The arrival of luxury lodges such as Wolgan Valley – and our own willingness to embrace them – could just be the biggest shift in the Australian travel landscape in the past decade. Just beyond the Blue Mountains, Leigh-Ann Pow says the revolution is clear to see.
Driving through the gates at Wolgan Valley there are no immediate telltale signs of revolution. No battlements. No upheaval.
Nothing but gorgeous as far as the eye can see: steep escarpments of red and russet rock that tower over the valley on all sides, their hulking forms thrown into stark relief by the infinite blue of the sky above; a painterly valley floor dappled with sunlight and indistinct cloud shadows that drift and play against the opaque hues of the ground and grass; dense clusters of dark green gums, seemingly impenetrable in their number and uniformity when viewed from afar.
Admittedly, it’s an unlikely setting for talk of revolution, especially when you factor baby kangaroos into the equation (they are everywhere). But make no mistake, Wolgan Valley has played a key role in the biggest change in travel in Australia in the past decade, a hearts and minds conquest over what we have always known and what we had accepted for ourselves.
Times were in Australia that when talk turned to holidaying at home we were faced with a set of choices that had been the norm for a long time. They involved seeing places but not really experiencing them; sun and sand of the white variety, not the red; motels and a caravan or two. If we wanted immersion, if we wanted depth, hell, if we wanted luxury we usually had to go overseas to find it.
But the arrival of luxury lodges like Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley (to give it its full name since it recently joined the ranks of the exquisite properties in the One&Only portfolio), with its experiential focus, its faultless eco credentials, its elevation of the Australian landscape, its all-you-need-in-one-perfect-package comprehensiveness, changed all that. And our maturing aspirations as discerning travellers made them a success.
So here I am, a relatively straightforward three-hour drive from Sydney, on the other side of the Blue Mountains. I’m in a Land Cruiser being ferried to the Main Homestead of the property, having left my own car – and, to a large extent, the everyday – at the luxe little gatehouse that perfectly sets the tone for the experience to come. On the way we get a potted history of the place from our driver, John: the valley has belonged to just two families since being settled in the early 19th century, both of whom have contributed various buildings to the landscape, many of which are still evident during the four-kilometre journey on unsealed roads.
Along the way it becomes evident why the area was such a drawcard for these early settlers, with its wide open spaces and two pristine waterways: the Carne Creek meets the Wolgan River on the doorstep of the resort. While the water in the river has a mineral tang to it, the creek is apparently 20 times purer than Sydney’s water. We are told there are platypuses in there, but John has never seen them.
This is my second visit to Wolgan Valley; my first was soon after it opened in 2009, after Emirates had spent $125 million building the 40 Heritage Suites, three two-bedroom Wollemi Suites, the expansive Wolgan Suite, the Main Homestead that forms the beating heart of the property, as well as stables, an infinity pool, spa, fitness centre and staff quarters.
The resort was built by the Dubai-based Emirates group (its roster of properties also includes Al Maha Resort & Spa in the Dubai desert) and no detail was too small for attention in the pursuit of perfection. These include a raft of best-practice environmental initiatives – rainwater collection, complete recycling of all domestic water, heat exchange technology to reduce electricity consumption and the use of solar panels for all hot water systems that resulted in it operating at the highest level of credibility and integrity. Indeed, Wolgan Valley was the first hotel in the world to achieve the internationally accredited carbon neutral certification from carboNZero when it opened, and has maintained the standard ever since.
Not a single tree was uprooted during the construction of the property, and there is a myriad of conservation projects being undertaken, such as the re-vegetation of wildlife corridors and the reintroduction of Wollemi Pine on the property. Produce used is both regional and seasonal, sourced from within 160 kilometres of the property.
I am interested to see if the exemplary levels of service, the real characterisation of a five-star property and the element that sets lodges like Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley apart from anything else on the hospitality landscape, is still as masterful as it was the first time around. And how the property itself has settled into the stunning 2832-hectare-valley setting (it is 26 kilometres long and seven kilometres wide), with its abundant native wildlife and indigenous sites of significance.
