Canyons, mountains and waterfalls; hearthlands, gum trees and old tin sheds; stalagmites, stalactites and an underground river. The Blue Mountains offers them all, with fine food and culture to boot
Heralded as “Australia’s most accessible wilderness”, the Blue Mountains World Heritage National Park is the perfect place for anyone wanting a short break from the big city. Whether you’re looking for a romantic getaway, family vacation or backpacker adventure, the Blue Mountains can cater for all; the range of activities and accommodation options are as diverse as the landscapes.
My most recent trip to the Blue Mountains was namely for the purposes of taking my English boyfriend, who was visiting Australia for the first time, on an excursion outside Sydney to see a bit of the Australian bush. Having grown up in Sydney, I have fond childhood memories of the Blue Mountains; family picnics next to waterfalls, my first (and only) sighting of a snake in the wild, a school trip to the Jenolan caves. I wanted to share these experiences with him.
That’s not to say I did not have my own agenda; sights were worked neatly around the next meal, and the next meal was carefully planned with the help of my well-thumbed copy of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide 2010.
While it is possible to take a train or coach to the mountains I would recommend hiring a car so that you have more freedom to explore easily and at your own pace. Bayswater car rental (+61 (0)2 9360 3622; www.bayswatercarrental.com.au) is one I have used in the past that offers good rates for a weekend.
Kangas and koalas
Just in case we didn’t see any Aussie fauna in the wild, we stopped on route at Featherdale Wildlife Park (217-229 Kildare Road, Doonside, NSW 2767; +61 (0)2 9622 1644; www.featherdale.com.au/index.htm. Tickets prices: Adults AU$22, Children AU$12, Family (2 adults, up to 4 children) AU$65). This would be a great place to take kids, who get a real kick out of getting up close and patting the animals. Tame wallabies and kangaroos hop about various enclosures, happy to be the subject of numerous holiday snaps, so long as you give them something to nibble. Likewise, koalas are available for photos, but have a tendency towards losing interest and nodding off mid-exposure.
Lunch with a view
Next stop? Lunch, naturally. Where? A lovely restaurant called Solitary (90 Cliff Drive, Leura Falls; +61 (0)2 4782 1164; http://solitary.com.au/restaurant.asp). As their website loses no time telling potential guests, “Solitary occupies one of the most fortunate sites in the Blue Mountains…with views which extend uninterruptedly across Jamison Valley to the Southern Highlands”. However, what makes it most appealing is that you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for the privilege. During the day, Solitary caters for all trades, offering a tempting selection of dishes from their restaurant menu, alongside a range of light lunches, sandwiches and share plates. I was particularly taken with starter of fried cuttlefish with sumac, Moroccan lemon salad and aioli. Two courses each and two glasses of wine came to a grand total of $85 (plus tip); with a view like that, I certainly wasn’t complaining.
Bed and breakfast in lovely Leura
Bellies full to bursting, we decided to check into our accommodation before commencing on the bushwalk I had planned for the afternoon activity. We were staying at Woodford's of Leura, a small B&B on a quiet street at the edge of Leura, the so-called “jewel in the mountain’s crown”. Leura’s main appeal is its beautiful gardens and tree-lined streets. Leura Mall, the main street, is particularly charming and plays host to a number of great cafés and galleries. The village is also the starting point for a number of scenic walks and Leura Cascades is a great place to take the kids for a picnic and a swim.
Woodford's of Leura is very reasonably priced, starting at $140 per night for a double, with afternoon tea on arrival, a courtesy pick up/drop off service and a full country breakfast included. For those on a tighter budget, I recommend the YHA Katoomba, which is where I have always stayed on previous visits, when proximity to potential nightlife was higher on my list of priorities.
Waterfalls and walking
Having enjoyed a restorative cup of tea and homemade cake, we headed out to Wentworth Falls for some sightseeing along the ‘Lookout Loop’ walk, which takes around an hour. There are plenty of longer, and probably more satisfying bushwalks in the area (this site is quite useful: www.wildwalks.com/bushwalking/general/list-of-walks.html?groupid=52), but the boyfriend has a tendency to dawdle and I was already thinking about my stomach again.
Dinner at Darley's
That night we treated ourselves to dinner at Darley’s Restaurant, recently crowned best regional restaurant by my trusty Good Food Guide. My starter was the most beautifully cooked confit pork belly I have ever come across, managing to find the perfect balance between deliciously crispy skin and meltingly succulent meat. If you are feeling really extravagant, why not stay the night? Darley’s is part of Lilianfels Blue Mountains Resort and Spa, somewhere I have always wanted to stay. It wasn’t really in our price range this time round, but if our experience of the restaurant is anything to go by, I’d say you won’t be disappointed.
(Darley’s Restaurant - Lilianfels Blue Mountains Resort & Spa, Lilianfels Avenue, Katoomba, NSW 2780, Restaurant bookings +61 (02) 4780 1332; www.lilianfels.com.au/. Dinner prices: two courses AU$85, three courses AU$105, tasting menu AU$130, plus AU$70 with matching wines).
The next morning saw us rising bright and early to get to a 10am tour of the ‘Temple of Baal’, one of the many guided tours at the Jenolan Caves (www.jenolancaves.org.au). The Jenolan Caves are about an hour’s drive from Leura. There are also various coaches that leave from Katoomba, but I think driving is the best way to experience the landscape. It’s well signposted and once you take the turn off from the Great Western Highway, it’s just one two lane highway all the way to the caves. The scenery changes drastically at this point, a “real outback feel” were the boyfriend’s words. Sweeping plains, timber mills and eucalypts are predominant. We even saw a family of kangaroos hopping along in the distance. Then, almost as abruptly as it begins, the green and luscious vegetation of the mountains resumes, as you wind your way down to the caves’ entrance.
I have been to the caves three times now and I never cease to be enchanted by them. That said, although the Temple of Baal has some unique and impressive features, it is only two chambers and I felt that the guide was really trying to draw things out with the light display to give us our full hour and a half. I would recommend the Orient Cave to first-time visitors; spread across three ornate chambers, it has some of most beautiful examples of the various cave formations in the whole complex. There is accommodation for those who would like to explore the caves more fully (Jenolan Caves House) and there are lots of bushwalking opportunities around. If you are driving though, be aware that the road out of the Jenolan valley is closed from 11.45am – 1.15pm every day. We found out the hard way and had to wait for an hour and a half before we could leave.
The last lunch
By the time we were back on the road, we were feeling more than a little peckish, so we headed back to Leura for a light lunch. Leura Gourmet offers typical café fare and a nice range of fresh juices. The food is well priced and it’s a lovely space, with big windows looking over to Katoomba. Although I didn’t find the meat pie I was craving to put a full stop in my quintessentially Australian getaway, it was a very satisfying end to a fulfilling weekend.
(159 Leura Mall, Leura, NSW 2780; +61 (0)2 4784 1438. Menus change regularly, our meal cost $50 for two mains and soft drinks, including a generous tip).