Blue Mountains, NSW, travel guide: The hidden side of the Blue Mountains

In July 1904, the flamboyant Sydney retailer Mark Foy ushered guests into his fleet of shiny motor vehicles to make an arduous, snow-struck journey from Penrith to Medlow Bath to celebrate the launch of Australia's first dedicated spa resort.

The birth of the Hydro Majestic Hotel – originally known by the less romantic moniker, Medlow Bath Hydropathic Establishment – would usher in a golden age of tourism in NSW's Blue Mountains as the well-heeled sought respite from the city, taking the (imported) waters among the wilderness in fresh, eucalypt-infused air.

From the ultimate in luxury during the decadent 1920s, to intra-war honeymoon capital and family favourite in the '50s and '60s, the Blue Mountains has endured as Sydney's most beloved weekend escape, with evergreen attractions such as The Three Sisters and the Scenic Railway appearing in happy snaps for generations.

Foreign visitors also made a beeline for the rugged sandstone plateau on Sydney's western flank, dashing up the Great Western Highway for a micro-dose of scenery and an obligatory selfie before the legendary rock siblings before returning to the city, exhausted but satisfied they had "done" the Blue Mountains.

Of course, 2020's double-whammy of bushfires and the pandemic saw that bubble burst with a vengeance; but as domestic travel restrictions eased, Sydneysiders with itchy feet and cabin fever largely filled the international void, with weekend occupancy at least returning to capacity.

The challenge now is for businesses suddenly dependent on local clientele to keep their offerings relevant, to convince jaded visitors that there's more to the mountains than three jagged peaks and a whole lot of trees.

With more than a million hectares in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, there are plenty of hidden nooks to explore; and even in the main towns, new restaurants, cafes and interpretive tours promise a richer perspective on this ancient landscape.

At the risk of infuriating my fellow Blue Mountains long-term residents, I'm revealing some of my favourite attractions in my own local region – some new, others well-established but underrated – and all adding complexity to the visitor experience. Of course, other secrets are just too precious to share – you'll just have to discover them for yourself but these favourites will give you a head start.

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MEGALONG VALLEY WINERIES

Dryridge Estate - Blue Mountains Winery - Megalong Valley
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WHY WE LOVE IT If there are cellar doors in Australia with better views than Megalong Valley's Dryridge and Megalong Creek Estates, I'm yet to discover them. Gazing out over the vines, sipping on home-grown vintages as the sun illuminates the distant escarpment, is the perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.

NEED TO KNOW Dryridge Estate offers a "wine experience" – tasting eight of its current vintages as you soak up the incredible vista over a cheese platter or charcuterie board. Meanwhile, neighbouring vineyard Megalong Creek Estate features visiting food trucks to complement its rustic cellar door tastings of wines made by Mudgee's Jacob Stein.

HOW TO GET THERE Tackle the hairpin bends from Blackheath down into Megalong Valley, passing through temperate rainforest and farmland until you get to the Six Foot Track, where both wineries are located.

ESSENTIALS Both cellar doors are only open on weekends or by appointment. Dryridge Estate tastings are $10 a person; Megalong Creek tastings are free. See dryridge.com.au; megalongcreekestate.com. If you prefer not to drive, the Megalong Valley Shuttle does pick-ups from hotels in Leura and Katoomba. See fantastic-aussie-tours.com.au

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BLUE MOUNTAINS CULTURAL CENTRE, KATOOMBA

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Photos: supplied

WHY WE LOVE IT A cool, modern gallery space and an excellent, interpretive World Heritage exhibition offers respite from the elements while supporting the local arts community.

NEED TO KNOW Tucked away above the Katoomba Coles (go figure, as they say) and accessed from the main street via a laneway newly-adorned with murals, this regional art gallery deserves a higher profile. The gallery features major touring, regional and local exhibitions. Into the Blue explores the Mountains' World Heritage status with an impressive audio-visual display. The centre also features a café with regional produce, including greens grown in the centre's rooftop garden.

