Canowindra and Cowra, full of characters and quirky surprises

The historic main street of Canowindra has a bend because it follows an old bullock track. Pictures: Michael Turtle
The historic main street of Canowindra has a bend because it follows an old bullock track. Pictures: Michael Turtle

Even before I check in at my accommodation in the NSW town of Canowindra, I have a sense that my host is going to be fun. All the locals I've met have told me to prepare for meeting Tommy Jeffs, who owns Montrose House.

When I do arrive, I understand. Flamboyant in his welcome, Tommy immediately starts showing me around the former bank on the main street that he's turned into a treasury of his collectibles - paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and more. In the downstairs rooms, he hosts events like morning teas or dinner parties; upstairs are three bedrooms where you can stay overnight.

Around town, Tommy is best known for his charity work, putting on cabaret shows, for which he was awarded an Order of Australia this year.

Tommy Jeffs turned an old bank in Canowindra into the fabulous Montrose House.

Tommy Jeffs turned an old bank in Canowindra into the fabulous Montrose House.

"I'm known as Tallulah the drag, so it's comedy drag and it started as a muck-about thing with the footballers 30 or 40 years. We did a show to raise money for the football club and I've been doing it ever since. Everybody's used to it now."

Tommy claims he's not the most colourful character in Canowindra (pronounced ca-NOUN-dra) and, although that's debatable, he's certainly right that he's not the only bright personality.

There's also Russ Hodge, who spends a whole day taking me on a motorbike tour to some of the top sights of the region as I look out at the idyllic landscapes from the comfort of the sidecar. Russ dresses as a pirate and calls himself Captain Barnacles, a character he developed after losing his right leg in an accident when a car veered into his lane on a highway and knocked him off his bike. (It turned out the driver had suffered a heart attack and lost control).

The view across Cowra at sunset from Bellevue Hill.

The view across Cowra at sunset from Bellevue Hill.

"I've learnt a lot and one of the most important things I've learnt is forgiveness and how to come through those kind of events in your life with a generosity to others," Russ tells me.

"I think that's placed me in a good position to do what I do and take people around and show them the sights."

Russ has some set tours you can take to concentrate on landscapes, heritage, or tastings; or you can create your own itinerary. In my case, he offers to include a fantastic local craft brewery called Pioneer, where they grow and harvest their own malting barley, rye and wheat from the family farm. (If you like craft beer, you won't want to miss this place!)

Jan and Graham Kerr would also be considered local personalities, having spent decades in Canowindra running businesses like a winery and pizzeria. But they are best known for their passion of hot air ballooning and their business Balloon Joy Flights. Their son Anton takes many of the flights these days and I join him one morning for a spectacular trip across the fields as the sun rises in the near-clear sky.

Russ Hodge runs motorbike tours called Captain Barnacles Ventures.

Russ Hodge runs motorbike tours called Captain Barnacles Ventures.

Canowindra's calm weather conditions have led to the region being dubbed the 'ballooning capital of Australia' but from up here I can see the other industries that have benefitted from the climate. There are the vast fields of lucerne, which locals once referred to as 'green gold', and the more recent product - organic wine.

Firmly on the ground, I visit Rosnay winery, which has been operating since 1997 and was one of the first organic wineries in New South Wales. The soil around Canowindra and nearby Cowra has a good capacity to hold water and the dry growing season means there's not much fungal disease, making it much easier for organic farmers.

Rosnay's winemaker, Sam Statham, also thinks the personal and rustic atmosphere of the region's wineries gives visitors a more natural experience.

Watching the sunrise over Canowindra with Balloon Joy Flights.

Watching the sunrise over Canowindra with Balloon Joy Flights.

"You are actually going to be talking to the grower and the winemaker," says Sam as he pours me a glass of chardonnay.

"You'll be able to get the true sense of how we, as a wine industry, operate as family businesses mostly."

Other good cellar doors in the Cowra region are Wallington and Windowrie but you'll need to make appointments to visit each of them. Another option is to head to The Quarry restaurant in Cowra, which offers tastings of a selection of nearby wineries. The food is also excellent and you can combine a meal with your wine tasting.

Tasting the famous lamb at The Quarry restaurant in Cowra.

Tasting the famous lamb at The Quarry restaurant in Cowra.

