Communal showers and toilets aren't all bad. I backpacked around Europe and the UK on a shoestring budget, staying in cheap but always clean accommodation. Back in the UK, I ended up working for youth hostels in both Cambridge and London, living on-site in staff quarters --with our own private bathroom -- and gaining an appreciation for life on the other side of the reception desk.
I was somewhat incredulous when I received an invitation to visit Wolgan Valley as a guest, a resort where each two-person suite has a rack rate of $1,950 per night. Would I like to come? Surely this was a rhetorical question!
View of the Blue Mountains from Mount Tomah
It was an early weekday start for the group: three journalists, two PR executives and I, driven by luxury mini-bus, out of the chaos of Sydney and up into the Blue Mountains. It's about a three-hour drive to Wolgan Valley from the Sydney CBD, and we make a pit-stop halfway at Mount Tomah Botanic Garden
The idea of "fresh air" always seems ludicrous to hardened city folk, but we tumble out of the bus and can smell the difference immediately. The air is clean, crisp and pure and we gulp it greedily.
Scones with jam and cream
We also gulp down scones with jam and cream, a late breakfast for most. The scones are light and fluffy, served with pots of strawberry jam and real cream. The view from the balcony makes it understandably popular as a wedding reception venue.
It's another 90 minutes to Wolgan Valley, the last section on a dirt road that raises clouds of dust amongst the skittering pebbles. The resort finally comes into view, a row of Federation-style timber houses beneath towering escarpments that loom dramatically overhead.
Wolgan Valley accommodation suites
Joost Heymeijer, General Manager of Wolgan Valley Resort, is already standing outside the main reception area to greet us and host a brief tour of the facilities. Armed with twelve years of hotelier experience with the Hilton group, Joost worked on the resort from the concept stage -- before any drawings had even been done-- and through the process of approvals and construction to its current operations. The entire planning process took eight years.
The main building, which houses the reception lobby, dining room and bar, is affectionately named The Homestead.
Reception lobby in The Homestead
The reception area is deliberately discreet with low desks and no obstructive computer monitors in sight. A laptop is secured in a drawer beneath the desk and only brought out when required. The most striking feature is the back wall made from old fence posts that were found on the property. They add a delicious smell of wood to the room, and create a homely country feel.Dining room with the main chimney
Sandstone - from nearby Mangrove Mountain, on the Central Coast - and timber have been used extensively throughout the building. There was a huge emphasis on sourcing local and recycled materials. The structural timber in the ceiling was made from an old bridge in Molong near Orange, in the NSW Central Tablelands. Skylights in the ceiling enable natural light by day, and a view of the stars at night.
All of the furniture has been custom-built, we're told, and many of the furnishings were designed and made by local artists. Door handles, made to resemble a knobbly tree branch with leaves, was made by a blacksmith in Lithgow. Recycled tractor axles, rusty troughs and even an old Drizabone coat were used by local artists to create quirky and interesting lamps - there are 26 dotted around the property.
Staff are dressed exclusively by RM Williams, and their tailored uniforms are a mix of country garb mixed with corporate trimmings. An RM Williams shop in the Homestead is ideal for the international tourist keen for their own dinky-di clobber.
Lamp shade made from an old Drizabone coat Private dining room or boardroom with solid timber table
and light fitting made from an upturned rusted trough found on the propertyWine cellar open to guests each evening for hands-on browsing
- the room holds about $200,000 worth of stock.
The wine cellar is particularly impressive, even more so when we're told that it's kept open for guests to wander and browse at their leisure. The 300-strong wine list was created with the expertise of noted Australian wine expert Peter Bourne. Thirty per cent of the wine list comes from the local Orange, Hunter valley and Mudgee region; another thirty per cent has the sourced from the rest of Australia and New Zealand. The remaining forty per cent comes from France, Chile, the United States and Europe.
Guests receive a complimentary bottle of wine in their room when they check-in - this wine is always Australian.
The dining room and outdoor balcony
We're taken downstairs to The Country Kitchen for lunch, a sunny spot that serves more casual fare than the formal dining room upstairs. The accommodation price includes all meals, non-alchoholic beverages, selected wines and two nature-based activities per day.
