Out of the ashes ...
This time a year ago, the Blue Mountains were struggling to attract the usual big numbers that visit the national park and surrounding townships during the summer holidays. Operators suffered $100 million of losses as a result of cancellations after the devastating October 2013 bushfires.
Now, however, not only has much of the bush regenerated, if not totally arisen from the ashes, but new businesses have opened and grand old dames have emerged with stunning facelifts.
Every year 4 million people visit the Blue Mountains to explore the world-heritage-listed national park, eat in the many cafes and gourmet restaurants and stay in a variety of accommodation that ranges from cosy self-contained cottages and bed and breakfasts to stately Victorian-era hotels.
Blue Mountains attractions appeal to all-comers, from the adventurous to the luxury seekers, art-deco doyens and kids big and small who love toys and trains.
Here are a few highlights.
• The Carrington Hotel is a true Victorian-era icon. It has stood at the top of Katoomba Street since 1880, but despite its age, it's no fuddy-duddy. When the late Queen Mother checked into the hotel in 1927 (she was then the Duchess of York and on her way to open Parliament with her husband, the Duke), the management installed the latest chrome shower – in room 32. Today, the hotel has a gourmet delicatessen and wine store, Carrington Cellars, and a micro-brewery is opening next year. It's the venue for many festivals, including Lady Luck, which celebrates rockabilly and swing dancing, on January 16 and 17 (ladyluckfestival.com.au), and the Blue Mountains Ukulele Festival. carringtonhotel.com.au
• Everyone has ridden on the Scenic Railway at one stage of their lives, but not everyone has experienced the new train, installed last year at a cost of $30 million. With a flick of a switch, the seats on the world's steepest passenger train can recline to an even steeper 64 degrees (called the cliff-hanger) or stay at the old 52 degrees. For a $35 daily pass, you can ride the train and the glass-boxed Skyway and Cableway all day.
• During the fires, the entire contents of the Norman Lindsay Gallery were removed in three semi-trailers to a secret location. Safe and sound, Lindsay's prolific collection of famous nudes, his Magic Pudding drawings and other works are now back in situ at the Faulconbridge gallery. Tour the gallery and have lunch in the cafe. normanlindsay.com.au
• While most Sydneysiders have visited the Jenolan Caves, few may be aware that adventure tours are also available for those who want to abseil through them. Two-hour tours complete with guides, headlamps and ropes start at $100, while tamer walking tours to the spectacular Orient Cave or the Temple of Baal cost from $32. To top off the experience, stay at the stately old Caves House or the Gatehouse backpackers' accommodation. jenolancaves.org.au
The great outdoors
• Bushwalking is the most popular activity in the mountains, appealing to thousands of independent trekkers who head out on trails such as the Valley of the Waters walk (Wentworth Falls), the Grand Canyon (Blackheath) and the tough Federal Pass with the Giant Stairway (about 900 stairs) at Katoomba. Every year, however, about 130 people get lost in national parks in Australia, prompting the police and National Parks and Wildlife Service to set up the Think Before you Trek initiative, where you can register in advance and borrow personal locator beacons from the Katoomba and Springwood police stations and National Parks and Wildlife Service offices in Glenbrook, Blackheath and Oberon. A new app called Fires near Me is another useful tool for trekkers heading into remote areas. police.nsw.gov.au/community_issues/crime_prevention/trek; firesnearme.com
• Canyoning is the perfect summer adventure in the mountains, as the sport, which combines abseiling, swimming, scrambling over rocks and water jumps, takes place in the cool gorges and chasms, where wetsuits are essential attire. About 10,000 adventurous folk enjoy this activity from October to March, says Blue Mountains Adventure Company, one of four operators in the region. There are trips for all-comers, from beginners to the experienced at $195 for the day with lunch and equipment. bmac.com.au
• Thrill-seekers, including children from the age of five can swing through the trees on a selection of 21 flying foxes, balance on aerial wooden bridges strung between trees and test themselves on a variety of treetop challenges at the new Grose River Trees Adventure Park at Yarramundi, north-west of Springwood on the edge of the Blue Mountains National Park. treesadventure.com.au
The Blue Mountains is blessed with three chocolate-making businesses that whip up ganache, praline and melt-in-your-mouth delights on the premises and run chocolate-making classes.
