There’s no need to feel guilty about a luxurious, romantic getaway to the Blue Mountains filled with endless indulgence when you have a confessional booth on hand.
My partner and I are walking hand in hand down Cat’s Alley. The walls are a dramatic blood red and a row of bulbous Asian lanterns hang above us, emanating a golden glow. No, we’re not in a Tokyo café strip but in a long corridor of the Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains. This historic property has been meticulously renovated and decorated to appear just as it did back in the racy 1920s.
This hallway of sorts, filled with velvet couches and an abundance of silk cushions, was where ladies gathered to gossip, dressed to the nines in their kimonos, flapper dresses and silk trouser suits, waving their cigarette holders in the air, little hats and feathery ensembles askew on their tightly curled hairdos. Cat’s Alley was the only way that men back then could reach their smoking and drinking parlour, so they were fair game for the women. Another name for the corridor could have been Gossip Lane, but Cat’s Alley undoubtedly has a certain ring to it.
Calling back a bygone era in the Blue Moutains
If it were the 1920s, we’d most likely be lovers rather than an official couple, says our tour guide on the way to high tea in the Wintergarden restaurant. “Let’s just say that the hotel ledger was filled with countless Mr and Mrs Smiths,” he says with a knowing laugh. “We have many antiques in the café and store, and one remarkable piece is the portable confession booth. A bell would ring at about 3am and that was a reminder to get back to your own room, if you get my drift. Then, before making their way back to Sydney, the men could pop into the confessional booth and be redeemed for their sins.” Seriously? Our guide nods. “Seriously, let’s just say that this was a playground for Sydneysiders who could, ah, afford to have fun and indulge, darling.”
We’re escorted into Wintergarden restaurant, where it’s a hard job deciding which is more impressive — the jaw-dropping panoramic view of the Megalong Valley or the majestic room itself, complete with high Art Deco ceilings, high-backed golden yellow chairs, a roaring fire and a man dressed in a tux playing a grand piano. And then the high tea arrives — a third party vying for the most attention. The three-tiered silver tower of treats — scones, jam and cream, petite pastries, macaroons, fruits, cakes, finger sandwiches and chocolates — can be enjoyed with tea or coffee, of course, but if you’re going to embrace 1920s extravagance, why not Champagne? Who doesn’t love an excuse to sip bubbles at 10 in the morning?
The rainforests of Megalong Valley
After drinking in the superb views and wiping the tiers clean of any evidence, we hit the road and make a beeline for the Megalong Valley. Before we know it, we find ourselves in rainforests that would give Jurassic Park a run for its money. Who’d expect true rainforest less than two hours from Sydney? And to make the place even more incredible, we’re surrounded by towering sandstone escarpments.
Half an hour later we pop up out of the valley and cruise into the breathtaking, quintessentially Australian property that is Dryridge Estate. The vineyard slopes gently away from the property that is perched atop a hill, where we meet the estate’s owners and passionate wine-lovers, Emma MacMahon and Simon Doyle. To get a feel for their wines, the couple offer guests a lovely platter of cured meats, cheese, olives and crackers (we need more food after a towering high tea) with tastings of their wines. Being a fan of light, mineral-led dry wines, we give the crisp lemony Pinot Gris and their Chardonnay, which has strong citrus fruit character and touch of French Oak to balance it out, a big thumbs-up.
Ye olde Katoomba
The day is young, so we drive back along the winding roads to Katoomba, once again ogling the enchanted rainforest that opens up all around us like a kid’s pop-up book. In Katoomba we gleefully explore the piles and aisles of exciting antiques, memorabilia and collectible pieces at Mr Pickwick’s Fine Old Books and the Katoomba Antique Centre, and then for some modern inspiration, head to Platform Gallery, where the focus is on handmade pieces by artists and designers. You won’t leave empty handed. Look out for the Mountains Made logo and initiative (MTNS MADE) as it’s a great way of identifying products made locally.
We’ve been told to not miss Lost Bear Gallery, a well-established art gallery that supports hundreds of upcoming and established artists. Housed in a turn-of-the-century house featuring original stained-glass windowpanes, it feels as though you’ve walked into a welcoming home. And you have really, as owner Geoff White and his affectionate dog spend most of their lives there. We take time exploring the 12 different exhibition spaces and get an impressive running commentary on many of the incredibly talented local artists and some of Geoff’s personal favourites.
Blue Mountains style
Feeling full of art and somehow ready for more food, we head off to Blackheath because we’ve heard word on the street that Fumo is the place to be for a hearty weekend lunch. Book ahead as it is super-popular. The little café revolves around an antique centrepiece — the 100-year-old scotch oven that chef Joe Campbell has well and truly mastered. He’s a bit of a local legend and every single thing that you put in your mouth here is made from scratch. Food-lovers swoon over the sourdough bread and roast potatoes that have to be some of the best on the planet (that’s a big call, we know). Joe is always concocting intoxicating dishes with unusual Asian and Middle Eastern elements. His casserole-like dishes and spicy curries are the best food for Blue Mountains winter weather.
What better way to explore the mountain with a full belly than to have someone else do the driving for you? In true Blue Mountains style, we hop into a 1920s Cadillac La Salle (which happens to be one of only a few in the world) and drive back in time. Every road we tootle down, there’s another person waving and smiling as we sail on by. We putter through the local villages, take in some of the views of the iconic Three Sisters and start to feel as though we had another life in the 1920s.
Libations in Leura
As evening falls, we manage to fit in a cocktail at The Polar Bear of Leura. It’s really just another excuse to indulge in divine mountain-made offerings but before settling in, we wander around the delightful town of Leura, which has more than its fair share of attractive cafes, galleries and homewares stores. Watch out if you have a magpie of a partner. The Polar Bear is famous for its pizzas but as we have a big dinner booked, we opt for a cocktail. You simply tell the guys what you like, and they’ll come up with something lip-smackingly good that’ll put some rouge in your cheeks.
Our day couldn’t have ended on a more romantic note than our dinner at Darley’s, the hatted restaurant and pride and joy of Lilianfels, the Blue Mountains’ grand dame of accommodation. Regal, sophisticated and oozing old-fashioned glamorous English style, you can imagine the Queen being very happy dining here.
Chef Lee Kwiez is a food purist and his modern dishes might seem at odds with such a seemingly genteel setting (the waiters are actually very entertaining). However, as his exquisite creations are delivered, along with a lovely anecdote, snippets of history and a knowledgeable explanation, we quickly realise that the fresh produce, wonderful taste combinations and the flair with which the dishes are created result in a seamless experience that is as gracefully presented as the surrounds.
If you’re up for taking a final hint from a true lady’s checklist, do yourself a favour and dig further into your wallet. Simply stay the night at Lilianfels — you can roll one another down the wide corridors to one of the gorgeous suites with views over the misty mountains.
Or, if you truly are as decadent as the couples who partied hard in the Blue Mountains when it was classy to smoke cigarettes and dress like a gangster, then head back down the road to the Hydro Majestic and sip a whisky in the front bar. From there, it’s only a toddle up the grand staircase to the newly refurbished, sleek suites that have French windows you can fling wide open to take in more of the Megalong Valley. That’s what we did.
If truth be told, in the late morning, while still a touch bleary eyed, we visited the infamous confessional booth. I personally had no choice. I had to confess to eating, drinking and being more indulgent than I had been in a very long time. It was not exactly in atonement that I whispered:
“God, please help me to have the strength to do that all over again,” I whispered.
Lead image: © David Hill, Deep Hill Media