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Winter in the Blue Mountains

There's nothing like a Caddy to set the tone for a weekend. Especially when it's a gleaming 1929 vintage La Salle, imported from the USA, and one of only four left on the market worldwide. And especially when we will have a chauffeur-driven tour of the local beauty spots! But more of this grand old dame later.

We had come to the Blue Mountains' Winter Ball and invited to stay at this grand old hotel, recently refurbished and looking pretty spiffy, and now with her dancing shoes on. The Hydro Majestic Hotel was built by retailer Mark Foy. Australia's first health retreat, it opened in 1904, 112 years ago. Well, that explains the 'hydro' in the name, a word often associated with water therapy of some sort. It is thought that the enterprise was modelled on an English spa, perhaps Smedley, in Merseyside.

Foy was a man of grand plans and deep pockets. He was after the wow-factor, and chose a site with three important pluses: proximity to train and road (so people could get there easily) and a view. He found it in Medlow Bath and bought three separate properties on the escarpment overlooking the magnificent Megalong Valley.

Not everyone was thrilled. Some called it the 'palace in the wilderness', others 'Foy's folly'. His timing was a bit out too, as soon after the opening people lost interest in 'taking the waters'. The dome of the casino (the name is an affectation as there never were gaming tables here) is covered with 250,000 zinc tiles. It was built in the US, then taken apart, shipped to the Blue Mountains and reconstructed. 

Mark Foy has been described as a man who 'stirred the cocktail of life quite vigorously', which goes some way in explaining the glitz and extravagance of much of the decor.

The Art Deco style is evidenced in many parts of the grand interior, a reminder of its early 20th-century era, and here as you open the front door to reception. The building has suffered: fire in 1922, reopened in 1938, then requisitioned by the government during WWII for use as a military hospital. Its Golden Era followed in the 40s and 50s, and it has recently been substantially refurbished. 

There are 65 rooms in the hotel, but in a heritage-listed building such as this one, there is only so much you can do about enlarging them. In some parts every third bedroom was split to create two bathrooms, one for each of the other bedrooms, but the actual size of the room understandably still remains a little tight.

But who cares when the view from the window is as good as a painting. The view of the valley and escarpments made up for it, we felt.


We promised more about Ella, our vintage Caddy, and here she is, early the next morning, purring gently, ready to go. Of course winter in the mountains at the chilly elevation of around 1200 metres, means that not every winter morning dawns bright and sunny. Owner of Blue Mountains Vintage Cadillacs and our driver today, Donald Millar, had already thought of that and tucked knee-rugs around us. Of course in summer, Ella turns into a touring car as Don lowers her hood. Not this morning, though.

We figured we would enjoy our 'mist-ery' tour just as much, and headed off to the various beauty spots and lookouts, this particular morning veiled in clouds and quite romantic. Don knows the mountains well and fitted tales around each place, telling us many things we didn't know about this area, such as the fact that Charles Darwin is closely linked to Wentworth Falls, which he visited in the mid-1800s, and a walk named after him there.

That elegant ornament on the bonnet honours LaSalle an early French explorer of North America.

Back to the hotel for a much needed coffee - and all the trimmings. The hotel is noted for its High Teas served in the Wintergarden Restaurant overlooking that breathtaking view. 

But this is not any ordinary High Tea (if there is such a thing as an ordinary one!).....

....for this is a special Yulefest one.

That's right, winter in the Blue Mountains is celebrated as an antipodean Christmas, with all the trimmings. Think of it as a festival with its roots in one hemisphere and its branches in another. So visitors can expect hams and turkey, steamed Christmas puddings, mulled wine - the works - at many place around the mountains. 

They say it all began with the Irish when a band of nostalgic visitors found in the Blue Mountains the sort of crisp, clear winter climate that reminded them of Ireland. One chilly night in 1980, they were relaxing at the Mountain Heritage Country House Retreat at Katoomba in front of the hospitably roaring log fires. Understandably their thoughts to home. Host and owner Garry Crockett, Irish by heritage, decided there was no reason why an Australian Christmas could not be snowy. He decided to re-create a winter Christmas atmosphere right then and there.

