AU ABROAD

Spotlight on Newcastle, NSW (Part One): SURFest, Jimmy Figg's Bare-knuckle Barber and Craft Beer Week Launch.

At the end of last year, Californian Andrew Smith was awarded the title of Destination NSW's "Chief Funster", a duty that sees him travel around the State for six months, creating digital content that shows off New South Wales in all its splendour. I had the opportunity to join Andrew for two days of his adventure, which took us to Newcastle to enjoy, among other things, the annual SURFest and the launch of the city's Craft Beer Week.

After checking into my hotel (the Novotel Newcastle Beach) I met with Andrew and his team in the lobby - a camera man and a social media representative (and driver) from Destination NSW were accompanying Andrew on today's odyssey. We headed along to Merewether Beach to check out SURFest, a 11 day event that has been held on Newcastle Beach for some 29 years. It's the Hunter Ports Women's Classic today, and unfortunately some less-than-desirable conditions left us without much competition to watch. But the view wasn't bad all the same!

I guess that's the nature of surf events, the part you don't see on the highlights reel: there's a lot of waiting for the perfect waves and the best conditions. And these are conditions that change rapidly. The fact they run these competitions and "festivals" at all is fairly remarkable. But when you do see them catch a wave - and you do even in the conditions we were in - it's a thrilling thing. Especially with the pros at this level.

As our options of entertainment started to dwindle, we went over to the Merewether Surfhouse to enjoy a beer, some lunch and the beautiful scenery, high above the action. The pizzas were quite delicious, and we're told it's one of the most popular parts of their menus.

Our day continued in a leisurely direction from there as we went for some male grooming at Jimmy Figg's bare-knuckle barber, part of a recently re-emerging trend of male only barbers. Inspired by American barber shops of the 1950s and earlier, the decor features pin up girls, home grooming solutions for sale (alongside cuff links, no less) and a good selection of magazines while you wait, such as one of my favourites, the US version of Esquire. They even offer you a complimentary drink - and yes, that includes beer. Does this sound like heaven or what?

Andrew went in for a shave and a haircut and came out looking like a new man. I opted for the former, which saw my lovely barber using close shaving techniques accompanied by warm and cold towels and a bit of head massaging. That was before they waxed out nose and ear hair (optional, naturally). The beauty of this resurgence is that this is essentially the male version of a mani/pedicure and facial. And the environment makes you feel totally comfortable doing it. If I had the time and money, I'd shave this way every week. With the exception of the waxing via cotton bud, it's a relaxing and renewing experience. Who would have thought?

We ended our day at the launch of Newcastle craft beer week, one of the many fantastic initiatives that have popped up in recent years as businesses have struggled following the lock out laws. Though the city is essentially now dead in the later parts of the evening, there seems to be a vibrant arts and culture scene popping up in its place. The beers were all local and varied in flavour and, naturally, alcohol content.

I've never been a huge drinker of the darker and hoppier brands, but there were a few here which particularly impressed, including the Hunter Beer's Vanilla Milk Porter and Murray's Big Wednesday. Though the Summer Ales like the Grainfed Sneaky One were what I'd drink on a more regular basis. Andrew, who fancies himself a bit of a beer connoisseur, and is on a quest to taste as many craft beers as possible, does enjoy the heavier ales and seemed to enjoy the vast selection a bit more than myself. As the Destination NSW team admitted, this was an addition to the schedule made to suite Andrew's tastes - so to speak!

The drinks were accompanied by a wide range of canapés, as well as a chocolate cake designed after the region's famous Murray's Whale Ale. Though I snuck off early to fit in some extra food, finding myself at Casa del Loco where I enjoyed fried chicken, empanadas and a perfect margarita. An excellent way to end the first day of Newcastle adventures with the Chief Funster. Stay tuned for the second part of the journey!

Larry travelled to Newcastle as a guest of Destination NSW.

For more Newcastle travel ideas, head to: http://visitnsw.com/newcastle