COOL YULE COMFORTS
Winter is a festive time to visit the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, reports Sue Milne
ALL it takes is one weekend in the NSW Blue Mountains and I’m smitten, infatuated, totally won over. Not with a man but with chintz. And not only chintz but frills and florals, full-blown roses in every shade of pink and red on billowing, full-length drapes and well-stuffed sofas. I drool with delight at sparkling chandeliers, ornate mirrors reflecting gleaming oak and mahogany furniture, velvet and faux-fur throws, swags and tassels and deep pile carpet.
My love affair with glass, steel, polished concrete and stark white walls is over. I’ve fallen for all things cosy. Be warned, that’s what winter in the Blue Mountains can do to you. Seductive at any time of the year, it’s especially so in the coolest months when the scent of woodsmoke is in the air, leaves in every hue of red and gold litter the ground and mountain folk celebrate Yulefest.
This is when thousands of Sydneysiders and interstate and international visitors head for the hills. The air is crisp and invigorating, the food is hot and hearty and red wine never tasted so good.
Add to the mix the special magic of Yulefest and the ingredients of an oldfashioned Christmas: fir trees glittering with festive lights, log fires, piles of gorgeously wrapped gifts, roast chestnuts, turkey and plum pudding, hot chocolate, mulled wine, bracing bushwalks, even, if you are lucky, a sprinkling of snow.
Many hotels offer Yulefest packages; restaurants and cafes have special menus with all sorts of warming seasonal delights; spas create festive treatments and shop windows are decorated with snow scenes and Santa. The clear skies mean nighttime temperatures in the high Blue Mountains regularly drop below freezing but the days are usually warm and sunny and perfect for outdoor adventures: bushwalking, mountain biking, hopping on a Harley-Davidson for a spin around the local sights, or a ramble through the antique shops and galleries.
And, at the end of a busy day, what could be more perfect than a hearty meal at a local restaurant (this is neither the time nor the place for a cold collation of mixed lettuce leaves) before returning to your hotel for a nightcap in front of a log fire. But make sure there actually is a log fire before you book; the Mountain Heritage Hotel at Katoomba romantically, if alarmingly, has open fires in some of its guest rooms. And so to bed: switch off the electric blanket, snuggle under a feather-light doona, and settle in for a great night’s sleep.
Best yuletide beds: For the full Yulefest experience — accommodation, meals and festivities — check the special packages offered by most of the leading hotels. The Mountain Heritage is where Yulefest began in 1980 (to cheer a group of homesick Irishmen who missed a ‘‘ proper’’ Christmas in Australia) and it carries on the tradition throughout July with celebrations in the style of a Victorian country house party, with carol singers, a singsong around the piano, Christmas cabaret, visit from Santa and a six-course Yulefest dinner.
There are highland pipers in Katoomba at the Carrington’s Yulefest dinners and the historic Grand Mercure Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath has a Yulefest package through July and into August. The organised approach is not for everyone and the Blue Mountains has dozens of cute mountain cottages — such as Wombat Hollow Retreat at Blackheath, Blueberry Lodge and Chimney Cottage at Mount Wilson or the awardwinning Rustic Spirit cottages at Kurrajong Heights — with log fires and mountain views. Purchase festive fare locally (most of the mountain villages have a delicatessen, or Santa will deliver), and create your own version of Yulefest. www.mountainheritage.com.au www.thecarrington.com.au www.hydromajestic.com.au www.bluemts.com.au www.therusticspirit.com.au Magic puddings and pies: Winter in the Blue Mountains means hearty food and lots of it. If you book a Yulefest package at one of the main hotels, you can look forward to a variation on the traditional Christmas dinner: roast turkey, chestnut stuffing, plum pudding and mince pies. But there are many more great eating options, from soup and sourdough bread at one of the numerous small and unpretentious cafes (try Elephant Bean in Katoomba or the Conservation Hut at Wentworth Falls) to fine dining at Silks Brasserie in Leura, where winter warmers include sauteed duck livers with black pudding or saffron-infused seafood chowder with premium oysters.
Enjoy sublime views and mod Oz dining in Katoomba at Echoes hotel restaurant or French-style fare at Mes Amis. Solitary restaurant and kiosk at Leura Falls boasts great food and views to the southern highlands. Check out historic Collit’s Inn at Hartley Vale, which is fast gaining a reputation as one of the best restaurants outside Sydney.
A trip to the Blue Mountains in winter wouldn’t be the same without a visit to Katoomba’s famous art deco Paragon cafe, opened in 1916, with an interior little changed since. It still takes the title for best hot chocolate in the mountains (thick, creamy, with a slightly bitter finish) but is up against some serious competition, not least from Cafe Josophan’s in Leura, a shrine to all things chocolate. www.silksleura.com.au www.echoeshotel.com.au www.mesamis.com.au www.solitary.com.au www.collitsinn.com.au www.josophans.com.au Beaten tracks: The 247,000ha Blue Mountains is an adventure playground for grown-ups (and kids) with mountain biking, rock climbing, ab- seiling, whitewater rafting and hiking at their best during the cool winter months. ‘‘ No hot sun beating down and no snakes,’’ says Craig Albery of Katoomba-based River Deep Mountain High, one of several adventure tourism operators in the mountains.