• The Paragon Cafe, can rightly wear the mantle of icon, having occupied the same spot in Katoomba Street since 1916. Owner Robyn Parker initiated the chocolate-making business and sells a delectable range of treats in heritage packaging she has copied from the original boxes. facebook.com/TheParagonCafe
• Patrons at the Blue Mountains Chocolate Company can watch the onsite chocolatier at work preparing goodies behind a glass wall, while groups of four can enrol for finger-licking-good chocolate classes. The cafe offers snacks, cakes and hot chocolate and tastings of the huge range of chocolates. bluemountainschocolate.com.au
• Although it is a relative newcomer to the Blue Mountains, Josophan's Fine Chocolates has won so many awards that it has acquired legendary status among local devotees. Owner Jodie Van der Velden also runs truffle-making, dessert-making and chocolate appreciation classes from her Leura store, which sells a range of amazing chocolates in a blissful boutique. In 2014, she opened the Gingerbread House in Katoomba, to satisfy those who love edible gingerbread men and houses. Visitors can enjoy desserts and coffees and take part in gingerbread-making classes, which are a hit with kids' birthday parties. josophans.com.au; facebook.com/thegingerbreadhousekatoomba
• When it comes to quirky afternoon teas, Bygone Beautys Treasured Teapot Museum & Tearooms in Leura takes the cake. Once you've browsed through the boutique with its 350 different teapots (a new teapot museum with 5000 items is opening in May), settle in for a Devonshire tea or a three-tiered high-tea extravaganza, where a waiter in a top hat and tails rolls out a calorie-laden trolley to the strains of Land of Hope and Glory, as the British flag flutters – not exactly Blue Mountains PC, but fun! bygonebeautys.com.au
• The reopened Hydro Majestic Hotel is the talk of the town after its six-year $30 million restoration. The 54 rooms opened on December 23 with strong bookings for the much-loved 110-year-old hotel. If you can't snag a room, pop in for afternoon tea in the gorgeous Wintergarden with glorious views of the Megalong Valley, lunch in the Boiler House Cafe or check out the schedule of great Australian entertainment booked to perform in the gorgeous Majestic Ballroom. Rates begin at $179 for rooms without a valley view. hydromajestic.com.au
• The once fabulous Fairmont Resort has also emerged from a much-needed facelift with 212 renovated rooms, the new Terrace dining space with sensational views of the Jamison Valley and an all-day tapas menu in the Embers bar. The resort has been plagued by problems over the years, but the new owner, plastic surgeon and hotel entrepreneur Jerry Schwartz, is making more than cosmetic changes. The huge resort, which has superb views of Sublime Point and is adjacent to the Leura Gold Course, is ideal for families, as it has its own mini train, a merry-go-round, a two-lane bowling alley and Segway bikes. A 12 treatment-room day spa opens in autumn. fairmontresort.com.au
• Lovers of Blackheath and local residents, known as Blackheathens, will welcome the reopening of Parklands Country Gardens and Lodges, whose expansive 11-hectare gardens date from the late 19th century, when the property was first bought by John Pope, a partner in the famed Farmers department store. The property, three kilometres from Govett's Leap, was a guest house in the 1950s, and about 20 years ago was re-established as a lodge with cottages. Parklands now has seven garden cottages, each containing four hotel suites – two at garden level and two lofts – and a main building with a conservatory-style restaurant and a day spa. The design is hunting lodge meets weekend in the Hamptons and the gorgeous grounds and their rows of towering pine trees and kitchen gardens steal the show. parklands.com.au
An Aladdin's Cave for kids
Poking around museums and shops is not most children's idea of fun. However, when they are filled with toys, train sets, hula hoops and boxes of magic tricks, it's a different story.
• If you child dreams of joining the circus or pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Katoomba retailer Weirder the Better has all the gear. It sells circus props, from juggling balls and unicycles to fire twirling sticks, as well as great magic sets perfect for budding magicians. Owner and self-taught juggler and stilt-walker Graham Pinning is often on hand to give demonstrations. weirderthebetter.com.au
• Everyone, even rocker Rod Stewart, loves a model train set and Leuralla Toy and Railway Museum has plenty of locomotives, along with a train that chugs around the gardens in a recreated Swiss Matterhorn mountain scene. Inside the grand home, which was built by Doc Evatt, the third president of the United Nations General Assembly, are thousands of lovingly preserved toys dating from 1900 to 1960. There are teddy bears, miniatures of Tintin and Popeye, Meccano sets, old blocks and puzzles and an enormous collection of Barbie dolls. toyandrailwaymuseum.com.au
• If the toy museum has whet the youngsters' appetites, then there are shopping opportunities galore at Trains, Planes and Automobiles, an antique toy shop in Blackheath. Toys from Dinky, Matchbox and CMC (classic model cars) are all under one roof and online, along with tin soldiers and model plane and boat kits. antiquetoys.com.au
Roaring 20s and All That Jazz
Some say the Blue Mountains was Australia's first holiday resort. Wealthy Sydneysiders built opulent homes in the late 19th century and by the 1920s the region was gripped with the excitement of the Jazz Age. Today, many of the Art-Deco buildings have been restored are the perfect places to eat, sleep or kick up your heels.
• The big mountains event is the three-week Roaring 20s and All That Jazz Festival, from February 7 to 22. Held for the past five year, the popular festival begins with a huge Chaleston Dance Challenge in the Hydro Majestic Hotel grounds. Hundreds dress in flapper skirts and don boas to shimmy and shake their way into the Guinness Book of Records. Other festival events include champagne soirees, croquet matches, high teas and the Great Art Deco Ball. roaring20s.com.au
They built it so you will come
• The much-loved Paragon Cafe that holds vintage movie nights in its cocktail bar, when it is not serving lunches and afternoon teas. facebook.com/TheParagonCafe
• The Ballroom at the Carrington Hotel, a gorgeous dinner and dance venue. thecarrington.com.au
• The Avalon Restaurant in Katoomba, with its retro chic cocktail bar, in the old 1936 Savoy picture theatre. avalonkatoomba.com
• Silvermere Guesthouse in Wentworth Falls, with its Restaurant nineteen23 and pillared terrace. silvermere.com.au
• Leura's 1930s Everglades Gardens, built as a cool hill station and today perfect for picnics and serene afternoon teas. everglades.org.au
• The Gatsby cottage in Katoomba is perfect for weekends away, especially for those who want to frock up for a 1920s-themed dinner or birthday celebration. The three rooms are decorated with beautiful silks and satins, and a fabulous array of 1920s authentic and reproduction furniture, figurines and posters fills the cottage. mountainwhispers.com.au