A rainy getaway in the Blue Mountains
It’s been over 30 years since our last visit to the Fairmont Resort in Leura, Blue Mountains.
Originally designed as a north American style mountain lodge, it first opened in 1988, after a few years of controversy ( when economic development clashed with environmental concerns ). Only two hours drive from Sydney, it was the first 5-star hotel to be built in the area for decades, and quickly became THE place to go for a weekend in the mountains, especially in winter to enjoy Christmas in July.
We took the girls there in the early 1990’s, for a couple of extended weekends. They loved the pool, the tennis court, the games rooms and roasting marshmallows on the big fireplace in the sunken lounge where Terry and I would sit warmly. Lavish buffets would be the rewards at the end of brisk and busy days spent bike riding and sight seeing ( young Shelley and Tania were not into hiking back then )
Then, as we moved on in life and overseas, we stopped going. We heard the resort fell on hard time and changed hands a couple of times, to eventually fall into receivership in 2010. Subsequently bought by an Australian hotel group and management taken over by the French Accor group, it has been known as the Fairmont Resort & Spa Blue Mountains MGallery Sofitel for the past 10 years or so.
We returned last weekend with Marc and Anne, for what is probably the only occasion we will be holidaying together this year ( both of them are now uni students holding part-time jobs, meaning they have a life of their own…). Keen to show them a part of our past lives, I was curious to see how much the 2022 Fairmont would compare to the 1991 version.
When we first arrive, my reaction is that it looks the same but different… The building hasn’t changed, though the once earthy brown coloured walls now wear a brighter combination of yellow and terracotta paint ( very 2010’s if you ask me ). The distinctive cathedral ceiling in the lobby is just as impressive as I remember, so is the stunning floor to ceiling view of the Jamison Valley. The decor is warm and traditional, very much in the style of a European ski lodge with lots of red leather lounges, tartan rugs, wood trims and nordic chandelier.
The bedrooms definitely are refurbished, with a terracotta and beige colour scheme, and the fluffiest of pillows ! Because we decided to time our visit outside school holidays and on weekdays, the resort is much quieter than I recall, with almost no children ( save a couple of babies sighted at breakfast ). It is very much a case of adults only: older couples and corporate groups seem to make the bulk of the guests, Marc and Anne appearing to be the youngest adults here.
Once we drop off our bags, we make our way to the bar. Not the main one in the lobby, but rather the underground one, hidden under the basement of the resort. The strangely named Two Doctors Whiskey Tavern is accessed from the outside, down a small flight of stairs.
This windowless venue has been designed as a cosy whiskey bar, inspired by the dark taverns of yesteryear. We are shown to a cozy corner with leather chesterfields, surrounded by bookshelves full of vintage books and curios. From old medical manuals, to scales and best seller thrillers, there is something for everyone…in a quirky and creepy kind of way. On weekends the tavern hosts live music shows, which sounds like a lot of fun, but we’re here on a Sunday night and we’ve missed all the action as it is very quiet indeed. The very friendly bar tender patiently waits for Anne and I to make our way thru the extensive cocktail list which features predominantly whiskies, both local and international. The venue is the extension to the production of Two Doctors, a single malt whiskey created by Dr Schwartz, owner of the Fairmont, and his friend, Professor Rasko ( hence the name and the medical theme throughout ).
Anne chooses the Osaka Highball, with Suntory Whiskey Toki, Caramelised pear, Kombu, Yuzu and soda. I am not a whiskey fan so I order a Lyrebird cocktail instead, a combination of pandan infused rum, coconut, and citrus. The boys stick to beer, though their choice is limited to the beer partner brand, Sydney Brewery.
We have fun trying to convince Terry to channel his inner Sherlock Holmes and pretend we are in an escape room, but eventually he finds this bar too dark and claustrophobic so we retreat to the natural light filled Sublime Lounge, next to the lobby. I can hear him breathing again, as he settles next to the fireplace and takes on the views of the resort grounds. There are talks of grazing on refreshments from the light meals menu but I have already made a dinner reservation at Embers, the other onsite restaurant opened on this Sunday night ( Misty’s, the fine dining option, only opens on Friday and Saturday ).
