Thursday 17 Apr 2014

Exploring Wolgan Valley without the kids

Discovering the hidden secrets of Wolgan Valley

Much as we love family holidays with the kids, when my wife and I were presented with the rare opportunity of some time without our little angels, we seized it with both hands and ran for the hills… literally!  We decided to treat ourselves to a couple of nights at Emirates’ Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa, near Lithgow in the Blue Mountains (NSW).  We were keen to see if the experience would live up to the hype of being Australia’s only 6 star resort, and the hefty price tag.

With a flurry of hugs and kisses, a wobbly chin (daughter) and demands for presents on return (son), we left our beloveds in the capable hands of their grandparents, and set off early Thursday morning for our three-hour drive over the Mountains.  Unaccustomed to a childless car, devoid of the usual cries of “Are we there yet?”, “I’m hungry!” or “I need the loo!”, the car felt disconcertingly quiet for most of the way.  But as we wound our way down the narrow road into the valley, with rocky cliffs and escarpments towering majestically above us on all sides, the silence tangibly shifted from childless peace to one of awe, punctured occasionally by “Wow!”  We started to get a feel for the stunning environment we were set to experience.

Arriving at Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa

Arrival at Wolgan Valley is initially unassuming, passing through some wooden gate posts with a discreet sign announcing the start of the “Wolgan Resort & Spa” property.  We trundle along a couple more dusty kilometres before arriving at a much more formal automatic gateway, and more importantly a gate house.  As soon as our car approaches, a man comes out to meet us, armed with a clipboard.  We get our names checked off the list, and we’re instructed to park our car in the car park and come back to the gate house where we will await our escort to the main homestead.  A quick glance around the car park tells us that our trusty Toyota Kluger will be right at home with the other family SUV’s, and will not feel too inferior – plenty of other cars more aged and banged up than ours, and only a couple of Mercedes / Porsches / Audis in residence – phew!

“Arrival at Wolgan Valley Resort is initially unassuming”

As we wait in a small air-conditioned room (with extremely comfortable leather armchairs and glossy coffee table books to flick through), we barely have time to sip on cold bottles of water before  our charriot  arrives to take us and luggage up to the main homestead.  We are greeted at reception and offered a glass of sparkling wine, which we enthusiastically accept – the weekend is definitely off to a good start.  Check in is swift, and as our room isn’t ready yet (check in is 2pm), we are invited to wander downstairs to the Country Kitchen for some lunch.

The Country Kitchen is Wolgan Valley’s informal, daytime dining option – a modern, light and airy room with an open kitchen and flowing onto a terrace near the pool, not to mention taking in the ever-present spectacular views of the surrounding valley.  The Kitchen serves lunch and light snacks throughout the day, and has an easygoing menu with a 6-7 regular options, supplemented by an equal number of daily specials.  It’s not a huge menu, but seems to cover all bases and we were spoiled for choice; it all sounded delicious.

As we sit enjoying the view and our wine (regularly topped up by attentive but unobtrusive wait-staff), we also comment on how refreshing it is to have a menu with no prices in it – this is typical of the resort, where all food and beverages are included, right down to the mini-bar in your suite and drinks by the pool.  The only exceptions seem to be French champagne, spirits / cocktails and room service.

After lunch (a refreshing artichoke & fennel salad with goats curd for my wife, a burger with hand cut fries for me) we wonder back up to reception, where our suite is announced ready.

Pure Indulgent Luxury

A short drive in a golf cart, and we arrive at our Heritage Suite.  Our “home away from home” for the next 2 nights is exactly that (well, a 6 star version anyway…) – it lacks the sterility of the usual luxurious but bland hotel room, and is instead filled with furniture that you would actually like to have in your own home (if only!) and extra touches to enhance your stay experience – a cashmere throw, lots of glossy, interesting and relevant coffee table books, a pair of binoculars for wildlife spotting, even a sketch pad and coloured drawing pencils in case you feel like exploring your inner artist!  Our suite is extremely comfortable – loads of different sitting options, a magnificent four-poster bed, a spacious bathroom (love the skylight over the shower), two way fireplace between the sitting room and the bedroom, and of course the small private pool – indoors but surrounded by bi-fold doors, which we immediately ask to be opened.

