through tiny riverside enclaves such as Spencer, whose cute village store has become something of a hotspot for locals and travellers. Driving through as dusk draws in, we spot a group of locals sitting by the water’s edge enjoying an after-work beer. It’s tempting, so next time we’ll just have to make this journey in reverse.
On the road checklist
On the road checklist
Macquarie Arms Hotel, Windsor
The oldest mainland hotel in Australia.
Open Monday-Thursday 11am-3pm and 5pm-5pm; Friday and Saturday, 11am-9pm; Sunday, 11.30am-8pm.
Tractor 828, Sackville
If you’re heading straight to the Sackville Ferry and need a pitstop for a coffee or casual lunch, Tractor 828, at, you guessed it, 828 Sackville Road, is a funky little option. The outdoor seating area is a great spot to kick back with the kids, and the ferry is just minutes away.
Open Monday-Friday, 6am-2.30pm; weekends, 7am-3pm.
Cooks Co-op, Sackville
Presently, Cooks Co-op is open for dinner on Saturday nights, and lunch on Sundays. Bookings are essential, and these events are rightly popular, so make sure to plan ahead. Check the website for updates.
Open Saturday dinner, Sunday lunch.
Tizzana Winery, Ebenezer
Cellar door open weekends and public holidays, 12pm-5pm; weekdays by appointment only. Accommodation also available.
Jubilee Vineyard Estate, Ebenezer
Cellar door open weekends, 12pm-5pm
Settlers Arms Inn, St Albans
Open for lunch and dinner, Wednesday-Sunday.
Spencer Village Store
Open Monday, Wednesday to Friday, 9am- 5pm; weekends 8am-5pm.
By Sally Feldman