It takes a few moments for the reason to register: I’ve just flown the brand-new kangaroo route by Garuda Indonesia, giving me just enough time to enjoy a cup of coffee before continuing my journey in utter comfort (I’m not going to lie; I fell asleep again). It’s fortunate really, because if there’s anything my final destination requires, it’s ironman levels of energy.
The fall and rise of the Greater Blue Mountains
Let’s get one thing straight: the raw beauty of the Greater Blue Mountains – a rugged region less than two hours west of Sydney, notorious for its dramatic scenery encompassing a seemingly endless blue horizon of eucalyptus trees, steep cliffs, waterfalls and sleepy villages – has always been timeless. Glowing with flame trees in autumn, snow-capped in winter, bursting with colour in spring and refreshingly cool in summer, it came as no surprise to anyone when the one-million-hectare mountain range was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000.
Sadly, the region’s grandeur – clearly once strong enough to encourage the rich and famous to travel the 12.5 days – was long gone. Art deco buildings had long fallen into disrepair, grand ballrooms had given way to functional eateries, and the region – increasingly shining its spotlight on iconic sights such as the Three Sisters and Jenolan Caves – had developed something of a ‘for tourists only’ reputation.
No one can say with any certainty when the winds of change began to blow across the mountains, although it seems to be a perfect storm of three main components: the arrival of major players in the luxury resort market such as One&Only Wolgan Valley in 2009; extensive upgrades across the board, from a AUD$30 million makeover to the historic Hydro Majestic Hotel (unveiled in 2014), to improvements to walks and attractions; and above all, an influx of Sydney-siders moving west to open boutique hotels, restaurants and cafés, bringing with them a new wave of culture, ideas and passion.
In amongst all this noise, one thing is clear: the Greater Blue Mountains is back, and it’s well on its way to eclipsing its own name.
Action all areas
With eight individual conservation reserves – Yengo, Wollemi, Gardens of Stone, Blue Mountains, Nattai, Kanangra Boyd, Thirlmere Lakes and Jenolan Caves Karst Reserve – the Greater Blue Mountains’ biggest drawcard transcends all trends of course, and Dylan Jones, owner of Blue Mountains Adventure Company, says he’s convinced that to see the best parts of the region, one has to “suffer – just a little”. “We specialise in single-day, mostly rope- based adventures such as rock climbing, abseiling and canyoning and I can tell you that you can spend a month exploring canyons and gullies and still not scratch the surface,” Dylan says.
With over 400 walking tracks alone (for the record, Jones recommends The Grand Canyon bush walk at Blackheath and The National Pass Walk at Wentworth Falls as two must-dos), you’d be forgiven for thinking the destination is only for nature lovers and adventurers, but nothing could be further from the truth. Recent upgrades to Scenic World mean visitors can enjoy the bush from the Skyway (suspending them some 270m above the valley floor), via the Cableway or through an elevated boardwalk, which immerses wanderers in Jurassic rainforest on the Jamison Valley floor.
Meander through the quaint townships of Leura, Blackheath, Lawson and Katoomba, allowing adequate time to check out the vast array of antique stores, chic boutiques and quirky cafés, and pop in to some of the art galleries that are concentrated in this area (the Norman Lindsay Gallery & Museum Shop in Faulconbridge in particular is not to be missed).
And by all means, visit those iconic spots – just don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a day-trip destination, warns Jones. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people I see who only plan for one day here,” he says. “They always leave frustrated, telling me if only they’d known there was so much to see and do, they would have planned for a longer stay.”
Staying is believing
At its clifftop location overlooking spectacular Megalong Valley, Hydro Majestic Hotel front office manager Meagan Iervasi is pondering what it is that’s drawing crowds to the region (and indeed, to this historic hotel, which once saw the likes of the late and great Dame Nellie Melba entertain guests in the roaring ’20s). “The natural beauty of the area and the fresh mountain air has always been a given, but the Blue Mountains is a hub of artists and producers and I think people have recognised the importance of supporting local and regional communities in that regard,” she says.
Supporting communities is important, but character-filled accommodation – a rarity in a world that often delivers aesthetic-free function – perhaps plays an even stronger role in the area’s renaissance, she concedes. “Certainly the Hydro Majestic’s refurbishment has breathed life back into the Medlow Bath area in particular, because people realised the significance of a hotel that’s been operating since 1904 – only three years after Australia was federated.”
Of course luxury accommodation in this region isn’t only limited to Hydro Majestic and One&Only Wolgan Valley – the latter of which takes up only 1 per cent of a 2,800-hectare wildlife reserve, where each villa has its own indoor pool and access to a quintessentially Australian (high-end) bush experience. In fact, the Blue Mountains is home to some of the country’s most impressive hotels, with five-star Lilianfels Resort & Spa, and Parklands Country Gardens & Lodges – an upmarket private retreat set within 11 hectares of sweeping parklands – leading the charge, and a host of sophisticated boutique hotels and romantic bed & breakfasts providing a dreamy setting for those after something a little less costly.
Food, glorious food
As new restaurants and cafés continue to open seemingly at the speed of light, one venue that’s seen it all is Darley’s, a hatted, fine-dining restaurant that has been part of Lilianfels Resort & Spa since the late ’80s. “It’s so exciting what’s happening here,” says maître d’ Brayden Jones of recent additions to local, mouth-watering experiences. “The gradually expanding local population and increased multicultural diversity here has led not only to an increased number of traditional eateries, but also more eateries offering tastes and flavours from other parts of the world.”
The townships of Leura, Lawson, Blackheath and Katoomba are known foodie destinations in particular, and it’s difficult to condense their top culinary experiences into one short list, but Darley’s aside, don’t miss eating lunch at Leura Garage, enjoying a coffee at nearby The Red Door Café, or a sunset beverage overlooking the Three Sisters at Bar NSW at The Lookout. Add to that a visit to Blackheath Growers’ Market (held on the second Sunday of each month) or a shop at Katoomba’s Blue Mountains Food Co-op for fresh produce from backyard growers. And for quintessential Aussie bush tucker, take a tour with Aboriginal Blue Mountains Walkabout Tours, which will give you great insight into the culture of the local Aboriginals, their connection to this land and a taste of the truly Australian bite.
Yes, it’s a lot to fit in, but remember, you’re going for a lot longer than a day.