Floating high above the landscape of the New South Wales Central West, I look down at the farms, divided into fields of colourful crops and intersected with tree-lined rivers. Up here in a hot air balloon – one of the best things to do in Canowindra, by the way – you can see the land that has crafted the local communities.
First, the balloon. Canowindra is known as the hot air ballooning capital of Australia because of the perfect weather conditions and easy launch (and landing) locations. People drive from Sydney or Canberra to launch their private balloons and there’s a huge colourful balloon festival around April each year.
I’ve come up for a flight with Balloon Joy Flights, which take off as the sun rises and the winds are usually calm. Floating along, it’s so peaceful and I enjoy taking the time to see the region from a different perspective.
From up here, I can see some of the wineries on the ground that are becoming more popular for visitors. What makes the wines around Canowindra and Cowra different from many of the others in Central West NSW is that there’s a strong focus on organic production.
The same climate conditions that make the area so good for ballooning also make it good for growing grapes organically because there is less threat from fungal disease. Many of the wineries have also kept a more rustic style at their cellar doors, preferring the personal approach to some of the more flashier shops you get places like the Hunter.
In the balloon, I can also see another one of the main crops that’s grown around Canowindra – lucerne, which is mainly used to feed livestock. It’s particularly easy to grow here because of the water in the ground and it’s been a big part of the local economy for generations (so much so that it has been dubbed ‘green gold’ here).
When you visit the main historical street of Canowindra, you’ll get a sense of where much of the profit from the farming industry ended up. The heritage buildings here have been incredible well maintained and you’ll see the general store, other shops, and all the pubs.
Walking along the street, popping into the shops, is like a walk down a bit of history. What I appreciate so much is that it doesn’t feel inauthentic or touristy. There is a genuine appreciation of these buildings and the people who look after them are proud to welcome you in.
At one end of the street, there’s the museum of the Canowindra Historical Society, where you can learn more about the region. There’s also the famous Age of Fishes museum next door, which is a rather unusual thing to find here.
In fact, you find quite a lot of strange things to do in Canowindra but these surprises, all pleasant and fun, are what makes it such an interesting place.
For instance, there’s Russ Hodge who can take you on a motorbike tour around town – or further out through the region. He dresses as a pirate and calls himself Captain Barnacles (he even has a parrot but doesn’t bring that on the bike with him).
Russ took on the pirate character after he lost a leg in a road accident and began giving talks to schools and other organisations. I spend the day riding around with him and find that chatting about his outlook on life is just as enjoyable as the sights he takes me to.
One of the places that Russ takes me is Cowra, which also has a rich layer of heritage to share. The main sight that it’s known for is the former POW camp where more than a thousand Japanese prisoners escape in 1944.
But it’s actually the Japanese gardens, built 35 years later, that have become probably the town’s main attraction. It’s a beautiful site, full of wonderful little design details, where you can easily spend an hour or more exploring the five-hectare layout.
I feel like many people, on first glance, would assume that it makes sense to stay in Cowra and visit Canowindra as a day trip as part of a stay in this part of the region.
But, actually, there are so many things to do in Canowindra that I would recommend staying here and making the day trip to Cowra instead.
The character of the town is beguiling and it’s wonderful to base yourself here to explore what’s around. On top of that, the characters who live in the town are one of the highlights of visiting here and you won’t get to know them unless you spend a night or two.
To help you plan a trip, let me share a bit more detail about some of the best things to do in Canowindra.
Local Canowindra experiences
There is no shortage of activities out here, with some great local characters waiting to show you around.
If you’re looking for a fun way to explore the region, take one of the Captain Barnacles Ventures motorbike tours with Russ. He’s got some set itineraries focusing on things like heritage or wine tasting, or he can tailor the trip to your interests.
Russ can take two people at a time – one in the sidecar and one behind him. And, as I said earlier, you’ll be in good hands with a real local character.
Hot air ballooning
Of course, another incredible experience in Canowindra is the hot air ballooning that I talked about earlier. If you’ve never been in one before, this is the perfect place to have your first flight. It’ll feel very safe and comfortable – plus you’ve got amazing views.
I recommend taking a flight with Balloon Joy Flights who take to the skies just as the sun rises, and complete your experience with a champagne breakfast at the end!
Probably the most colourful local character is Tommy Jeffs, who owns a B&B called Montrose House in a converted bank on the main street. Tommy deserves a whole story just for himself but, for the meantime, let me just tell you that he hosts high teas at his house that are a real hoot.
You’ll need to book in advance and it’s probably only worth doing if you’re in a group. But I would recommend getting in touch and seeing if he’s got anything going on when you’re in town (or you can stay the night!)
Age of Fishes Museum
And there’s also the Age of Fishes Museum – certainly something you won’t find anywhere else in the country (there are, as I mentioned, only two museums like this in the whole world).
The museum tells quite a remarkable story, about how a farmer accidentally found something strange on his land and when palaeontologists came to investigate, realised that there were thousands of fossils of fish from about 360 million years ago.
The fossils have revealed a lot about the evolution of animals and were further proof of how the supercontinent of Pangaea would’ve looked (because similar fish fossils have now been found around the world).
Wineries around Canowindra
When it comes to wineries in the Central West of NSW, most people think of places like Orange or Mudgee. But the area around Cowra and Canowindra has made a real name for itself in recent years as a top wine region as well.
