"I felt like I was in an Agatha Christie novel when I stayed there," a friend offered, as I prepared to travel to Mount Lofty House in the Adelaide Hills.
"Which novel?" I asked in return.
"You'll see," she replied.
And so I did, as my car rolled slowly up the oak-shaded Mount Lofty House drive and the vision of a grand house with an imposing, slightly ominous, gothic stone porch unfolded. "And Then There Were None," I whispered to myself.
That was where the cloak and dagger ended, though. It soon gave way to something more akin to modern romance, for love is in the air at Mount Lofty House, and not just because of the many weddings that roll across its manicured lawns.
Since my well-read pal stayed here, freehold owner David Horbelt and his business partner Malcolm Bean have lavished TLC on the historic place regarded as a South Australian state treasure, modernising and revitalising, and thankfully, injecting good cheer into any creepy corners that may have existed – or were imagined by my friend – prior.
The new Mount Lofty House is symptomatic of what's been happening in the Adelaide Hills generally this past decade, at least, in tourism terms. In times gone by, mention the region to many non-South Australians and the first thing to spring to mind might have been Hahndorf, the Prussian Lutheran settlement turned dinky village where tour buses disgorged day trippers for souvenirs and heritage sweets. Now, the hills are alive with young sophistication, from the majestic cellar door restaurant of Pike & Joyce, to the small wonder that is local and sustainable the Summertown Aristologist. Even touristy Hahndorf has gone hip, with great coffee at the hole-in-the-wall Caffiend and cool gin cocktails at Ambleside Distillers.
With all that going on, the owners of Mount Lofty House were wise to do what they needed to in order to ensure their jewel kept its place in Adelaide's shining geographic crown.
South Australian settler, Arthur Hardy made his fortune incrementally across law, pastoral and quarrying activities in the greater Adelaide region after freely migrating from Yorkshire. In the 1850s he purchased 400 hectares on Mount Lofty, where he built Mount Lofty House as a summer home, and in which he eventually chose to reside fulltime. Here, the family planted the first vineyards in the hills – perhaps because Hardy was fond of partying. On a grand scale. It was that propensity which saw the dynasty eventually sell the manor. They lived well beyond their means.
A series of ownerships and inhabitants, including a commune in the 1970s, led to 1983, when the property was decimated in the Ash Wednesday bushfires. Stirling architect Ross Sands stepped in and spent three years rebuilding Mount Lofty, with meticulous use of historic records, adding an extra accommodation wing and turning it into a Relais & Chateaux-affiliated boutique hotel and function centre.
The current owners came into the picture in 2009 and since then have incrementally renewed it, the culmination of the process being the $6-million, just-completed reworking of all accommodations. It's now in the M Gallery by Sofitel group.
An affiliate of one of the world's largest hotel groups (Accor) it may be, but Mount Lofty House is fervently focused on maintaining the country house vibe of its founding purpose. It's a fine line to walk: combining unique history and heritage with a relaxed, modern welcome. Mount Lofty does it well. It's all in the detail: polished woods are offset by original and striking local art, twinkling crystal vases of fresh flowers and cute clusters of ornamentation in surprising corners. Grand high ceilings and lavish fireplaces are illuminated by expansive windows affording jaw dropping panoramas.
And that's where there's another romance going on – between house and location. Mount Lofty seems to lovingly gaze out at the marvellous landscape that surrounds it and the landscape looks adoringly back, admiring the sentry-like presence of the grand estate, visible from near and far across the hills.
Ensconce and admire or venture out and explore – the relationship between the property and region encourages guests to do both.
And speaking of romance – if you don't like it, you should probably stay elsewhere (or go on weeknights, though that's no guarantee of avoidance). On our two-night stay, we encountered four different weddings being held on the premises.
Fortunately, the nuptial festivities are corralled (for the most part) on the lawns, and then in purpose-built function spaces down the hill from the main house. After guests are seated for the ceremony, that leaves the atmospheric Arthur Waterhouse Lounge at the front of the original homestead (helmed by a brilliant mixologist) and the three-hatted Hardy's Verandah Restaurant to the rest of us.
The Mount Lofty reconfiguration sacrificed several accommodation rooms in the main house to create HVR, as it's known, an intimate restaurant owning the main house's best views. It's a degustation-style affair that welcomes you with chunky bread and Vegemite-infused butter, a homely and kind of fun touch which sets the tone of relaxed refinement. But the main dishes are exceptionally clever, put together with eye-popping plating panache.
Other than the degustation, there's an option to choose your own dishes from a four-course menu: I order pork belly, then trout and hesitate, asking the sommelier if that's a bad succession. He shrugs – it's your meal, do what you want, no judgment – and sets about suggesting wines for me, a pinot noir with the pork, a Nebbiolo with the trout. It works.
There's a young local lovely and her beau at the next table, non-house guests, both drinking bourbon and coke with their meal and on the other side of me, a sophisticated male couple from Melbourne celebrating a birthday and ordering all the best wines from the renovated and extensive underground cellar which you can visit for tastings. Both are comfortable.
Retiring for the evening into one of the hotel's 32 guestrooms is an exercise in stately grace. A four-poster bed, velvet furnishings, a marble bathroom (but alas, in mine, no bath) and sumptuous carpets court delicious doziness, the wedding hoop-la of the evening only slightly audible through well insulated walls.
The breakfast buffet is an extravaganza of local produce and house-made goods, with plenty for the gluten-frees. (It's here you'll rub elbows with the wedding parties again, only this time, in subdued recovery mode.)
For peace and quiet, head down to the estate's original stables which have been converted into the luxurious Stables Day Spa – though it will soon be replaced with a better facility, in line with the opening later this year of a 14-suite separate property, Sequoia at Mount Lofty House. The wedding-phobic can take heart – it promises six-star standards, seclusion, spectacular views and not a bouquet toss in sight.
FIVE THIS TO DO AROUND MOUNT LOFTY HOUSE
Mount Lofty's own gardens deserve a stroll, if for nothing else than to behold the giant sequoias that withstood the horrific fire of 1983. The 97-hectare Mount Lofty Botanic Garden is adjacent and is particularly stunning in autumn. See botanicgardens.sa.gov.au
You don't need to go far to find amazing cellar doors, ranging from the venerable, such as Shaw + Smith or Penfold Magill Estate, to the small and cool, such as family-run, organic CRFT, where they spin vinyl and offer a flight of their amazing pinot noirs for $15. See shawandsmith.com; penfolds.com; crftwines.com.au
Walking and mountain biking trails abound around Mount Lofty House. The property's luxury concierge, Jessica Bibbo, has penned a booklet for guests, outlining the best, whether you're keen to work up a sweat or stroll and spot koalas.
The Adelaide Hills area is a haven for artists. Hahndorf in particular has a concentration of galleries showing local works. The art of Stephen Trebilcock graces the walls of Mount Lofty House. He is represented by the Hill Smith Gallery in the Adelaide CBD. See hillsmithgallery.com.au
Don't miss lunch at the Summertown Aristologist, where in addition to a beautifully prepared, simple repast, you can sample some of Basket Range vintages which are revitalising the Adelaide Hills wine scene. See thesummertownaristologist.com
Qantas flies several times daily to Adelaide from major Australian airports. Hire a car at Adelaide Airport for the trip to Mount Lofty (about 30 minutes) and for regional touring. See qantas.com.au
Rates start from $349 a night mid-week for a classic room. See mtloftyhouse.com.au
Julietta Jameson travelled as a guest of Mount Lofty House.