Enjoy the mountain scenery from horseback with Werriberri Trail Rides, which operates from the Megalong Valley, and caters for all levels, from nervous novices to experienced riders. And, with dozens of wellmarked trails, some of the state’s best mountain biking is to be found in this beautiful region.
Bushwalks range from easy to challenging; the Blue Mountains are an accessible wilderness that everyone can enjoy. Prince Henry Walk, which follows the cliff edge from Katoomba Cascades to Gordon Falls, near Leura, is an easy stroll with stunning views. Information centres at Glenbrook and Echo Point provide maps and advice and can arrange guided walks with National Parks and Wildlife Service rangers. www.rdmh.com.au www.bluemts.com.au/werriberri www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au Around the galleries: The Blue Mountains’ bush panoramas, cliffs and gorges, rivers and waterfalls have provided inspiration for artists for a century or more. One of the pleasures of a winter weekend is a trawl round the galleries to see the work of painters, sculptors, photographers, jewellery makers and craftsmen who live and work in the mountains. Find some of the region’s best original artwork at Michael White Gallery at Leura, Waragil Studios at Blackheath, Katoomba Fine Art and Falls Gallery at Wentworth Falls. See wooden sculptures at Leura Fine Woodwork Gallery; John Turner’s Katoomba gallery showcases Australian panoramas and wildlife. Voluptuous nudes are on show, and for sale, at Springwood, Norman Lindsay’s house at Faulconbridge, where the artist and author lived and loved with gusto. It’s now a National Trust property and open to the public. www.michaelwhiteart.com www.waragilstudios.com.au www.katoombafineart.com.au www.fallsgallery.com.au www.finewoodwork.com.au www.johnturner-bm.com.au www.normanlindsay.com.au Cake and eat it: Afternoon tea is a Blue Mountains tradition; hotels and tearooms vie for the top tea title.
Traditionalists should head to Bygone Beautys Tearoom in Leura where teas from across the world are poured from silver pots and sipped from fine china cups.
At the Carrington in Katoomba, high tea is served on Sunday afternoon: ‘‘ a time for unhurried conversation and delicate cuisine’’. The menu here includes finger sandwiches, asparagus rolls, mini quiches, cheeses, peach tarts and chocolate truffles. Wash it all down with a selection from the range of loose leaf teas or take a hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows.
Afternoon tea at elegant Lilianfels, the Blue Mountains’ premier hotel, is so popular it is available from 10am. Lilianfels’s Regal tea includes homemade scones with jam and cream, pastries and mini tarts, finger sandwiches, a range of loose leaf teas or coffee and a 200ml bottle of Moet Nectar Champagne. It’s a snip at $99 for two. www.bygonebeautys.com.au www.lilianfels.com.au Sugar and spices: Taste as good as you feel after one of Spa Sublime’s specially devised Yulefest treatments: a vanilla bean cream body polish, an all-over drizzle of warmed Belgian chocolate, followed by a cocoa and vanilla mud massage and wrap and, to finish, some handmade chocolates to nibble on.
The Carrington’s award-winning Yindi day spa also goes in for the full indulgence, with its couples chocolate fantasy, which includes a cocoa and coconut milk spa bath (in adjoining his and hers sunken tubs), and a honey and cocoa mud wrap, followed by a Toblerone cocktail in the hotel bar. Stress melts away, without the aid of chocolate, at Lilianfels, where the spa menu includes its signature treatment, poultice therapy, using 14thcentury techniques, and a body mask ‘‘ enriched with the minerals of extinct volcanoes’’. www.spasublime.com.au www.yindi.com.au Golden oldies: There are no malls in the 26 pretty towns and villages that dot the mountains and shopping is a leisurely browse rather than a frantic dash and grab. Best buys are vintage clothing, antique jewellery and secondhand books in Katoomba (Mr Pickwick’s Fine Books is one of the best). While in Leura, find festive candles at Moontree Studios or check out quality kitchenware at Leura Whisk and the Cat’s Meow, which specialises in faux-French provincial homewares. There are numerous antiques shops in the area: one of the best is Victory Theatre Antiques in Mount Victoria, which showcases furniture, porcelain, jewellery, books and collectibles.
A highlight of Yulefest is the Blue Mountain Antique Fair, held next weekend (July 7-8) at the community hall, Blackheath.
For Christmas bells and baubles, visit Santa’s Hut in Blaxland and the Christmas Cottage in Leura, which are open year-round and crammed with festive decorations. www.mrpickwick.com.au www.victorytheatre.com.au Spade work: Even in winter there is plenty to see and enjoy in the famous gardens of the Blue Mountains. Foremost is Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, the cool-climate cousin of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Situated on the Bells Line of Road, at an altitude of 1000m, many plants unsuited to Sydney’s warmer climate are grown here. There is a display devoted to Wollemi pines, the world’s rarest and oldest trees, discovered in 1994 not far from here. Other not-tobe-missed gardens are at Mount Wilson and Mount Irvine and the National Trust’s Everglades Gardens at Leura.
For a garden on a much grander scale, head out to the 12,000ha Gardens of Stone national park, 30km north of Lithgow, where erosion has carved out strange beehive-shaped domes and limestone pagodas. www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au www.evergladesgardens.info Sue Milne was a guest of Blue Mountains Tourism.
Season’s greetings: Santa drops in and hotels, restaurants and cafes enter into the spirit of Yulefest, the Blue Mountains’ celebration of all things wintry