There are thrills, spills, markets and movies at a fun weekend in Atura Blacktown.
"Keep your arms folded and your legs crossed," says the attendant. "Just imagine you need to go to the loo." This last piece of advice is unnecessary because I need to go to the loo with impending urgency. My heart is also thumping like a base drum and my stomach is doing cartwheels. As the capsule door closes I glance in wide-eyed terror at the chute next to me to see a small child grinning with unbridled glee. The countdown begins – "3 ... 2 ... 1"... and then the bottom literally falls out of my world. The trapdoor opens and I plunge down a 12-metre near-vertical drop before being catapulted around a 360-degree loop at almost 60 km/h. When I finally come to rest in the exit lane, my diminutive racing partner is already sprinting back up the stairs to do it again. I stagger off in search of counselling.
360Rush is one of several unexpectedly exhilarating rides at Sydney's Wet'n'Wild. I'm similarly shocked by the 16-metre drop into Half Pipe and squeal uncontrollably as I slosh around T5's 18-metre enclosed funnel. Water parks have come a long way since I was a kid.
It's a Saturday morning but with more than 40 rides and attractions (including plenty of tamer options for little ones), the queues are bearable and there's plenty of space to spread out. I've been given a VIP cabana overlooking the wave pool but at $249 this is an unnecessary indulgence. Arrive when the park opens at 9.30am and you'll have no trouble snagging a sun-lounger or a patch of lawn.
By 2pm I'm all screamed out so we head home – but not by car. We're spending the weekend at the Atura Blacktown, a new hotel which is a leisurely 10-minute stroll down the road. It's the first time I've walked home from a theme park.
From the outside the 122-room Atura looks unremarkable, more low-rise office building than game-changing accommodation, but inside it's a different story. The property is owned by AHL, the company behind QT Sydney and the same design flair is evident here.
It's a significant step up from an I-could-be-anywhere chain hotel.
The open-plan ground floor has an industrial feel with concrete walls and a tangle of airconditioning ducts. It houses not only the reception but also the bar, restaurant, business centre and games area. It's an unusual layout but it creates an inviting communal space with a pleasant buzz of activity.
The restaurant opens onto a terrace with a BBQ, outdoor bar and a 15-metre heated pool. Tasselled umbrellas and swaying palms lend it a 1950s Hollywood vibe and there are some quirky design touches such as a trio of face-shaped chairs.
The retro theme continues in the room with a floor-to-ceiling decal of iconic American images and a print of old-fashioned specs. The bathroom is clean and modern with a large shower and a bright yellow sliding door. It's a mishmash of styles – part industrial/part retro – but at least it's not dull.
There's a small kitchenette with a fridge, coffee machine, microwave and sink – enough to whip up a snack or heat up one of the ready-made meals for sale in the Grab and Go Pantry downstairs. The potato masher in the cutlery drawer, however, seems a little ambitious.
All rooms have king-size beds and 106-centimetre flat screen TVs. Refreshingly, Wi-Fi is included, as is Foxtel, local phone calls and a limited selection of in-room movies.
Overall, it's a significant step up from an I-could-be-anywhere chain hotel and the only complaints are that there are no balconies and the relatively small windows let in limited natural light.
There are two dining options: the Roadhouse Bar and Grill downstairs or the heritage-listed Royal Cricketer's Arms next door (which is also owned by the hotel so you can charge meals back to your room). Both are solid rather than spectacular, but I prefer the ambience of the pub, which has a charming front porch, period furnishings and a spacious garden.
An unexpected surprise is the selection of whiskeys in the hotel bar. There are more than 40 to choose from including hard-to-source drops such as a rye bourbon from boutique US producer Redemption and rarities like a 1981 Wild Turkey in a turkey-shaped bottle. I've never been a huge whiskey fan but Nick the barman persuades me to try the Distiller's Select, a silky smooth drop from Woodford Reserve. It's the first time I've tasted one and not felt like I've been punched in the chest.
While Atura's proximity to Wet'n'Wild is clearly a major drawcard, it transpires that Western Sydney has been quietly amassing an impressive arsenal of attractions.
Literally next door to the hotel is Skyline, Sydney's only remaining drive-in movie theatre which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. For the full retro experience, the hotel can chauffeur you there in a white 1960s Cadillac. At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately Cadillacs aren't renowned for their reliability so when it refuses to budge from the parking lot we have to sneak through a back gate and approach on foot. Not that it matters. Once we lower the roof, order milkshakes from the cute Happy Days-style diner and sprawl indulgently on its white leather bench seat, not even a woeful Keanu Reeves movie can spoil the fun.
