Read our writer's views on this property below
Sean Mooney and family frolic with alpacas on a farm-stay that goes off track.
Blank faces. That's all I see as I'm telling the family that our weekend jaunt will incorporate carnivorous vegetation, South American camelids and red rattlers. I rethink my sales pitch and explain that we'll be seeing insect-eating plants and woolly creatures called alpacas and that we're staying in an old train carriage.
Blankness turns to disbelief but the car is packed and the engine is running, so everyone decides to see what way dad's madness lies.
The drive to the Blue Mountains via the Bells Line of Road is a popular day trip for many Sydneysiders. You head up the twisting tarmac, past the village of Kurrajong and into the orchards of Bilpin.
Then you scoff apple pie and buy a bucket of whatever fruit is in season before continuing on to Mount Victoria or Lithgow.
I had never thought of staying overnight in the Bilpin area until I heard that an alpaca farm was offering accommodation in refitted train carriages. How could you go wrong with a family trip combining exotic livestock and renovated rolling stock?
Little more than an hour after leaving home we arrive at Madison's Mountain Retreat, a 14-hectare property bordering the Wollemi and Blue Mountains national parks. We pass vocal goats and a road gang of seemingly suicidal chickens on the tree-lined driveway but there's no sign of the farm-stay's 50 or so alpacas. I explain to the kids (after a surreptitious Google) that they're closely related to camels.
The reception building sits high on a hill overlooking sloping pastureland and a very full dam. As we check in, John - one of the property's caretakers - points out a lone alpaca by the water's edge, staring intently into the distance. Rocket Man is the farm stud and, while he can't see the flock of females over the hill, he sure can smell them. He's a prodigious worker, we're told, who just lives to spread the love.
Later we meet some of his progeny. Running in the "mums and bubs" paddock are Willow, Sage and Eagle, with their long eyelashes and lanky limbs. Then there's Hollywood, an alpha alpaca who spends her time stealing the others' feed. Baby Harvard is putting up a fight as the farm manager, Wendy, attempts to separate him from the herd in preparation for his appearance at the Hawkesbury Show. Wendy asks me to hold his tail to quieten him down, so I tentatively grab Harvard's little woolly stump and hang on. It does the trick: he just stands there giving me the look you'd expect someone to give a stranger who's holding on to their behind.
A jet-black neutered male named Edward aims swift kicks at anyone who gets too close to his favourite females. But if Ed is confused about his role as the only bloke in this feminine flock, we soon discover that Chuck the "chicken-duck" is in altogether another league. Hatched and raised by one of the farm chickens, Chuck the duck doesn't realise he can swim and fly. The chooks eye him warily as he splashes about self-consciously in a driveway puddle.
Our home for the night is train carriage C3251. It was built at Walsh Island Dockyard in 1928 and is one of two red rattlers positioned on the edge of the farm. They would inspire flashbacks in anyone who lived in Sydney before 1993, when the last of these steel-bodied beasts were withdrawn from service.
Thankfully, the carriages have undergone several refurbishments since becoming accommodation, the last one in 2009.
I ask the owner, Debbie Redelman, how bits of old train ended up on her property, expecting to hear that they were dumped when a local line was closed. I'm told that they were bought from the Rozelle Rail Yards, then hauled up the mountain by the property's previous owners.
Each carriage can sleep up to five people in a bedroom and on sofa beds in the living area, and each has a bathroom and kitchenette. A couple of airconditioning units help keep the metal hulks habitable in the heat, when air circulation through those little sliding windows is inadequate. Oh, how we would have loved some aircon in these carriages when we were riding them to Central on hot afternoons in the '80s.
We spend the rest of the day exploring the property - from a big metal shed containing farm machinery, beanbags, a TV and a table tennis table to the games room with pool table, small book and DVD library. We swim in the heated 18-metre indoor pool and huge adjoining spa, then play tennis in front of a crowd of uninterested alpacas. We're joined for a quiet evening of dinner and DVDs by flying insects and a few spiders. The absence of insect screens and a few creepy-crawly-friendly spots in the carriage mean that this is part of the package. Those who don't fancy this kind of company might want to choose one of eight cedar cottages at Madison's.
Next morning we cook the breakfast hamper's eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon and sausages, and head further up the Bells Line of Road to the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden at Mount Tomah. This is where the carnivorous plants appear, as we embark on the self-guided Attack of the Carnivores family quest. Wandering through the gardens in the midmorning before the day-tripping crowds arrive is great.
We return to Sydney with a box of Venus flytraps, a bag of new-season Fujis, an apple pie and fistfuls of alpaca wool. The kids ask if baby Harvard will be all right in a paddock without his mum. My wife says she hopes Chuck finds his wings. And I'm wondering if Rocket Man is keeping his lusty vigil down by the dam.
Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.
Madison's Mountain Retreat
Address 1880 Bells Line of Road, Kurrajong Heights.
The verdict A fun farm-stay that is surprisingly close to Sydney.
Price Train carriages cost $250 a couple a night; $50 each for additional adults, $20 for each additional child. Price includes a breakfast hamper and use of all facilities.
Bookings Phone 4567 7398; see madisonsretreat.com.au.
Getting there The retreat is 85 kilometres or about 90 minutes' drive from central Sydney on the Bells Line of Road and about 20 kilometres from North Richmond.
Perfect for Small groups, couples and especially families.
Wheelchair access One cabin is wheelchair accessible.
While you're there Order a woodfired pizza and cocktails at the Apple Bar (applebar.com.au) or expect fine dining at Lochiel House (www.lochielhouse.com.au) — both are nearby. Enjoy fresh berries, pies and fruit ice-cream at Tutti Fruitti, across the road from the retreat (tuttifruitti.com.au). Join National Alpaca Week activities on the property on May 12-20.