HOW TO GET THERE Enter from the laneway behind the supermarket, with access via an elevator or stairs.

ESSENTIALS An entry fee of $5 covers admission into the art gallery and Into the Blue, with proceeds assisting exhibiting artists – a small price to support the local arts community. See bluemountainsculturalcentre.com.au

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CENTENNIAL GLEN HORSE RIDING, KANIMBLA VALLEY

WHY WE LOVE IT Enjoy the unique perspective of the spectacular Blue Mountains escarpment through the ears of a horse, traversing open paddocks and tranquil trails brimming with wildlife from the saddle or a sulky.

NEED TO KNOW Blackheath's western escarpment plummets into another hidden valley, the stunning Kanimbla Valley. Based on farmland that has been in the Commens family since 1900, Centennial Glen Stables offers trail rides from one hour to a full-day, with 1.5 hour sunset rides the best way to capture the ever-changing palette of the sandstone escarpment. Non-riders can also learn to drive a sulky for a taste of life in ye good old days.

HOW TO GET THERE A 20-minute drive from Blackheath via a winding road through temperate rainforest, with the last four kilometres on a bumpy dirt road.

ESSENTIALS Trail rides with Centennial Glen cost $75 for an hour, with the Sunset Ride $120 a person. Stay in the self-contained accommodation at the neighbouring Woolshed Cabins - gorgeous architect-designed eco-cottages with uninterrupted views of the cliff-face and misty valley. See centennialglenstables.com; woolshedcabins.com.au

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TREAD LIGHTLY ECO-TOURS, MEDLOW BATH

WHY WE LOVE IT A bushwalk takes on new dimensions under the guidance of NSW's first Advanced Ecotourism accredited tour company, Tread Lightly.

NEED TO KNOW With a background in ecology, fire and rescue and sustainable tourism, life-long mountains resident Tim Tranter puts the environment under the microscope as he shares lesser-known trails in the Blue Mountains, with each tour custom-designed according to the desires of the client. A tour with Tim and his knowledgeable guides will enhance the wilderness experience for even well-versed bushwalkers, for immersion in the natural and indigenous history and geology of the World Heritage-listed region.

HOW TO GET THERE Tread Lightly operates walks anywhere in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

ESSENTIALS Tours with Tread Lightly are currently private to comply with COVID regulations, with a two-hour Wilderness Walk starting from $65 a person for a party of four. See treadlightly.com.au

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MOUNT VIC FLICKS, MOUNT VICTORIA

WHY WE LOVE IT An old-fashioned independent cinema located in a historic community hall, featuring art house movies served with choc tops and cups of tea in real china.

NEED TO KNOW This treasured Upper Mountains icon is a vestige of the golden age of cinema, capturing the intimate picture show experience of rural Australia's past. Heated in winter and air-conditioned in summer, it's the perfect place to ride out inclement weather (and in fine climes, too), with friendly snack bar staff known to walk the aisles during a heatwave, spraying a fine mist over grateful moviegoers.

HOW TO GET THERE Mount Vic Flicks is just off the main street of Mount Victoria in the old Community Hall.

ESSENTIALS Adult ticket prices are just $13 (almost half you'd pay at a city cinema). See mountvicflicks.com.au

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ARRANA, SPRINGWOOD

WHY WE LOVE IT A new fine dining restaurant in Springwood that fills the void in the Lower Mountains for a quality food experience.

NEED TO KNOW After serving his apprenticeship at the hatted Como in Blaxland and fine-tuning his skills at Qualia, the five-star Hamilton Island Queensland resort, 26-year-old executive chef Daniel Cabban has returned to create a menu inspired by the Blue Mountains landscape and incorporating indigenous ingredients. Two degustation menus are available – the seven-course Marri, and the four-course Darrbi, with vegetarian and vegan options available as well as wine pairings. Knowledgeable wait staff, a beautiful refit of a former gymnasium and unexpected flavours make for a worthwhile dining experience.

HOW TO GET THERE Arrana is hidden in an arcade on the main drag of Springwood – but don't let the humble location fool or deter you.