Down the road in Penrith is iFLY Downunder, the southern hemisphere's biggest and most powerful indoor skydiving facility. Four 335-kilowatt fans blast air at up to 250km/h through a five-metre-wide glass chamber to create a vertical wind tunnel that's capable of keeping eight people airborne.
According to Jimmy, our instructor, all we have to do is "lay on top of the wind". Easier said than done. The slightest adjustment sends me careering towards the glass wall but with Jimmy's help I eventually get the hang of it. It's a bizarre feeling, being suspended on a cushion of air, but surprisingly addictive and a lot less confronting than hurling yourself out of a plane.
The highlight of the session is the iFLY High, a manoeuvre where Jimmy takes me on a head-spinning ride to the top of the 13-metre tunnel and back down again. Afterwards he jumps in on his own and performs a routine of dives, spins and twirls so impressive I would have paid just to watch that.
On the way out we pop next door to Penrith Panthers, a swish multilevel complex of bars, restaurants, theatres and gambling areas. We don't have time for a drink but I can certainly vouch for the welcome. "Our club is your club," declares Col, the bowler-hat wearing concierge who signs us in. "Welcome to the best in the West."
While the West has plenty of ways to get the adrenalin pumping, there are more cerebral options, too. Incongruously hidden among Blacktown's superstores and shopping malls is Blacktown Arts Centre, a delightful gallery in a former church that's clearly popular with the local community. The day I visit the gallery is giving away hundreds of plants that have been used in an exhibit called Democratic Garden.
Slightly further afield but no less charming is Penrith Regional Gallery. Located in the former home of artists Gerald and Margo Lewers, it's worth visiting just to have tea and cake in the beautiful gardens.
On Sunday morning we wake to find the car park of the drive-in has been transformed into a bustling sea of stalls better known as Blacktown Markets. Normally, I'd prefer to remove my own tonsils than visit a market but I find this one strangely compelling, not least because of the sheer diversity of items for sale. Where else could you pick up a pair of zebra-print wellies, a nose-shaped shower gel dispenser and a set of colloquial Portuguese language tapes for less than $10?
We do buy something – two lovely ornamental pots for the bargain price of 20 cents each – and they're a fitting memento of our weekend in the West, a region full of unexpected treasures.
FIVE MORE WESTERN SYDNEY ATTRACTIONS
FEATHERDALE WILDLIFE PARK
A family favourite, Featherdale offers a range of interactive experiences including hand-feeding a kangaroo, holding a snake and patting a koala, featherdale.com.au.
Unleash your inner Bond with a water-powered jet pack ride at the Sydney International Regatta Centre in Penrith, jetpackadventures.com.au.
PENRITH WHITE-WATER RAFTING
Take an action-packed rafting trip down the white-water course used in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, penrithwhitewater.com.au.
SYDNEY TREETOP ADVENTURE PARK
Explore the canopy of Western Sydney Parklands Tarzan-style using a combination of flying foxes and suspension bridges, treetopadventurepark.com.au.
SYDNEY MOTORSPORT PARK
As well as being a popular motorsports race venue, SMP also offers driver training and track days. Nearby there's more high-octane fun at Eastern Creek Karts and Sydney Dragway, sydneymotorsportpark.com.au, easterncreekkarts.com.au, sydneydragway.com.au.
Atura Blacktown, 32 Cricketers Arms Road, Blacktown. Rooms start from $139. Phone (02) 9421 0000, see aturablacktown.com.au.
SEE + DO
Wet'n'Wild 427 Reservoir Road. Adults $79.99, children $59.99. Parking and lockers extra. Phone 13 33 86, see wetnwildsydney.com.au.
Skyline Drive-in Cricketers Arms Rd, Blacktown. Tickets cost $10 per person. See eventcinemas.com.au.
iFLY Downunder 123 Mulgoa Road, Penrith. Flights from $89. Phone 1300 366 364, see downunder.iflyworld.com.
Penrith Panthers 123 Mulgoa Road. Open daily, 9am – 6am. Phone 1800 061 991, see penrith.panthers.com.au.
Blacktown Arts Centre 78 Flushcombe Rd. Open Tue – Sat, 10am – 5pm. Admission free. Phone (02) 9839 6558, see artscentre.blacktown.nsw.gov.au.
Penrith Regional Gallery 86 River Road, Emu Plains. Open daily, 10am – 5pm. Admission free. Phone (02) 4735 1100, see penrithregionalgallery.org.
Blacktown Markets, Skyline Drive-in. Every Sunday, 7am – 2pm. See blacktownmarkets.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of Atura Blacktown, Wet'n'Wild and iFLY Downunder.