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What’s so appealing about Armidale is that it’s a cosmopolitan and sophisticated urban centre located in a picturesque rural setting on the doorstep of some of the most scenic national parks in Australia. This means that it ticks a lot of boxes as a perfect change of scene for jaded city slickers from larger metropolises and anyone seeking a serene but interesting place to unwind.
One of Armidale’s best kept secrets is that there are four national parks, each with extraordinary natural attractions, all within an hour’s drive from the city centre. There’s a monumental tumble of giant granite boulders to climb in the Cathedral Rock National Park. And, along the aptly named Waterfall Way, Ebor Falls in the Guy Fawkes River National Park is one of several majestic waterfalls to admire. Much of the extensive wilderness in the New England and Oxley Wild Rivers National Parks is World Heritage listed. When you spy the views from Point Lookout in the New England National Park and walk along the trails that wind through temperate rainforest there, or, hike through the spectacular gorges and encounter dramatic waterfalls and hundreds of kilometres of pristine waterways in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, you’ll see why.
The past has a place in modern-day Armidale. Gracious cathedrals and stately buildings dating from the 1860s reflect the lofty aspirations of the early settlers and remain a hive of activity today. But the best way to learn about the history of the city is to hop onboard a free Armidale Heritage Tour bus for an entertaining 2½ hour narrated sightseeing jaunt that takes in the most important sites.
A site not on the Armidale Heritage Tour bus route, but only a ten minute drive out of town, is Saumarez Homestead, a great place to experience 19th-century pastoral life. It’s best to allow at least half a day to explore this gem of a National Trust property that remains virtually unchanged from the old days when a workforce of many families with all sorts of skills made the homestead almost self-sufficient. Most of the food was grown, harvested or slaughtered on the property. Trees were felled to provide wood for cooking, heating and building. Water was pumped from the wells or the creek. Transport was supplied by station-bred horses, shod from the on-site blacksmith’s shop with its leather bellows and anvil.
These days, the fact that Armidale is home to the University of New England, an institution that has attracted students and faculty from across the globe since its establishment as a university college in 1938, is a major reason for the sophisticated, cosmopolitan feel about the place. With the University, TAFE, four prestigious private schools as well as public schools all achieving results, Armidale is also widely known as a centre of education excellence.
It comes as no surprise then to find there’s a lively appreciation of the arts here. The New England Conservatorium, New England Regional Art Museum, Hoskins Centre, Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place, the University and a talented crowd of local and visiting musicians, artists, actors and enthusiasts ensure that the calendar is chock full of inspiring events and festivals.
If you’re wondering where to eat, stylish cafés buzz with activity and serve up great coffee and delicious meals all day. Restaurants, clubs and pubs also offer a wide range of contemporary Australian and international cuisines, often featuring food and wine produced in the surrounding countryside. Making the most of the fresh air is easy to do in Armidale. Here, for example, you can enjoy energetic outdoor pursuits in nearby national parks, or a challenging round of golf on Armidale Golf Club’s 18-hole championship course, where you’ll also be surrounded by peaceful bushland and the odd kangaroo. The Club has a resident professional on hand to help you improve your stroke or choose the right gear, and a restaurant where relaxing over drinks or a meal finishes off a great day out on the greens.
Where to stay depends on how far into the wilderness you’re prepared to go for the night. You can, on one hand, descend into wilderness gorge country to camp in the company of wildlife and shower under waterfalls, or, on the other hand, head for the country and relax in a lovely cottage or historic homestead guesthouse with plump feather pillows, antique furniture and home cooked meals. There are comfortable middle ground options too, such as motels, hotels, bed and breakfasts and self-catering apartments within walking distance to all the in-town action.