What makes it particularly interesting is the focus on organic wines, which many of the local producers are making. Some, like Rosnay, have been doing it since the very beginning and are true to the principles behind it in everything they do.
Most of the wineries about Cowra and Canowindra are still a bit rustic and that is both good and bad, depending on how you look at it.
The good thing is that when you visit, you’ll get an authentic experience and it’s likely you’ll actually meet the winemakers and be able to have a chat – not just be served by a sales person (like in the Hunter, for instance).
The bad thing is that a lot of the wineries don’t even offer a cellar door, so you can’t visit them. And pretty much all of the ones that do have a cellar door ask you to make a reservation in advance, which means you might not be able to visit exactly when you want.
Still, it is worth trying these three local wineries to see if you can arrange a tasting: Rosnay – one of the original organic producers, Wallington – just outside of Canowindra, and Windowrie – between Cowra and Canowindra.
You can also do tastings at The Quarry restaurant, which is a good way to sample a variety of the local wineries. It’s also one of the best restaurants in Cowra so, if you’re looking for a nice meal, book yourself in for a lunch and tasting combo.
And you can pick up some good local wines at the Cowra Visitors Centre as well.
While we’re on the topic of drinking, it’s also worth telling you about Pioneer brewery.
It’s out towards Orange so a little bit further than the wineries I’ve mentioned, but it’s a fantastic craft brewery where they grow and harvest their own malting barley, rye and wheat from the family farm.
Heritage in Canowindra
The main attraction in Canowindra is the heritage and it’s reason enough to come here. One of the best things to do in Canowindra is just walk down the main street (Gaskill Street) and have a look at the old buildings.
They are all easy to spot and you’ll quickly get a sense of which ones you want to go into.
The authentic pubs of the Old Vic Inn and Royal Hotel have great stories. (The Royal is on the site where the bushranger Ben Hall held the town hostage for three days in 1863… Although he spent the whole time giving them food and booze and then paid for it all at the end.)
Finns Store has been decorated really nicely and has some decent shopping and good meals. The Canowindra Trading Post is another is another good homewares store.
And if you’re interested in a bit more of the Australiana heritage, I would suggest visiting the Historical Society Museum in an old school building.
There’s a fascinating collection of agricultural equipment outside and then inside there’s a large collection of items telling the tales of generations of local living.
Things to do in Cowra
One of the the other things to do while you’re in Canowindra is make a trip out Cowra, which is only about 30 minutes drive away. (Of course, Cowra is a destination in itself and you can also stay there – I’m just assuming that you’ve based yourself in Canowindra.)
Former POW camp
When it comes to the history of Cowra, it’s probably most famous for the former POW camp from where more than a thousand Japanese soldiers escaped one night in 1944. During the escape and the subsequent manhunt, 231 Japanese and 4 Australians were killed.
There aren’t really any buildings left on the site but there are excellent interpretive panels, an audio story that booms from a guard tower, and some new artworks. You can stroll along the Garrison Walk to learn more about this infamous part of Australian history.
In another part of town, you’ll find the Japanese War Cemetery, which was tended by Australian members of the RSL as a mark of respect. There are 523 graves of Japanese soldiers who died in Australia and it’s the only one in the country.
These days, Cowra’s most famous attraction is probably the Japanese Garden, which was built here in 1979 as an evolution of the relationship between the two countries. It’s a large site – about 5 hectares – and was designed by Ken Nakajima to resemble the landscape of Japan.
It can take a while to explore it properly because there are lots of small details to appreciate. I’ve been to a lot of gardens in Japan and one of the things I’ve learned is that every little thing has a deeper meaning.
Near the Japanese Garden is the Bellevue Hill Lookout which has some spectacular views of Cowra at sunrise or sunset (and there’s a fun adventure playground for the kids).
And it’s even worth popping into the Cowra Visitors Centre because they’ve got a good selection of local products, including wine, which you might like to pick up for later.
Where to eat in Canowindra
I think the best gastropub food in town is the Old Vic Inn, which has plenty of stories… if only the walls could talk. Luckily, the owners Alison and Graeme like to talk, so you’ll probably get a good yarn or two – perhaps by the fire on a chilly evening.
For lunch, Finns Store has a good selection of sandwiches or more hearty meals. It also does an excellent coffee. It’s a historic building with a story that goes back a long time, and I really like the way that’s been preserved inside.
With excellent coffee and good meals (including a great breakfast), Delice Coffee on the main road through town is another good option for a tasty meal.
Where to stay in Canowindra
Canowindra has a few excellent accommodation options – possibly more than you would expect for a town with a population of just 2000. There’s a good range, depending on what you’re looking for.
The Blue Jacket Motel has been an icon here for decades but it’s just had a renovation and so, even though the outside still looks like a retro motel, the inside has beautiful boutique rooms.
At Montrose House, Tommy Jeffs has turned an old bank into a fabulous B&B. There are three double rooms for people to stay in, each with their own interesting decorations. Staying here is certainly an experience!
The Old Vic Inn doesn’t just do great food, it also has good pub-style accommodation upstairs, where you’ll get comfort in a heritage building.
And for a more relaxed cottage-style B&B, there’s the lovely Grantham House, where Suzie can also cook you a fantastic dinner!