“Its the extra touches which enhance your experience”

What really catches my wife’s eye is the walk-in wardrobe – complete with glass fronted drawers with leather compartments in case you want to separate your undies from your socks – who knew?  Also a handy desk / dressing table with mirrors and plenty of power points – even a network outlet, so you could use the space as a quiet working space, if you really wanted to shut yourself away – but, seriously, who would come to Wolgan Valley to work?!

Things to Do – Activities

While my wife is oohing and ahhing over the wardrobe, I set about exploring the more important things in life – the mountain bikes standing on our veranda (each suite comes equipped with two mountain bikes and bike helmets).  Eventually, socks and undies neatly compartmentalised, we set out on the bikes to explore the resort.  We are armed with a map of Wolgan Valley, and choose a track out to “Platypus Deck”, about 3 kms away.  The bikes are good quality, but possibly in need of some maintenance – both of our gears don’t have a lot of effect.  Still, the tracks are largely flat(ish), so we manage ok.   The resort itself has lots of tracks throughout the park, giving endless opportunity to explore the stunning countryside.  There are also thoughtful rest stops – decked areas, often with a couple of deck chairs, strategically placed at various points to take advantage of the amazing views.  We have 2 bike rides during our stay, but only managed to explore a fraction of the resort.  Something left over for next time.

In the late afternoon, we are booked into the Wolgan Wildlife & Sundowner Tour.  We join several other guests in a very cool open-sided safari-style 4WD mini bus, and spend an hour and a half spotting dozens of kangaroos, wallabies and wallaroos.  The highlight is the albino kangaroos (the resort have 3-4 of these at last count) – beautiful pure white kangaroos.  Our guide, Leigh, is extremely knowledgeable (an ex zoo keeper, which explains a lot), and also very entertaining.  Like all the staff we meet, he is passionate about the resort and it’s commitment to the environment, and his enthusiasm really shows.  The tour concludes with canapés and drinks at the Heritage Homestead – first built in 1832, and painstakingly restored by the resort at a cost of over $2m (which is amazing when you consider they also had the choice to knock it down and remove it entirely for $14k).  We enjoy our excursion so much that we immediately book in to the “Stargazing & Nocturnal Wildlife Tour” the following evening, and the Heritage Homestead tour the following afternoon.

Activities done for the day, we head back to our suite to change for dinner, and wonder back up to the main homestead and more pre-dinner drinks on the homestead veranda, watching the sun go down.   Leigh, our guide from the Wildlife Tour, is wondering around confirming activities for the next day.  We had pre-booked a morning horse-ride for the following day, but there is a mix up and our names aren’t on the list, which is now full.  We are very disappointed – this was something my wife had really wanted to do – and Leigh promises to sort something out. He does; a private horse-ride is offered at an earlier time – 7am, rather than 9am.  We’re very happy – other than the early start (not quite imagining how we will be able to drag ourselves out of the amazing bed so early), the forecast is however for a very hot day (40 degrees plus), so the earlier time is probably better.

Amazing Dining Experiences

Our first dinner at Wolgan Valley meets all of our expectations.  The food is, of course, absolutely delicious -  5 degustation courses, with a choice of main – creative but not overly fussy, and mostly sourced from wonderful local ingredients.  All the courses are well proportioned, so we finish our meal satisfied but not feeling over-stuffed, and with just enough room to squeeze in a visit to the cheese room (Alex, “the cheese guy”, takes great delight in describing the dozen or so different cheeses sourced from all over the world).  The restaurant staff are all, as we have come to expect, knowledgeable about both the food and accompanying wines, but also very friendly.  Our waiter, Shane, sees an opportunity for move us to a window table (which we had originally requested, but was unavailable to begin with), and offers to perform some “magic” for us – rather than move all the glassware, cutlery etc from our table to the recently vacated one, he discreetly moves our entire table – a clever move which had us sitting at our new table enjoying the beautiful sunset over the hills outside in a couple of seconds.

Horseback Adventures

A wonderful sleep in that dreamy bed, and we are up and raring to go at 6.30 the next morning – all set to make the most of our first, and only, full day at Wolgan Valley.  We are met at reception by another 4WD ready to drive us down to the stables and also, to our surprise, our waiter Shane, from the previous evening.  Shane is concerned that we haven’t had breakfast – would we like to take a little something to eat before our ride, to tide us over until breakfast afterwards?  Amazingly, after dinner the night before, our tummies do give a rather expectant rumble in anticipation of an energetic horse ride, and we accept his offer gratefully.  He reappears a couple of minutes later with a little box containing some fresh, warm pastries and some fruit – lychees and an apricot.  Just what the tummy ordered.

