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by Tegan Lawson

Port Macquarie is one of many destinations along the NSW coast perfect for whale watching, so when the opportunity arose to sneak in a mid-year long weekend, my daughter and I jumped into the 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe SR and hit the road.

What does SR stand for? I don’t think anyone knows, so I’m going to say ‘scenic route’, because this sporty version of the Santa Fe SUV looks like it’s made to go the long way.

This is Hyundai’s seven-seat large SUV and though pricing starts from $42,350 before on-road costs for the entry-level Active with a petrol engine and manual transmission, the flagship SR is quite a bit more expensive at $64,250 but it has all the extras because it’s based on the top-spec Highlander that is priced at $57,090.

We recently put the Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander, Kia Sorento Platinum, Mazda CX-9 Touring and Nissan Pathfinder ST-L head-to-head – read the comparison here – and the Santa Fe crossed the line in third place behind the newer Sorento and CX-9. However, neither offer a sporty equivalent to match the Santa Fe SR, giving it a valid point-of-difference over its competition.

The SR gets exterior tweaks like a sports body kit, 19-inch alloy wheels, Brembo brakes at the rear and a stiffer suspension set up. Under the bonnet is a 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine that produces 145kW and 436Nm, teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission and it’s all-wheel drive.

Destination Drive:: Sydney to Port Macquarie via Putty Rd in the 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe SR

Rather than cruising comfortably straight up the M1 from Sydney to Port Macquarie, a drive that takes around four-and-a-half hours, we decided to see how this racier Santa Fe handled the well-known windy back-way, Putty Road.

Putty Road twists its way from Wilberforce, near Richmond on the northwestern fringes of Sydney, all the way up to Singleton in the Hunter Valley and is around 165km long.

There were only two of us going away for two nights and the 516-litre cavernous boot, with a power tailgate with hands-free opening, dwarfed our single suitcase. This is a car made for a bigger family than our two-person ensemble!

Taking the long way is a great way to force yourself to embrace the journey and relax into the long weekend. I find if you’re on the highway, going straight from point A to point B, the focus is on getting there as fast as you can which is not conducive to relaxation.

By taking the scenic route and stopping at interesting places along the way, you’re not rushing and the holiday begins as soon as you start the ignition.

The Santa Fe SR doesn’t have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto like other Hyundai models including the i30, but the 8.0-inch touchscreen and infotainment system were easy to use. I plugged in our destination address, connected my iPhone and tuned in to my favourite radio station and then we were off.

Destination Drive:: Sydney to Port Macquarie via Putty Rd in the 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe SR

It also has a rear-view camera with guidelines (incredibly helpful when reverse parking), rain-sensing wipers, HID Xenon headlights (dusk-sensing) and daytime running lights, Bluetooth phone and audio, USB and 12V outlets for charging devices and playing music, the seats are leather and the electrically adjustable front seats are also heated and ventilated, while the rear outboard seats are heated too.

Though our bums weren’t getting numb thanks to the comfortable seats, we stopped at a few places along Putty Road to stretch our legs, check out an abandoned service station and grab some lunch. As a result the trip took us around six-and-a-half hours but we still arrived to check in at The Observatory, Port Macquarie at around 3.30pm.

The Observatory is out of the hustle and bustle of the CBD, is a five-star hotel and was one of Australia’s first carbon-neutral hotels. A friend of mine had purchased a voucher and had run out of time to use it, so I was the lucky beneficiary and it was a lovely place to call home for a few days.

After exploring the town for the afternoon, the next morning we were up early to go whale watching. Neither my daughter nor myself have ever been, so we had our fingers crossed that we’d get to see at least one of these gentle giants.

We were in luck; there were plenty of whales around. We followed a young one that seemed to be travelling on its own, then discovered a group of four and then another trio. Some just casually swam along, but others were feeling frisky enough to put on quite a show, waving their tails and fins in the air and spouting water.

Destination Drive:: Sydney to Port Macquarie via Putty Rd in the 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe SR

The crew from Port Jet Port Macquarie were fantastic, not only fun and energetic but also very educational. Throughout the 90-minute experience we were drip-fed interesting facts about whales and heard some amazing stories. We were in a jet boat and the ride back to shore took an adrenaline-inducing turn, which was the cherry on top of an amazing morning.

But the fun didn’t end there; around 20 minutes outside of Port Macquarie there is a place where you can have your own ‘Alice in Wonderland’ moment. As well as producing wine, Bago Vineyards is home to the largest hedge maze in NSW.

As you approach the vineyard the bitumen gives way to dirt. Though it certainly wasn’t too rough, the surface was loose so it was nice to have peace-of-mind knowing the Santa Fe SR has an on-demand all-wheel drive system.

At one point we came across a cow ambling along – in the middle of the road. It didn’t want to let us pass, so we just idled along behind until it spotted a particularly tasty looking patch of grass and finally moved aside.

After we arrived, we sat at the top of the hill and enjoyed a delicious cheese platter overlooking the maze, trying to figure out the best way through. It is huge, and it is a breathtaking sight.

The hedges are above head-height so there was no way to cheat! Though you could do it faster, we lost two hours wandering around in there. It was another world, and the venue supplies a list of treasures to find that are hidden amongst the twists and turns.

Destination Drive:: Sydney to Port Macquarie via Putty Rd in the 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe SR

The next day we were up ridiculously early… to watch the sunrise over the beach and hunt Pokemon! While I would have relished the sleep-in, my daughter was keen to do some exploring.

After our early morning expedition, we found the most decadent place for breakfast and gorged on pancakes with chocolate, bacon, eggs and maple syrup. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the smartest idea because we were back on the road after that and feeling very over-stuffed.

The Santa Fe SR has adaptive cruise control, which was perfect for our return journey. When it comes to safety kit, it has an impressive number of features including autonomous emergency braking with forward collision warning, lane change assist and blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert, and front and rear parking sensors.

With the warmth streaming through the panoramic sunroof the trip home was enjoyable. The SR looks sporty but don’t expect it to be a performance version of the Santa Fe, there’s no changes to the drivetrain over the Highlander so essentially you’re paying for the sportier look, dynamic tweaks like stiffer suspension and a great brake and wheel combination with 19-inch wheels, lower profile tyres, and those attention-grabbing red Brembo brakes.

I quite liked the character of the Santa Fe SR, it was comfortable yet almost too roomy for the two of us. However, for a family that likes to get away and take the scenic route from time to time, the Hyundai Santa Fe SR would be well worth a look.