By Stefica Nicol Bikes

POKOLBIN, AUSTRALIA (Reuters) – As Australia’s most populous state emerges from a lengthy COVID-19 lockdown, winemakers in its top grape-growing district, the Hunter Valley, have started toasting an influx of guests from travel-starved Sydney.

Although the country largely avoided the high pandemic death rates of many other countries, the state of New South Wales, home to a third of Australia’s population, entered one of the world’s longest lockdowns in June as the Delta strain tore through the community.

That included bans on people leaving Sydney and the Central Coast to the north, but with high vaccination takeup those restrictions are mostly lifted. Since national borders remain closed, people are seeking tourism thrills closer to home.

“A lot of people were like ‘Oh, we can’t wait, we are escaping Sydney or the Central Coast,’ or wherever their home is, so they were definitely very excited to come and get out and about and especially to the beautiful Hunter Valley,” Savannah Estate cellar door manager Kurt Nilon said on a recent busy Saturday.

Since a step-by-step easing of lockdown began on Oct. 11, restaurants and cellar doors have been following patron limits. Stephen Drayton, owner of Ivanhoe Wines, said the pandemic rules had helped streamline the experience.

“The days have gone where you do just rock up at a winery and stand at a bar and taste wines,” Drayton said. “You have to book in to have a wine tasting. There’s more one on one service.”

Sydney resident Jean Maree Furtado said she traveled 170 km (100 miles) for a leisurely wine tasting.

“If I didn’t want that experience then I could just go to the bottle shop and read the notes, but it’s lovely hearing the story from the winemakers,” she said during a tasting at Peterson’s Wines.

Restaurants in the valley have also experienced a surge of diners. One restaurant, Baume, which is attached to a winery, said it was fully booked every weekend until February 2022.

“The phones don’t stop ringing,” said Baume operations manager Joe Spagnolo. “Given that we’ve still got the 2-square-metre rules in place, it limits us a little bit but it has been outstanding.”

(Reporting by Stefica Nicol Bikes; Writing by Byron Kaye. Editing by Gerry Doyle)