On our recent visit to the Hunter Valley rather than worrying about who would be designated driver (well I don’t drive so that would have been easy) lol we decided to give the iHop hop on hop off bus service a try.
iHop Hunter Valley – a review of the hop on hop off bus service
We headed up to the Hunter Valley last month on a little getaway. It’s an easy drive that rewards you with outstanding food and wine and pretty vineyards galore. We had three days to explore and spent our middle day with iHop.
The NSW Hunter Valley
Just a little over 2 hours north and slightly west of Sydney lies a fertile region that early settlers began planting with vines back in 1828. Today the Hunter Region is the 6th most visited spot in the country and the biggest wine region on NSW. The area attracts more than two and a half million visitors every year and offers plenty to see, do and eat to warrant a more extended visit.
With over 150 wineries within its boundaries, there is a good range of big-name brands, family estates and boutique wineries. There are also some great biodynamic and organic growers. Plenty of award-winning wines are produced here, and if you are a lover of Shiraz and Semillion, you will be delighted with your options.
When is the best time to visit
Our most recent visit was in winter, the perfect time of year for drinking robust red wines and eating way too much of the great local produce. While it may not be the prettiest time with bare vines as far as the eye can see, clear sunny skies made the days perhaps more pleasant than the hot days of mid-summer.
If you can handle the heat summer in the Hunter is action-packed, with the vines being picked towards the end of January and lots of festivals and events filling the calendar.
My choice of the perfect time to head here goes to spring, budding vines, comfortable temperatures or autumn when the leaves change colour and the temperatures are pleasant.
- Winter average 12°C (5-17°C / 41-63 °F)
- Autumn average 18°C (12-25°C / 54-77 °F)
- Summer average 24°C (17–30°C / 63–75°F)
- Spring average 18°C (11-25°C / 52-77 °F)
So what is iHop?
The most popular choice covers Central Pokolbin and is offered five days a week, Thursday to Monday.
The second route covers Lovedale and the northern part of Pokolbin and is offered on Saturdays only.
The service is perfect for anyone who is not familiar with the region as the iHop team offer personalised advice based on your interests. When you board, let them know if you are looking for a particular style of wine and they will recommend the best stops to suit.
How does this Hunter Valley hop on hop off service work?
Covering 60 stops over the two routes, the first decision is which route interests you most. For first time visitors, the Central Pokolbin is an excellent choice with the second route great for returning visitors. We were lucky we had the time to visit Lovedale on Sunday and recommend you spend some time here too if you can fit it in.
iHop does not pick up from Sydney but they can arrange to collect you from your local Hunter Valley accommodation if you are not staying near one of the stops.
The bus stops at each “hop” every 60 minutes. At first, we wondered if this would be too long at one place, but many of the stops have a couple of wineries or outlets close together and most places the hour flew just visiting a single spot.
There are several wineries with restaurants attached, and if you choose to have a leisurely lunch you can always take the next bus 🙂
We realised pretty quickly that we would not be able to get off at all the stops – there are not enough hours in the day or room in your stomach so don’t worry too much about this. I suggest you read over the brochure carefully and see what you think you will want to sample and have a rough idea when you board the bus and then chat to the staff – let them help you narrow it down according to your tastes and their insight.
What did we do?
We had three full days in the Hunter – Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. There were pros and cons to this. While visitor numbers are lower outside the weekend, it did mean that many of the restaurants we had read about were closed Monday and Tuesday so if fine dining is part of your plan you need to consider this.
We decided to spend Sunday doing our own thing and visiting the places that would be closed the following day. The Hop on Hop off does not run on Tuesday, so we decided to do it on our middle day. You can read how we spent the rest of our time in the region on a future post for planning a Hunter Valley getaway so keep your eyes out for it.
The iHop Pokolbin route
- Hop 1 – Potters Brewery
- Hop 2 – Hunter Valley Visitor Centre – We stopped in on arrival Sunday and highly recommend the team here for local advice. Great for planning your visit.
- Hop 3 – Hungerford Hill Wines – Peterson Sparkling House Muse Restaurant (great choice for fine dining), Restaurant Cuvee and Hunter Valley Chocolate Company just across the road
- Hop 4 – Pokolbin Village Smelly’s Cheese Shop, Pokolbin Chocolate and Jam Company, General Store, Fawk Foods Kitchen and Bakery,
- Hop 5 – Roche Estate, Tempus Two Wines, Meerea Park cellar doors, eats at Goldfish, Oishi Japanese and Thai Restaurant the gourmet pantry at Smelly’s Cheese Shop. Across the road is Brokenwood, McGuigan and Hunter Valley Cheese Factory and the Wine House Hunter Valley
- Hop 6 – Shopping Village at the Hunter Valley Gardens
- Hop 7 – Peppers Creek Café Enzo, Pukara Estate and Australian Alpaca store David Hook Wines, primarily known for Italian style varietals or Comyns & Co
- Hop 8 – Leogate Estate Wines and Hunter Distillery
- Hop 9 – Glandore Estate Wines Oakvale Wines and EXP. Restaurant – De Iuliis Wines
- Hop 10 – Estate Tuscany Andrew Thomas Wines specialising in Semillon and Shiraz The Mill Restaurant or Brokenback Bar Matilda Bay Brewhouse and Hermitage Road Cellars are just across the road.
