The Blue Mountains’ Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley takes luxury lodging by the scruff of its antipodean neck and transports it to a canyon-sized Jurassic Park of sun-blessed escarpments, creature comforts and sumptuous styling. With access to over 7,000 acres of pristine wilderness, a world-class spa and private villas where in-room swimming pools come as standard, this is one special playground.
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A bottle of local Orange or Mudgee wine on arrival
Forty villas, including spacious two- and three-bedroom retreats ideal for group and family getaways.
11am, but flexible subject to availability (try not to leave, ever!). Check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £1289.95 (AU$2,290), including tax at 10 per cent.
Rates include gourmet breakfast, lunch, dinner, non-alcoholic beverages and selected regional wines and beer with meals, plus two daily on-site activities a person. Spa services, premium alcohol, minibar and room service cost extra.
A centrepiece of each room is a classy tome on Charles Darwin's adventures in Australia, open at the page describing his two visits to Wolgan Valley in the 19th century. There's a magnifying glass to fully appreciate the book's historic illustrations and binoculars on hand to see poetry, and evolution, in motion outside.
At the hotel
Swimming pool, tennis court, spa, sauna, steam room, gym, mountain bikes, DVD/CD library, free WiFi throughout, restaurants, bar, wine cellar, playroom. In rooms: private pool, veranda, double-sided fireplace, flatscreen TV, movies on demand, DVD/CD players, preloaded iPod, minibar, coffee machine, binoculars.
Our favourite rooms
A modern take on Federation-style villas (with stained-glass door panels teamed with natural stone, timber and fabrics), all the resort's villas sit demurely in a long, non-view-hogging line. Ask for one-bedroom Heritage Villas 17 or 41 at either end of the ‘street’ for maximum privacy. The three secluded two-bedroom Wollemi Villas and the sole three-bedroom Wolgan Villa sit up the hill closer to the lodge, affording greater wildlife-watching opportunities.
When you're tired of skinny-dipping in your own temperature-controlled inside-outside pool, lounge more decorously at the beautifully landscaped outdoor pool at the Lodge (heated from mid-October to mid-April).
Loose linens for the spa, pressed moleskins for riding and smart-casual ensembles for dinner.
Smoking is allowed on villa balconies and a designated area of the main homestead balcony. Rates exclude a 2 per cent surcharge for credit-card payments. Extra beds for over-12s are AU$600 a night.
Welcome, with brilliant nature-based bespoke activities available. Baby cots are free; babysitting is AU$50 an hour, for a minimum of three hours. Under-threes stay free, and extra beds for children aged four to 12 are at an extra charge.
Kids of all ages are welcome at this family-friendly resort, with bespoke nature-based activities available for children, but Wolgan is geared to grown-ups, so you might not want to get too distracted keeping an eye on the young ones.
Adventurous, outdoorsy but very well behaved types eight years old and upwards, but all ages are welcome.
The three Wollemi Suites have twin-bed-convertible second bedrooms, with rollaways adding extra flexibility. The sole Wolgan Suite also has its own kitchen and a third bedroom. Private pools are a little larger in these suites, too.
With a whole valley at their disposal, kids can run wild here, with bush craft, cooking, glowworm tunnel hikes (for over-10s) and stunt kite flying all on the dancing card. Over-6s can even have archery lessons. A range of nature-based activities have been developed for children, so they can make the most of the 7,000 acres of wilderness. The Wolgan Rangers keeps eight to 12 year olds entertained with nature hikes, bug hunts, yabbie-catching and other outdoorsy pursuits. And, this is the ideal spot for little Smiths to saddle up, with horse rides and stable visits.
Every suite comes with its own pool and while there is no separate kids' pool, the main swimming area does have a child-friendly shallow end. Bring your own inflatables though, and be responsible for your own supervision; there's no lifeguard.
The resort expects children to adjust to an adult environment, out of respect for the privacy and enjoyment of all other guests. The smalls are welcome to eat in both restaurants, where à la carte options and the special children's menu should tempt, although dinner at the Wolgan Dining Room and Valley Bar must be taken between 6pm and 7.30pm if you have kids under eight in tow. After 7.30pm you’ll need to order room service back at your suite (extra charges apply), or book a babysitter if the adults in your party plan on eating at the main restaurant. That said, there's flexibility to arrange early meals prior to 6pm at the more informal Country Kitchen restaurant, open from 6am until 6pm. Child-pleasing dishes such as pizza, pasta, burgers and ploughman's platters should keep hunger at bay.
Babysitting is provided at AU$50 a babysitter, for up to three children, for a three-hour minimum; ideally book a day in advance.
No need to pack
Baby cots and high chairs are supplied by the resort.
Baby food and milk can be heated on request and a nice assortment of deliciously healthy packed lunches can also be arranged. If you opt for a Heritage Suite rather than the more spacious Wollemi and Wolgan Suites, extra beds for older kids can be added to suites for AU$350 a night (on request).
