It’s a fine, unseasonably warm autumn’s day as we make our slow spiralling descent down hairpin bends and enter the final 14-kilometre, recently sealed stretch of road leading to the gates of the Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa.
Three hours drive from Sydney and nestled in the rugged Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Wilderness Area, this $125 million luxury resort, opened to much fanfare in 2009 and modeled on the Emirates’ Al Maha Resort in Dubai, seems unimaginably, magically remote.
The guard at the gates – just a stone’s throw from the hotel’s helipad (Bob Geldof was one of the hotel’s many well-heeled guests who arrived in grand style via the 45-minute flight last year) – waves us through.
The view as we enter this 4,000-acre former cattle and sheep-grazing property cradled by the Wollemi and Gardens of Stone national parks is simply stunning: serrated mountain ranges and sandstone escarpments tower over a line of 40 luxury villas arranged in a rough semi-circle around the resort’s main homestead. Little wonder that Charles Darwin was moved to put quill to paper when he first came across this picturesque, ancient “grand valley surrounded by cliffs of sandstone” as he described it in his notebook during his travels through the area in 1836.
Yes, each villa has its own private pool despite the main 25-metre outdoor infinity pool
Billed as Australia’s first luxury conservation-based resort, the Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa shows no signs of wear and tear as it approaches its fifth birthday. Overseen by general manager Joost Heymeijer, a workaholic, jovial Dutchman with an admirable focus on detail (he can – and does – wax lyrical about everything from the design of the restaurant’s state-of-the-art chimney flue to the “flavour profile” of the logs used) the ecologically sustainable resort, painstakingly carved out of a cattle-ravaged dustbowl after the land was purchased by Emirates in 2007 from the local Webb family, remains a marvel of subtly extravagant detail.
According to the resort’s ‘100 mile’ food sourcing philosophy, the menu from young head chef Damian Brabender can feature everything from late season Bilpin apples, Mudgee wines and cheeses, and ham from Milthorpe, to handmade sausages from Lithgow, Mandagery Creek venison, Ormiston free-range pork, Oberon line trout and pine mushrooms, and scrumptious roasted garlic, salad leaves, herbs and artichokes from the resort’s own kitchen gardens. We work our way diligently through the offerings.
Little wonder that Charles Darwin was moved to put quill to paper when he first came across this picturesque, ancient “grand valley surrounded by cliffs of sandstone”
I check out the mini bar – complete with a bottle of Moet – dip a toe in the temperature-controlled saltwater plunge pool attached to the living room (yes, each villa has its own private pool despite the main 25-metre outdoor infinity pool) – and bounce like a hyperactive toddler on the vast white custom-made bed, which is on sale, as with many other furniture items in the room, for around $3,650. I can see why the resort attracts so many return visitors.
Its clientele, says Heymeijer, ranges from celebrities, the odd royal or two and international media (the editor of Vogue China visited recently), to babymooners, honeymooners, families, wedding parties and locals who’ve sold their country properties.
Too soon, it’s time for a visit to the resort’s Timeless Spa, a decadent affair itself with six luxuriously appointed treatment rooms. I’m here to sample a new product by Perth-based organic skincare company Sodashi – a rich, beautifully fragrant elixir from the company’s luxe Samadara anti-ageing range – and meet the company’s dynamic New Zealand-born founder Megan Larsen, who turned her experiments on the kitchen stove into an international skincare business with an annual turnover of $45 million (Sodashi products are sold online and in luxury spas like Timeless all over the world).
Larsen sets the mood with a short meditation to the dulcet tones of Gandharva Veda music before we begin a product blending workshop featuring a dizzying array of essential oils: think everything from common basil and rose to such exotics as ylang ylang and petitgrain. Then it’s time for an hour-long facial using the Samadara elixir, which incorporates a soothing massage with rose quartz crystals: bliss.
Crossing a tributary of the property’s icy Carne Creek – considered to be one of the purest rivers in Australia – I slip and fall in.
Floating out, I’m ferried to my villa for a rest before I head out for the nocturnal wildlife tour in a four-wheel drive. Over the next hour we crisscross the vast property (the resort itself only takes up two per cent of the land, with the rest dedicated as a conservation and nature reserve planted with almost 200,000 new trees). We spot scores of kangaroos, wallaroos, swamp wallabies, possums and wombats (including a gorgeously corpulent mother and child bumbling along a creek) before heading back to the Homestead for dinner – an elaborate nine-course degustation.
I wake early for a quick 50 micro-laps in my suite’s pool before heading out, heroically, as dawn breaks, for a morning jog in a vain attempt to burn off last night’s calories. The landscape is wreathed in heavy fog: what I first take to be the ghostly outline of eucalpyts turns out to be watchful kangaroos which hop away in alarm up the slopes to the ranges. Crossing a tributary of the property’s icy Carne Creek – considered to be one of the purest rivers in Australia – I slip and fall in. Luckily there’s nothing but a few bemused roos to witness my chilly disgrace.
Heading back to Sydney pummeled, massaged, fed, and at least two kilos heavier, I’m too enervated to do much more than slump in a stupor. As the resort disappears in the distance, I realize I’ve caught the Wolgan bug. I’ll be back, I promise, waving at the hills.