Two hours out of Sydney and I'm a thousand metres above sea level and into another world of crisp air, giant ferns and cackling king parrots. Below me a shimmering blue wilderness merges into a distant horizon of thumb-sized skyscrapers. The petrol-fuelled hum of the city has been replaced with a shiver of gum trees and a slow-spreading mood of satisfaction.
I'm in Mount Wilson, pleased to be far from urban care yet within arm's reach of a coffeepot and slice of lemon polenta cake. A wilderness escape is dandy, but no point in abandoning civilisation's more pleasant trappings. I'm sitting out on the clipped lawns of Wildenstein Garden, at a table laden with rose-painted plates, vases of flowers and tiers of afternoon treats. Owner James Stein drifts by and asks if I'm enjoying the mismatched crockery and heavy, old-fashioned cutlery.
"My parents have an antiques business and collect these things, but don't you think we might as well just use them?" he asks agreeably. Indeed. The combination of antique plates and conversational chatter, flower-draped gardens and a view to plunging wilderness approaches my idea of heaven on a weekend getaway.
"How many people can boast a wonderful place like Wildenstein? We love showing it off to visitors. It's sublime and so peaceful," enthuses James as I gobble down smoked salmon, sprinkled with pink peppercorn atop little zucchini pancakes small enough to pop into my mouth in one quick explosion of flavour.
Between courses I'm shown around the rather grand garden, cleverly divided into intimate, romantic spaces that are often commandeered for wedding photos. A hydrangea walk leads to a fern grotto, clipped lawns give way to an Asian garden graced with one of Australia's largest bonsai. Further on, James proudly shows off three old banksias that were growing at Wildenstein when Captain Cook landed. By the time the tour is finished, I think I have serious hedge envy.
Birds twitter as I tuck into baby croques monsieur and quince tartlets piled with marscapone and hazelnuts. "You must come back," says James as I lick my fingers and reluctantly prepare to depart. "Every time you return to Wildenstein, things are different: seasonal food, different table settings, and of course everything in the garden."
Spring and autumn are Mount Wilson's key seasons, when its cool-climate gardens are at their most seductive. In spring, cherry trees and lilac blossom, and massed daffodils and tulips are odes to joy along garden footpaths. Azaleas and rhododendrons erupt in shameless Barbara Cartland colours. Autumn is even more outrageous, when Mount Wilson's maple, beech, linden and oak trees provide a fireworks-like explosion of red, yellow and orange.
Next day I visit Windyridge Garden, which dates back to 1877 and is planted with exotic trees such as a Pacific silver fir and Himalayan cedar. Superb autumnal species include ginkos, dogwoods, tupelo trees and copper beeches that upstage each other with flamboyant foliage. Some 400 Japanese maples are shaded from gold to apricot, crimson-red to ruby. At five acres, Windyridge isn't the biggest garden in Mount Wilson, but it might be the most concentrated experience, with its peony and rose terraces, wisteria pavilion, blue garden, white garden, cascading ponds and wanton colour.
"We aim to make this a soothing place. Bring your picnic or your book and chill out. Stay as long as you like," says owner Rodger Davidson, who admits with a laugh that he and his wife Wai don't relax much themselves. "A garden is a big commitment. We used to carry a bottle of wine out here and enjoy it, but I can't remember the last time we did that…"
Come as a visitor, though, and indolence of the sort rarely encountered in the city might overcome you. Windyridge is a garden in which to linger. Terraces provide pretty vistas over the whole garden, but the beauty is in the detail. Himalayan cherries have peeling bark that reveals beautiful copper bands on their trunks. Antique French benches have cast-iron swans for arms. Lizards scamper on worn walls, and ginko trees are a trumpet-blast of yellow happiness.
Take a break in Mount Wilson with family or friends, because this destination is about shared relaxation. The village is perched on a basalt ridge above national park and feels like a place at road's end – which it is. It doesn't have a restaurant, petrol station, ATM or parking-ticket machines. It has a lopsided, wooden colonial-era church and mossy tombstones. Bungalows crouch behind supersized hydrangea bushes, providing a homeliness that contrasts with hot blue forest and cool, damp gullies. Take a walk through the Cathedral of Ferns, admire the view from Wynne's Rocks Lookout, then garden-hop the afternoon away.
Gardens there are aplenty, privately owned but seasonally opened to the public. Mount Wilson developed in the mid-19th century as a hill retreat whose rich volcanic soils and cool climate lured homesick, garden-loving British immigrants. They built summer houses and planted gardens with English oaks and beeches and the botanical plunder of empire: magnolias, tulip trees, rhododendrons. They lined Mount Wilson's roads with stunning avenues of elm and lime and cherry.
I'm tucked into Koonawarra bungalow on Dennarque Estate, one of Mount Wilson's original properties, completed in 1879. The 25 acres of gardens surrounding the sandstone mansion were first laid out under a director of Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden and boast fabulous old trees. Only in-house guests have access to its lawns and coppices and Asian-style garden. In the evening, as dusk creeps over the Grose Valley, wombats shuffle through the undergrowth.
Next morning, I pull open the curtains to see spiders' webs twinkling on bushes and the Blue Mountains' ridges receding between a gap in the eucalyptus trees. Bees buzz as I have breakfast on the mossy terrace, and I'm in no hurry to go anywhere.
Dennarque Estate has three standalone, self-catering cottages. Of these, Koonawarra sleeps six and costs from $600 per night, with a two (and sometimes four) night minimum. Phone 0431 454 343, see dennarque.com
Mount Wilson has no restaurants, but Blackheath is a 30-minute drive. Try Vesta Blackheath for scrumptious food from a 120-year-old brick oven, including fall-apart lamb shoulder, venison and roast pumpkin. Takeaway meals are available. Phone 02 4787 6899, see vestablackeath.com.au
Windyridge Garden is open daily. Entry $10. Phone 02 4756 2019, see windyridge-mtwilson.com
Wildenstein Garden is open seasonally, and caters afternoon teas, parties and weddings. Entry $8. See bluemountainsweddingvenue.com.au
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Australia Public Relations and Dennarque Estate.