You need a break, but you’re skint. No problems: a weekend stay in the Blue Mountains is fun, inexpensive and cosy – and a lot easier to organise than you think.
First, find a cottage on the Internet. We found ours in Bullaburra, a suburb flanking picturesque Leura. Tip: if you’re planning a Blue Mountains getaway, pick accommodation above Wentworth Falls. You see, when the Blue Mountains became a fashionable retreat for turn-of-the-century Sydneysiders to escape the heat and dutifully pine for Mother England in their heavy woollen clothes and copious girdles, they naturally gravitated to the coolest climes on the range. Older cottages are in the upper part of the mountains, so book lodgings “above the snowline.”
The Blue Mountains is synonymous with log fires, old books and feral adolescents in flannelette shirts and beanies. This costs nothing. However, I was unsure what to do with my if-I’m-not-glued-to-Playstation-I’m-instantly-bored children. But then I thought: why not punish them with second-hand bookshops and antique markets? So our plan from the outset was to have a huge breakfast (always cheap), no lunch, an early tea and think of Mahatma Ghandi. But how to fill the days?
When in the mountains, first stop is always Papa Dinos in Katoomba, a little kid-friendly pizza joint where the prices aren’t jacked up for tourists. My kids love Papa Dinos, as all kids do – they’re given a wad of dough with which to make little sculptures. They then place them in the oven while you wait for your pizza. My 11-year-old made a tarantula. My underwhelmed teenage son sneered, declaring he was now too cool for Papa Dinos entertainments. After much cajoling and the exhaustion of his repertoire of sulks he begrudgingly made a penis, which he argued was a snake. My wife was unimpressed. Before we knew it, the waiter had snatched the spider and floury member for the oven. As we waited, I popped next door to the bottle shop/art gallery. (This is emblematic of the Blue Mountains; it’s an arty place.) To my rapturous delight, I discovered VB in 500ml cans! Someone at Carlton Brewery is a visionary. With my supersized VB, we ate our pizza, collected our baked genitalia and left.
After our coronary-on-a-plate the next morning, we made for Blackheath, which is a spiritual home of sorts for me; I spent much time writing my first novel in the historic Gardener’s Inn Hotel, where Charles Darwin once stayed as he contemplated the origin of the species after watching Big Brother on the in-house TV. Then it was off to the Ivanhoe for the sacred repast known as Denise’s Pies. Now, I don’t know who this Denise is but she should be given the Order of Australia. They’re not pies but pastry leviathans. One bite instantly qualifies you for Australian residency. I bought four and had to trolley them to the car.
We then stopped at the Old Tythe Barn; it’s full of little dolls and trinkets the size of your fingernail. I had to drag my youngest out by his shoelaces. The shopkeep even gave him a lolly for being so enthusiastic. He spent all his pocket money there and pleaded to go back.
We then strolled over to the Old Victoria Theatre – now a giant antique market. My favourite nook is its second-hand book stall with its library of old Penguins. I always feel a frisson of excitement standing before that grove of jaffa-orange spines.
The Blue Mountains is famous for its old bookshops. In fact, flanking Papa Dinos in Katoomba is Brian’s Bookshop. What’s charming about Brian’s is the owner plays Chopin on the piano as you browse.
My wife lamented that we needed to do one touristy thing and visit the Three Sisters. Katoomba’s Echo Point is fat with tourists. One family had the word “England” written on every piece of their apparel. We didn’t need the signage; we could tell by the lobster-tans.
After the Sisters we ducked into my favourite cafe: The Paragon – unchanged since the ’20s. Tip: nip out the backdoor to the tearooms and be dazzled by the finest example of art deco in NSW. Before leaving, we bought four – count ’em four – of the Paragon’s famous homemade chocolates. This cost $7.50. Who makes these things – the Oompa Loompas? My teenaged son gobbled his in a nanosecond and asked for more. I looked at him like he was from Mars. This was not in keeping with our poverty-pack strategy. However, the marshmallow bar did look tempting. I placed one on lay-by before leaving.
The following day, after our daily ration of bacon and eggs, we walked around the cottage gardens, a fairyland of twitching apple blossoms. The bush simply hummed with insects, a white noise punctured only by the aural snap of a whip bird. We then made for Mount Wilson.
I’ve always wanted to visit Mount Wilson, for the sole reason that I’ve never been there. (Now I know why: it’s boring. There’s a Turkish Bath Museum, but it was closed.) I reckon one of the most cost-effective holiday pleasures is swimming. I swim every day because my back is stuffed from being fat and lazy and sitting in front of a computer. However, kids love swimming. We found a fab pool in Katoomba overlooking a gorgeous copse of cherry blossoms.
Back at the cottage that evening a squadron of flying ants wheeled over my car. My kids found tennis racquets and swatted them. I asked them to be careful around my car before repairing to the snug of my 500ml VB. The following day my duco was a Pollock canvas of scratches, courtesy of the said tennis racquets. I felt depressed. My father would have been apoplectic. My kids simply shrugged and said the car was hail damaged anyway, so we drove over the mountains to the historic settlement of Little Hartley to punish them with history.
Hartley is the township between the Bathurst Goldfields and the Mountains, made a ghost town when the Great Western Railway bypassed it – Lithgow is now the point of commerce and administration for the area. Hartley’s worth a look as the deserted town centre is a snapshot of colonial days. The kids were bored out of their brains. Hartley was a success.
We hopped back into my newly scratched Nissan and snaked back up the mountain to Mount Victoria to visit Trains, Planes & Automobiles. This is a fabulous antique toyshop.
The slogan on their brochure says “probably the best toy shop in the world.” I don’t get it. Is it or not? This is a weak slogan. “The Black Stump – possibly a decent meal.” “Ultratune – maybe we’ll fix your car.” Fun pit stop, though.
We then appeased the Teen Gods by heading for pretty Leura. With its avenue of cherry blossoms and every home garden a Monet canvas, it’s a must for any Mountains sojourn. However, what my pimpled son loves most about Leura is the Indoor Climbing Centre at Village Fitness. An apt mountains activity, it’s cost effective (though not as cheap as giving them a packed lunch, a rope and pointing to the Three Sisters). Two kids climbing all day will set you back $20. This made my teenager’s holiday tolerable. It’s also a good family bonding session, as you’re the sap on the other end of the rope. As my son dangled from the top rung I tried not to think about the Nissan.
On our final morning we woke to the sour chimes of Gameboys and forced down more swine and eggs. We were sick of them. (I’ve since converted to Judaism.) The drive back through the mountains was beautiful and all in all we had a great break.
So you see, you don’t need a lot of money to have a great time in the Blue Mountains (and ruin the paintwork on your car, which I’m sure I’ll get over just in time for next year’s trip).
You just need some frugality and a little imagination. Being Scottish helps.
DETAILS: Blue Mountains
Village Fitness Leura
Rear 185, The Mall, Leura
(02) 4784 2163
Katoomba Sports & Aquatic Centre
Farnells Rd, Katoomba.
(02) 4782 1748
Trains, Planes & Automobiles
86 Great Western Highway, Mt Victoria
(02) 4787 1590
Bygone Beauties Cottages
phone: (02) 4784 3117
The Old Tythe Barn
Great Western Highway, Blackheath
phone: (02) 4787 7284
65 Katoomba St, Katoomba
phone: (02) 4782 2928
Gardners Inn Hotel
255 Great Western Hwy, Blackheath
phone: (02) 4787 8347