Our horse ride is perfect.  The sun is already quite high in the sky and showing some heat – we are extremely grateful that the mix up of the previous day has given the opportunity to enjoy the freshness of the morning, and the peace and quiet of only the two of us with our guide.  The horses are well-trained, but full of character.  While crossing a stream, we are told that my horse, Bandit, sometimes has a habit of lying down in the water, regardless of his poor rider.  My wife is secretly hoping he will oblige, but I give him an extra firm kick to spur him on to the other side without mishap.  We see an entirely different part of the resort park, and it’s wonderful to experience it on horse-back, although the 90 minutes pass too quickly.  We promise each other that our next visit to Wolgan Valley will include a full-day horse ride.

Kicking Back at Wolgan

We get back to the main homestead hungry again for our breakfast, and content to while away most of the rest of the day by the resort pool, soaking up the serenity.  For a hot day, the pool is surprisingly quiet, and we imagine most people are either in their suites enjoying their private pools or out on activities.  The main pool has better loungers and umbrellas, and comes with the added benefit of a pool guy who comes round at regular intervals offering cold drinks, so we happily settle in for the morning.

After another delicious, light lunch at the Country Kitchen, we meet Leigh, our guide from the previous day, at the Heritage Homestead.  The tour is fascinating, and gives us a new appreciation for the original settlers back in the early 1800’s.  The homestead holds all sorts of treasures left behind by the previous owners, ranging from aboriginal artefacts from the local tribe to an old, traditional maternity chair.  But most impressive is the restored homestead itself.  Pictures of what the resort inherited – a crumbling, falling down shack – show just how much work was involved in the restoration.

Another couple of hours by the pool, a short mountain bike ride (to burn off some of those excess calories…), and we head over for dinner – earlier tonight, as we’re joining the Stargazing and Nocturnal Wildlife Tour.   Rather than rushing through our dinner, the maître d’ offers to “hold” our desert, so that we can have it later on after the tour, and a number of other people choose to do the same – truly, nothing seems to be too much trouble here.

The nocturnal wildlife tour is fun – the same open sided safari bus is lovely in the slightly cooler night air after a hot day.  Woolen blankets are offered in case we get cold, but we don’t need them.  By torchlight, we spot lots of wombats and stop to peer down a wombat hole.  The environment seems quite different in the dark, and we are really lucky to see the number of wombats we do – we’re told that the Wolgan Valley has several times more wombats per square kilometre than the national average.  We get so involved with the abundant wildlife that we run out of time for stargazing, but the stars are simply amazing just walking around the resort, so it doesn’t feel like a huge loss.

Back to the restaurant for dessert and another crack at the cheese room, before falling into our dreamy bed again – exhausted after a busy day of pampering and adventures.

Neither of us wants to leave the following morning, but 11am check out and thoughts of the little people waiting for us at home mean that we squeeze in a leisurely breakfast and another hour by the pool before making the reverse journey back to our car in the car park – it seems like weeks since we left it there and very hard to believe it was just 48 hours ago.

The journey home is quiet – just like the journey out, but this time we are thinking of our wonderful two-day escape, and wondering when we can possibly make the time to go back…

So, the big question we asked ourselves at the start – would the Wolgan Valley experience live up to the hype and the hefty price tag?  Well, there is no getting away from a price tag that will probably make most people squirm.  However, the rates compare very favourably with other similar premium resorts across Australia (Qualia, Southern Island Lodge etc).  We also found that the level of inclusions (not just food and drink but excursions as well) and the outstanding service meant that we left feeling like our stay had actually presented good value for money.

Having some quality ‘ couple-time’ while experiencing the stunningly beautiful surroundings and feeling part of such a worthwhile conservation project?

Priceless.

 

About the author

James is the founder of Little Nomads a travel site which focuses on all things about traveling with kids. He lives on the Northern Beaches of Sydney with his wife and two energetic kids which keep him on his toes. Weekends, you can find him on or in the water around Pittwater. James also hates writing about himself in the 3rd person! Follow James on twitter @littlenomads or Google Plus +James Hayward

Leave a Comment

Powered by WordPress | Disclaimer | Privacy | Terms of use