It was one heck of a gamble. Back when Tower Lodge opened in 1999, Australia hadn't even heard of the luxury lodge concept, let alone embraced it. But wine industry legend Len Evans wanted the Hunter Valley to have a world-class retreat so he created Tower Lodge, complete with a very '90s subterranean restaurant called Nine, which had nine tables and served nine courses. The original Tower Lodge won several global awards; current owners, Spicers Retreats, have invested $6 million in this new version, restoring its status as the dare-to-dream Hunter escape.
You can't avoid making an entrance at Tower Lodge, thanks to the imposing 19th-century French courthouse doors that were one of Evans' proudest finds. The high-ceilinged main building has also retained the original Spanish Mission-style interiors with their adobe walls, terracotta tiles and oversized fireplaces. The Spicers touch is evident in the soft colour palette and the abundance of comfy sofas and armchairs. The hotel offers an all-inclusive rate that guarantees a soft landing: you don't have to think twice before ordering another pre-dinner drink, and the relaxed yet attentive staff make you feel instantly at home.
Follow the cloistered walkways past the limestone courtyard to reach the 14 suites. Each one is individually decorated and features a separate sitting area, a dressing room, an expansive bathroom and an outdoor area. We are in the top lodging, the Tower Suite, where Elton John once slept, which comes with an ornately carved wooden four-poster bed and a rooftop hot tub - the perfect spot to watch the sun set over the Brokenback Range.
No longer relegated to the cellar, the lodge's new restaurant, Sebastian, features the cuisine of Spain's Basque region. Chef Gianni Moretti serves delectable pintxos (Basque tapas) before dinner, which is a five-course extravaganza - the sea urchin lightened with a crème fraiche and apple salad and a slow-cooked pork neck with a glorious plum sauce are both standouts. The wine list has an impressive selection of Spanish varietals including Albario, Tempranillo, Grenache and Txakoli as well as some of the Hunter's best drops. Breakfasts are equally noteworthy, with choices including a Basque omelette and a magnificent shakshuka-inspired eggs en cocotte. All room rates include breakfast and dinner; the all-inclusive rate lets you go wild with the mini-bar, laden with Champagne, wine and plenty of snacks.
Want to pack a lot into your stay? The lodge team are here to help. They will get in touch prior to your arrival to ask about arranging cellar door visits and other activities including balloon rides or helicopter flights. Alternatively, they can book you a round at one of the area's golf courses. A complimentary master class is held in the lodge each afternoon, which might cover anything from cooking to cocktail making, or you may decide to relax by the pool.
The all-inclusive rate also covers lunch on your day of arrival, a lovely touch which kicks your holiday into high gear right from the start.
Where: Spicers Tower Lodge, 6 Halls Road, Pokolbin, NSW
How much: Choose between the DBB (Dinner, Bed, Breakfast) rate, $1359 per room per night (two-night stay at the weekend) or the $2000 all-inclusive rate (two-night minimum).
Explore more: spicerstretreats.com
Ute Junker was a guest of Spicers Tower Lodge