Boutique chocolatiers, gourmet coffee, cheese, wineries, local farmers’ markets… The road west of Sydney is filled with serendipity, writes Sally Hammond
Load the car. Slam the doors. Let’s go! Driving west from Sydney, once you leave the tangle of suburbia, there is just one road. The Great Western Highway roughly follows the track made by three young men – next year, it will be 200 years ago – as they headed for the line of blue hills beckoning them on the horizon.
Beyond was… what? Mighty rivers, an inland sea, lush grazing lands? Their hopes high, they planned to cross the mountains to find out.
Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth: today those are names of funky little villages nestled in valleys and on ridges of these same mountains. We stop for a coffee at one and buy postcards in another, but for those explorers it was pure slog, day after day slashing their way through bush just as dense as it is in the valleys today.
The Blue Mountains are a day trip destination for many now. Train, coach, drive. Stop at Echo Point, take photos, shout out “coo-ee!” (well, the name demands it) and hear your voice ping-ponging back from the red, ruler-straight edges of the gorge. Admire the Three Sisters. Maybe take the well-maintained path closer to photograph their stony faces. Then it’s on to the Scenic World cable car or maybe one of the shorter walking trails. Coffee, lunch, some boutique shopping, then back in the car (coach, train) to Sydney.
Many have done that, but on this trip we plan to take a day or so doing our own soft-exploring in the mountains, then veer north-west to Mudgee.
Our hotel in Katoomba overlooks the huge bowl of the Jamieson Valley. Sydney’s sixth Chief Justice Judge Darley built a house here over a century ago; it is now the property’s restaurant. Designed to be a health respite for Lilian, his TB-wracked daughter, Lilianfels Blue Mountains Resort & Spa is still a modern-day stress cure. The spa and Darley’s restaurant complete its elegant trifecta of eat-sleep-relax, making this our top choice whenever we travel in this direction.
We dine that night surrounded by original decor in Darley’s – but no ghost of Lilian. Sadly, she never lived to visit here. Chef Sam Aisbett’s food gets my tick of approval, especially when we learn he is fanatical about sourcing as much as produce as possible from the local area – sometimes even as close as his kitchen garden.
Next day we wander along nearby Leura’s main street. Katoomba may be the larger town, the scenic magnet, but Leura is the tourist epicentre with its cafés and speciality shops. We meet up with a friend for hot chocolate at Café Madeleine (sister shop to lush chocolatier Josophan’s up the street), then later have lunch at Leura Garage, which combines industrial-chic decor with inner-city coffee and food.
One last stop before we leave the mountains. If you can’t imagine 3000-plus teapots, you just have to visit the Treasured Teapot Museum to marvel at the kaleidoscopic colours and designs of pots reaching to the ceiling. Luckily the cottage-museum is also a shop and café, so take your time.
After driving for less than two hours north-west from Katoomba, we reach Mudgee. Its Aboriginal name means “a nest in the hills”. It fits the place well. On the outskirts of town we pass hillsides striped with vines; even though the greatest burst of grape-growing has happened in the last few decades, the first vines were planted over 160 years ago. Now this is the state’s third-largest wine region.
Deeb’s Kitchen is our destination for dinner and the night. Owners Bechora and Sybil Deeb have a natural knack for hospitality and they’ve transformed a former schoolhouse into a popular restaurant and B&B. Bechora’s Lebanese background guarantees that his food is irresistible, and it’s created from produce often grown on their land, picked from their trees or garden.
Saturday is the monthly farmers’ market day. With our bags at the ready, we pick our way between the dozens of stalls and pause to watch one of the local chefs leading a bunch of children on a hunter-gathering forage preparatory to their cooking class in the hall nearby. Lucky kids!
You need several days to see all there is in Mudgee. We settle for a walk down the main street, dropping into the newly opened Market Street Café to sample some amazing just-made sourdough, then ogling the wares at Cherry Red nearby, a so-chic fashion boutique, and Botobolar’s organic selections, all within steps of each other. There’s a brewery in town now too, and other excellent cafés and restaurants catering both to visitors and to the many locals who have tree-changed here but retained city expectations where food is concerned.
With more than 40 cellar doors in the area and road-corner signs bristling with names from the best wine lists, it’s almost impossible to know where to begin our wine-tasting tour. We return to a favourite, Botobolar organic vineyard, with its sweeping views from the terrace outside the tasting room, and follow this up with Robert Stein, then High Valley Wine & Cheese.
A side trip to Gulgong is a must. It’s only half an hour away, but it makes us feel we’ve leapt back almost 150 years to the gold-rush era. This is Henry Lawson’s town and the locals have capitalised on the fact he is featured on our money, calling this the “Ten Dollar Town”.
We’d love to explore further, but the next day we have an appointment that can’t be ignored.
Rylstone is one of the oldest settlements west of the mountains, 45 minutes south of Mudgee. Most of the buildings are heritage-listed and in one there is an unusual cuisine and an unexpected proprietor. Chinese-born Na Lan relocated here several years ago from Byron Bay, and has opened a café, 29 Nine 99 (her wedding date!), serving mouth-watering yum cha dumplings. With its seating among the Asian silks and artefacts she sells, it feels like an old Shanghai Tea House.
We’ve also come for the Rylstone Street Feast, held each November. Tables extend the entire length of the main street – a very long lunch for 350 diners – and there is street entertainment too: Scottish bands, circus acts, singers and more. It’s simply a wonderfully festive communal excuse to get together and eat the best of the local produce prepared by the best local cooks – all washed down by the best of the local wines. And we love being part of it.
Mention Mudgee and the word abundance comes to mind. There is so much to see, do, sip and savour. A nest in the hills it may be, but really this whole region is more of a feast in the hills.