ESSENTIALS Arrana is open for lunch and dinner from Wednesday to Sunday. The Darrbi four-course menu is $100 a person and the Marri seven-course meal $140 a person. A two-course lunch special is $70 a person. See arrana.com.au

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WATERFALL CIRCUIT, LAWSON

BB0BDA Federal Falls Lawson Blue Mountains National Park New South Wales Australia 
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Photo: Alamy

Photo: Alamy 

WHY WE LOVE IT A family and dog-friendly trail that takes in four crystal clear waterfalls where you can dip your toes as you breathe in the rejuvenating negative ions.

NEED TO KNOW There are more than 10,000 permanent waterfalls in the Blue Mountains; some, such as Empress Falls and Minnehaha Falls, plummet into massive rock pools for those brave enough to take the icy plunge. This 2.5 kilometre circuit track in South Lawson – well off the tourist trail and beloved by locals – visits four terraced cascades: Adelina, Junction, Federal and Cataract Falls, which are particularly impressive after a bout of rainfall.

HOW TO GET THERE There are two starting points off Honour Avenue, Lawson, both with their own car parks.

ESSENTIALS The track can get muddy after rain, so be sure to wear suitable footwear. As it's on Blue Mountains City Council land, the track is also dog-friendly. See visitbluemountains.com.au; visitnsw.com

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CAFÉ 92 AT THE CONSERVATION HUT

WHY WE LOVE IT This humble cafe at the trailhead of Valley of the Waters in Wentworth Falls has not only one of the best views in the mountains, but also serves a halfway decent breakfast and lunch menu.

NEED TO KNOW The Conservation Hut has been a meeting place for bushwalkers since the 1960s when a conservation society took over a derelict tearoom as an education centre. Now located in a mud-brick building on National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) land and leased to a private operator, the café has stunning views across the misty Jamison Valley from an open deck, with a log fire to warm up after a brisk winter's walk. On Sundays from 1pm to 3pm jazz musicians compete with a chorus of cicadas

HOW TO GET THERE Park in the NPWS car park in Fletcher Street, Wentworth Falls.

ESSENTIALS Open from 10am-4pm daily. See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au

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LOOKOUTS WITHOUT THE CROWDS

WHY WE LOVE IT Step away from the selfie-snatching crowds to discover different perspectives of iconic landmarks.

NEED TO KNOW While the vision of The Three Sisters sunbathing in afternoon light from Echo Point is the Blue Mountains' most worthy attraction, did you know you can view the comely rear ends of the enchanted girls from Elysian and Olympian Rocks at Leura? Or for a more distant money shot of the Sisters and Jamison Valley, pull into Eagle Hawk Lookout on Cliff Drive. Other contenders for great views without crowds include Hargraves Lookout above Megalong Valley and Boar's Head for views across Narrow Neck Peninsula.

HOW TO GET THERE Follow the scenic drive along the southern escarpment of the Blue Mountains to discover lesser-known viewpoints.

ESSENTIALS Plan your visits for late afternoon or sunset for the best photographic opportunities. See visitbluemountains.com.au; visitnsw.com

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BLUE MOUNTAINS STARGAZING TOUR

WHY WE LOVE IT Pollution free skies and a lack of ambient light makes the Blue Mountains a dark sky wonderland, with a tour led by an astrophysicist revealing an infinite universe after dark.

NEED TO KNOW Enjoy the twin wonders of the sun setting over the Jamison Valley and the dazzling diamonds of the Milky Way on this engaging and educational tour, hosted by French astrophysicist Dimitri Douchin and his fiancé, Caroline Boulom. Peer through a professional grade telescope to witness details of planets, star clusters and the moon, while the timeless dance of celestial bodies is brought to life through ancient storytelling.

HOW TO GET THERE Sunset Stargazing tours are held at the lookout at Wentworth Falls Picnic Area from Friday to Sunday (weather dependent) and nightly during school holidays. Family Stargazing nights are also held at The Bunker Café, Leura, on Thursday nights.

ESSENTIALS A 90-minute Sunset Stargazing costs from $70 a person. Suitable for all ages. See bluemountainsstargazing.com.au

Julie Miller was a guest of Destination NSW and Blue Mountains Tourism. See visitnsw.com; visitbluemountains.com.au

FIVE BLUE MOUNTAINS ATTRACTIONS ALWAYS WORTH A VISIT

TAKE HIGH TEA AT THE HYDRO

Capturing arguably the best view in the mountains, this decadent high tea served in the Wintergarden Restaurant is worth frocking up for. See hydromajestic.com.au

SEE AND BE SEEN AT SCENIC WORLD

After confronting the loss of international visitors, this four-in-one attraction has successfully shifted its focus to local families with events like the recent Dinosaur Valley exhibition. See scenicworld.com.au

TACKLE THE GRAND CANYON TRACK

After a $4.5 million restoration (and flirting with a one-way system), this pretty trail descends into the cool, shadowy depths of a narrow canyon. See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au

GET INTO THE SISTER ACT

A new boardwalk and "Gathering Place" amphitheatre, where traditional owners can share the significance of country, provides a fresh take on the classic Three Sisters visits. See visitbluemountains.com.au

LIVE IT UP LILIANFELS AND DARLEY'S

Located on the grounds of the five-star Lilianfels, Darley's is Blue Mountains' most lauded restaurant. It doesn't disappoint with its period ambience, level of service and culinary excellence. See lilianfels.com.au

VIEWS CLUB: WHAT THE LOCALS SAY

JASON CRONSHAW, FANTASTIC AUSSIE TOURS

"My favourite Blue Mountains spot is Anvil Rock, an amazing rock ledge surrounded on three sides by the valley below. It has incredible 360 degree views, and at sunset you can watch the sun going down in the west as well as the amazing changing colours of the surrounding cliffs."

Jason Cronshaw is general manager of Fantastic Aussie Tours and president of Blue Mountains Tourism. See fantastic-aussie-tours.com.au

CARO RYAN, BUSHWALKING EXPERT AND AUTHOR

"The Federal Pass track to Leura Forest plunges deep into the Jamison Valley via a knee-jarring 1238 stairs. The call of lyrebirds draws you ever down through a rainforest rich with giant tree ferns and towering trees as the golden sandstone cliffs loom above."

Caro Ryan is the author of How to Navigate: The art of traditional map and compass navigation in an Australian context. See lotsafreshair.com

GREG MORTIMER, LEGENDARY AUSTRALIAN MOUNTAINEER

Sun rising over Hanging Rock, Blue Mountains National Park. Hanging Rock Blue Mountains
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Photo: Daniel Tran/Destination NSW

"One of my favourite spots in the mighty Bluies is Hanging Rock, a wild and uncompromising place at the dizzying edge of the upper Grose Valley and a favourite spot for locals on the weekend. The finger of gravity-defying rock hangs like the outstretched wing of a guardian angel over the World Heritage Area."

Greg Mortimer, along with fellow mountaineer Tim Macartney-Snape, was the first Australian to successfully summit Mount Everest.

GARY P. HAYES, PHOTOGRAPHER

"To get away from the tourist trails, I head to the tracks leading from Bells Line of Road to the northern rim of the mighty Grose Valley. The 20-minute Jinki Ridge trail winds through a fantastic pagoda-lined valley leading to perches above Dalpura Canyon with tantalising views into the Grose. In nine years doing this trail, I've never seen another soul!"

Gary P. Hayes runs his gallery and photo workshops in the Blue Mountains. See garyphayes.photography

BRIDIE CAMPBELL, BLUE MOUNTAINS CLIMBING SCHOOL

"My favourite hidden place is a lookout tucked away on the west side of Reid's Plateau above the Jamison Valley. You go through a rock arch to access it and it's hidden from almost all aspects, so you have to hunt to find it. The views are divine. Happy hunting!"

Bridie Campbell is a veteran of mountaineering and climbing trips in Europe, the US, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. See climbingschool.com.au

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