Written by Bronwen Gora
02 November 2023
Orange does so many things well. Wineries, restaurants, live music, cafes, gorgeous gardens, heritage accommodation and more, it’s everything a traveller to regional NSW wants.
But can you do the Central Tableland’s town justice in just 48 hours? We went to find out – and discovered that yes, you can.
We arrive at the Oriana Retro Hotel Oriana Orange | Complete Luxury Escape a little over three hours after leaving Sydney’s northern beaches. It’s one of the quirkiest yet chic places in Orange, a sprawling 48-room, 1960s motel reincarnated as a Palm Springs-style oasis by owner Espen Harbitz.
The property had sat idle for years before the affable Finn injected his inimitable vision throughout.
Now the Oriana all but vibrates with happy energy, uplifting the soul with its rich velvet furniture, mementos and antiques collected mostly from Hong Kong and China where Espen long-managed hotels and restaurants.
Rooms are refurbished, with light and dark colour schemes offset by bright pops of those yellows, greens and browns so evocative of the mid-century (1930s to 1970s) era. The walls of our deluxe Hong Kong suite are abundant with framed old-time maps and vintage tourism posters for airlines and the former British colony.
The first reveal of our spacious room and its decor makes us smile – there is a king bed, bespoke deep-blue velvet lounge, matching chairs and, on the coffee table, a bowl of mandarins and a vase of white gerberas. Bright yellow teacups, a coffee machine and other treats sit atop the table below the mirror.
There is also a kettle and toaster, and inside the tall cupboard, robes, an ironing board, yoga mat and extra pillows. Luxury Acqua Palma toiletries grace the white-tiled bathroom. Outside our first-floor room is a 1970s-style flagstone balcony populated by potted citrus trees, and we count four different types of lavender by the main entry below.
The balcony looks across to a large sparkling blue pool, again surrounded by flagstone as well as deck chairs and several plush cabanas. Beside the pool area is an extensive garden bordered by tall purple iris where drinks and food are served on summer afternoons and evenings. We absolutely love it.
Arriving at Parrot Distillery Co. a few minutes away we’re greeted by owner Ben Cochrane. The young entrepreneur also owns a few other pubs in town and if Parrot Distillery Co. is anything to go by, they’ll be a great success.
The distillery is cool, breezy, with high tables, an impressive pizza oven, and even a neon sign with that classic Casablanca quote. We perch near the bar with a flight of three gins and an exceptional pork and fennel pizza to embark on our first tasting of the weekend.
It’s all delicious and very different. The first gin on the flight is infused with eucalyptus – “If a koala drank gin, this would be the one it’d choose,” quips Ben.
The Oriental Gin (OG) is filled with spices from nashi pear to mint lilting from the juniper. We could easily keep drinking but abstain as we must meet Orange Trike Tours owner Mark Garey for an afternoon visiting just two of the Orange region’s more than 60 wineries.
If a Harley Davidson had three wheels it would be Mark’s German-made Boom Mustang Trike. The motorbike enthusiast thought it would be a perfect way to indulge his riding passion while showing tourists around Orange and he wasn’t wrong.
Before long we’re flying through the countryside on the back while Mark pilots the roaring machine toward Orange Mountain Winery. This winery prides itself on using traditional methods like hand picking, hand plunging, basket pressing, and the fact it was the first in Australia to cultivate viognier.
We tour the nuts-and-bolts part of the winery before ascending to an elegant tasting room. We take a seat at a marble-topped counter where smart tablets are on hand to research the wines we taste. We make our way through at least half a dozen reds and whites including the heralded viognier. Exceptional.
Back on the trike and Mark whizzes us past bucolic scenery to Word of Mouth Wines. The place is quite divine: family-owned, we’re greeted by Deborah Upjohn and retired potter Peter Gibson who not only excel in winemaking but making people happy. (Their 2018 pinot gris was awarded full marks by wine commentator Huon Hooke).
Deborah and Peter’s artistic flair pops up everywhere. Sculptures dot the garden, a main house-cum-shop is filled with eclectic goods as well as wine. We proceed through the shop to the sunny backyard brimming with guests at picnic tables and reclining on ornate garden benches, eating delectable cheese and drinking wine.
We sip on Word of Mouth’s splendid sparkling and slip into a coma of content. Roused back to reality by the necessity of needing to leave, we take a quick tour of the winery’s gayly decorated house next door, which is available for parties and events, and head back to Oriana.
The Oriana’s Bela Vista Bar is something to behold. Chandeliers that wouldn’t be out of place in a fancy city hotel hang above an array of cheerfully coloured velvet lounges, flowers, peacock feathers, artworks and Espen’s beloved oriental antiques.
It’s beautiful – and hopping. This is clearly the place to be on Saturday night in Orange.
We order martinis and gin and tonics, chat to Espen about everything from his fascinating past working in Asia to his hotel’s marvellously soft goose-down pillows, and then ready ourselves for dinner.
The Peacock Room Restaurant is also clearly the place to eat in Orange on a Saturday night. When my main of orange roughy in a delicate leek-infused French butter sauce arrives, I discover why, and eat half my partner’s meal as well. We agree we would both return to Orange simply to eat here.
Refreshed after a blissful sleep in the cosy king bed we make our way to the reception area-cum-salon for continental breakfast. There’s good coffee, tea, and a selection of tasty goods including cheese and sourdough toast.
We hit the road to Millthorpe Village, one of the handful of lovely towns under an hour’s drive from Orange. Spring flowers are in full bloom throughout gardens fronting neatly kept houses.
The place is so pretty that after buying coffee at the local store on the main street we simply decide to wander the streets to breathe in the country atmosphere.
Head off to Carcoar wondering if it really will be, as the brochures say, “the town that time forgot”. Thankfully this is not in the Jurassic Park sense, but in that of quaint town with restored late 19th century buildings. These are so perfectly maintained the main street resembles an old-time film set. There’s a bustling array of cafes, boutiques, homewares and gift stores, the most charming of which is The Rustic Flamingo, a retro buffs paradise.
We take our seats for a very special lunch at Antica Antica Australis, an award-winning restaurant that’s been so successful it is credited with saving the town. Paolo and Kelly Picarazzi do a stellar job serving their set four-course menu comprising regional Italian slow food.
The Locanda-style eatery is intimate, with only half a dozen or so tables, and housed in a corner store featuring a sleek yet simple refurb in keeping with the theme. Before each course, Kelly appears from the kitchen to announce and then explain the upcoming dish. The food is clean, authentic and texturally satisfying to boot.
A primi of a plate of breadstick, sheep’s cheese, local salami and pickled artichoke is followed by homemade pasta, sumptuous lamb cutlets and a unique trifle. Later, Paolo tells me some of the recipes are centuries old. The food is deliciously different, and the flavours are superb. This is the kind of experience that makes you feel like standing up and saying “Bravo!” at the end.
We meander back to Orange but not before stopping at Millthorpe’s Slow Wine Company, which had caught our eye on the way through. We meet the affable owner and take a pew at a wine barrel table outside to taste a selection of wines in the afternoon sun. We depart with an interesting sauvignon blanc and an exceptional pinot noir. Life is good.
We follow the Oriana hotel staff’s recommendation to wander a few blocks down the road to the Gladstone Hotel for drinks and dinner. This venue is clearly the popular place in Orange on Sunday nights, with patrons ranging from those in their early 20s through to older folk and families enjoying pub meals. At the bar, we run into Ben from Parrot Distillery and say hello before heading to the casual Gong Thai restaurant for some more delicious food.
After checking out of the Oriana Retro Hotel we drive five minutes to the Agrestic Grocer. This place has it all going on – a cafe, restaurant and venue selling breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a large gift store off to one side selling a vast range of products. It’s all housed inside a large former apple processing shed.
As with everywhere we have been the past few days, The Agrestic Grocer too has hidden surprises – not just a place for tasty treats, it’s also a popular music and entertainment venue by night, feted by top musicians like Reg Mombasa, other well-known entertainers plus cover bands.
We drive away from Orange on the road to Sydney. We’ve spent just under 48 hours in this beautiful country town and our time has been rich in both experiences and personal connections. Still wondering whether to go to Orange for the weekend? Just get in the car and drive. You won’t regret it. Not one little bit.
Go all-in retro by renting a poolside cabana at the Oriana Retro Hotel’s pool club. And now that spring has sprung, guests and visitors can enjoy drinks and pizzas in the iris-lined Summer Kitchen. A truly magical place in the warm afternoons, it comes into its own at night thanks to lights strung above the dining area and gardens.