- Hop 11 – Piggs Peake Winery and Yellow Billy Restaurant Peter Drayton Wines / Iron Bark Hill Brewhouse are just across the road. This makes a good 2 hour stop
- Hop 12 – Hunters Dream Estate
- Hop 13 – Hart & Hunter
- Hop 14 – Bimbadgen Estate Wines and Esca Restaurant
- Hop 15 – First Creek Wines
- Hop 16 – Petersons Wines on Broke Sabor Dessert Bar / Lambloch Wines “Pokolbin Cider House”
Here are the stops we choose:
Hop 4 – We started at Hop 4 having an early breakfast at Fawk Food before we joined the first service at 10:27 am. The bus arrived right on time. We poked our noses into the shops here before boarding. The Smelly Cheese Shop and Chocolate shop had plenty to tempt us.
Hop 7 – On Tim’s advice, we started our day with Hop 7, and this was a great choice. If only we had not eaten before as the breakfast platters at Cafe Enzo looked delicious, and fellow travellers rated them highly. We were more than a bit jealous!
We enjoyed tasting the olive oil and dukkah at Pukara Estate and purchased some guava vinegar and a few gifts to take home. The vinegar tastes great in sparkling water as a healthy flavouring for our soda stream. We poked about the Alpaca shop and photographed the small chapel in the complex and the hour went by quickly.
Hop 10 – Estate Tuscany was one of our picks before we even headed to the Hunter after we had attended an Andrew Thomas wine cruise with Captain Cook on Sydney Harbour a few months ago. The wines were so delicious that we knew this was essential for us. The wine tasting here was excellent – the best we had on the whole trip.
The staff were attentive, the setup good and all the wines we tried hit the mark. We made our biggest purchase here 😉 We had also built up an appetite so stopped into the Brokenback Bar for a bowl of pasta and a glass of red.
Hop 11 – We stopped at Piggs Peake, another of Tim’s recommendations that were backed up by some other guests on the bus who were return visitors and highly rated it. This family-run operation was super friendly and the tastings generous.
There was a good range on offer, and while the names given to the wine’s which all play on the Pig theme are a little cheesy the wines are delicious! We enjoyed the sparkling shiraz and the tempranillo, taking a little home for later.
Hop 16 – We decided it was time for some dessert and coffee. It was about 3 pm by now, and sadly many of the daily specials at Sabor had sold out, but we still enjoyed our treats here. The cider tasting was good too.
Hop 5 – We finished off the bus tour at 3:40 pm at Roche Estate and Brokenwood wine. Our hotel was just across the road, so it made sense – our shopping was starting to get pretty heavy. We popped into Tempus Two and Brokenwood before making dinner reservations at Goldfish.
We managed six stops, which, while less than half of what was available was more than enough! We thoroughly enjoyed the day and would happily go back and do it again to cover the others.
What we loved about the experience
First and foremost, we loved the personal service, but these things also come to mind:
- Tim, our driver, greeted everyone by name and remembered our likes and dislikes. Each time we reboarded, he offered advice based on how we felt, were we hungry, what type of food did we feel like eating? Did we enjoy the wines we just tried? Do we want more of the same or something different? It helped plan our stops.
- The flexibility of being able to jump on and off the bus when we wanted and change our minds as the day progressed.
- The service is a lot cheaper than the average day tour of the area and coupled with Tim’s suggestions and the welcoming staff at every place we visited; I felt it was every bit as informative.
- Having someone storing our purchases throughout the day made the experience so much easier. It also helped me forget how much I had been buying at each stop lol!
How much does it cost to Hop around the Hunter?
Adult: Full Day Pass: $59 (unlimited stops/complimentary accommodation transfers)
Express Pass: $39 (visit x2 single stops & a return trip to your boarding point) by boarding at any stop/transfers not included.
Children aged 13+ years are at an adult ticket price. Kids travel for $25 on the hop-on service and $39 on the express pass.
Related: Need a tour that departs from Sydney? Only have one day to spare? Check out our take on the best food and wine tours in the Hunter Valley
Note: While we were guests of iHop and did not pay for our tickets, we were not paid for this review, and these are our honest opinions of our time using the service.
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