Wolgan prides itself on being Australia's first conservation-based luxury resort and is accredited by international group CarboNZero. Pastoral fencing has been removed, 200,000 indigenous trees have been planted and native wildlife reintroduced. Seasonal, organic produce from the region's farmers and vintners is celebrated here, and much of the produce comes from Wolgan’s own kitchen gardens.
Tables by either of the central fireplaces and at the window at the bar end of the Dining Room are the most seductive spots. In summer, eating out on the veranda is the way to go.
Casual ensembles for dinner, loose linens for the spa and moleskins for riding.
Flaunting panoramic views, the Wolgan Dining Room is an impressive affair, with cuisine showcasing seasonal, local, organic produce from Orange, Mudgee and the Hunter Valley, and a regional and international wine list as expansive as the vistas. Fish and meat are beautifully done here, say the Asian-style caramel pork belly or the cured ocean trout with lime dill cream. Breakfasts here are comprised of just-baked breads and pastries and fuelling cooked breakfasts. The more relaxed Country Kitchen is at the heart of the hotel's homestead, where the chef's market finds are crafted into elegant lunches and light snacks (all local and seasonal, naturally). Decor is antipodean country club with a contemporary twist, but for panoramic views of the lush surroundings take a seat on the veranda.
The perfect spot for G&Ts at sundown (made with the resort's very own 1832 Wolgan Gin, distilled on-site, and Australian botanicals), the Valley Bar & Terrace Lounge has a stylish, intimate vibe, and spills out onto the veranda; within it's equally cosy with four fireplaces. Mix and match from a menu of locally-inspired small plates and work your way through the international vintages on the wine menu – there are frequent gourmet cheese tastings to pair those with, too.
The Country Kitchen sees action from noon to 3.30pm, serving day-long coffees, light snacks and lunch (noon to 3pm); the Wolgan Dining Room is open for breakfast from 7am to 10.30am and dinner from 6pm to 9.30pm; the bar pours drinks from 10.30am to 10pm.
24 hours, offering a range of regional dishes; an AU$25 surcharge a villa applies to each order. Expect everything from crispy lobster spring rolls to Wolgan Angus beef burgers with hand-cut fries.
Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley is located in a private nature and conservation reserve in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, set amid 7,000 acres of protected wilderness, and can be reached from Sydney in less than three hours by car.
Fly into Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport (www.sydneyairport.com.au), around 190km from Wolgan, a hub for numerous international and domestic flights.
CityRail (www.cityrail.info) and Great Southern Rail (www.gsr.com.au) services run from Sydney to Lithgow Station. From there, the 35km, 45-minute transfer to the resort costs around AU$150 each way by taxi (up to four people) or AU$375 each way for groups of up to six via a local tour operator.
Driving to Wolgan Valley, 190km north-west of Sydney, is an adventure in itself, and leaving your car at the car park by the gate – a resort policy – only adds to the sense of arrival at a place of some remoteness and seclusion. Two routes are suggested: via Katoomba and the Blue Mountains proper, or via Richmond and the strangely named Bells Line of Road, a long, spectacular and less populated drive direct over the hills to Lithgow. Free on-site parking is provided. Alternatively, luxury limousine transfers can be arranged for AU$799 one way per vehicle via Bells Line of Road, or for AU$1,049 via Katoomba; just ask Smith's travel specialists for more information.
If you don't fancy the winding drive up the mountains, Sydney Helitours (www.sydneyhelitours.com.au) can chopper you into the valley, from AU$880 one way, a person. The 45-minute helicopter flight from Sydney Airport takes in the Sydney CBD, Harbour Bridge and Opera House before heading west towards the Blue Mountains and Wolgan Valley. Combination packages flying in and driving out, or vice versa, are also yours to command.
Worth getting out of bed for
Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley is a universe unto itself. Unless you are here for more than three or four nights, we wouldn't recommend leaving. The resort's field guides are friendly, smart and hugely well-informed, and if you're keen to explore, be sure to take one: wildlife, colonial heritage, conservation and stables tours, plus stargazing talks and guided nature walks are all included in the tariff. There are additional charges for certain signature and private experiences; sundowner tours, nocturnal wildlife spotlighting, and campfire and stargazing tours are particularly popular, but the stand-out activity is the guided horse-riding; you're driven across the property to state-of-the-art stables to saddle up on some fine thoroughbreds. Clay target and archery can also be organised on the property for a fee. If you do feel the need to stray further afield, golf, fly-fishing, 4WD expeditions and a regional food and wine tour are all on hand; costs apply.
Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley’s seclusion is part of its charm, and with all-inclusive meals chances are you’ll do most of your dining at the resort. If you fancy a bite in nearby Blackheath, Vesta (+61 (0)2 4787 6899) is a warm and welcoming spot to tuck into antipasto, fish dishes and home-made ice-cream, with locally-produced wines. If you take the quirkily named Bells Line of Road, pop into Apple Bar (+61 (0)2 4567 0335) at Bilpin for excellent pizza and a glass of wine, or linger over a well crafted meal at local fine-diner Lochiel House (+61 (0)2 4567 7754). Wentworth Falls may be an hour's drive from the hotel, but elegant restaurant Nineteen23 (+61 (0)4 8836 1923) makes it worth your while, with fresh local produce crafted into imaginative dishes, such as quail breast with sweetcorn, harissa, smoked almonds, basil and sheep's milk yoghurt.
