At farm gates and kitchens along the Bells Line of Road, Angie Schiavone enjoys fresh produce and warm hospitality.
According to at least one tourism website, the small number of traffic lights along Bells Line of Road is one of the drawcards of the Hawkesbury Highlands: a route from Sydney to the central west without the potentially frustrating stop-start drive along the Great Western Highway. It's true, but there are plenty of reasons to stop along the way.
Bells Line of Road was named for Archibald Bell jnr, who, in 1823 at the age of 19, marked out the route with the help of local Aboriginal people. The winding, hilly road cuts through beautiful bushland, gaps in which reveal grand views of the vast Blue Mountains National Park. The mountains are a particularly intense shade of blue on the day we visit the area and more than once we mistake the eucalyptus haze for an immense body of water.
The Hawkesbury Highlands is known for its abundance of orchards and farms , and our first stop is Grose Vale's Enniskillen Orchard. While many orchards only open seasonally or on weekends, this family-owned farm welcomes visitors daily, year round, selling fruit and veg from the local area (if not their own) and pantry products such as Wirranina Ridge apple cider vinegar, which is healthy and great with olive oil as a salad dressing.
The peak harvest month is January, when stone fruit, apples, figs, passionfruit and more are in season and available at Enniskillen and beyond. Consult the Hawkesbury Harvest website (hawkesburyharvest .com.au) to plan a farm-gate itinerary.
As well as being fruit-bowl friendlier, the warmer months are also more conducive to outdoor activities: bushwalking in the national park and canoeing or kayaking the Grose River. Billycarting down the grass hills at Kurrajong Heights sounds like fun, too (see grasskarts.info) but as dark clouds roll in and the wind picks up, we're craving the great indoors and coffee.
Kurrajong seems an ideal location, since it's an Aboriginal word for an endemic tree, the seeds of which were supposedly once roasted and used as a coffee equivalent. At Kurrajong Village, on Old Bells Line of Road, there are a couple of cafes, including Sassafras Creek. It doubles as an art gallery and gift shop and has seats on a balcony with big green Sydney Basin views. The menu is driven by local produce and has innovative fare, such as coriander-and-cauliflower pancakes with beetroot puree and roasted truss tomatoes. Coffee is from Bills Beans of Orange.
While this charming village is relatively quiet today, thousands of people are expected to gather here for the 14th annual Scarecrow Festival on October 23-24. There will be live music, magic shows, stalls and a competition to build a scarecrow. Entries will be displayed at Memorial Park on the Sunday at The Spectacle of Scarecrows for a people's choice vote.
A few more twists and turns along Bells Line of Road is Kurrajong Heights, where we plan to return for dinner at the historic Lochiel House, and a little further still is the apple-centric village of Bilpin.
The Bilpin Fruit Bowl is worth a visit for its apple pies and fresh fruit and veg (and kooky kids' playground). And the Apple Bar satisfies with pizza straight from the wood-fired oven or, since it's a bar as well, you can stop here for a liquid lunch.
With the rain holding off, we continue our drive along Bells Line of Road towards Mount Tomah Botanic Garden. The cool-climate garden, open daily, covers 28 hectares and feature more than 5000 species of plants. The view from the garden's visitor centre and restaurant, both overlooking this landscaped beauty, is spectacular but we're more stunned by the sound of the wind tearing through the trees, the roar making us feel as though we're at sea, in the centre of a perfect storm. Every now and then a mass of rust-coloured leaves comes hurtling across the grass towards us like a flash flood. The sight is strangely exhilarating.
After loitering for a while, discussing how distinctive the gardens would be in each season (you could come four times a year and have completely different experiences each time), we return to Bells Line of Road and head for dinner.
In 1825, Lochiel House cottage served as the area's first inn. It still glows with hospitality (and a welcoming, roaring fire) and its adventurous menu travels the globe for inspiration but sticks mainly to local produce.
The highlights are a steamed dashi custard entree with scallop tartare and fresh truffle and a dessert of warm chocolate mousse with orange-blossom ice-cream to follow.
Once we've finished our meal, we're reluctant to leave - not because of the long trip home (it's actually not far) but because we're so content. With such diversions, a few more red lights mightn't be a bad idea.
Bells Line of Road begins at North Richmond, about an hour's drive north-west of Sydney. Mount Tomah is a further 45 minutes in the same direction.
Staying and eating there
Rustic Spirit ''boutique woodlands sanctuary'' at Glenara Road, Kurrajong Heights, has guest rooms and private cottages with breakfast included. Cottages cost from $190 midweek and $295 on weekends. Phone 4567 7170.
Sassafras Creek, 83 Old Bells Line of Road, Kurrajong (4573 0988), and Apple Bar, 2488 Bells Line of Road, Bilpin (4567 0335), are excellent casual dining options.
The highlight is fine dining at Lochiel House, 1259 Bells Line of Road, Kurrajong Heights, named best regional restaurant in this year's Good Food Guide; phone 4567 7754.
Things to see and do
The Kurrajong Scarecrow Festival is held on October 23-24, see www.kurrajong.org.au.
Visit orchards and buy fresh fruit and veg. Enniskillen Orchard is open daily, 753 Grose Vale Road, Grose Vale (a short detour off Bells Line of Road). Phone 4572 1124.
Shoot down the grass hills in a billy kart at Grass Karts, 1376 Bells Line of Road, Kurrajong Heights, open Saturday and Sunday 10am-4pm (or for group bookings), from $20, bookings essential. Phone 4567 7260.
Visit Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, Bells Line of Road, via Bilpin, open daily, entry $5.50 for adults, $4.40 seniors and concession, $3.30 for children. Free guided tours most days at 11.30am. Phone 4567 3000.