Upon entering the Homestead, resplendent in its rustic bush-luxe décor – there’s a soaring wall of reclaimed logs behind the discreet desks that pass for a reception area and lamps fashioned from bits of old farming equipment found on the property (reclaimed materials have been used throughout the resort for construction and decoration) – the welcoming smell of wood smoke from the giant sandstone hearths in the lounge and adjoining dining room fills the air.
The staff members are smiling and extremely attentive (without being obsequious), ushering us to a collection of overstuffed sofas and deep lounge chairs. They offer refreshments in front of the fire as the details of the property are explained: all meals are taken in this expansive yet gorgeously cosy hub, either upstairs (breakfast and dinner) or downstairs in The Country Kitchen (lunch); the bar is open from early until late as a place of gathering and repose, where a hand-picked selection of wines from all over the world are available, with a little extra emphasis on those from the nearby Mudgee, Orange and Hunter Valley regions.
Typical of a lodge experience, all meals and certain alcohol is included in the tariff, so there is no need to keep repeating your room number every time you sit down to eat or order a pot of tea to sip while reading the papers, or to book ahead for fear of missing out; the staff know how many guests are in residence and cater to them accordingly at all times of the day.
Room with a view
The initiation continues when I am shown to my room: the Heritage Suites fan out in a wide arc a short walk from the Homestead. Each one is more a home away from home than a room, with a wide front porch (complete with waiting mountain bikes) and a generous and incredibly chic living room on the other side of the stained glass-panelled front door. There are high cathedral ceilings, a double-sided sandstone fireplace, a king bed layered with softness that almost requires a ladder to climb into at night, a bathroom complete with rain shower and deep soaking tub with a picture window, and a walk-in robe that is seriously bigger than some apartments I have lived in in the past.
But the real luxury (apart from the whole suite that is) is in the myriad details. A backpack hangs in the wardrobe ready to be filled and taken on bike rides and hikes. Tucked away in a draw is a sketch pad and pencil, should the artist in you take inspiration in the sublime surroundings. There are binoculars on the mantelpiece to better see the brutal beauty of the cliffs at the very end of the valley gorge, carved by the Wolgan River aeons before.
The wide-screened back deck comes with not just outdoor furniture, but a duo of rocking chairs. The pièce de résistance, however, really is the glass-enclosed indoor heated pool accessed through a door off the living room. It is possibly the ultimate indulgence, but also a benchmark of the lengths this place goes to satisfy every possible whim.
Around the grounds
With what little formalities there are here taken care of, all that is left to do is to immerse yourself in the experience of Wolgan Valley. The sophistication of the activities offered to guests throughout their stay says as much about our own development as travellers as it does about the whole lodge ethos. There are no mass gatherings and regimented schedules: guests have the luxury of metering out their day at their own pace. You can take a bike ride or long walk whenever the whim strikes or go on an Aboriginal interpretive tour.
Or simply stroll around the evocative 1832 Heritage Homestead, which Emirates spent $2 million restoring, to get a sense of life lived here through time. There’s also trail riding on one of the resident mounts (Wrangler, Twiggy, Nero and Marshmallow among them), or you can leave a tangible legacy of your visit by doing hands-on conservation work.
And, of course, there’s always the option to just be: there is no noise to disturb, no interlopers to avoid (like most lodges Wolgan Valley is a guests-only option, with full house reached at just 100). There’s nowhere else to be but here, among the kangaroos and the wallabies and the wallaroos and the wombats and the swaying grass and the whispering trees.
A revolution has indeed taken place here, a quiet, luxurious shift in our collective perception of ourselves and our country. The level of service, the setting and the facilities of properties like Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley are world class, but they are also singularly and uniquely Australian. There’s no cultural cringe in the delivery, no embarrassment in their presence here. We have embraced the luxury of it all and are happy for the world to see this side of us too. And that is definitely something worth waving a flag about.
The details: Wolgan Valley
Where is it? The lodge is 190 kilometres northwest of Sydney in the Greater Blue Mountains; see wolganvalley.oneandonly resorts.com
Get there: It takes 2.5-3 hours to drive to Wolgan Valley from Sydney depending on traffic, or you could look into the helicopter transfer option.