But there's nothing here. We've just been deposited into a small, paved parking area in what seems to be the middle of nowhere, a couple of hours north-west of Sydney. There are worse places to be, granted. The landscape, nestled within the World Heritage-listed Greater Blue Mountains, is stunning. Horses play in a distant paddock. A hawk soars above sheer cliffs in the distance under a blinding blue sky. The valley we are in manages to look both majestic and achingly pretty at the same time. We are about to spend a weekend at one of Australia's most luxurious destinations, Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley, but as far as the eye can see there is no shelter, save for the small structure our parking attendant emerged from.
The mystery is solved in an instant with the arrival of Land Rovers. They swallow us and our luggage and transport us along a winding dirt road further into the valley's heart, to deliver us – we hope – into the lap of luxury.
But what is luxury exactly? The first taste of it on this weekend, for me, at least, is just minutes after we take off. We pass Carne Creek – a pristine, drinkable stream that is home to platypus and a cacophony of frogs. One reason why this water is so clear is because of the strict environmental policies at the resort that takes up just 1 per cent of the 2800-hectare carbon neutral conservatory it sits on. In short, the water is worth bottling, and Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley has done just that, as well as using it to help distil its new gin (more on that later).
This is a hint of an introduction into the type of luxury Wolgan Valley espouses. With opulent getaways now offering no end of pillow menus, spas, butler services and infinity pools – it all comes to nought if the spaces you luxuriate in detract from the environment around them. After all, you can't build what is now one of the biggest drawcards for high-end travellers – pristine nature. Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley has taken this knowledge and run with it. Guests at the resort's 40-plus villas in this valley hugged by jutting steep cliffs can enjoy their own private pools, highest-quality finishings and furnishings and gourmet food and wine in the knowledge that just as much concern and care has gone into the land they are nestled in as has to their comfort.
Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley is classed as the first carbon-zero certified resort in the world. It has encouraged wildlife habitats, kept plastic at a minimum, planted native species and partnered with Western Sydney University to collect and collate data on the area's abundant wombat population. Speaking of the elusive wombat, they are not so elusive here and can easily be spotted across the property, as can mobs of kangaroos and wallabies.
But back to the not-so-basics. Our first stop is for a pre-lunch welcome drink at the hub of the resort, the elevated and elegant Homestead with a wraparound verandah that showcases spectacular views of the valley. This huge eating and meeting space is light-filled yet solid, with stone fireplaces, timber-beamed ceilings and leather couches. Historical artefacts and locally hewn artworks are sprinkled throughout, offering great talking points and a nod to the resort site's former life as a cattle property.
To one side of the Homestead is a showstopper pool, big enough to not feel crowded, even on a day as hot as this one. I notice a family group spanning at least three generations at one end – something that is not unusual for Wolgan, despite its steep rates and luxury aesthetic. It is as much an attractive place for family groups wishing to reconnect as it is for couples celebrating anniversaries and honeymooners. Christmas is always solidly booked, we're told.
We enjoy shared plates of seasonal produce in the Country Kitchen eatery, including herbs and vegetables from the resort's garden. Like the fine dining Wolgan Dining Room, the food here concentrates on the local, the seasonal and, where possible, organic produce. A taste? Butternut pumpkin with black cod tortellini or salted white bait fritters.
It's tempting to linger but we are keen to see our villas. At first I'm disconcerted at the uniform nature of the layout, with the villas all lined up in neat, equidistant rows. But the interiors of these deceptively simple-looking Federation-style wood and stone buildings are a revelation. My one-bedroom Heritage Villa has a huge TV lounge area, high four-poster bed plump with pillows and beautiful linen, a walk-in dressing room, a desk, fridge, bar, coffee maker, double-sided fireplace and a shower skylight to thank the heavens. There are Sodashi bathroom products, complimentary Wi-Fi, mountain bike, binoculars and 24-hour room service.
But the showpiece is the individual enclosed bigger-than-plunge heated pool that can be opened to the elements via sliding netted doors. A verandah with discreet fly-screened doors also runs around the entire back of the villa, and I immediately spot a wallaby. It strikes me that I've never seen Australian wildlife so front and centre in such a luxurious setting before. There's nothing quite like watching a mob with powerful bucks and tiny joeys in the morning and at dusk from your comfortable poolside verandah with the provided binoculars.
I have a quick dip but then have to tear myself away for the Land Rover is here to take us back in time, or, more specifically to the original farmhouse on the estate, the 1832 Heritage Homestead, named after the year it was built.
Charles Darwin apparently was a guest of former owner William Walker and while it's noted that he was impressed by the valley's amazing rock formations, I reckon he must have also been fairly gobsmacked by the local platypus.
The small cottage stood neglected for years and was declared condemned until former Australian of the Year, the late Ian Kiernan, helped restore it. It now offers resort guests the chance to see snapshots of the area's Indigenous, settler and farming past. A quick visit here is a must – even just to get some tiny sense of how brutal life must have been for those settlers. The heat, the flies, the corsets ... Back then, luxury could no doubt have been defined as an electric fan, a fridge and simple underwear – at least for the women.
The 1832 Heritage Homestead's nearby original cottage garden has also been restored and the plants there are used in the resort kitchen, under the direction of executive chef Nancy Kinchela.
The year 1832 has also lent itself to a new venture by the resort, in partnership with the Stone Pine Distillery in Bathurst – gin-making. The aromatic gin, distilled as mentioned with that pristine Carne Creek water, has a deep connection to the local land as it is also infused with seven native botanical ingredients, including the local lemon-scented tea tree.
We sample that plant for ourselves late in the afternoon as we head out in the Land Rovers again for a wildlife safari. The birdlife is abundant and our driver, a Kiwi, proves to be a wealth of knowledge on Australian fauna.
We again spot wombats ambling around, wallabies grazing and mobs of kangaroo families who I've now decided I recognise.
We pull up at a shady gazebo and suddenly there are white tablecloths, champagne glasses and beautiful cheeses.
That's right – this is five-star Australiana.
FIVE OTHER THINGS TO DO AT WOLGAN VALLEY
A range of horses are available to take you on winding trails through bushland. Expect to see a lot of wildlife as you ride, accompanied by magpie warbles and kookaburra cackles. Look out for wombat holes.
It's not all about the gin. The bar staff here not only know their stuff, they are charming, helpful and eager to share their knowledge. Ask them to make you a cocktail you've never had or get them to teach you how to whisk up a winner.
When in Rome ... head to the One & Only Spa. Bookings essential.
This is one of the best areas on the planet to see the night sky, after all, the Parkes Observatory is not that far down the road. Wolgan guides can point out constellations and the odd shooting star as you survey the heavens.
Take a guided walk through creeks, eucalypt woodlands and craggy rock faces and organise a gourmet picnic to stop yourself fading away. The verdict from those returning from a mountain scramble was unanimous – gobsmacking views. This is pristine bushland so you must stick to trails and with your guide.
Luxury Escapes has a special Wolgan Valley offer available for travel from March this year to January 31, 2020, from $4599 for three nights. See luxuryescapes.com
Jane Richards was a guest of Luxury Escapes and Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley.