by Phil Hawkes
Forget the blues. The inspirational, world famous Blue Mountains west of Sydney are beckoning and an easy road trip from Sydney is the way to enjoy everything that’s on offer in this most beautiful of Australian landscapes. Apart from breathtaking scenery and breath-taking walking trails, there’s now a real foodie culture blossoming plus accommodation a long way removed from the old guest houses of the past. Enough said!
We chose the upper mountain area beyond Katoomba where we’d been before, and focussed on Medlow Bath and Blackheath right in the World Heritage area. Of course the higher up you go the cooler it gets, and Blackheath can be pretty chilly at night. No worries, because the hospitality will keep you warm.
The real icon of the area is of course the venerable Hydro Majestic Hotel. There’s a long history here which will resonate with many of a certain vintage, as it’s been there since 1904. The dream child of Mark Foy (a few may remember his eponymous department store in Sydney), the Hydro lives in my own memory as my mother’s favourite escape hatch from city life.
The property has been brought to life again by The Escarpment Group and, we’re told, an investment of over 30 million dollars. This is an extraordinary leap of faith in the future of the old girl, whose original bones are as sound as ever but now embrace modern guest rooms, ensuite bathrooms (I remember the old basins-and-sinks), central heating and fireplaces, cosy bars and a fine restaurant, the Wintergarden looking out over the Megalong Valley through massive picture windows. There’s a deli/coffee shop in a buzzing retail space, and a pizza/pasta café in the old Boiler Room. It’s a whole new Hydro world compared with recollections from the 60s.
Moving on from Medlow Bath we come to Blackheath and it’s still the attractive village we remember from the past… but the difference now is its accent on food and wine with produce from local and regional suppliers, a matter of great pride in the community.
We couldn’t resist sampling the cuisine at Vesta Restaurant (previously known as Vulcans) and Ashcrofts Bistro, both avid disciples of the “local sourcing” mantra.
Vesta’s Scotch Oven
Vesta has a unique feature in the form of a 120 year old Scotch oven which, according to part-owner David Harris, “allows us to slow roast dishes in a deep radiant heat”. The results are outstanding, especially with signature menu items like slow-roasted lamb, stuffed spatchcock, and trout with fennel and couscous. Finish with a modern take on bread & butter pudding… if you can. Hint: good for sharing.
Ashcrofts Bistro is a stylish, simple space but there’s nothing simple about the food created by owner/chef Adrian Hunt. It’s big on flavour and presentation, again with local emphasis and signature dishes like twice-baked Gruyère soufflé with pickled pear, and whole roasted and de-boned Holmbrae chicken. The coup de grâce is a French vanilla bean crème brûlée. Hint: don’t share.
Blackheath Antiques & Victory Theatre Cafe
As if there’s nothing to do but eat, and imbibe a few regional wines, the area around Blackheath has some of the most beautiful walking trails in Australia, ranging from flat and easy to really challenging. Our pick for a moderate but spectacular hike would be the track from Govett’s Leap with its dramatic waterfall, to and through the “Grand Canyon” finishing at Evans Lookout, exhausted but happy with the achievement. And, ready for another bout of gastronomy.
On another day we drive down to Megalong Valley where Hank and Promise await.
They’re not tour guides, but eager and willing steeds ready to rock ‘n roll through the picturesque valley. Fording Cox’s Creek and ambling over the lush pastures on horseback, serenaded by bellbirds is an experience we won’t easily forget, especially Melissa and her well-trained cavalry from Euroka Homestead.
Parklands Country Gardens
Our final two days are spent somewhere close to heaven, yet just a short walk from Blackheath Central. This is Parklands Country Gardens and Lodges, a 28 acre heritage property also a member of The Escarpment Group. This is a complete contrast to the Hydro Majestic, with chalet-type villas providing the most secluded, comfortable suites
with every modern feature including gas fires, thanks to an extensive 2014 refurbishment.
The gardens and manicured lawns are perfect for meditation and exercising, and the day spa is probably one of the region’s finest… the therapists are shared with the Group’s well known Lilianfels Resort and Spa at Katoomba.
And so the 5 days pass in complete relaxation. Now it’s back to the beehive of Sydney, its freeways and traffic snarls but wait, one further treat awaits. Returning via the road through Kurrajong, we stop for lunch and a garden tour at Mt. Tomah Botanic Gardens where an award-winning restaurant overlooking the apple orchards of Bilpin awaits. Organic carrot soup and a salad are all we can manage, for which the waistline is grateful.
Fly to Sydney with cheap seasonal fares on Tigerair and shop around online for the best rental car deal… include a GPS and zero-excess insurance if you can, for peace of mind.
Main pic The Hydro Majestic Casino Lobby
Picture credits David Hill