By the time we are shown to our table, we have made friends with most of the bar and waiting staff thanks to Marc’s bantering skills and a few libations.
We are all starving. so dive into the menu with gusto.
Marc orders the entree special, beef carpaccio with goat cheese. Terry goes for the seared scallops, crispy pork belly, cauliflower, edamame, tarragon butter sauce.
Anne can’t resist the smoked burrata, heirloom tomatoes, dried kalamata olive, infused cherry tomato, aged balsamic, extra virgin olive oil, olive & tomato crostini , while I pick the peppered kangaroo tataki, tonnato sauce, watercress, amaranth, shallot vinaigrette ( which the waiter delivers by asking out loud “who is eating Skippy!!” We all burst into laughter, which is probably not the correct thing to do, so i am grateful there are only a handful of guests around, hopefully they can’t hear us )
Mains are Wagyu rump for Terry ( not as luscious as he’d hoped for Wagyu MB6 but the chips were good ), twice cooked pork belly, bacon jam, confit shallot, butter poached edamame, smoked potato puree, and pork jus for Marc and I, Grilled lamb rack, shiso chimichurri, corn, sweet potato, jus for Anne ( sadly no photos but that was the best lamb I have eaten in a long time , tender and moist !)
Desserts for Terry and I were Tart de citron, white chocolate ice-cream, chocolate soil, raspberry gel, and Vanilla panna cotta, coconut sorbet, toasted coconut praline, compressed pineapple, sour pineapple and mint gel.
The kids skipped desserts as they wanted to catch the movie in the auditorium: they had the cinema all to themselves to watch the Fantastic 4!
We wake up the next day feeling a little seedy from the previous night, so lie in a little longer than planned. Breakfast is served at the Jamison Restaurant, where the kids have been waiting for us nibbling on hash brown and bacon. By the time we join them, they are onto their second plate.
The buffet offering is your standard hot and cold selection of everyone’s favourites: cereals, pastries, breads, fresh fruits, porridge, pancakes, sausages, eggs, …
I start with a healthy bowl of bircher muesli, nuts and berry compote. Then a mixed plate of hash browns, bacon, tomato, and shakshuka on top of stir fried vegetables. These are pleasantly crunchy, the poached eggs have a nice runny yolk and the sauce is very tasty. Terry comments that it looks like dinner, but I am quite smitten by this combo.
I had big plans to go hiking for the rest of the day but the weather isn’t cooperating so we decide to drive instead. After reading about the best lookout smackdown on Blue Mountains Insiders, we go looking for as many lookouts as we could find in the rain.
It is a lovely drive, first on the highway to Blackheath and a stop at Govetts Leap Lookout with its classic view of the Grose Valley into Govett Gorge and the graceful Bridal Veil waterfall. Another of the Grose Valley stops is the nearby Evans Lookout, named for the surveyor of the first road over the mountains.
We then follow the scenic Blue Mountains Drive, starting from Katoomba and winding our way around the clifftops, dotted with numerous lookouts: Narrow Neck, Gordon Falls, and Sublime Point are only a few we stop at and take photos between showers.
Even in wet weather, these lookouts are amazing with swirling clouds and tendrils of mist snaking through the valley, while the forest below is a mosaique of rich colours. Bird calls rising from the hidden deeps, twisty gums and fern-filled glade of tall trees shrouded in fog, all lend a sensation of mystery not lost on the kids. “ Imagine being an early explorer and getting lost in these woods? Or falling off these cliffs? Wouldn’t it be cool to camp in the wild with my mates! “ Somehow, I am taken back to earlier road trips, with a 5 and 10-year old discovering the world…
Back then, they would have asked to visit the Toy Museum or the Scenic Cableway. Now they’d rather hang out in shops.
