Heritage in stone

Helen Anderson finds conservation and luxury combined in a stunning location.

A young Charles Darwin was fascinated by Wolgan Valley. The English naturalist spent only a day here, on January 19, 1836, but his observations and speculations about the formation of this startling landscape filled pages of his journal. Could its "perpendicular cliffs" have been created by erosion? He dismisses the idea but the question bugged him. He collected rock samples and later took part in a jolly kangaroo hunt on horseback.

What the young man saw on his ride that day is remarkably similar to the view that today's curious naturalists and pleasure seekers heading to theWolgan Valley Resort and Spa lay eyes on: "... Grand valley surrounded by Cliffs of Sandstone ... like a bay with arms; so precipitous tho with [labour] in one spot a cattle track has been [cut] down ... with stupendous vertical sides." The drive from Sydney early on a Friday afternoon, parts of it slower than a horse ride, is through the seemingly perpetual roadworks of Blue Mountains towns, past Lithgow and the Angus Place Colliery and then into untamed bush. There is no warning at a point I later learn is called the Gap for the sudden appearance of a canyon so deep and wide its dimensions can't be comprehended. At this point you're on the rim at a wedge-tailed eagle's altitude. From here a dirt road corkscrews down to the floor of Wolgan Valley. After another 13 kilometres of dirt road, some of it corrugated, you park at a gatehouse and you're driven the last few minutes through a shallow creek, past a dam and windmill, to the resort homestead.

From its wide verandas beyond the lobby, the view takes in the property's original 1832 homestead, saved from ruin, which is where Darwin might have taken tea after a hard day's fossicking.

A certain level of luxury is expected for $1950 a night for a couple, but what will well-heeled Australian and international travellers find here that is unforgettable? It's worth pausing on this veranda, because many of the elements that make Wolgan Valley Resort unique are already apparent. Its history is evident in that old homestead, the framed photographs beside the dining room, the star pickets used in the landscaping - 40,000 were salvaged when all the fences and cattle were removed. There's the elegant, clubby ambience of the homestead, created by soaring ceilings, two massive sandstone fireplaces and expanses of locally milled and recycled timber.

All the furnishings are bespoke: lots of leather and rich wood refined by velvet and some fascinating signature pieces - a livestock water trough transformed into a dramatic light over the table in the private dining room; an axle and Driza- Bone lamp near the marble bar.

The refined rustic theme is interpreted in the 40 individual suites beyond the homestead, with more wood, leather and sandstone in a doublesided fireplace. I wondered if my low threshold for Australiana might be breached but I find the expressions of settler vernacular are intriguing rather than cliched.

When I arrive there are well-dressed groups having pre-dinner drinks in the bar and, beyond one of the huge stone fireplaces, couples are being seated for a five-course dinner in highbacked chairs and banquettes. What vaults the menus beyond what one might expect is the commitment to seasonal regional produce - almost everything is sourced within 180 kilometres - and a lightness of touch overseen by executive chef Dwane Goodman. The first produce from a market garden created beside the 1832 homestead should be ready soon. A similar philosophy has guided the wine list - among 300 wines, 200 are Australian and 80 from nearby Mudgee, Orange and the Hunter Valley.

The architecture, the history, the food - all are unique. What makes the place unforgettable is the location. Wolgan Valley is as distinctive, as heroically "Australian", as Uluru or Kakadu, yet it is only three hours' drive from the nation's biggest city and even Sydneysiders (like me) are largely unaware of its existence. Beyond the resort's homestead veranda is a grassy valley fringed by stands of eucalypt and native cypress, entirely surrounded by a majestic amphitheatre of sandstone cliffs. Wherever you are in the resort - in the central infinity pool, in your suite's lounge room, in your private plunge pool, reclining in the Timeless Spa or riding horses or mountain bikes - you'll find yourself studying the play of light and cloud across this muscular landscape. Most of the daily activities follow this cue: horse riding, bushwalks, Aboriginal interpretive walks, mountain biking, wildlife spotting, stargazing.

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The resort opened in October and when I visit seven weeks later there are still a few wrinkles being ironed out. I am swiftly shifted between suites when a water pump fails. Throughout I find intelligent service from a not-too-young team of Australian and international staff, most of whom live on-site, well groomed in R.M. Williams business gear (that is, not the stockyard look).

Emirates Hotels and Resorts spent six years and $125 million developing the resort, set between two national parks and beside a World Heritage area, and there's plenty of evidence of uncommonly deep pockets and commitment to the professed principles of conservation and environmental sustainability. The homestead, one of the oldest buildings in the state, was rescued at a cost of $2.2 million. There are traditional windmills and solar panels, rainwater tanks and heat-exchange technology used throughout the resort to minimise its footprint. Of the 1618 hectares owned by Emirates, 2 per cent is occupied by the resort and the rest is being actively protected and regenerated as a wildlife reserve.

On a drive around the property, a cheerful wildlife guide named Jo shows us a feral-proof fence enclosing 50 hectares. Once the plot is free of pests it can be used for breeding programs for threatened species. (Even Darwin was worried about the future of the region's wildlife in the 1830s.) Jo points out some of the 20,000 trees already planted, including a grove of Wollemi pines struggling in the heat. On a bike ride one morning I wade through Carne Creek, running with clean, drinkable water; nearbyWolgan River hasn't fared sowell and there are plans for extensive revegetation of its banks and wetlands.

Jo pulls up behind a bluff.We follow her up the hill and find a wooden platform at the top with just-poured flutes waiting. I survey a scene that a young Darwin and generations of cattlemen looked upon, now without the livestock and with a new homestead and necklace of bungalows on the valley floor, dwarfed in a cathedral of stone.

Helen Anderson stayed courtesy of Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa.

FAST FACTS
Getting there Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa is about three hours' drive from Sydney Airport, beyond the Blue Mountains. The final 26 kilometres are well-maintained gravel road.

Staying there There are 40 individual suites, all with private pools. A onebedroom suite costs $1950 a night for two, including all meals, selected wines and two guided nature activities a day. Packages of three nights for the price of two are available until December 23. Children are welcome, though facilities for children under eight are limited. Phone 6350 1800, see wolganvalley.com.

Winter Escape offer: Spend two nights at Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa for $1365 a person (based on two sharing). Offer is valid between 1st May and 31st August 2010.

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