Lightning Ridge – renowned as the world’s black opal capital – is an offbeat small town in northwestern NSW that deserves a spot on your holiday hit list. And while it may seem remote, “the Ridge” is actually an easy road trip from Sydney. In nine hours of drive time, best broken up across two days, you’ll pass first-class restaurants, charming boutique accommodation and unique art spaces in the heart of outback Australia. Here’s your guide to a journey that’s as memorable as the destination.
Dine at Darley’s
Make your first stop a satisfying one with lunch at Darley’s Restaurant in Katoomba, just 90 minutes outside Sydney. The fine dining champion of the Blue Mountains is set in historic real estate, occupying the former home of NSW chief justice Sir Frederick Matthew Darley. From the dining room you’ll enjoy views of the property’s manicured English gardens while inside, twin fireplaces and crystal chandeliers add to the diner’s old world charm.
The menu, however, is a masterclass in modern Australian: think kangaroo carpaccio with beetroot and pistachio, or toothfish with fennel and bouillabaisse sauce. Don’t leave town without seeing the Three Sisters, a ten-minute walk down the road.
Pull up stumps in Mudgee
Who said road trip accommodation has to mean dreary motels? Another two hours up the highway from Katoomba you’ll hit Mudgee, home to the boutique Perry Street Hotel. Here you can retire for the night in one of their 13 luxury suites, which are set in a converted Victorian building and decked out with deep bathtubs, plush robes and king beds. It’s the ideal place to relax and recharge after a day on the road.
Do the zoo
Lions, elephants and cheetahs all live in the NSW outback – at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, that is. The Dubbo destination, 90 minutes from Mudgee, is home to over 700 species of animals including those who need more space to roam than Taronga’s Sydney site can offer. Hungry? Fuel up with petit fours, pastries, scones and sandwiches at the on-site high tea, or BYO snacks and spread out at one of the spacious picnic grounds.
Between Dubbo and Lightning Ridge there are two unique ways to see art off the beaten track. First, stop off at Gulargambone, population 400, where a contingent of Australian and international painters recently journeyed into the outback to adorn twelve buildings, two footpaths and a water tower with colourful murals.
Thirty minutes up the road in the town of Coonamble you can visit the Outback Arts Centre, a small gallery displaying locally made ceramics, sculpture, photography and installation works. Recent exhibitions include a sculpture project in partnership with the Bourke Aboriginal community and an exhibition from German-born artist Volker Leder, who paints the rugged landscapes of western NSW. From here you’re just two and a half hours from Lightning Ridge.