Lilianfels Blue Mountains Resort and Spa, Katoomba review: Into the spirit

Read our writer's views on this property below

In a 'celebration of single malt', Lance Richardson catches a flight of whisky at Lilianfels.

The difference between a good hotel and a great hotel has nothing to do with the presence of a rooftop pool. It can't be measured by the "brand name" of an in-house chef. Rather, it's about intuitive satisfaction. A great hotel gives you things you wanted before you knew you wanted them.

For example, I'm sitting in the lounge of Lilianfels. It is mid-winter but a mild day, the sun shining brightly outside. And yet, despite the weather, snow streams fluently past the window. Why? Snow makes a winter's breakfast more enjoyable, the reasoning goes; the croissants seem warmer, the coffee more fortifying. Therefore hotel management will make it snow with help from technicians and expensive machinery hidden in the hotel awnings. You didn't know you wanted it - then general manager Heinz Javier Colby claps his hands. Voila! The snow you actually wanted all along.

It is this constant drive to surprise and outpace expectation that has prompted a series of recent initiatives at Lilianfels, the luxury Katoomba resort housed in a country mansion on the edge of the Jamison Valley.

Across the road is Echoes, the 14-room hotel with priceless views of the national park from every room. A short drive away in Medlow Bath is the most famous of all Blue Mountains establishments, the Hydro Majestic. These three hotels are the recent acquisitions of a consortium of Sydney-based hotel investors, led by George Saad, and all three are the sandbox of Colby.

Seated opposite, he beckons the waiter and introduces me to another of his recent managerial edicts. Designed to complement the popular high teas and Darleys - the hotel's two-hatted restaurant in an adjoining building - "a celebration of single malt" once again pre-empts any conscious wish and gives me the whisky flight I never knew I secretly always desired.

A vintage trolley chatters across the room. I'm presented with the option of a food-whisky combination - a stilton, perhaps, or Talisker whisky alongside "unctuous chocolate slice with caramel and toasted hazelnut".

The opportunity to compare top-shelf tastes in a single sitting makes neat whisky the best choice (and no ice, by the way, which constricts a whisky's character). The waiter slides a custom-crafted oak tray on to the table with three glasses.

First on the left is Sullivan's Cove Double Cask from Cambridge in Tasmania, homage paid upfront to an expert Australian distiller. It is surprisingly smooth, commanding attention in the form of a spreading warmth throughout the body. Australia is a relatively new player on the whisky scene but if this is any indication, it's off to a fine start.

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Colby, meanwhile, points out some of the other changes to the hotel edifice. A new executive chef, Carl Middleton, is fresh blood for the vegetable patch at Darleys. There's a pending extension to the gymnasium and a private-cellar dining experience planned, a new wine bar with outdoor decking as well as Friday-night cocktail parties, with invitations circulated to all the rooms in a gesture of old-school charm.

My second glass, quickly taken, holds Highland Park 18-year-old from the Orkney Islands in Scotland. This is a rock star in the whisky world, the "best spirit of the year" according to the US top whisky expert, Paul Pacult, a title he's bestowed on the whisky for five consecutive years. The burnt toffee is unmistakeable; I instantly want an entire bottle.

Conversation shifts to the Hydro Majestic. This is the hotel where Australia's first prime minister, Edmund Barton, died in 1920. This is also the hotel where a bell once rang before dawn to warn consorting couples to return to their separate bedrooms. Currently, it lies empty on a precipice overlooking the Megalong Valley, sealed from visitors since 2008. The hotel is in council-approval stage and work is set to begin on the heritage-listed building in the next few months. Its restoration and new construction will emphasise a history of luxury and relaxation (it was once a hydropathic sanatorium called the Belgravia Hotel). With 115 rooms, 85 of them new, the Hydro is being talked up as a landmark five-star property due to open late next year. The grand dining room will become a focal point for conferences and weddings and "the good old days" of the early-1900s returns with lavish balls. Not forgetting its roots, eight spa treatment rooms will be built from scratch, alongside a lap pool overlooking the drop into the valley. Darleys will get a new sibling, too: a restaurant called Flying Fox, named after a supply transport line that once stretched into the Megalong.

My final whisky for the day is Laphroaig Quarter Cask from southern Islay, also in Scotland. "On the way to the big lasting finish," declares the menu description, "it seems as if someone is bringing a fresh batch of orange and hazelnut biscuits, baked in a peat kiln." Hyperbole aside, the whisky features an earthy undernote that's unmistakable. Satisfied well beyond my expectations, I hear more about the Hydro Majestic's own "big lasting finish" and propose a toast to its success.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Blue Mountains Tourism and Tourism NSW.

FAST FACTS

Lilianfels Blue Mountains Resort and Spa is in Katoomba, about two hours' drive west of Sydney. Rooms cost from $250 midweek and from $556 on weekends.

"Luxury whisky flights" are served daily in the lounge until the end of August. A flight costs $21 for three 15ml tastes. The "ultimate winter indulgence", comprising a single malt tasting and fine-food combinations, costs $19. Phone 4780 1200, see www.lilianfels.com.au.