drives west from Sydney to the beautiful Blue Mountains, and a resort that mixes metropolitan sophistication with outback unpretentiousness
AUSTRALIA, with its fabled beaches and rainforests, has forged a reputation for coastal and island resorts, and wilderness retreats. Meanwhile New Zealand, that gorgeous Antipodean Switzerland where the scenery surely is fluffed up each night by brigades of Middle Earth elves, has long had Australasia’s monopoly on semi-rural and alpine lodges, with a resounding sense of geographic context and fine local food and wine. But the larger of the lands down under has quietly staged a challenge in recent years, opening a succession of fine lodges amid stunning bucolic landscapes that rival those of the Kiwis.
The savvy traveller can easily do a lodge circuit; the recently formed Luxury Lodges of Australia association recommends routes that take you from safari digs and island redoubts to luxe outback camps and hinterland hideaways. Firmly on that list is Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa, about three hours by road west from Sydney via the Blue Mountains, so named for the hazy tinge to the air from the diffused oil of masses of eucalyptus trees.
If the getting there sounds tedious, helicopter transfers are available. But the drive is lovely, the city sprawl giving way to flat plains at the foot of the Blue Mountains and then looping roads that lead up to towns that sit like old-fashioned Raj-era hill stations with cracker-crisp air and giant rhododendrons. From Katoomba and Blackheath, it’s downhill through the mining town of Lithgow and then abruptly into World Heritage-listed conservation country, all sandstone cliffs, native shrubs and highhopping wallabies.
By the time you reach Wolgan Valley, it feels – and looks – like an oasis set within a natural amphitheatre of near-vertical cliffs and tall timbers. The naturalist Charles Darwin visited the valley on an expedition in 1836 and described the landscape as “a grand valley surrounded by cliffs of sandstone…like a bay with arms.”
Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa, occupying a tiny portion of a 1,600-hectare estate, was opened in late 2009 by the hotels division of Dubai-based Emirates airline and is hunkered close to the earth in the style of an Australian ranch, though there’s a notable absence of shearers’ sheds and cattle yards. Guests stay in 36 so-called heritage suites, which are actually timber and stone cottages set in winding arcs. When viewed from the main two-storey building, it all looks rather like a garrison or cantonment. But the plain exteriors fit well here; there’s no sense in competing with the views.
We tend to think of safari as a concept peculiar to big game-filled Africa or the subcontinent, where the quest to see a Bengal tiger is the stuff of high adventure. But Australia is thick with curious creatures, some of which almost defy categorisation, and high on the activities list at Wolgan Valley are afternoon and evening animal-spotting drives in opensided vehicles. Instead of looking idly at the landscape, you’re plunged right into it, across tracts of grassland, up and down hills, deep into gullies and along creeks stained brown with the tannin of tea trees. The spotter’s checklist includes a female albino wallaroo (smaller and bulkier than a kangaroo; larger than a wallaby) that typically hangs around the safari route, eastern grey kangaroos, peregrine falcons, and plentiful parrots and rosellas, that swoop in coloured clouds. “It’s like Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs,” observes a fellow guest as we traverse scenery that seems older than time and that white wallaroo dissolves like a ghost into a stand of casuarinas.
There’s also a secure reintroduction area where endangered and at-risk animals such as potoroos and bettongs are gradually being settled before being released into the wider Wolgan Valley Reserve in a sort of reverse habitat engineering to return the environment to its pre-white-settlement state. The ecosystem is healthy here, and field guides reckon there are about 96 species of birds and 42 species of reptiles. And, if the chorus by the Wolgan River come dusk is anything to go by, there’s no shortage of attention-seeking frogs.
At night, bound off on a nocturnal spotting and stargazing tour with powerful torches to search the tracks and bushes; there are possums, sugar gliders, wallaroos and wombats ploughing along like small pieces of earth-moving equipment. Field guides are highly trained, and there’s a touch of whimsy to their amusing tales of animal behaviour. Who would have thought wombats produce square-shaped dung? To crown it all on a late-afternoon Wildlife and Sundowner outing there may be a detour to the Wollemi Pine Grove, home to the world’s oldest and rarest tree, endemic to the Greater Blue Mountains Area. Or perhaps a stop at a lofty lookout where a waiter from the lodge, togged up in country-squire kit, has set up a tray of drinks and canapés. A Martini with your marsupial, anyone?