Country style pork and pistachio terrine with preserved lemon and fennel salad
For lunch I choose the country style pork and pistachio terrine, coarsely textured and generous with whole pistachios. Others choose the arborio crusted calamari, Kurrajong beef burger, wild mushroom pie and prosciutto and pine nut and fetta risotto. The Country Kitchen is the only dining area with a printed menu - in the dining room upstairs, the menu changes daily.
Goaded by another who is intent on having mango gelato for dessert, I have the cheese plate that includes a Holy Goat cheese (from Daylesford, Victoria) and a Brillat-Savarin triple cream brie. I ravage it completely.
Golf buggy carts
We finally check into our rooms after lunch, a golf buggy cart trundles us down the gently sloping path with a whirr and happy hum.
The suites are not just rooms, they are stand-alone villas. Forty suites surround the Homestead in a U-shape. There are 36 Heritage suites - one-bedroom buildings that measure 83 square metres internally. Three Wollemi suites can cater for four guests and have 201 square metres of internal space. The Wolgan suite has an internal area of 245 square metres and has a two-bedroom suite with separate staff quarters and gourmet kitchen for a maximum of six guests.
Outdoor deck chairs
The suites are beautiful even on approach, and the views are stunning. Joost had told us that most hotel operators automatically think of building a property on the top of a mountain, not at the bottom of a canyon. Wolgan Valley sits between a cliff face and a river and the escarpments create a sense of sanctuary and stillness.
Mountain bikes on each porch
Each suite has two mountain bikes parked on the porch, for complimentary use by guests to either ride up to The Homestead or to explore the property. Helmets are kept under the wooden on the front porch.
The living room
You know that moment when you first open your hotel room with bated breath? I (naturally) fumble with the door key before I finally push the door open and poke my head over the threshold. I'm greeted by the sound of mood music playing on the stereo accompanied by the gentle crackle of the fireplace that has already warmed the room.
What does a $1950 per night suite get you? Follow me.....
The double-sided Jetmaster fireplace in the living room
The four-poster king-size bed
This is not just a bed. This is a magical place of slumbering wonder. Romantic nuances of the four-poster bed aside, the mattress is the hero here, a seven-layer tribute to foam on top of individual coils that support every tired fibre of your body and soul. The pillows are 50% duck and 50% goose feather, and were truly as close to resting your head on a cloud as you could imagine. The mattress was that ideal combination of soft yet supportive, moulding to your body without overheating it. It was the best night of sleep I've ever had.
My only quibble was the ridiculous number of pillows on the bed. What do people do with so many pillows? Thankfully most were removed during the "turn down" service at night, a process that translates to "we will get rid of all these ridiculous pillows and provide you with a tray of petit fours for your in-bed dining pleasure".
The beds are available for sale at a cost of AU$3,000 although we're told the retail price is closer to AU$9,000-AU$10,000. In the nine months since they've been open, they've sold 25 beds.
I also loved the fan above the bed, a wooden fan that looked more like a plane propeller.
Bathrobes in the walk-in closet
The walk-in closet
is huge. You could fit a bed in here and possibly have room for a garage as well. The drawers have clear fronts for easy clothes identification, and there's even a tie drawer with tidy box compartments.
The dressing table inside the walk-in wardrobe gives an idea of its generous dimensions.
His and hers sinks in the bathroom
Shower with overhead skylight
View of the TV and fireplace from the king size bed
Wooden rocking chair on the back porch
The private swimming pool
Easily the most impressive feature in the private swimming pool that adjoins each suite. Accessed from an internal door in the living room, the pool measures 2.5m by 7m and is heated to 25C . There's much novelty in being able to swim whenever you like in relative privacy, and I couldn't resist a warm midnight swim after dinner.
Rear view of a suite
Our four-wheel-drive vehicle
We only had one nature-based activity for the day - a four-wheel drive tour of the property. The resort only takes up two per cent of the 4,000-acre property.
Originally run as a cattle station, the resort owners say they are trying to reverse-engineer the environmental impact of its past. No trees were cut down during the construction of the resort, and 140,000 trees and shrubs were planted in an egg-shape around the main buildings. The resort is the first in the world to achieve internationally accredited carbon neutral certification. All domestic water is fully recycled, solar panels are used for hot water and traditional windmills are used instead of electrical pumps.
We spot hundreds of kangaroos, wallabies and wallaroos, bounding in groups across the grassy plains.
A white wallaby
A white wallaby
is a special sighting - according to our guide Elwin Wolfenden, this female is one of only two known white wallabies in Australia. She is not an albino (ie. missing skin pigmentation), and according to Elwin, seems to be always well looked after by a group of male wallabies.
Do we need a new TV wombat star to replace Fatso from A Country Practice? I think we do.
We're told that wombats can run up to 40km per hour. They tend to dig and own four burrows in different areas, each up to 20m long. Because they sleep in different burrows each night, their burrows are often shared with foxes who will take advantage of free lodgings for the evening.
The lookout is a popular spot for couples, and the resort have often organised dinners for boyfriends looking for a place to propose. The resort will also pack picnics for couples, take them by four-wheel-drive to wherever they please, drop them off with picnic rug, food and walkie-talkie, and return to pick them up when buzzed on the intercom.
Executive Chef Dwane Goodman
Before dinner, we're given a brief tour of the kitchen and meet the the Executive Chef, Dwane Goodman. Formerly the Area Executive Chef for the Banyan Tree Resort in Bintan, Indonesia, Dwane has also worked with the Berkely Hotel in London and the Intercontinental Hotel Sydney.
The Dining Room offers a completely different menu every day - it is estimated that in the nine months since they have been open, 3,000 different dishes have been served. There is a strong emphasis on supporting local suppliers and ingredients too. The resort roasts its own coffee beans and each day they bake their own bread. Wolgan Valley also runs its own apprentice chef program, training them in-house rather than at TAFE.
Asian vegetable rolls
Whilst we're chatting, Dwane serves us a selection of canapes.
Megalong Valley beef tempura
I'd been a bit sceptical about the idea of beef tempura, but these were amazing, the local Megalong Valley
meat cooked to a tender pink and juicy with flavour.Chicken with langoustine and green pea coulis
Tiny drumettes of chicken stuffed with langoustine were elegant but it was the green pea coulis I was obsessed with, smooth and sweet.
White anchovy and apple on lavoshHandmade potato ravioli with fresh Oberon winter truffle
Our formal dinner upstairs starts with the most prized ingredient in the kitchen - a newly delivered fresh Oberon winter truffle
. Shaved on top of handmade potato ravioli, the truffle adds an aromatic earthiness to the dish.Seared rabbit loin
with poached langoustine and zucchini ribbons
The rabbit loin is a little on the dry side but the accompanying buerre blanc sauce is delicious with the plump morsels of poached langoustine and soft silky ribbons of cooked zucchini.
Basil and lime sorbet
Everybody oohs and ahhs when the basil lime sorbet arrives, each scoop presented in a tear-drop-shaped vessel made of ice. The ice sculptures are made using water balloons that are filled with water and then hung in the freezer until a thick layer of ice develops. A knife is used to delicately carve out a hole in the front, the excess water removed, and then a small amount of water poured into the bottom to create a flat surface for the sorbet to sit on. This is then placed into a blast freezer.
The ice sculpture is tinted green by a few drops of food colouring in the water. It seems a shame they will only be used once and then left to melt into a puddle of water.
Hereford Prime beef fillet
We're given a choice of mains. Hereford Prime beef fillet is a huge hunk of meat, served with a red onion tarte tatin and a cluster of cherry tomatoes on the vine, roasted in the oven.
Red onion tarte tatin
Logan 2007 pinot noir (Orange) and
Printhie 2009 sauvignon blanc (Orange)
I'm a fan of both our wines tonight, the pinot noir is particularly smooth and silky. The stemware is also exceedingly elegant, hand-blown crystal glasses that were specifically chosen for their height to match the lofty surroundings. The dining room has 16 different glasses and we're told that the red wine glass alone costs $63 each.Steamed beans and broccoliRolled wattle seed pavlova
We finish with slices of a rolled wattle seed pavlova, garnished with stars of drizzled toffee.
