Heavenly retreat at The Convent

Maureen Dettre
The Convent in Pokolbin is beautifully restored after being transferred 600km from Coonamble

Shakespeare wrote "get thee to a nunnery" and thank God I did.

Staying at The Convent in Pokolbin - the jewel of the NSW Hunter Valley's wine region - isn't exactly the penance the great writer had in mind.

The cloistered nuns are long gone but their spirit prevails and this is a convent like no other.

There's no vows of poverty, chastity or obedience required to cross its hallowed threshold.

There's no enforced great silence but rest assured, a sabbatical spent there in quiet contemplation will revive your drooping spirit and see you leave with amazing grace.

Steeped in a rich, religious history, The Convent was originally home to a community of Brigidine nuns when it was built in Coonamble in 1909, before it was miraculously moved 600km, meticulously rebuilt in 1990 and restored to its former glory - and then some.

It's an idea that was Heaven sent.

Its majestic French Baroque architecture is refreshingly familiar to anyone of a certain age who had a convent education.

Its plush furnishings, lavish chandeliers, object's d'art and opulent touches are steeped in the elegance of a bygone era missing from today's cookie cutter modern, minimalist hotels.

An honour guard of liquid ambers guide you along a sweeping driveway towards the grand entrance - an imposing chapel-like front door with spectacular lead light windows.

Once inside, the spirit of the nuns looms large. It's not hard to envisage where Mother Superior had her office, or nuns in long habits, singing vespers in the corridors on their way to mass.

Our room is upstairs and hallelujah - there's a surprise bonus of French doors that open onto an expansive verandah with extensive views of the estate and vineyard.

The flowing fountain below and choir of bird calls are the only sounds to hear.

The white wicker furniture beckons, signalling that this is the perfect place to retreat with a good book - or take a vow of silence and bask in the afternoon sunlight doing nothing at all.

It's a welcome escape from the frantic pace of a busy, over-scheduled city life.

This heavenly peace and blessed serenity is just what the doctor ordered. From this vantage point you could convince yourself you're in the French countryside.

The bedroom is unexpectedly light and bright with white and gold furnishings with pretty, whimsical sketches of sweet cherubs and floral watercolours, all in gilt filigree frames and subtle floral drapes.

There's thick, crisp, white linen and the decor is remarkably similar to that in Frauline Maria's bedroom in the Sound of Music, conjuring images of some of my favourite things.

The opulence does seem a little incongruous considering the nuns lived a Spartan existence that's a far cry from the luxe bathroom products, waffle robes and pretty crystal lamps that make the room twinkle.

If that's not enough to give a convent-educated girl Catholic guilt there's the light-filled on site Restaurant Eighty-Eight, overlooking the wisteria-draped garden, bikes available for cycling around as well as a tennis court and pool to help unwind.

And if you're keen to sample the local vintage there's no need to drive anywhere as Pepper Tree Wines is just a hop, skip and a jump away at the end of the driveway.

Keep walking and you'll stumble across the acclaimed Circa 1876 restaurant, which recently won the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association gong for the best fine dining restaurant in regional NSW. It's certainly a good reference point to start indulging in the seven deadly sins.

It's also a place where bridal dreams come true.

With the popularity of destination country weddings, The Convent is a godsend for couples looking for the grandeur and charm of yesteryear with five-star food and wine.

Tucked away in the vineyard there's a tiny, white, weatherboard chapel that looks like it's been plucked straight from a fairy tale.

This is romance on steroids and loved-up couples are spoilt for choice. They can take their vows in the chapel, in a grand marquee, in the wisteria garden, at the fountain or under a glorious willow tree overlooking the grapevines.

It's safe to say the nuns never got to experience the pleasures of the flesh now available to guests at The Convent.

Their legacy is the beauty and elegance of The Convent's architecture and the blessed serenity of the Hunter Valley.

A retreat at The Convent is truly the answer to a fatigued city dweller's prayers.

Amen to that.


GETTING THERE: Pokolbin is a 2.5 hour drive from Sydney or you can take a 30-minute Rex Airlines flight to Cessnock airport, which is a six-minute drive from Pokolbin.

STAYING THERE: The Convent is a 17-room luxury resort with double rooms starting from around $350 per night. Restaurant Eighty-Eight is on site and open for breakfast every day, with afternoon high tea on Saturday and Sunday and dinner from Wednesday to Saturday. Pepper Tree Winery on the estate offers cellar door wine tasting. The five-star, award-winning restaurant Circa 1876 is open for lunch and dinner Friday to Tuesday.

PLAYING THERE: The Convent has a private tennis court and pool, boules pit and bikes available. The Hunter Valley is Australia's most popular wine region with a vast array of gourmet restaurants and wineries to explore with most offering cellar door tastings.

Wedding reception packages start from $155pp for a luncheon Monday-Thursday or $180pp for a dinner reception on Friday/Saturday/Sunday. Ceremony packages for the chapel, grand marquee, wisteria garden or fountain start at $850. The Circa 1876 Gardens and Willow Tree option starts at $1,200.

* The Writer travelled as a guest of The Convent, which is part of the Escarpment Group of luxury heritage properties.