Tops Organic Retreat, Cobark review: Tread lightly

Close to nature ... a loft cabin set in the bush.
Close to nature ... a loft cabin set in the bush. 

Read our writer's views on this property below

Garry Maddox enjoys an eco escape without sacrificing the good things in life.

An eco-resort, I understand. It's all about minimising the impact on the environment, giving up a few luxuries in return for being close to nature.

But the label "organic resort" invites a few questions. Will those of us who lead lives filled with vices - red meat, alcohol, meals not rigorously sourced from organic markets - feel welcome? What will we have to give up? And will it be a relaxed weekend away or a schedule of organic-lifestyle lessons?

After more than four hours on the road from Sydney to Barrington Tops, the welcome at Tops Organic Retreat could not be friendlier. And it includes a complimentary glass of organic wine from Canowindra or - a miraculous sight on a warm afternoon - Coopers Sparkling Ale.

Without so much as being asked for our booking details or credit card, we're walked to a wooden cabin overlooking the bush.

Called a "king spa loft cabin", it's compact and comfortable. Downstairs, there's a lounge room with a log fire, polished wooden floorboards, a sofa-bed, TV with DVD and a spacious bathroom with a spa that extends the organic theme. It has "purifying shampoo and conditioner", "organic freshener" and - a personal first - "handmade goat's milk soap".

Under a peaked roof with exposed beams upstairs is a queen bed with mattress made from organic fibre and, through the windows, an uninterrupted view of the bush.

The Tops has four of these cabins, plus four timber cottages each sleeping up to eight people, set on 800 hectares that include more than 50 kilometres of walks and 20 kilometres of creek. There's a swimming pool, tennis court, organic garden, bikes and a duck pond with a couple of canoes. A dingo cross - a family pet belonging to the resort owners, John and Sharini Kumarage Sergeant - wanders around cheerfully looking for someone to throw a ball.

The Tops was formerly the Hookes Creek Forest Resort. The Kumarage Sergeants, who owned an organic shop in Rozelle in the 1990s, bought it from the receivers and restyled it as a 4½-star resort, refurbishing the buildings with environmental paints and organic oils.

They live by organic principles, so they grow some produce and source much of the rest locally, avoiding artificial fertilisers and pesticides and using eco-friendly cleaning products. The food is touted as one of the attractions.

At dinner, the resort's restaurant offers two courses for $45, or three for $55 (half price for children), with a choice of two dishes for each course. Sharini is a chef specialising in Sri Lankan cooking. I choose an entree of Marook Farm fetta with olives and baby salad leaves and mustard dressing, a main of Sri Lankan red-prawn curry and rice and German-style caramelised apple cake for dessert. Rosnay organic wines from Canowindra cost $25 a bottle.

So far, there has been nothing to give up. That continues after dinner in the large lounge with small libraries of books and DVDs, board games, toys and a piano. While other guests sit by an inviting open fire, talking and listening to Bob Dylan, we play pool. Who knew that eight-ball was part of an organic lifestyle?

Next morning, waking to the sound of bellbirds and with light filtering through a stained-glass window, breakfast proves even better than dinner. It was supposed to be three dishes for $25 (again, half price for children) but it expands to orange juice, a banana and raspberry smoothie, muesli with apple slices, bacon and eggs with home-made tomato sauce and toasted zucchini slices and - on the vague chance you're still interested in eating - fruit toast with organic jam.

A day of bushwalking reveals the full charm of Barrington Tops: fresh air and bush so secluded and pristine that we don't see another human for hours, nor a cigarette butt, soft-drink bottle or plastic wrapper. On a cooler day we might have spotted some of the wildlife said to live in the mountains - including brumbies and koalas - but we see only brush turkeys and eagles in the distance, although there were leeches - you're advised to bring salt for de-leeching - and a black snake slithering off a higher track. From a lookout, the valley with the resort far below looks stunning.

For those not so keen on bushwalking, there is horse riding nearby - $50 for a two-hour ride. And if you want a more economical alternative to the restaurant, the cottages have kitchens.

Even though the resort has that tennis court as well as games in the lounge, when the swimming pool isn't so appealing in the cooler months, it could do with a few more outdoor activities for children. But its strengths as a getaway are the quiet bushland location, tasty and healthy meals, friendly atmosphere, comfortable accommodation and, this time of year, log fires.

Even for those of us with a few vices, it's easy to pick up some pointers about healthier and more sustainable living. Still not convinced about goat's milk soap, though.

Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.

VISITORS' BOOK

Tops Organic Retreat

Address 384 Jems Creek Road, Cobark.

The verdict A secluded upmarket getaway in a stunning bushland valley with good-quality organic meals.

Price Loft cabins cost $275 a night at weekends; $250 a night midweek. Self-contained cottages cost $250 a night at weekends; $225 a night midweek. Minimum two-night stays for cottages.

Bookings Phone 6558 5544, see thetopsretreat.com.au.

Getting there About four hours' drive from Sydney. Take the F3 Freeway to the end, follow the signs to Taree, turn left at Bucketts Way, then left again at Gloucester. Follow the road for another 42 kilometres.

Perfect for Bushwalkers, outdoorsy families and, in winter, weekends relaxing by the fire with a book.

Wheelchair access No.

While you're there Go bushwalking, play tennis, ride bikes or horses, go birdwatching or fish for trout.