So when it gets too wet and we decide to stop in picturesque Leura Mall, these two are in heaven: op shop, geek shop, book shop, vintage shop… Terry and I leave them to their fun, while finding someplace for lunch ourselves. There is no shortage of cafes and restaurants but it turns out, I am the only one hungry enough for a sit down meal, Terry only wants an ice cream from the chocolate shop! In the end, I take the easy option and order some pizza slices from Pizza Sublime for the kids and I, which we nibble on outside in between shop visits!
Back to the resort late afternoon, we all retire for a while. Though we didn’t really hike today, we did walk a fair bit and all this sightseeing up and down short walking trails near the lookouts or in and out of shops takes it out of us somehow. We lack the enthusiasm and energy to explore the resort and unfortunately I have left it too late to book a session at the Ibuka Day Spa.
We join the Happy Hour at the Sublime lounge and debate whether to drive back into town for dinner or order room service ( Anne’s suggestion ). Being a Monday night, only a handful of restaurants are open in Leura, most require a reservations, some even a deposit. All understandable in these COVID times, but in the end, in spite of Marc offering to drive, we choose to stay in and eat by the fire at the Sublime Lounge.
The menu is casual, just what we all feel like: beer battered barramundi and chips for Marc, Salt and pepper squid with Caesar salad for Terry, beef burger for Anne, popcorn shrimps with pear and rocket salad for me. The food is delicious, service friendly and fast, and only a quick elevator ride back to the room.
On our final day, the sun comes out and we linger at the breakfast table to soak in the view of the Jamison Valley. The kids and I decide to head back to Leura Mall to check out shops we missed yesterday.
In their case, it is coffee at the quirky Wayzgoose Diner. My treat is a hot chocolate from Josophan chocolate.
Josophan is a bit of an institution in Leura, founded and owned by local Jodie van der Velden. She and her daughters, make their fine chocolates onsite, using fair trade chocolate, no preservatives or artificial flavours. The range of products is amazing, with not only chocolate blocks of various strength, but also individual ganache filled chocolates, slabs, ice cream toppings , rocky roads or baking supplies…we spend a long time deciding what to buy and bring home ( thankfully it is a quiet day and we are the only ones in the store ) and I buy more than I should, all under the pretense that they are gifts: a block of dark chili chocolate for Terry, a gift box for Shelley who is minding Sam while we’re away, Salted Caramel rocky roads for a girlfriend, a brownie slab for the kids, and a chai hot chocolate mix for myself.
We quickly glance at the ice cream stall next door, which also happen to be adjacent to the pizza shop, and all agree that it is time to hit the road lest we’re tempted to snack again.
We stop at Wentworth Falls, which we had saved for the drive home. The Wentworth Falls picnic area is actually a few kilometers away from the village of Wentworth Falls and is made of several lookouts and walking tracks. As impressive as the view is from the main lookouts, it doesn’t quite capture the double-tiered waterfall where the Jamison Creek plunges off 187m down the escarpment. A sign shows a 30mn walk down to a better lookout.
Anne and Terry take one look at the muddy track and the steep steps, before deciding they’d wait at the car for Marc and I. Once we start descending towards the cliff-edged Fletchers lookout, I realise the others would hate it: Anne’s white sneakers and new pants would not have been a match for the slippery and muddy path, just as Terry’s knees would probably buckle with the number of steps.
From the first lookout, it is a few more minutes down steps to the very top of the falls where Jamison creek cascades into a shallow pool on one side and the Jamison valley opens out on the other.
Then the real fun starts, as we continue beyond the stepping stones along the National Pass: we meet the Grand Stairway, the first of 3 very steep metal ladders, built by hand in the early 1900’s. Imagine how crazy it must have been for the men who carved this path using picks and shovels, with the occasional bit of dynamite back then. The 3 set of stairs lead to the bottom of the falls where you can swim in a little natural pool. We stop after the first set of stairs, as we saw how small people appeared at the base of the falls and knowing that we would have to retrace our steps to come back, neither of us are keen on walking up so many stairs.
As it is, the views over the valley are breath taking !
By the time we back track to the car in the picnic area, the advertised 30mn walk has turned into a 60mn hike. Well worth the effort and we can at least say that we have been bushwalking.