We’re plummeting through a vertiginously kaleidoscopic, William Robinson-esque landscape of eucalypts and wattles, sheared-off sandstone and coiling road that soon crumbles into a dirt track. Down, down, deeper and into the valley of Wolgan we plunge. It’s not so much the middle of nowhere as the bottom of nowhere: silent, still, alive with heat and intrigue (you can almost hear the eerie pan pipes in the crevices). The ridges! The ravines! Bloody hell, the epic magnitude of the valley beggars belief – just seeing it and being in it is worth the three-hour drive out of Sydney. And we aren’t even at the resort yet…
Sublime nature or the lap of luxury? From the moment we are met at the guest car park on the outskirts of the resort, it’s clear that we’re in the hands of experienced dilemma wranglers. Navigating the twin distractions of this eco-friendly heritage haven should prove as smooth as the five-minute transfer to the resort itself. The staff member who drives us is full of enthusiasm for the landscape and the way Wolgan embraces it. The 4WD, an air-conditioned sofa of a car, adds its own cool hug.
At reception, we sign in over a glass of locally produced sparkling wine, and get a brief round-up of the resort’s charms. To be frank, we are lap-of-luxury hounds, so our major concern is, ‘Where’s the spa?’ The acutely attuned staff whisk us over to the handsomely appointed Timeless Spa before we can even get tetchy. Then, for our sins, we submit ourselves to four hours of hellishly relaxing treatments in a room for two overlooking the rolling river flats and shadowed by the 100-million-year-old sandstone cliffs of the valley.
Soothed by our excellently executed therapies, we walk to the homestead where dinner awaits us. En route we pause to look around with reviewers’ eyes and contemplate the architecture. If one was forced to quibble, one might observe that the 40 standalone suites (each very lovely and well designed in itself) share an uncanny sameness, like the creepy future suburbs of our collective nightmare. But the magnificent main dining room and fantastic 28,000-course meal with matching local wines completely blows away that tiny gripe.
After drifting off in the three-bedroom Wolgan Suite, the next morning is a surprise indeed – mist lies thick along the valley floor, deeper than the sleep of babes from which we have surfaced. Breakfast is delayed for our activities of choice; the Mrs saddles up for a horse trail-ride and the Mr opts for a mountain-bike ride. Straight up, Wolgan’s field guides are the best, masters of revealing the marvels and mysteries of nature. Me and my guide hoot like 16-year-olds as we barrel along the paths then wait, quiet as suede, as we watch life shimmer into being at the platypus deck (one of the most astonishing spots on this 4,000-acre block of wonders). The horse ride transports Mrs Smith back to the time before machines and we are both left revived back in the present day, unwinding over a good breakfast coffee as the day burns the last of the mist out of the valley. Not for long though, as we ready ourselves for the arrival of… the kids.
Yep, we had one short but sweet night to ourselves before our three little ones descended upon us and indeed upon the whole of Wolgan. Luckily, the hotel management can organise pick-ups in and out of the valley without a fuss, so they’re bringing them in an hour. We worry: like most boys they are loud, noisy and smelly – essentially stomping, shouting, anti-spa machines, determined to stamp out quiet and relaxation wherever they find it. How will this upscale boutique resort cope?
As it turns out, the amazing staff, armed with a kid-friendly activities plan spanning bush craft and kite flying, can handle children beautifully and keep them (and us) occupied, alert and alive to possibility. In this playful wilderness, there is much to share across the generations: archery, horse riding, wildlife safaris and a most spectacular swimming pool. We end our day with a private barbecue set up for us on the deck of our stylishly furnished home-away-from-home. With the sun well behind the valley walls, the kids get a little bit of screen time before they collapse into their luxuriously soft beds, and in the silence, we snatch a couple of hours of wine and stars – all from the toasty 28ºC comfort of our private indoor-outdoor pool (every villa has one).
On our final morning we wander down to the Heritage Homestead – a meticulously restored original 1832 house built on the block by squatters who claimed the land for their sheep. The rooms are fascinating, each filled with the paraphernalia of farm life, as are the art works by the Wiradjuri people, the local indigenous mob whose animal totem is the platypus. There must have been many platypuses in the river back then (which says something about the valley’s seclusion and solitude) because Charles Darwin actually visited this very spot in 1836 to get a close look at one.
I know it’s a cliché, but this really is a place to return to time and again over one’s (hopefully long) life, be it for romance, adventure, culture, solitude or fitness. For one thing, it’s good for you – the activities keep you busy all day, plus there’s a smart gym. For another, the delicious food is light, fresh and wonderful. What can we say? Beautiful, and brainy, too – the world’s first carbon-zero resort, which loses nothing to hair-shirtery and gains everything in a real and profound engagement with its environment. And did we mention the staff? Going above and beyond the call of duty, they’re a great team full of personality and passion for their secret inland island. Endings are always sad, and parting is such sweet sorrow – but this was never truer than parting company with Wolgan.
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