A Mountainous Feast
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A warm fire billows just behind us in the elbow of a discarded earth-mover shovel. Sarah goes on with the local pride I’ve grown familiar with over the last few days, “the best views have always been from this side,” she says.
She’s not wrong. There’s a low mist hanging over Bilpin in the Blue Mountains today. It's damp and dewy, but that only adds to the atmosphere as I reach down to pat Smudge, the local dog who’s now saddled up between me and the fire.
Smudge is a bit of a mascot here at the Hillbilly Cider Shed and he nuzzles his wet nose into my palm as if to signal that I’m welcome here.
It hasn’t always been like this. Often overlooked for the more traditional driving route into the lower mountains via the Great Western Highway, this wedge of idyllic and pristine mountain range – only 1.5 hours north west of Australia’s largest city – has emerged as a preferred tourist route of the curtain of sandstone and eucalypts that flank Sydney's outskirts.
And sadly in 2019, it was also a catastrophic flashpoint for some of the worst fires in Australia’s recorded history.
The Gospers Mountain fire, nicknamed ‘the monster’, eventually made its way south to where we’re sitting and drinking. Those that witnessed it tell me that walls of flames ripped past Hillbilly Cider, almost upending the then under-construction dream of Shane and Tessa McLaughlin.
Fast forward more than two years and chuck in a global pandemic for good measure, I’m now winding through the Bells Line of Road on a tastemaker experience with Paul McLaughlin from Western Wine Tours. He’s guiding me to some of the best new breweries, wineries and distilleries that the Blue Mountains have on offer. And I’ve packed my drinking boots because there’s quite a few of them.
Like the green shoots that now sprout from the blackened trunks along the roadside of the famous Darling Causeway, Paul reflects with a near reverence on the phoenix-like revival of tourism in the region. He’s lived in Katoomba his entire life and never before has he seen such growth.
At the very regal-looking Carrington Hotel in Katoomba, there’s a familiar sense of history repeating itself in the place where it all started. As owner and General Manager Mark Jarvis explains, “the Carrington Hotel was built in 1886 and the rest of the mountains, and tourism, was built around it.”
Jarvis says this exciting era we’re witnessing post-pandemic is “a foodie renaissance,” which is reminiscent of the early settler days, when young entrepreneurs from the city sought out opportunity in these lush and fervent green hills. My great-grandfather was actually one of those, taking on the publican licence of the Family Hotel in Katoomba back in the early 1920s.
In 2022, Sydneysiders are again not only rediscovering the Blue Mountains as a potential tourist destination, but as a business opportunity.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the depths of the old electricity substation that sits beneath the Carrignton. This is not just where the pub has its famous cellars, but also where it brews Katoomba Lager under a cobweb of fairy lights. But Jarvis tells me he and his team have grand designs on soon transforming this historic space into a public brewhouse that returns it to its Victorian-era grandeur, bringing in a new metaphorical bolt of electricity to the city and attracting new customers from around the world.
There’s a precedent to give Jarvis confidence this will be a good business move. Just over the road at Mountain Culture Brewing, DJ and Harriet McCready also embarked in 2017 on transforming what was a dilapidated, historic building (formally a Civic Video) into the first brewpub in the Blue Mountains. They’ve since been recognised as the best brew pub in all of Australia.
Travel a short distance into the Megalong Valley and Sydneysiders Emma and Simon MacMahon also bought Dryridge Estate seven years ago on a whim. They’ve since transformed it into a premiere events space, accommodation and a tasting room with a to-die-for shiraz, plus a view of a sandstone escarpment so magnificent it could be a watercolour painting.
This sort of investment in tourism infrastructure in the region is evident just about everywhere I go. It also permeates every conversation with locals eager to show off their home.
“Have you tried the new …” they say to me. “You’ve got to taste the …” another person brags.
Beneath the flickering Edison globes and Bric A Brac of Bootlegger Bar in Katoomba, the timber panelled ceiling here hangs in a low arch and feels like a warm hug on this cold, wet night. I’m snug and content after several cocktails but also struggling to breathe after eating my body weight in brisket.