Bedtime petit fours
The golf buggy takes us home where we find our beds turned down (ie. excessive pillows removed) and a plate of petit fours.Yoghurt, fruit, Danish pastries and porridge
It's hard to get out of bed the next morning, but the promise of breakfast is always a good incentive. Each guest automatically receives a tray of yoghurt, fruit, Danish pastries and porridge. We don't have to eat it all, we're told, but encouraged to eat what you like, much like a buffet. I only eat the yoghurt and a small amount of fruit, but I do wonder whether the items are either re-used or thrown in the bin. Neither option is appealing.
There are only a small number of guests on the Thursday night -- I'd only spotted three or four other couples -- but we're told that they're fully booked for the weekend.
Smoked trout with poached egg, Hollandaise sauce, wilted spinach and potato roesti
My order of a poached egg with Hollandaise sauce releases a delightfully runny yolk. The potato roesti is a little soggy but the smoked trout is firm and flavoursome, and not too oily. I wash it down with a glass of freshly squeezed watermelon juice.
Feeding Wrangler with carrots
From breakfast I head straight to the stables with another journalist via a chauffeured car. Most horses here are about ten years old, although they do have two young mares here who apparently cause as much trouble as a pair of teenagers.
The horses are quiet and peaceful. Due to time constraints we only get to ride them around the small arena.
Elwin Wolfenden with Marshmallow
Timeless Spa relaxation room
We don't have much time because I have a massage booked in at the Timeless Spa. Oh yes it is a tough life here.
The relaxation room is a huge space dedicated to guests to unwind pre- and post-treatment. After filling out a survey (there was a moment of guilt as my pen hovered over the "exercise" section), I'm ushered into one of their six treatment rooms.Timeless Spa treatment room
The treatment rooms are designed for couples, with two massage beds next to each other. I'm intrigued by the square Japanese soaking tub and am told it's often used by couples who book in a treatment at dusk and watch the sunset together.
1832 homestead on the right
with workers cottage on the left, firepit and outdoor oven
We conclude our visit with a lunch at the 1832 Heritage Homestead, restored by a team of specialists headed by Ian Kiernan and involving meticulous work for two years. Originally a settler's farmhouse, the property was lived in until 1950 when it eventually fell in extreme disrepair. AU$2 million was spent just on restoring the building which required 90% of all doors and windows replaced. The building is presumed to been built in 1832 as one of the stones in the fireplace has 1832 engraved into it. Heritage architects have also confirmed that nails used in the structure pre-date at least 1890.
It hasn't been as cold as I'd thought it'd be in the Mountains, but at lunchtime the wind picks up and we all seek refuge in mugs of hot zucchini soup, kept warm in the thermos.
A Ploughman's lunch is our final taste of Wolgan Valley, a selection of cold meats, cheeses, olives and bread.Main swimming pool
It's a shame to have to leave. Interestingly Joost had told us that after nine months, the resort is into its first cycle of repeat visitors. Whilst most guests only stay for two nights on their first visit, he says repeat visitors are staying for a week on average. The resort is currently offering a winter special of $1,365 per suite per night with a minimum two-night stay that is also proving to be incredibly popular.
Worth the money? It's definitely an amazing experience. Whilst the well-heeled form the bulk of their clientele, the resort claims to have a significant level of customers who are celebrating honeymoons or big anniversaries. The level of service was impressive (doors magically opening, staff knowing you by name and knowing exactly which suite to deliver you to) and the resort didn't feel ostentatious or forbidding, but rather homely and comfortable.
The guy looking to propose... The couple celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary... Hey, even a single girl has to have a few ideas up her sleeve...
Grab Your Fork stayed as a guest of Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa.
2600 Wolgan Road, Wolgan Valley, Lithgow
Tel: +61 (02) 6350 1800