Another great meal in Cowra is at the Imperial Hotel, where the specialty is the lamb shank. Cowra has a reputation for the best lamb in Australia (partly because of all that lucerne in the fields) and the folks who run the restaurants here don't get surprised when almost every visitor orders it.

Many people probably also know Cowra for its former POW camp, which was the scene of the famous breakout of more than a thousand Japanese prisoners in 1944 that left 231 Japanese and four Australians dead. Visiting the site is free and, although there's not much to see these days, there are excellent interpretive signs - and even a booming audio story - that do a good job of painting the picture.

More impressive visually is the Japanese Garden next door, a symbol of peace representing the reconciliation that has developed since the breakout (members of the RSL tend the graves of the Japanese prisoners in Cowra, for instance). The landscaping of the five-hectare garden is full of subtle design ideas hidden among the eucalyptus and cherry blossom trees.

The Japanese Garden at Cowra was designed by Ken Nakajima in 1979.

The Japanese Garden at Cowra was designed by Ken Nakajima in 1979.

Not much has changed in the Japanese Garden since it opened in 1979 and that's one of the nice things about the region - the heritage here is strong enough to not need constant reinvention. Even so, there are some new offerings for tourists, like the Blue Jacket Motel in Canowindra which has had a makeover into boutique accommodation, or the wonderful Keswick Cottage on a farm property just outside Cowra, where luxury meets privacy.

The strongest heritage can probably be found in the historic main street of Canowindra, where you can look from pub verandas onto old general stores, and shopfronts offer antiques, books, and crafts. Immersing myself in this history, I have dinner one night at the Old Vic Inn, first built in 1908, which does some of the best pub food in the region. Owners Alison and Graeme Beasley chat with the diners throughout the evening and share stories about the history of the iconic hotel, before inviting me to join their family for a drink beside the fireplace.

A tub with a view at the beautiful Keswick Cottage accommodation on a farm outside Cowra.

A tub with a view at the beautiful Keswick Cottage accommodation on a farm outside Cowra.

At one end of the street, the Historical Society has an interesting collection of items telling the story of the region, while next door is the Age of Fishes Museum. It's one of only two fish fossil museums in the world and has exhibits about the remarkable collection of 360-million-year-old fossils that a farmer found by accident just out of town.

It seems a peculiar museum to find in this small town of about 2000 people but, by the time I pop in to see the exhibition, I have become accustomed to surprises here. It's these unexpected quirks and characters that give Canowindra and Cowra their colour these days and make it well worth the visit.

What to do:

  • Go on a motorbike tour of the region with Captain Barnacles Ventures. Russ can take you on a short joyride or show you the sights all day.
  • See the region from above on a sunrise flight in a hot air balloon with Balloon Joy Flights.
  • Try some of the region's organic wine with a cellar door tasting at Rosnay, Wallington, or Windowrie.
  • Visit the former POW camp in Cowra and pay your respects at the War Cemetery.
  • Stroll through the stunning Japanese Garden in Cowra, which was designed to represent the landscape of Japan.
  • Pop into the shops along the heritage-listed main street of Canowindra and visit the Historical Society to learn more about the stories of the town.
  • See the Age of Fishes Museum, which has exhibitions about the incredible collection of ancient fish fossils that were found nearby in a farm.

Where to eat:

  • One of the best restaurants in Cowra is The Quarry, where you can also do a wine tasting.
  • For pub food in Cowra, the Imperial Hotel has an excellent menu with lamb shanks one of the specialties.
  • In Canowindra, the Old Vic Inn offers fantastic pub food and also has good accommodation.
  • For lunch (and a bit of shopping) in Canowindra, the historic Finns Store has a good selection of hearty meals.

Where to stay:

  • On a farm just outside of Cowra, Keswick Cottage has been designed as a luxurious and private residence, perfect for a couple.
  • In Canowindra, the Blue Jacket Motel may look retro from the outside but it's had a stunning boutique renovation inside.
  • And, of course, there's Montrose House on the main street of Canowindra, where Tommy offers a warm and welcoming bed and breakfast.

Michael Turtle travelled with support from Destination NSW.

Michael Turtle will be bringing you a new idea each week for a trip within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website for things to do in Canowindra.