A gossamer rain is falling as I walk through a temperate rainforest, its gentle percussion on my jacket accompanying the crack of whip birds and the tamborine rustle of leaves. I have been invited to stroll mindfully on this trail, observing the details of the forest; the mosaic of green in the dappled light, the coarse bark of a coachwood tree where cicada exoskeletons cling; a tangle of vines, looped like dropped stitches in Mother Nature's giant scarf.
This awakening of the senses is part of a guided Nature Therapy Walk at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden in Mount Tomah, exploring what the Japanese call shinrin-yuko, or forest bathing. Popularised during the 1980s when corporate stress was at its most destructive, this preventative health practice is designed to connect participants with the environment, unlocking the power of nature to refresh, de-stress, rejuvenate and heal body and mind.
With 1 million hectares of aromatic World Heritage-listed wilderness, what better place to unwind and restore than the Blue Mountains? The healing qualities of the fresh air and open spaces of this raised sandstone plateau on Sydney's doorstep was recognised more than a century ago, when entrepreneur Mark Foy opened Australia's first health retreat, a hydropathic resort which later became known as the Hydro Majestic.
Similarly, Katoomba's Carrington Hotel also spruiked the benefits of "taking the waters", with owner Sir James Joynton Smith modernising the hotel in the 1920s with the addition of the Carrington Baths, "..the equal of which is not to be found in the Commonwealth … constructed on the most modern hygenic principles including the needle and the Zistz showers…"
While therapeutic bathing – a tad ambitious considering there were no natural sources of thermal waters in the Blue Mountains – soon fell out of fashion, the region has remained synonymous with wellness pursuits, with yoga studios, day spas and retreats today as much a part of the landscape as craggy rock formations and mist-filled valleys.
Fortunately, the seemingly torturous therapies of the hydropathic era – needle showers, inescapable steam boxes, ascending douches, bowel kneading and electrode rectal faradisation – have these days been replaced by gentler, more soothing and replenishing spa treatments such as massages, facials and body polishing.
With an emphasis on locally-sourced organic products, the Blue Mountains spa scene lures hens groups, couples celebrating a special occasion and those who just want to spoil themselves with some pampering. Day spas attached to hotels include Spa Sublime adjoining Mountain Heritage Hotel, Ubika Day Spa at the Fairmont Resort and Lilianfels Day Spa, which services the Escarpment Group of hotels but is also open to the public.
Located in the grounds of the grand summer house of Sir Frederick Darley, sixth Chief Justice of NSW, the Lilianfels spa offers a lush menu that includes specialised massages, hydrating facials and exfoliating body treatments. Its signature 75-minute Spa Renewal treatment includes a hot stone massage, body scrub and polish using delicious Blue Mountains-made Akorah essential oils, a warm body cocoon and a leave-in hair treatment, leaving you feeling silky and refreshed from top to toe.
Unlike many other so-called "wellness hubs", the Blue Mountains yoga scene is casual and unpretentious, less about designer active-wear and trends, and more about a genuine quest for health and inner harmony. Attracting locals of all ages and fitness levels, classes at Living Day Yoga in Katoomba are led by native New Yorker Jill Rosenthal Day, her inspiring practice integrating flow and strength with the healing qualities of music and chanting.
At Wentworth Falls' Happy Buddha Retreats, a tranquil bushland location, a tinkling waterfall sets the scene for multi-day retreats that invites participants to surrender to the serenity as they explore yoga, meditation and journeys into inner joy. The former conference centre – boasting modern motel-style rooms and a sparkling swimming pool – finds that elusive balance between comfort and connection, gently restoring alignment and clarity to both body and mind.
Built in 1901 as a health retreat for city dwellers seeking respite in the fresh mountain air, the gracious Federation-style Kurrara Guesthouse in Katoomba has returned to its roots with the addition of a spacious, light-filled yoga studio in its backyard. Current owner and qualified instructor Evelyn Taylor leads therapeutic yoga classes for both locals and visitors, as well as offering minimum two-night retreat packages that include accommodation and yoga sessions.
As well as pioneering the Blue Mountains wellness industry, Mark Foy also championed another enduring signature of the region – paddock-to-plate dining. In 1904, he bought farmland at the base of the escarpment where the Hydro Majestic perches, growing vegetables and meat for the hotel's dining room that were ferried up the cliff-face by an ingenious flying fox contraption, ensuring the produce was fresh daily.
Today, a focus on regional produce – including Central Ranges and Megalong Valley wines – is the hallmark of well-regarded Blue Mountains restaurants including the hatted Darley's at Lilianfels, Leura Garage, the evergreen Silks (now at Wentworth Falls) and newcomer Arrana at Springwood; while cool cafes such as Kickaboom in Glenbrook and its sister café in Katoomba, Frankly My Dear, impress with innovative brunch menus with an Asian twist.
Vegans are catered for at Leura's Little Niche Nosh and Basil Nut Café in Katoomba; while organic produce is readily available at the popular Blackheath and Springwood Farmers Markets and in wholefood grocers such as Blue Mountains Food Co-op, the community-run Lyttelton Stores in Lawson and Springwood's 1Two1.
But arguably there's no more nourishing balm for mental health or physical wellbeing than being out in nature, exploring one of the myriad tracks through the Blue Mountains wilderness. Some of the most popular walks lead to beautiful waterfalls, such as the canyoning favourite Empress Falls and the plummeting Minnehaha Falls in Katoomba; while the local secret Waterfall Circuit in Lawson takes in four pretty cascades. And with the negative ions created by falling water said to boost serotonin levels, the Blue Mountains is, indeed, a happy place.
The writer is a Blue Mountains local and was also a guest of Destination NSW.
Accommodation at Lilianfels starts from $349 a night. See lilianfels.com.au
Retreats at Happy Buddha Retreats start from $349 for two nights, including accommodation, meals and workshops. See happybuddharetreats.com.au
Yoga retreat packages at Kurrara Guesthouse are priced from $425 for a minimum two nights. See kurraraguesthouse.com.au
A one-hour Morning Flow yoga session at Living Day Yoga costs $17 (casual rates). See livingdayyoga.com
The 75-min Spa Renewal Treatment at Lilianfels Day Spa costs $195. See lilanfels.com.au/day-spa/
Nature Therapy Walks at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden are held monthly on a Saturday, see bluemountainsbotanicgarden.com.au/What-s-On/Nature-Therapy-Walks for details. Cost $35.