Assuring his other guests this was no 'Irish joke' he sourced a Christmas tree and decorations (no easy feat mid-year) and prepared a feast of traditional foods. Of course it was such a success that it caught the interest of other places, soon becoming a mountain tradition, and now Yulefest is a key part of the calendar from June-August.

We were keen to know more about the history of this fascinating hotel, so we joined a tour led by Jim O'Keefe, one of the concierges. We met in the Casino, under the dome and led us on though the rest of the hotel. Dainty notes from the original building are everywhere. Here in the bar is etched glass....

....elsewhere we found stained glass....

.. and the saucily-named Cat Alley. Why? It is said that this is where the ladies of the early 20th-century would gather to drink tea, here, in the Chinoiserie Gallery and talk while their husbands smoked cigars and drank port in the lounge. As can happen, sometimes it is said the ladies' talk became gossip, hence the name.

In a corner of the ballroom, this decorated screen channels another monarch's era.

(image: ©David Hill, Deep Hill Media)

The works of modern-day local artist, Warwick Fuller, have attracted the interest of HRH the Prince of Wales and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, who have purchased some of his paintings. Others are hung in the ballroom, and they capture the beauty of the lush surrounding countryside. Fuller was present on the night to speak to those gathered for the Winter Ball, and one extremely lucky person won the door[prize of one of his paintings.

In 2012, and again in 2015, Fuller accompanied the couple on their tour of Australia as Official Tour Artist. His works can also be seen onsite in the Boiler House Gallery, and locally at Lost Bear Gallery, in Katoomba a few kilometres away.

(image: ©David Hill, Deep Hill Media)

The Winter Ball heralded the launch of Yulefest in the mountains with guests in masquerade ball attire, and a sit down dinner featuring regional produce in a pavilion decorated to reflect the season.

(image: ©David Hill, Deep Hill Media)

High point of the evening was a performance by The Metropolitan Orchestra, led by Founding Artistic Director and Chief Conductor, Sarah-Grace Williams. As the largest classical musical performance ever presented in the Blue Mountains, it provided a stunning foundation for a night to be remembered always by those who attended. 

(image: ©David Hill, Deep Hill Media)

The Metropoilitan Orchestra (TMO) has enjoyed a sparkling seven-year history and presents concerts throughout Sydney as well as the Blue Mountains.

 The newest part of the hotel is the Hydro Majestic Pavilion which opened in 2014 and features a cafe and gift shop.

Local produce is featured, including Bilpin honey. This fits with the vision of Mark Foy in the early days of this hotel. Quite advanced for the era, he had a piggery and dairy farm established in the valley. The produce was brought up by flying fox for use in the kitchens and then the scraps were taken back down the same way to feed the pigs. He even worked out a way to recycle water effectively.

Just across from the Pavilion, the Boiler House now houses a relaxed restaurant serving light meals such as this pizza, but it had an important part in the early running of the hotel. In 1904, there was no town electricity, but the Boiler House was able to generate what was needed by the hotel. There was even a telephone connected.


Hartley Historic Site

When driving west from the Blue Mountains we have always admired the scatter of old buildings just off the road in the lovely Hartley Valley. Just twenty minutes or so from Blackheath at the top of the mountains, we descended quickly through a steep pass and soon found ourselves at our home for the night. 

This historic site is administered by National Parks & Wildlife Service, and recently several buildings have been refurbished and made available to the public for holiday accommodation. This is the Presbytery for the Catholic church, St Bernard's, which stands next to it.

Inside we're delighted with the thought that has gone into the fittings.....especially a cosy fire, both here, and the bedroom.

There are also two bedrooms, a dining room, kitchen and spa bathroom, and the Presbytery is ideal either for a romantic getaway of for a family. 

And while the religious heritage is not overstated, there are small reminders.

The house was home for clergy from the 1850s until the 1880s, and also had accommodation for staff.

And just to add to the appeal, in the paddock behind the house was this friendly fellow who came across to meet us.

In the Visitors' Centre is a gallery featuring the work of talented aboriginal artists.

Well-priced and available for sale to visitors, the work is in high demand.

The old service station, owned and operated by several generations of the same family, is now being refurbished, and our guide, Steve Ring, Manager of the Hartley History Site, is looking forward to its completion. The plans are for it to be used for functions and we could easily see how ideal it will be for country woolshed balls, wedding receptions and other celebrations.

The last Sunday in October is always a big day for Hartley. This Back to Hartley DayFor $5 a car visitors can come and enjoy a variety of activities - market, petting zoo, pony rides, sheep shearing and other events and music.

A fully restored house.....

.....but this shows the amount of work which has been necessary to restore each building.

The old inn is on the list of places to be upgraded next....

.... and its easy to see that it has been a busy place during its history.

St Bernard's is still in use, and often chose as a wedding venue.

However, not everyone liked coming to Hartley. This was the regional courthouse for several decades ...

... and some had to spend a little too much time here, it seems!

Today, the courthouse is open for visitors. A holograph presentation at the entrance is particularly interesting and helps people to begin to feel what it must have been like living here almost two hundred years ago.

School children are often a little awed at the severity of the court and get into character by trying on convict garb.

Another house, Old Trahlee, built between 1846 and 1854, has been renovated to make two options, one with disabled access and facilities, and the other set up for families.

Provision has been made for children...

.. and even a younger child.


While there is a  cafe open for tourists in Hartley on some days of the week, the best place to come for an evening meal is Alchemy Pizza, a few minutes' drive away, on the highway.

The wholemeal pizzas are delicious, cooked in this oven by a French pizza chef. It's a cosy busy place, and there is gelato if you want dessert.




One final stop before heading home, we take a break in Blackheath, visited by Charles Darwin in 1836. But I was interested in more modern things. This eclectic place, Wildenstein, is the love-child of flamboyant owner James Stein. A cornucopia of decorating materials cookery items, books and flowers, it could provide that special souvenir to take home.

I found this particularly interesting. Delicakean Australian brainwave, is ideal for unbaked cheesecakes or other fragile creations which need refrigeration. The torte or cake can be made right in the mould, refrigerated, and then when ready to serve, the lid and sides lift off without damaging the cake itself.

Just across the road, at Vesta Blackheath, dinner was waiting, and we were thrilled to be able to taste the food of Chef Misha Laurent. This is simple, slow-cooked rustic European mountain food at its finest. Not only can people eat in the restaurant, but it can also provide takeaway food boxes, ideal for locals or visitors in self-catering accommodation.

The restaurant is not large, and it was packed when we visited; vibrant with conversation and the aromas of wonderful food.

My dish of pork with Hillbilly Cider (a local brew), fennel and polenta was the ideal foil for the rain and chill outside. Comfort food at its best.

Gordon pronounced his dish of Snowy River trout with harissa and lentils as the 'best fish I have ever eaten'. High praise, indeed.

Star of the restaurant where much of the food is cooked is this 120-year-old Scotch oven fired by vintage ironbark sourced from Mudgee, north-west of the mountains.


Lovers of TV shows such as Bargain Hunt or Antiques Roadshow should pause here......

.... or here and test their ability to find some treasure.

And if you need some colour on a drab day, this mural in the carpark will raise anyone's spirits.

Food is important to the locals of Blackheath and there are cafes, restaurants and foodshops strung out along Govetts Leap Road, the main street off the highway. This place has always been a favourite place to stock up on lovely fresh sourdough. 

This is a local coffee roaster, served here at Altitude Cafe.

Throughout the mountains you will come across the names of three men - Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson who, in 1803, found a way to cross the formidable gorges and mountains that separated the coast from whatever lay inland.

They had hoped to find a vast inland sea, something which would have changed the face of agriculture in the new colony forever. As we all know they didn't.

They also did not know just how important their tough venture would prove to be. As the mountains became more accessible, they became more popular, until now it is an easy 1.5 hour journey from Sydney to Katoomba. The mountains have become a delicious bolthole for anyone with a few days to spare, and the ideal place to celebrate Christmas - twice a year, if you wish!

More information on the Blue Mountains....


Photos and text: Sally Hammond ©2016

Video: Gordon Hammond ©2016

Sally and Gordon Hammond were hosted by the Hydro Majestic Hotel in Medlow Bath, and National Parks & Wildlife Service at Hartley.




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