Maitland is probably best known for the annual music festival Groovin the Moo. But a string of recent openings has given reason to stop in rather than drive through Maitland to the Hunter Valley. Some operators are making a return to their hometown after a stint in its nearest big city, Sydney, while others are born-and-bred locals who’ve never left. Two hours north of Sydney, or just 40 minutes from Newcastle and 30 minutes from the Hunter Valley, you’ll find gourmet dining, art and boutique accommodation.

Eat and drink
We’re not going to tell you to travel 178 kilometres for dinner. But if you do, Coquun is worth the drive. The elegant restaurant opened a little more than nine months ago in Maitland’s striking Riverlink Building and is run by Daniel O’Leary (previously of Redfern’s dive bar The Dock). Taking its name from the local Wonnarua language, it’s a contemporary, produce-driven eatery, small bar and bistro that uses native ingredients. We recommend ordering the Kukirr (warrigal greens and ricotta gnocchi with lemon myrtle beurré noisette) and a side of house-made bread to wipe clean the tasty remnants.

Expect lines out the door all morning for Lorn’s Icky Sticky Patisserie. Arrive early to secure a flaky croissant and your morning coffee (plus a panna cotta tart for the afternoon). The Cunning Culinarian is a rustic cafe-meets-cooking school with a sundrenched front window seat made for sipping specialty coffee from Sydney coffee roaster The Little Marionette.

On Maitland’s High Street you’ll find The Bikesmith and Espresso Bar, which is part bike shop and part cafe. Pop around the corner for Black Label Espresso, a hole-in-the-wall espresso bar with a selection of light sweets and snacks. The Cabin Collective is another hybrid coffee shop, this time with a tattoo parlour, where the beans are hand-roasted on-site over an open fire.

Seraphine Cafe is in the Maitland Regional Art Gallery (we’ll get to that in a minute). It’s an ambitious all-day eatery serving upscale eats paired with a thoughtful selection of local wines and beers. Dine alfresco in the leafy courtyard or head indoors to take in the gallery’s sweeping architectural interiors. The Rigby breathes new life into a 19th-century heritage building on Maitland’s High Street. It’s a cafe by day and cocktail bar and restaurant by night dishing up a variety of share plates, hearty mains and drinks. If you want to go on a Saturday night book – it gets busy.

After dark you’ll find 10 rotating taps of craft beer at The Pourhouse (and a great veggie burger). Expect to find Wayward Brewing Co, Nomad Brewing and Capital Brewing Co. The Commercial Hotel in Morpeth is a low-fi pub with a distinct historic flair, complete with meat raffles and trivia nights plus a wood fire to gently remind you you’re not in the city anymore.

Stay
After a day exploring, a night in a country guesthouse is easy to take. Morpeth, 10 minutes from Maitland, is where you’ll find The Villa. It reimagines the property’s original stables into a luxury newly renovated couples retreat. Slip into a bathrobe or the freestanding two-person tub and crack open a bottle of complimentary vino from local winemakers Boydell Wines.

Clarabelle House is a restored 1800s cottage with contemporary touches. Just a short stroll from Maitland’s cafes, cinema and art gallery, the space sleeps six making it perfect for groups.

Do
It’s been nearly a decade since Maitland Regional Art Gallery underwent major renovations to bring this heritage building firmly into the 21st century. And this award-winning space is anything but your typical regional gallery. It’s a daring, contemporary structure proudly positioned in the heart of Maitland’s main hub. Entry is free and there are 25 rotating exhibitions annually (including travelling tours of the Archibald Prize, as well as the a 4000-plus art collection.

If a guided tour of Maitland Gaol sounds about as enticing as dinner with your distant relos, we hear you. But, we urge you to give this one a go. Take a tour led by one of the gaol’s ex-wardens, who worked there when it was open. Wander the cells and hear harrowing tales of what took place in this maximum-security facility, an essential and eye-opening experience.

Jump in the car and head to the Hunter Valley vineyards, a 30-minute drive from Maitland’s city centre. Harkham Wines delivers a singular cellar-door experience because unlike most of the wineries here, it’s set on a small sustainable vineyard making 100 per cent natural wine (minimum intervention) using hand-picked grapes. Brokenwood Wines just expanded its cellar door and it’s a slick operation where you can do a tasting for $10 per person. And at Audrey Wilkinson you can do a wine masterclass, or have a picnic among the vines.