A stable of horses is available for guests to ride through a variety of terrain, including the intriguingly named Donkey Mountain; there are also walking trails with the possibility of picnics on call. Or, for the exercise-averse, a visit to the splendid Timeless Spa, housed in a long, light-filled pavilion, means the possibility of a host of pampering treatments. Lie back and succumb to such bush-inspired therapies as a green tea and eucalyptus body exfoliation or a wattle-seed renewal scrub.
I’ve been twice to Wolgan Valley, once just after its 2009 opening and again in December 2010. I liked it a lot better the second time. For starters, the landscaping has grown in and softened the hard old surroundings so that it feels more flourishing and well tended. The staff have become adept at serving an international clientele and the little glitches I experienced first time round have been ironed out. What is constant is the emphasis on downthe-road ingredients and wine of the parish, especially the nearby regions of Orange and Mudgee; Executive Chef Dwane Goodman says no produce comes from outside a 160km radius, which is a tiddler of a distance by Australian standards. Beside a restored 1832 original tin-roofed homestead that once stood as centrepiece of the property – now a small museum and used for special events – a potager (fenced against raids by pesky possums) abounds with gigantic vegetables. Kitchen hands can be seen each afternoon trotting down to pick goodies for that evening’s meal. It’s a lovely feeling to be supping here on lamb from over the valley, spinach plucked from a patch virtually over your shoulder and wine made from grapes grown in neighbourhood vineyards.
Breakfast and five-course à la carte dinner are served in the high-ceilinged main dining room. Lunch is in the downstairs Country Kitchen, with optional seating on a patio near the main pool. There’s a blackboard menu, fine salads and savoury tarts, and always a choice of pasta or antipasti and ploughman’s platters.
Wolgan Valley recently won an architectural award for environmental commitment and has been roundly praised for its recycling of old bridge timbers and steel fencing posts in its construction. It has also received enthusiastic plaudits from guests for the level of detail in the design and decor. The accommodation is themed as Federation, the period at the turn of the 20th century, and decorative touches include leadlight panels, polished native timbers, a double-sided stone fireplace between the sitting area and bedroom in each heritage suite, and capacious slate-tiled bathrooms with a glass-roofed, monsoon-style shower recess, generous toiletries and a tub that offers escarpment views. The walk-in dressing room is the size of a studio apartment. Look for an umbrella, binoculars, a sketch pad and crayons, an iPod docking station, the latest magazines, a small library of books, a Nespresso machine, two flat-screen televisions – they’re all here. By the front door, his-and-hers mountain bikes await.
And so to bed, or a post-luncheon nap, which seems to be the order of the day. Like the indigenous animals escaping the hottest hours, Wolgan guests seem to like a bit of temporary hibernation. And those heritage suites, or the handful of multi-bedroom family suites, are perfect bunkers for a siesta, a read in a ma-and-pa rocking chair on the mesh-enclosed veranda or a swim in the plunge pool with bifold doors that can be opened or closed to suit the weather. Goodness knows what the early settlers would have made of such luxuries; as I do laps in the temperature-controlled pool, I think of the colonial farmers’ wives stirring the laundry coppers and hanging out yards of clothes that then turned into hours of starching and ironing. These days we’re made of much softer stuff, but for luxe-loving explorers who want the illusion of roughing it Australiana-style and a slice of earth with their country comfort, Wolgan Valley hits the spot.
And you can feel virtuous, too, while hanging out in such luxury. Wolgan Valley is the first carbon-neutral resort in the world to be certified through an internationally accredited greenhouse-gas programme. With more than 175,000 indigenous trees and plants already in place, feral-proof fences to deter foxes and rabbits, and other conservation initiatives under way, Wolgan Valley is an important addition to Australia’s eco-inventory. Oh, and while wi-fi is free and fast, there’s no mobile phone reception in this neck of New South Wales. That’s my idea of roughing it.
The year-round tariff for a Heritage Suite for two is A$1,950 (about HK$15,700) per night, or A$1,560 if a minimum three-night stay is booked. The price includes all meals and selected wines with dinner, plus two activities per day, as well as service and tax. Advance bookings for the Timeless Spa are recommended.
+ The Siam
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ The Pavilions
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Phnom Penh
+ Buenos Aires
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Passage to Hong Kong
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ Samui Wind
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Soneva Kiri
+ Langham Hotel
+ The Best of Boston
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI
+ ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO