Heading to Sydney? Add another stop to the itinerary. Just an hour-and-a-half’s drive from the city, the region offers great hiking, fine food and, of course, plenty of fresh air.
The Blue Mountains are just “the mountains” to Sydneysiders; so close are the foothills to the metropolitan area that there’s no need to make a distinction. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive to towns at the base but it’s not just the proximity that makes this place a drawcard; it’s the vistas, the historic towns with quirky cafés and vintage stores, restaurants that use local produce to great effect in seasonal menus and the plethora of accommodation options, from B&Bs to luxe resorts.
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Katoomba, the chief town of the Blue Mountains, was singled out as a tourist destination as early as the 19th century, when grand hotels were constructed for the holidaying pleasure of our antecedents (The Hydro Majestic, a Blue Mountains icon, was built in 1903). The area was touted as a health retreat, thanks to its “ozone-laden” air and being far from the miasmas of industrial Sydney. Tuberculosis sufferers flocked to its sanatoriums and, in 1903, the Blue Mountain Gazette encouraged women to take advantage of the “beneficial mountain mists” for their complexions.
The area still serves as a salve to the city-worker and suburb-dweller; it’s a place of healthy intentions, somewhere that can inspire a hitherto unknown urge to hike. It’s hard to resist walking to the tranquil sound of water falling from a great height, while inhaling the fresh, earthy smell of the bush. Equally tempting is the post-exercise reward of a glass of red wine by a roaring fire.
The venerable Fairmont Resort is a rarity; it manages to be most things to most people. It’s family-friendly but serves couples seeking a romantic weekend away ably. It’s enormous with 222 rooms and has excellent facilities, including a well-equipped gym, two pools, spa, sauna, squash courts and the Ubika Spa, yet it feels intimate. Like the hotel itself, the staff is warm, offering smiles and greetings whenever guests pass by. There’s an alpine-chalet feeling, helped along by a wood-clad lobby swarming with guests dressed in puffer vests and shearling-lined boots. Stepping into the open-plan setting, with its vaulted ceilings and views of the crisp mountains, is like coming home.
The comfortable lodgings cement that feeling. If the budget permits, request the 102-square-metre Grand Luxury Suite. It’s one of the new rooms unveiled last year (the whole hotel underwent extensive renovations in 2013) and its very first guest was the Dalai Lama. Never fear: this isn’t the humble dwelling of an exiled spiritual leader – it’s somewhat more luxurious than that. The living room has views of the mountains and Jamison Valley and there are two balconies: one off the bedroom and another off the dining area. There’s also a gas fireplace that roars at the flick of a switch, a Nespresso machine for coffee on demand, a king-sized bed and comfy chairs, sofas and chaises longues for reclining. Sink into a hot bath after a day of bushwalking or simply idle by the fire with a book.
Eucalypt is Fairmont’s fine-dining offering. It regularly books out, so request a reservation before you arrive. The five-course degustation with matching wines begins slowly, but speeds up by the time the Wagyu beef with Paris mash, yuzu butter and mustard cress arrives. The meal finishes with a bittersweet dark-chocolate mousse with chocolate soil, beetroot and juniper dust. An à la carte option is also available.
Housed in the original Katoomba holiday home of Sir Frederick Matthew Darley, the sixth chief justice of NSW, Darley’s Restaurant is within the grounds of another grande dame of the Blue Mountains, Lilianfels Resort and Spa. The dining room is warmed by two open fireplaces and crystal chandeliers glitter above, but don’t be fooled by its old-world charm: Darley’s menu is up-to-the-minute. It’s dishes like the Hervey Bay prawn bisque with fennel custard and the slow-cooked Oberon pork belly with Port Phillip scallops, apple purée, local cabbage and XO sauce that earned Darley’s a Chef’s Hat in the 2016 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.
Things are a bit more casual at Leura Garage. Named for the building’s previous life as a mechanic shop, the restaurant sticks to its theme: there are tyre displays, wrenches in the polished-concrete floor and the staff is kitted out in cute mechanic uniforms. The Mediterranean-leaning dishes make it easy to share; there are pizzas, whole pies and roasted joints of lamb – plus tasting menus, in case you’ve become accustomed to multi-course meals during your mountains tenure. There are also light lunches of soups and sandwiches.
Survey the scene
Get a new perspective with Scenic World’s glass-bottomed Skyway, a cable-car journey that travels 270 metres above Jamison Valley, past the Three Sisters, Mount Solitary and Katoomba Falls. Or take the Scenic Railway – it’s the steepest passenger railway in the world. The glass-roofed carriages mean there are incredible views from all angles as the train enters the ancient rainforest.
Take a walk
The mountains are bushwalking heaven, with walking tracks crisscrossing the Blue Mountains National Park. For a hike filled with waterfalls and panoramic views from precariously placed lookouts and impressive cliff tracks, try Leura Cascades Fern Bower circuit. It’s a moderately difficult walk that should take about three hours. Don’t forget your hat, water, sunscreen and camera. And remember: selfie safely.
Head to town
Spend a few hours in the morning wandering around Leura’s quaint town centre. Josophan’s has locally made chocolates, Megalong Books is a bibliophile’s heaven (it has 15,000 titles in stock) and Mrs Peel stocks stylish and affordable pieces from decades past.
See it on a segway
Segway Tours Blue Mountains offers trips around the grounds of Fairmont Resort. They use off-road segways, which means you can go over rocks, down hills and over rough terrain. You might feel dorky climbing aboard with your helmet secured but once you’re in full flight and watching all those foolish pedestrians eat your dust, you just won’t care anymore.