Not to ward off the winter blues but to embrace them completely, Australian Traveller’s Sol Walkling headed to the NSW Blue Mountains and the birthplace of Yulefest for Christmas in July.
Christmas in July
When the first European settlers came to Australia, the idea of celebrating Christmas with a tree and Santa Claus dressed in a red, warm, winter frock must have been abandoned fairly quickly. With the seasons reversed Down Under, it’s surprising it took almost two centuries and a group of Irish tourists in the Blue Mountains to come up with the idea of Christmas in July. In a country with 40-degree temps in December, the snowfields of Thredbo and the crisp cool winter air of the Blue Mountains is the closest setting for a traditional Christmas atmosphere.
Marketing-savvy operators in the area play on this idea with the creation of a modern-day Yulefest tradition. Since it’s named after the Germanic word for Christmas celebrations, I asked a Swedish friend to accompany me on my weekend trip to Katoomba, where the whole Christmas in July idea started.
The mood is immediately set with a train journey in carriages from the ‘60s, green and brown dominating the interior. Leaving behind the busy streets of Sydney, we start our ascent into a magic winter wonderland from Emu Plains onwards – or so we think. The views from the train are nothing short of amazing. The Swede likens them to the Grand Canyon, but that might be a slight exaggeration.
It turns out neither of us knew quite what to expect on this trip. One of my friends warned me I’d definitely need warm clothes. Now, I spent my childhood in the cold climes of Northern Europe, so I tend to take that kind of advice seriously. I cheerfully packed a Canadian skiing jacket and only just stopped myself from bringing long johns. So imagine my surprise when we emerge onto the platform in Katoomba, home to the Three Sisters. Weather forecasts had predicted 5 degrees, but it’s a balmy 15+ and we leave behind a trail of scarves, gloves, hats and other winter gear on our way to the historic Carrington Hotel.
Walking up to the grand looking building, which claims “timeless elegance” as its major drawcard, we are impressed. At the entrance, a beautiful anteroom-cum-verandah with sun-catching stained glass windows and traditional reception area welcome us.
By the time we get to our room, we’re convinced we’ve hit the jackpot, despite booking the hotel’s most budget-style room. Alas, our room’s institution-yellow washable walls with its minimalist furnishings reminiscent of a student hall are a bit of a let down compared to the hotel’s grand dining hall and other classic common areas – even the shared bathrooms have a positively antique feel by comparison. And since the central heating warmed our room to Swedish sauna standards – making my travelling partner feel right at home – I spent a lot of time in the ladies’ quaint bathrooms, having cold showers and powdering my nose.
A walk in the fresh mountain air must surely be the highlight for anyone’s trip to the area. On our way down a main street dotted with cafes offering a myriad of options (many organic, vegetarian or alternative) and past the many antique shops and discount havens (with even further discounts for the elderly), we stop at a chocolate shop. It turns out not to be the chocolate factory Katoomba is famous for, but the chocolate truffles are as plentiful as they are outstanding. For chocolate addicts, this is heaven – although you’d better check into rehab after your trip.
The views at Echo Point are also celestial. Even though it’s teeming with tour buses and pilgrims with those silly-looking Lego-style backpacks. Despite my travelling partner’s considerable vertigo, we decide to tackle the giant staircase that leads past the Three Sisters. We barely stop on our way down accompanied by the Babel of all languages of the world and the huffing and puffing of well-fed tourists. But the views are breathtaking (or, in my friend’s case, positively frightening.)
After wandering with legs like jelly along the never-ending but equally beautiful trail at the foot of the mountain, we’re relieved when we make the rail at the other end before sunset. (Here’s a tip, don’t overestimate your stamina and don’t trust the “you’re halfway” mark.)
We ascend the mountain with dizzying speed, crammed into the metal cage roof that’s supposed to stop any more adventurous travellers from going in the other direction. At the top, Scenic World awaits us. Don’t let the name fool you; it’s more like landing on tourist planet. There’s no way out but through the merchandise buckling under the weight of memorabilia, maps and gear appropriate to the Blue Mountains (like rain jackets, gloves and so on). We’re running late for tonight’s Yulefest dinner and decide to come back another time for the exciting-looking cableway and the handy explorer bus.
The Mountain Heritage Hotel is where the local take on Christmas began – and it’s popular. Bookings for the $130, six-course dinner are essential. Pre-dinner drinks and canapés get the mainly older crowd into a festive mood – excited kids (and travel writers) don’t need any help. We quickly make friends across the table with a young couple and later make the acquaintance of Johan, the ice cream man, whose proud wife contributes to the general merriness by posing with the table decoration’s Christmas tinsel and tree. As my travelling partner says, the whole celebration feels a bit like a scene from a David Lynch movie (never more so than when the two female Carol singers and their gay companion incite guests to a shrill rendition of Christmas songs).
The food is plentiful and, though we’ve made the strategic mistake of sitting in the middle of a very, very long table, we eventually receive more than our fill. Accompanied by a glass of mulled wine and a bottle of (not included) excellent wine, the food goes down well, even if the initial seafood platter has quite obviously been sitting on the table waiting for Christmas for a while.
We thoroughly enjoy the slightly plastic take on a traditional European Christmas, even if we expect scary-looking elves to jump up from under the table heaving in food at any time. And judging by the sparkling eyes of the kids and the exuberant laughter of our older table neighbours, so does everyone else. After all, it’s not every day you get to wear silly hats, sing songs totally off-key and, generally, get carried away in the merry Christmas spirit.
Oh, I nearly forgot: there are also little present boxes of chocolate to go around. The Irish who came up with the absurd celebration sure knew how to have fun.