It's been a long time since I was last in Newcastle. Jane used to live there before we were married and I would catch the train up from Sydney every second weekend. It reminded me a lot of Ipswich, the coal mining town where I grew up. I never felt much of a hankering to get back to Ipswich, and I think Newcastle suffered from the comparison.
We had to fly down to the Hunter Valley over the weekend for a memorial service, and decided we'd spend a couple of days in Newc, rather than hanging out in wine country. I'm glad we did. It was a nice trip.
BHP was mostly gone from the city when I was last there. It's still a major coal shipping port, of course, but the steelworks had pretty much shut down, as far as I know. The city is in the middle of what will probably be a decades long transformation into a university town and maybe, just maybe, a green energy and steel hub. Orica, the mining services giant, has based all of its hydrogen research out of Newcastle, and I can very easily imagine a future in which the old rusted out steel foundries become new, hydrogen powered robot factories.
Because of this tension between the old and the new the city has this weird unfinished vibe. There are heaps of really interesting little bars and restaurants and café's and geeks sites. I found a parkour space, a Warhammer den and a free-styling’ street DJ set up within a literal stones throw of each other. Got a really bitchin’ chilli margarita too.
The music scene is as powerful as ever, probably because of the thousands of students who pour into the old pubs to listen to bands — or at least they did before Miss Rona. And the city’s remnant colonial architecture shares space with some thoughtful modern developments, interrupted by occasional neo-brutalist atrocities from the 1970s.
The beaches are always pumping. The surf is gnarly and dangerous. There are a couple of massive ocean baths if you're into saltwater swimming. (Jane is, I'm not). And I found a really cool little studio gym to get my workouts in between massively overfeeding myself and drinking too many martinis.
Handily, it was just around the corner from a backstreet café where we smashed down breakfast every morning. They make their own bagels, rustic enough to cause panic in the heart of any New Yorker, but really delicious and filling. I had a lot of trouble getting past the sweet chili and cream cheese most mornings.
I did manage to make it all the way to the breakfast of house made baked beans and boiled eggs with halloumi the last day we were in town, however. It was filling enough to see my all the way home to Queensland.
Newcastle's not the sort of place I would ever have thought of taking a shortstay vacation before the pandemic, but having had to go down for the memorial, I’d happily go back to hang out for a couple more days, just sampling the food and drink and nightlife.