You know you’re in for a unique experience when the retreat you’re checking into is only accessible by boat, seaplane or helicopter.
Marramarra Lodge on the Hawkesbury River, just north of Sydney on the NSW Central Coast, is not just unique however – it’s a magical place that is as utterly enchanting as it is completely relaxing.
Step back in time
I’m standing on smidge of an island in the Hawkesbury River that is 3.8 hectares in size, reading a eulogy by celebrated Victorian poet Henry Kendall, who worked as a postman in the region. His words are dedicated to ‘Little Maude’ – a wee girl who passed away at just three weeks of age in 1880. The last lines of the poem are a touching reminder of how precious this place – and indeed life – truly is.
“The months of the year are all gracious to her
A winter breath visits her never
She sleeps like a bird in a cradle of myrrh
By the banks of the beautiful river”
As I read Henry’s words, the only sounds are from the many birds exuberantly sharing their otherwise tranquil space with me – magpies warbling, kookaburras cackling, bellbirds whipping, and a regular parade of Ospreys swooping in for a fishy feed.
A lone eagle glides above the saltmarsh and mangrove trees, and a breeze ruffles the tangled undergrowth and river-sturdy grasses. Every now and then a boat glides by and voices travel crisply across the water – eager fisherman after a meal of the most popular fish out this way – flathead. Aka river lizards.
This tiny island that is jam-packed with history. It was once a meeting place for the Dharug and Darkinjung people, and later European settlers also gathered here and established a church, school and graveyard.
There’s another story on a sign about a German convict and lime burner who married one of the local Aboriginal women, who he lovingly called Biddy. Known much later as Granny Lewis, she became a matriarch for a large group of Aboriginal people and pioneers.
I walk up a path to the top of the island, passing by the remains of the church (a wall and chimney is all that remains) graves and memorials. The island is only a ten-minute kayak across the inlet from where I’m staying at Marramarra Lodge, so my entire round trip and historical exploration takes just over an hour. While kayaking back to the peninsula, a school of fish below me being chased by something larger sends the water’s surface into a craze of ripples that sparkle like diamonds in the afternoon sun. It’s fitting, as Marramarra in Dharug language means place of many fish.
Barefoot, bushland luxury
Back at the lodge, my partner and I are greeted with a glass of champagne before lunch, so we wander about, taking in the stunning property, in the 1920s, was the home of Sydney Morning Herald Editor Harold Carter.
In 1974 it was bought by The Knox School for outdoor education and training, and transformed into a school camp where students, teachers and parents stayed. In 2000 it was bought by an un-named Australian identity who bought the large piece of land so that he could enjoy the peace and quiet without being bothered by neighbours.
In 2019, three mates from the NSW South Coast bought the rundown place, giving it a new life as the barefoot luxury retreat that it now is. There’s still talk from locals about how the large pool on the property was floated down the river and installed at the top of a steep garden path. It took a lot of people to do it, but it was well worth the effort.
The main lodge, with its church-high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the Hawksbury River and quintessentially Australian bushland, is used for relaxing, enjoying a sundowner at the end of a day exploring, and dining.
The lodge is the epicentre of Marramarra’s exceptional culinary journeys – where guests can enjoy light lunches or an indulgent evening degustation at Budyari Restaurant.
French Executive Chef Jerome Tremoulet delights diners by creating perfectly balanced, exquisitely presented meals that showcase the natural goodness of local produce, and some imported delicacies as a nod to his own heritage. The meals pay tribute to the abundance of local seafood and are inspired by the sights, sounds and scents of the surrounding nature. The service mirrors the meals – casual fine dining that puts fresh produce and provenance centre-stage.
Speaking of seafood, if you want to catch your own and enjoy a spot of fishing, the lodge has a boathouse right on the water, where guests can use the fishing rods, paddleboards and kayaks. It’s also a lovely place to sit on the deck chairs and catch a stunning sunset or sunrise.
A stone’s throw from the lodge we find the renowned pool that enjoys a river cruise, steel and bronze sculptures created by local artists that blend into the artfully landscaped gardens, and rows of beautifully renovated cottages that once housed rowdy students.
The new owners also introduced elegant Peninsula Tents that blend into the headland’s cliffs as well as a praying mantis would, poised pointedly on the edge of leaves and almost invisible from down on the river.
Inside, enormous bathrooms with river stone sinks and custom-made vanities and floorboarded bedrooms with king sized beds overlooking the Hawkesbury await. The outdoor seating area – like a nature-viewing platform in a national park due to the balconies being seamlessly bordered by frameless glass – take eco glamping to the next level.
To up the ante on the relaxing element, book into Iyora Day Spa, which is a minute amble from the main lodge and a step away from heaven. Iyora translates from the Dharug language to mean ‘people’, as the focus of the spa is on taking care of people – mind, body and soul. There’s nothing better than lying back and letting someone else take care of you.
Cruising and dining
One of the many highlights of staying at Marramarra is the champagne cruise down the river with oysters and other delicious hors d’oeuvres served to guests as the sun sets up and the captain shares his knowledge of the region. It’s a great time to meet some other people and share experiences while taking in the beautiful surrounds.
It’s also a warm-up for dinner, which for lovers of fine food and wine, is one of the drawcards of this special place.
My partner and I do the seven-course degustation and as each visually stunning course arrives, we tuck in and then sit back, cooing in rapture like happy plump pigeons.
Wasabi leaf with asparagus and nam jim (a Thai dipping sauce); wagyu nigiri (a type of sushi) with smoked rice and wakame; prawn tartare with white tomato jelly, chilli granita and green tea tuille (French for tile, but it’s a kind of wafer).
A palette cleanser of basil and lime sorbet with champagne espuma (Spanish for foam). Barramundi with fennel and myrtle.
And dessert? More slices of heaven in the form of mascarpone, honeycomb, fig, pink peppercorn shortbread and bee pollen. We cut to the chase (of the sumptuous South Australian washed rind brie with a caramelised apricot preserve) and declare Jerome a genius.
Back in our Peninsula Tent, sitting on the balcony and listening to the kind of nightlife I now prefer, I can’t help but think of Little Maude. We’ve only been here a few days, but it’s enough to feel the inherent magic emanating from the banks of this beautiful river, where she will lie for an eternity with some others that came and went before and after her.
Readers can find the best rate, as well as availability and more fabulous photos of Marramarra Lodge here.
There’s plenty of other luxurious retreats to spoil yourself at: