The minute you turn into the gates of Wolgan Valley, the phone signal disappears. We’re in a remote part of New South Wales' Blue Mountains, where ancient Wollemi pine grew undiscovered until the mid-1990s.
We drove carefully on the way in – but it was on dusk and kangaroos were jumping across the hairpin bends like hurdlers. We hit one and the front headlight is smashed.
The resort is situated between two big national parks, the Gardens of Stone and Wollemi. Yet while tourists flock to towns such as Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, this valley – over Mount Victoria and beyond Lithgow – is practically deserted.
The seclusion is part of the allure. As well as being Australia’s first luxury conservation-based resort, Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley (to give it its full name) was last year named by TripAdvisor as Australia’s top hotel.
It’s definitely pricey, with a tariff of $2,050 a night. This includes accommodation in a Heritage Suite, all meals including local wines and beers, and two nature-based activities each day for each person. The expense makes it very much a special occasion destination and, during our stay, we meet several groups celebrating big birthdays, wedding anniversaries and honeymoons.
Most of the mega-posh places around Australia are beachside (I’m thinking Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, Saffire Freycinet in Tasmania and One&Only Hayman Island in the Whitsundays) but Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley is very much landlocked. The Australian bush and the dramatic escarpments around the property more than make up for the lack of ocean frontage.
A maximum of 80 guests (in 40 rooms) can stay at any one time and, in the more remote corners of the resort, it can feel like you are the only guest.
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Wolgan Valley is 190 kilometres and three hours from Sydney, and is a popular weekend getaway for Sydneysiders and international tourists wanting an Australian bush experience. After we arrive at the gatehouse a bit after 7pm, we are transferred to a four-wheel-drive Land Rover Defender – it’s a week old and still has that new-car smell – built to handle creek crossings and unsealed roads.
As we drive up towards the main homestead, our driver slows down and points out the nocturnal wildlife lining the road. There are the silhouettes of kangaroos, wallabies and – most thrillingly – wombats!
I see at least half a dozen wombats on my drive up to the homestead. They’re like enormous brown rocks, except that they move slowly along the road. Our driver tells us they can sprint at speeds of up to 40 kilometres an hour.
After checking in, we proceed straight to dinner. The restaurant, in the main homestead, is decorated in the style of a wealthy person’s ski lodge or beach house. It’s posh but relaxed.
Before dinner we sit by a roaring fire and drink local sparkling chardonnay. This lounge is open all day and great if you want to play chess or backgammon in front of the fire while enjoying a drink.
We have a long chat to Jason, who has worked at the property for six years. A local guy, much of his family had been employed in nearby Lithgow in the mining industry.
The resort employs about 100 people, many of them locals. About 70 staff live on-site in a village built on the property.
Dinner is three courses with matching wines – many coming from just down the road in the Bathurst, Orange and Mudgee regions. The produce is all grown and sourced locally – within 100 kilometres of the resort. We finish with cheese and dessert wine before taking a buggy back to our room.
Although Wolgan Valley is a great place for rest and relaxation, I’m up early to see the sun rise over the escarpment and the kangaroos grazing on the grass just outside the porch of our suite. It’s stunning out here – mist encircles the mountains, there’s the sound of magpies and kookaburras, and the air is scented with eucalyptus. The suite (which is enormous and comfortable, built in the style of an old homestead) has a Nespresso machine – and the Sydney Morning Herald and Weekend Australian are delivered to our door.
Breakfast is served in the restaurant. It’s a la carte, with a buffet option. I can highly recommend the fresh croissants and omelettes cooked to order.
The 2,830-hectare property (of which only 2 per cent is used for the resort buildings) is ideal for exploring on horseback. The well-kept stables house 16 horses, including one used to transport the bridal party at cricketer Michael Clarke’s wedding.
I’m on Bandit. The name would suggest a lively spirit, a horse first off the blocks. Instead Bandit is 'lazy' – slow and barely awake – and drops her head into water every time we cross a creek.
The pace is leisurely. There are two of us on the ride, which costs $155 for 90 minutes. The staff ratio is amazing, with two guides accompanying us.
We stick mainly to walking, with a short trot at the end, and enjoy the chance to see more of the property. When Charles Darwin first came across this area in 1836, he described it in his notebook as an ancient “grand valley surrounded by cliffs of sandstone”.
The area is rich in Indigenous history – there are rock engravings, burial sites and ceremonial grounds in the national parks. Several Indigenous peoples have a strong, ongoing cultural association to the region, including the Darug people. Convicts were also sent to the site to work on the land – where escape (out here, where would they have gone?) would have meant certain death.
There’s also an extensive mountain bike riding trail, and each villa has two bikes and helmets parked on the veranda.
Back at the homestead, it’s time to eat again. There’s a cafe below the restaurant but we’ve opted for a picnic, selecting from a menu provided the night before.
Staff drive us to a remote part of the property where a shaded area looks out on to the range. There’s a set table and an ice bucket with a cold beer ready when we pull up. Our picnic basket contains a couple of sandwiches and some delicious salads, a flask for tea and coffee, and fruit salad.
It’s like Picnic at Hanging Rock out here. It’s too early in the year for flies but the air is hot and still and sandstone escarpments loom all around us. Except for occasional birdsong, it’s eerily quiet. Even though Sydney is just up the road, it feels as though we’re in the most remote place on Earth.
Activities on offer at Wolgan Valley include archery and hiking. But ultimately it’s a place where many people go to just do nothing.
In the rooms there is a good supply of reading materials – including books and the latest glossy magazines. There are also two televisions (in the bedroom and lounge room) that show the usual pay TV channels and free movies. But these didn’t get switched on all weekend.
As much as I want to lounge around inside reading (or using the in-room pool, which is heated and a comfortable 25 metres), another tour of the property beckons. Roger takes a group of five us out in a sort of open bus/four-wheel drive for a wildlife tour to spot Australian native animals.
I’ve never been on safari in Africa so don’t know how this compares, but it’s thrilling to get so close to kangaroos, wallabies and gorgeously sleek wallaroos, with their dark grey fur. They are very elegant – like the aristocrats of the animal kingdom – and gather in mobs across the hills. I count at least 50 of them.
What’s captivating is that they are just hanging out, not hopping off as they usually would when you get close. And we see more wombats – their burrows are all over the property.
We also visit a grove of Wollemi pines planted about six years ago and hear the story of the species’ accidental discovery, by an off-duty park ranger who had gone canyoning in the rugged area. They had previously been thought long extinct. It shows just how untouched the area has been.
After our tour, it’s back to the original homestead – built in 1832 and lovingly restored – for canapes and sundowners.
Nocturnal wildlife spotlighting and stargazing are particularly popular tours and are included in the price. Dinner is back at the restaurant.
Around us are mostly couples and larger family groups. Children are welcome at Wolgan Valley and there is enough room to not feel crowded by the bigger groups.
I wake feeling well rested. The beds are custom made by A.H. Beard and are available for guests to buy. Breakfast is delicious – a variety of local mushrooms, with feta and sourdough.
Then it’s into the Timeless Spa for an aromatherapy massage, using oils sourced from the property. Looking across to the mountains, with soft music playing, I felt myself drifting off.
The resort opened its doors about five years ago and is showing no signs of age or wear and tear. It has recruited and kept some of the friendliest and most knowledgeable staff I’ve come across (one of our guides had done her thesis on predator dogs – and was able to speak from a place of deep knowledge when I asked her about the region’s dingoes).
It’s a brave move turning your back on the sea and trusting that the scrubby, sometimes inhospitable, Australian bush is a good place to build your multimillion-dollar resort (Emirates even contributed to improve the road in). But it works – and it’s magnificient. The buildings blend in with the landscape and all the rooms are angled so you can marvel at the mountains.
After you’ve left and your phone signal returns, it feels as though the whole place was a dream.
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This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Brigid Delaney from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.