Thankfully, after a full day of gorging myself it's time to retire to the new Kyah Hotel in Blackheath. This boutique and recently renovated 1970s motel would not look out of place in Palm Springs. The delicately arranged cacti and gold plated signage at the front door shouldn't work at this altitude, but they do.
And as I ascend the staircase to my room, out of the corner of my eye I catch a young, smartly attired bartender muddling a pink cocktail beneath two pastel painted arches in the hotel’s restaurant bar and restaurant, BLAQ. If you put a frame around what I see, you could probably sell it as a Slim Aarons photograph. Ok, just one more drink.
Morning arrives and Paul Davies from Beyond The Blacktop 4WD tours pick me up for a morning of exploring in ‘Wombat’ which is their converted Australian Army passenger Landcruiser. If ever there was a car built for this terrain, this is it. Davis’ cuts through the morning fog that’s rolling off the Grose Valley like a hot knife through butter. Making a beeline for Anvil Rock, we leave his truck and scurry up hidden bush trails, past wind eroded rock formations and watch kangaroos fetch their breakfast in the dawn light. Once at Anvil Rock Lookout, this side of the mountains reveals itself as a place without tourists or handrails.
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While it might now taste a bit different up here with the slew of new restaurants and bars, there’s a lot of things that have also stayed much the same for millenia. Despite the wet weather scuttling later plans for astrophotography, I still manage to squeeze in a private stargazing session with Cultural Astronomer Dimitri Douchin but this time we’re inside an inflatable ‘planetarium’ which is basically like an upside down jumping castle for adults, with a projector. It’s super nerdy, but I’m into it.
Up in the mountains, where the light pollution is low and the air is clear, Dimitti says the stars reveal themselves in a way that just isn't possible when you’re in the city. And when you see the stars more clearly, you start to understand why they've been revered by civilisations dating back to the byzantines.
If booze or stars are not your regular jam, there’s always nature. And there’s one such tree endemic to this region that predates even the byzantines. The Wollemi Pine has seen its fair share of shooting stars and celestial events, so much so that it lays claim to being the world’s oldest and rarest tree, dating back to prehistoric times.
Along my way home, still following the Bells Line of Road, I stop in at Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens in Mount Tomah to catch a glimpse of several of these pines in their Gondwana Garden and to meet Acting Curating Manager Ian Allen who takes me on a journey through one of the most ecologically diverse botanical gardens in the world.
“I want people to feel like when they’re walking through our [Gondwana] garden that at any point a dinosaur might jump out at them,” he says excitedly.
I lose track of time wandering the gardens in the setting autumn sun. The red and yellow hues of the Japanese maples dance in the wind, while the sound of bellbirds symbolically mark the end of my journey of discovery.
My ears pop as I rapidly descend into the Blue Mountains’ foothills, but I’m reminded by my host of one last stop I must make before returning home. I’ve been told there’s a hidden distillery called Karu tucked like a bedsheet where bush meets farmland in what’s better known as the Devil’s Wilderness.
Husband and wife Ally and Nick Ayres have clearly created something special at Karu Distillery and their House of Spirits which is nestled amongst gum trees and Kookaburra calls. And with over 40 awards to their name, and a unique gin distilling method steeped in science, sustainability and experimentation, others around the world seem to think so as well.
So, if I must, I'll just have one more taste for the road.
get in the know There have been over 500 sightings in 20 years of the elusive Blue Mountains panther.
Jetstar, Qantas, Virgin and now REX all fly direct to Sydney from most capital cities. The best way to get to the good stuff in the Blue Mountains is to hire a car through Budget at Sydney Airport, from as little as AU$140 per day. When leaving Sydney, just make sure you head to the mountains via the Bells Line of Road. It’s slightly longer, but way more beautiful and there’s more to do.
There’s a whole range of different accommodation options in the Blue Mountains, ranging from budget to exquisite. We recommend Kyah Hotel in Blackheath or for something a little cheaper, the Gardners Inn is the longest continually operating pub in the mountains.
For a personal and unforgettable booze and food experience, look no further than Western Wine Tours. Paul also operates trips into Mudgee from the mountains. Beyond The Blacktop 4WD is the only way to see the hidden lookouts and backcountry nature experiences and when the weather behaves, make sure you look to the stars with Dimitri.