Maitland is blitzing the coffee shop tourism index

Coffee shop index: Bob Dennerley has a quaint way of measuring tourist interest.
Coffee shop index: Bob Dennerley has a quaint way of measuring tourist interest.

I knew, of course, that the NSW Hunter Valley centre of Maitland had been a scene of the coal strike of 1949 and hence a focal point of one of Australia's formative political events - the sending in of the Army by a popular Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, to break an industrial dispute.

I knew, too, that the long-serving Maitland Gaol had once been home to well-known long-serving crims such as Darcy Dugan.

I'd never until quite recently regarded Maitland as a prime tourist destination nor stopped there on my many trips through the Hunter.

If, however, you took seriously the outlook of Maitland High Street leather craftsman and retailer Bob Dennerley, then the city should be considered one of Australia's tourism hot spots.

Bob reckons that tourism status should be judged according to his coffee-shop index and that the number in Maitland - he has mapped them - has in recent years increased from just two to more than 60.

Consider, then, the city of Maitland and its surrounds as a tourism hot spot, and well worthy of Destination NSW's mission to promote the area as such.

Many much photographed historic buildings - and coffee shops - aside, the real attraction of Maitland as a visitor destination lies in its gaol (www.maitlandgaol.com.au), at 150 years NSW's longest-serving penitentiary, used continuously from 1848 to 1998, but these days solely a tourist attraction.

Avoid: Somewhere youre definitely better off not being: the dentists chair at Maitland Gaol.

Avoid: Somewhere youre definitely better off not being: the dentists chair at Maitland Gaol.

Enter the gates and walk with those doomed a tough life indeed, whether it be in the dentist's chair, the showers or just as a 'trustie' - unless you, as in the likes of Darcy Dugan, were a 'heavy' and could create your own terms.

It's a sobering experience to think that, just until recently, we considered the Maitland Gaol method the way to reform those who had meandered from the straight and narrow.

And the armed guards had definite orders. The first shot was a warning; the second shot was to wing the target; the third shot was to kill.

Life inside: Bec Burgess guiding me past some of the cells at Maitland Gaol.

Life inside: Bec Burgess guiding me past some of the cells at Maitland Gaol.

Visitors only have to peruse the gaol's website to realise that folly: "Inside the massive sandstone facade, the walls and cells tell the stories of inmates. The graffiti and illustrations are records of time, of life and in some instances death."

And the local council has done its bit to give the old dame a modern face.

One of its latest ventures is the Levee, a hip area between the Hunter River and High Street.

It's worth a stroll past a diversity of shops, offices, restaurants and cafés, if only to see if, like me, you get a feeling of Sydney's Kings Cross in the retail mix. Or is it just the presence of at least one major tattoo parlour - albeit one with a major sideline in roasting and brewing coffee?

Development: Maitlands Levee development brings a modern edge to an old Australian city.

Development: Maitlands Levee development brings a modern edge to an old Australian city.

Yes, stopping at Maitland for a night or two on your way through, or, indeed, making it a destination in its own right, is certainly desirable these days. You will be surprised by what's on offer.

It has plenty of worthy accommodation, as I found staying at the local Quest (www.questapartments.com.au), and plenty of scrummy dining, too.

Try the Old Vic (www.theoldvictoria.com.au) or the Rigby (www.therigby.com.au) for dinner, the Cunning Culinarian (www.thecunningculinarian.com) for lunch, and the Bikesmith (www.thebikesmith.com.au) for breakfast.

And reserve time for at least half a day at the historic port of Morpeth (www.visitnsw.com) and dinner at Coquun (www.coquun.com.au).

  • Disclosure: John Rozentals was a guest of Destination NSW.