The problem with first impressions is you only get one. This is as true of any city as it is of the people who live there. Think about the places in your life that really held your attention, for good or for bad, and what that first glimpse made you feel. Did it make you think you'd arrived somewhere special? Did you want to post a photograph of it, or were you already thinking about where to next?
Some of the greatest cities in the world offer the most miserable of welcomes. London, coming from Heathrow, even on a good day, might sap the will to live. Melbourne, from Tullamarine, is all rusting rail curtilage and glass boxes. New York, from Newark, is a combination of something that looks like Hexham swamp and complete darkness. A threadbare doormat, it seems, can sometimes indicate a grand and inspiring interior.
Against these comparisons, Newcastle fares well. Arriving from Williamtown, a visitor to our city has a similar world class experience.
Ascending the Stockton bridge, the view is truly remarkable, briefly extending from the city through Fullerton Cove, and then out towards the valley. Then, rather dramatically, you're plunged at full speed into the coal piles of Kooragang Island. The drop, and the contrast, is so sharp that it deserves a soundtrack. Maybe Highway to Hell.
Few cities in the world can make a spectacular entrance out of their built and natural environments.
This is all a bit tongue in cheek. Those coal piles are part of our economy and our lives. To hide them would be inauthentic. A friend once suggested that it's in fact the visibility of coal and of industry that gives this city its progressive bent. Something like having to watch where your food comes from, I guess.
I'll admit the visitor experience of arriving in Newcastle, via Kooragang, is not one of our bigger problems. It is, however, low-hanging fruit when it comes to pushing a new and appealing image of Newcastle out towards domestic tourists, especially at a time when so many of them are looking for somewhere to go.
The most appealing, and I'd argue authentic, vista of our city is looking back from Stockon wharf. The sweep from east to west takes in almost every feature of what this region is all about; surf beaches, a busy port, hill-draped heritage, a changing skyline, all hemmed in by the valley and its peaks. From this angle, the city looks busy and charming. You get a sense of its scale, its walkability, and its landmarks. It's also thoroughly distinct; there is no other Australian city that looks like it.
Coming into Queens Wharf from Stockton, especially on a Friday or Saturday night, feels like arriving in a beautiful and vibrant metropolis. The city is lit up and the sounds of its waterfront restaurants drift out into the mix of the horns on its working harbour. This is Newcastle's best angle, its international angle, and yet a minority of visitors would ever see it.
Catching the bus out to the airport last week, I considered how circuitous the route from the city really is. While it's convenient taking a seat at the Interchange and not getting up until Williamtown, the journey in and out is twice as long as driving from Stockton Wharf, which is separated from the city by a five-minute ride on the ferry.
As state borders come down and Australians look for local getaways, Newcastle is going to be in the spotlight. In addition to landmark events such as the New Annual festival, around 400 additional hotel rooms will come online within walking distance of Queens Wharf next year. Further investments in the city's dining and entertainment scene allow us to take out to the country a world class, urban experience that is made unique by peninsula setting and proximity to the rest of the region.
Few cities in the world can make a spectacular entrance out of their built and natural environments. To arrive in Newcastle by ferry, after a short and direct journey from Williamtown to the wharf, would immediately convey everything this city is about. The maritime origins are immediately obvious, so too the elegance of its heritage and industry. It is the view of Newcastle that someone will absorb, and then share on social media and in their stories.
Considering how visitors arrive in our city might sound foolish to some. There is, I admit, a touch of Keeping Up Appearances to it. But when you've got a city like Newcastle to show off, and millions of domestic tourists who remain, sadly, pretty unfamiliar with what it looks like, why not make something of it?
Just imagine stepping off that ferry into the activity and lights of Queens Wharf on a Friday night. What kind of city would you think you've arrived in, how many photos of it would you take on the approach, and how many people around the world will see them and want to know more?