Four million visitors a year can't be wrong: the Blue Mountains region is not only a must-do on international visitors' agenda, but also the most popular day and weekend getaway for nature-loving Sydneysiders.
The rugged beauty of this 1 million hectare, World Heritage-listed wilderness is legendary, its blue haze and golden light inspiring writers, artists and dreamers since Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, led by accommodating Indigenous guides, hacked their way across the heavily forested range in 1813.
"The boundless champaign burst upon our sight, Till nearer seen the beauteous landscape grew, Op'ning like Canaan on rapt Israel's view," wrote the lyrically minded William Wentworth, the youngest (at age 22) of the three explorers, in his poetic retelling of the adventure.
Even naturalist Charles Darwin – a well-travelled chap who experienced many mind-boggling destinations during his voyages – was quietly impressed by Wentworth Falls in 1836, writing that the view was "exceedingly well worth visiting".
But once you've gazed upon the gossamer waters tumbling into the abyss, battled the selfie-wielding hordes at the Three Sisters and ridden the world's steepest incline railway at Scenic World, there's no reason to crawl back down the Great Western Highway to the concrete lowlands.
Delve a little deeper into some of the Mountains' lesser-known attractions, and you'll discover some unexpected and intriguing vistas, from secret swimming holes accessible only by foot, to deserted lookouts where your sole companion may be a soaring eagle.
HIT THE HEIGHTS
Surprisingly, the highest lookout in the Mountains is not at Echo Point or Govetts Leap, but west of the main range just south of Lithgow. At 1100 metres above sea level, Hassans Walls offers a mesmerising overview of the escarpment and the gorgeous Hartley Valley nestled at its feet. A recently constructed boardwalk provides easy access; take time to soak up the solitude, silence and ever-changing tapestry below. See lithgow-tourism.com/hassans
From the car park at Evans Lookout at Blackheath, descend 350 metres into a Jurassic world of rock overhangs, misty waterfalls and towering tree ferns on the Grand Canyon circuit. It's at least five degrees cooler on the valley floor, so this winding, three-hour trail is a great place to beat the summer heat, despite the energy expended on the challenging ascent. This must rate as one of the most spectacular walks in the Mountains and definitely worth the heart-pumping effort. See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/Walking-tracks/Grand-Canyon-track
FROM BETWEEN A HORSE'S EARS
When it comes to covering ground on bush trails, four legs are better than two. Centennial Glen Stables, in the Kanimbla Valley at the base of the Shipley Plateau, offers guided trail rides from an hour's duration to full day treks to neighbouring Megalong Valley. They also have sulky rides for non-riders, a unique experience harking back to pioneer days. For a truly memorable experience, book a 1½ hour sunset ride through rolling pastures to watch the rugged sandstone escarpment glow iridescent under the setting sun. See centennialglenstables.com
OVER A GLASS OF WINE
Craving a winery experience but don't have time to travel to the Hunter Valley? Just two hour's drive from Sydney is Dryridge Estate, spectacularly located on the Six Foot Track in the Megalong Valley. Tastings of its extremely drinkable range, from crisp rieslings to a smoky shiraz, are available on weekends at the hilltop cellar door, with conversation and cheese platters courtesy of convivial owners Simon and Emma, and ball-fetching entertainment by George the Groodle. See dryridge.com.au
Take a trip back in time at the cutest old-style movie theatre in NSW. In the historic community hall at Mount Victoria, the cinema snack bar itself is a joy, with old-fashioned Choc Tops and $1 cups of tea, served in real china. Priced at just $12 for new release and art house films, it's a bargain feelgood cultural experience. See mountvicflicks.com.au
The much-hyped re-opening of the Hydro Majestic in 2015 was a boon for the Blue Mountains, as Sydneysiders flocked to ogle the $30 million renovations of this gracious old lady and indulge in High Tea. The history of the first luxury hotel in regional NSW, recalled amid tales of innovation, folly, narcissism and of course, hauntings makes for a fascinating half-hour tour, courtesy of the knowledgeable concierge staff. And at just $10, it's the cheapest way of getting a sneak peek at renovations as well as the stunning views over the Megalong Valley. See hydromajestic.com.au
AN INDIGENOUS VIEW
The Blue Mountains is the traditional home of the Darug and Gundungarra people, a place with a deep spiritual resonance that is rich in Dreamtime stories. At the Waradah Aboriginal Centre, at Echo Point near the Three Sisters (whose names, incidentally, were Gunnedoo, Meehni and Weemala), families can learn about this living culture, with traditional performances, explanation of traditional tools and instruments and storytelling enriching young minds. See waradahaboriginalcentre.com.au
On a scorching summer's day, there's nothing more satisfying than floating in an icy river or a natural waterhole. There are several great spots in the Mountains to cool off; most involve a bit of effort to get there by foot. The Coxs River tumbling over smooth boulders beneath the Swinging Bridge on the Six Foot Track is a personal favourite; while Jellybean Pool at Glenbrook, in the Lower Mountains, is popular with families due to its accessibility just a 500-metre walk from the Glenbrook Information Centre.
FINGER PICKING GOOD
Apple picking during the autumn season (February-May) has become a popular activity at Bilpin, on the western fringe of the Mountains via the Bells Line of Road. You can take that one step further, plucking your own fruit from the trees at Shield's Orchard before tasting varieties of cider straight from the barrel at the brand new Hillbilly Cider cellar door when it opens in March. Their range, made from 100 per cent crushed fruit, includes the award-winning Sweet Julie (made from a new variety of apple originating at Shield's Orchard), which was awarded Best in Class at the 2016 Australian Cider Awards. See hillbillycider.com.au
ROOM WITH A VIEW
"Jaw-dropping" is the only way to describe the view at Allview Escape in Blackheath, where the rugged cliffs of the Grose Valley and Pulpit Rock seem close enough to touch. There are two self-contained holiday homes that sleep up to 11 people on this eight-hectare bushland retreat, with guests having private use of the estate during their stay (including plucking vegies straight from the organic garden.) Rates start at just $300 a night – incredible value for one of the best private views in the region. See allviewescape.com
Julie Miller is a Blue Mountains local and travelled at her own expense.