For Sydney, the Blue Mountains have been the perfect escape for more than a century. In summer, there’s welcome relief from the heat of the plains and in the pre air-conditioning era, that must have been welcome indeed. Winter provides a chance to experience cold — and even occasional snow — so it would have reminded the British colony of home.
That heritage has left a lot of history in the Blue Mountains. These days, people can effectively select which side of the mountains they wish to explore: the walks, the crafts, the food scene, or simply the village atmosphere. Only a couple of hours from Sydney, many people visit regularly — some at least once for each of its four distinct seasons.
Traditionally, the most desirable place to stay has been the Hydro Majestic, that magnificent scattering of white buildings along the escarpment at Medlow Bath. Unfortunately, until its recent incarnation, it has been a sad memorial to its heyday. Now, however, the food at the hotel’s Wintergarden Restaurant (particularly the very popular High Tea) is very good indeed. And while the modest size of the rooms reveals the era it was built in, the level of hospitality is first class.
The newly restored Hydro Majestic is a perfect place to stay in the mountains
This hotel was the dream creation of Mark Foy — he even had NSW Railways change the name of the nearby train station to “Medlow Bath” to promote his new spa and health retreat. Sadly, the fact that there was no mineral spring in the area was a significant drawback — and his treatments were rather harsh and spartan — so he changed his marketing to a luxury retreat in the mountains.
After falling into disrepair, the hotel underwent a six-year refurbishment before it was reopened by the Escarpment Group in 2014. It has been meticulously restored to an authentic interpretation of Mark Foy’s vision for the property.
It’s worth taking the free history tour of the Hydro to find out that some things never change. When this was a decadent “Palace in the Wilderness”, two bells would be rung each morning. While the second summoned you to breakfast, the first was reputedly to warn guests to return to their own beds.
Dinner at the Hydro is a three-course feast. While selecting each course, it appeared as if the winter menu of quite heavy dishes was still on offer, but it turned out to be a light, perfectly balanced summer meal that was impeccably presented. The mango parfait with a coconut sorbet was a work of art.
In keeping with the vintage theme of our mountain weekend, we decided to take a tour of the area with Don Millar in his 1929 Cadillac LaSalle that’s part of Blue Mountains Vintage Cadillacs. It was an inspired choice as the classic convertible turned out to be remarkably comfortable.
“When Model A Fords cost $300, this cost $2500,” Don confided. Cruising from village to village — and through Leura during the Sunday morning markets — we rarely exceeded 40 km/h and so had a lot of time to perfect a royal wave for the bystanders who stopped to watch us pass.
This is just one of many vintage Cadillacs that are available to cruise around the Blue Mountains
Don provided a wealth of knowledge about the mountains and even took us to a place I’ve never been able to find: Lincolns Rock, a wonderful viewpoint over the Megalong Valley that’s named after the late Everest mountaineer Lincoln Hall.
Stopping at viewpoints and finding features we would never have found alone, the spectacular vehicle became secondary to the insider’s tour of the mountains (that we’d previous thought we knew well), with both historic facts and contemporary insights. Overall, it was a spectacularly rewarding morning.
Everglades House and Gardens
Much of Sydney’s high society once had houses in the Blue Mountains. One of the more spectacular is Everglades, now run by the National Trust.
Located in Leura, at one of the highest points in the Blue Mountains, Everglades is a 1930s house built in an art deco/streamline moderne style. It’s worth visiting, and exploring beyond the tea room’s scones, jam, and cream.
However, the real gem is the surrounding gardens. The house was built by Henri Van de Velde who enlisted the renowned Danish garden designer, Paul Sorensen to create them. While the gardens today look like clever use of the local topography, Sorensen did some very large scale earthworks to realise his vision. From the more formal upper gardens to the rock pools in the valley, Everglades rewards exploration.
The metalwork of Talisman Gallery
The Blue Mountains are known for the artists who live there. We went through the historic village of Hartley to the Talisman Gallery. Here the affable Ron Fitzpatrick produces handcrafted metalwork that is both creative and beautiful.
An array of the impressive metalworks on display at the Talisman Gallery
As we talked, Ron showed me the basics of metalwork. Less than an hour later, I had a piece of art we pretentiously decided to name “The Meaning of Life” — an artistically bent length of iron shaped into a serif question mark. A few times each year, Ron runs workshops were you can create your own fire poker. “It’s remarkably popular — it seems like every young man has ambitions to become a blacksmith these days,” he mused.
The Talisman Gallery display rooms reveal how much can be achieved by a creative metal worker. Ron also imports a lot of silver jewellery from Indonesia so the items for sale range from tiny to too big to fit in the building.
There’s such a wealth of things to see and do across the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains that it rewards constant rediscovery. And, to see a different side of the mountains, its villages, and heritage — you only need to return in a different season.
Have you been to the Blue Mountains recently? What was your highlight?