The Desert Gardens Hotel is one of several accommodation options at the Philip Cox-designed Ayers Rock Resort. These range from the super luxurious (Longitude 131) to the basic (a camp site). They might offer different things but they all have one thing in common: no shortage of guests. The resort is enjoying a booking boom, sparked, many claim, by the success of the Field of Light art experience, which has triggered a mass case of FOMO among those who intend to visit the Rock "one day".
So great has been the influx that former staff quarters at the resort have been refurbished and reopened as the new Lost Camel Hotel. This more edgy accommodation is designed with independent travellers in mind and is built around a central swimming pool. Back at Desert Garden, families and small groups abound – but in a good way. The nature of the resort means most guests are out and about during the day so it never feels crowded, and finding time for a solo swim in the pool is not a problem. The hotel is surrounded by a native bush garden that attracts incredible bird life. Free guided garden walks by an Indigenous guide are available, as are didgeridoo lessons, cultural and astronomical talks and art classes at the nearby resort Town Square. An Indigenous artist in residence can be found painting on-site. Don't miss the revolving exhibition space at the hotel's Amguli restaurant.
There is only one Uluru and it's on Desert Gardens' doorstep: i.e. 20 kilometres away, but visible from some lucky guest rooms. The Ayers Rock Resort was built just outside the boundaries of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park just before Uluru was handed back to its traditional owners. It is the only place for visitors to stay and it speaks a lot of 1980s foresight that it was fashioned in such an unobtrusive and lasting way, with its muted buildings and distinctive sails. But then, it's hard to stand out when you have such star attractions on your doorstep. It only takes one visit to Uluru to realise this is the country's spiritual heart. Whether you experience Uluru with empty rock pools yet surrounded by greenery as I did, or gushing with waterfalls as it was just a week later, it will move you. A short drive away is the equally mind-boggling Kata Tjuta, aka The Olgas.
The hotel was refurbished last year and my room is simple but pleasing to the eye. Some of the 218 rooms at Desert Gardens have views of Uluru or the extensive native gardens, but mine looks out to a lawn area that is a bit of a guest shortcut, so the thick drapes come in handy. A mesmerising green and grey dot painting dominates one wall and muted ochres, greens, oranges and reds are splashed on the cushions and bedspread. There are two queen-size beds, a large TV, easy chair, free-Wi-Fi, minibar (alcohol only available with room service), good-sized bathroom, cotton-weave robes, a safe, tea and coffee and a small patio with chairs. There are a couple of brief power blackouts during my stay – more exciting than inconvenient. But hey, we are in the middle of a desert.
From the Pink Pepper Gin cocktail made with native pepper berries on arrival to the whole fried barramundi in tamarind on leaving – food and drink options are exceptional. The hotel has two restaurants: Mangata Bistro & Bar, which offers a buffet breakfast plus a range of meals showcasing native ingredients for lunch and dinner, and Amguli Grill & Restaurant. This is the resort's top a la carte dining experience. We also sample some dishes at the Ikari restaurant, in the resort's sails in the desert hotel. Some standouts? Extra large and fat NT oysters and special signature from across the resort, including Bugs with Compressed Desert Lime and Ice Plant. Coming to Uluru is not complete without partaking in either the Sounds of Silence outdoor dinner across from the Field of Light; or sitting at a different table under the stars at the exclusive Tali Wiru dinner on a dune with spectacular views of Uluru at sunset. Tali Wiru is a one-off: French champagne and the haunting sounds of a didgeridoo greet you as the sun disappears behind Uluru. You'll find yourself whispering with a maximum of 19 other diners as you eat, stare at the dazzling skies, then eat some more. The pressed wallaby with fermented quandong, pomegranate, ancient grains, and hung yoghurt is a knockout.
Uluru and Kata Tjuta are what you are here for but there are many ways to experience them. Walk, cycle or even Segway around the 12 kilometre base of Uluru. Enjoy a helicopter flight over Uluru and Kata Tjuta, or ride a camel to the base of the rock at sunset to be greeted by (more) champagne and the extraordinary Field of Light experience. Or have a picnic breakfast after watching the sun rise from a platform overlooking Uluru and Kata Tjuta, then head through the whistling winds that helped shape the massive 36 domes of The Olgas. All of these experience and excursions and passes to the National Park can be organised when booking through the resort. When to go? Summer can be very hot (surprise, surprise) and did someone mention flies? But September-October and March April are great times to visit. To ease away any effects of the desert sun, try the hotel's on-site red Ochre Spa.
Never seen Uluru and want to get there hassle-free with the family and do your stuff? Desert Gardens is your place. But it's equally a great pick for those seeking the exceptional (perhaps a night enjoying the Tali Wiru experience and a helicopter flight over Uluru), who just want a chilled out place to hibernate to after being on the go all day. This resort ensures that those travelling to the Red Centre are not only amazed by the sheer size and power of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, but will come away with a deeper understanding of the ancient culture that is so central to them both.
The Desert Gardens Hotel. Ayers Rock Resort. 1 Yulara Drive, Yulara, NT. From $280 per night. The hotel is eight kilometres from Ayres Rock Airport. Phone: (02) 8296 8010. See ayersrockresort.com.au
The tap water at Ayers Rock Resort is excellent so it would be great to see water stations where guests could fill their own bottles. It's a desert – so that's a lot of plastic water bottles being handed out.
From the ubiquitous "Palya" greeting to the abundance of native foods on offer, the incorporation and celebration of the local Anangu culture is truly impressive.
Jane Richards travelled to Uluru and stayed at the Desert Gardens Hotel as a guest of Voyages Hotels & Resorts.