Ghillie James takes a whistle-stop tour of the Blue Mountains near Sydney for breathtaking views, great food and plenty for the kids to do – even if they don’t like walking!
If you long for some fresh clean air whenever you get away from Singapore then the Blue Mountains near Sydney are going to be a welcome find and a worthwhile addition to your travels to Australia’s famous city. Situated West of Sydney, it’s the perfect refreshing and invigorating mini holiday within a more hectic schedule (see my family guide to Sydney), and there’s plenty for the kids to do, too!
Heading out from Sydney’s city centre the journey will take you less than two hours and you’ll feel your lungs expanding as you take in the mountain views and crystal clean air on arrival. The vast forests of gumtrees (eucalyptus) discharge a fine mist of eucalyptus oil from their leaves in the sun. The mist refracts light, which makes the haze look blue at a distance – hence the name!
Hiring cars is simple and driving is easy – just stick to the speed limit as they are hot on this in Australia and you WILL get a ticket if you don’t comply. You can also get there by train, and there are taxis around when you get there. Or a trip by coach is also an option.
If you are driving then you can stop in either Parramatta, where there’s a park for a leg stretch/ picnic or a visit the café, or alternatively have lunch at the historic Royal Cricketers Arms pub in Blacktown. There’s also Featherdale Wildlife Park on the way to the mountains, which would be a lovely stop off.
Where to go
There’s so much to choose from when you get there, that it’s hard to decide. It obviously depends on the ages and interests of the family, but with two boys and a girl ranging in age from 3 to 10 years old, we covered reasonably good ground! My lot are all fairly allergic to long walks but like adventure, so we had to limit the walking (as much as I would love to have spent a half day on a hike!).
If you’ve got children with slightly more get up and go then you’ll be spoilt for choice! The Blue Mountains has the largest network of walking tracks in Australia, spanning an area of over 250 kilometres. The UNESCO World Heritage Listed Greater Blue Mountains National Park covers over 250 million hectares – though much of this is remote and inaccessible! There are walks EVERYWHERE, and they vary from 20 minutes, to 3 hours, to a whole day.
Scenic World: Our first stop was Scenic World in Katoomba. If you are walkers then you possibly won’t want to do this, as you can take views on foot and this place is a tad ‘touristy’. But in our case it was a great way to see the mountains – via the skyway, funicular railway and/or cable car and then do smaller walks to the look out points.
The location was originally a working mine, and the funicular railway was built to transport coal. The cable train has a maximum gradient of 52 degrees as it descends through rock cliffs for 415 metres – so make sure your hats are firmly in place! There are interesting facts and mining equipment to read about, as well as great info about the local flora and fauna. Get there early if you are there in peak season as it does get very busy.
Tip: There are lots of choices for food in Katoomba. We avoided the busy café at Scenic World and instead opted for a lovely brekkie/coffee lunch spot called Pomegranate, which we enjoyed.
Jenolan Caves: A visit to Jenolan Caves is also a great fun activity for families, especially if the weather is not being kind. It’s a bit further out, though, so you will need to set aside a half day for your visit. There are lots of tours to choose from for all ages and abilities, from a gentle amble to full on caving with helmets and torches! Booking in advance is recommended as tour groups have limited spaces.
4WD Tour: If you are keen adventure seekers then have a look at Tread Lightly Eco Tours, as they have many wonderful tours (including a Rendezvous with a Kangaroo!). This is a great 4WD tour with an eco-guide and you can have breakfast with kangaroos (you can come up really close!).
Hartley: It’s well worth a visit to the historic village of Hartley, with its old presbytery, Catholic Church, jail and small Aboriginal gallery. A world away from Singapore, there’s a lovely cafe in the old post office (which was the longest running post office in Australia). Visit the Talisman Gallery while you are there, too, as it’s home to eccentric bearded blacksmith Ron!
We booked in for an hour-long session ($150 AUD) and learnt how to make our very own fire poker! Ron also hosts Fire Poker Challenge days, when groups of kids can have a go ($25 AUD). Watching him work is a fascinating, and his gallery contains clocks, ornaments, jewellery and statues all made from metal. Have a look at his Facebook page. A good lunch spot nearby is Alchemy Woodfired Pizza.
Lookouts: A five-minute drive from the town of Blackheath is Govetts Leap Lookout. This was a highlight for us as it offers THE best view of miles of remote landscape, sheer cliffs and veil falls, with walks, too, if you want to investigate the area. Other lookouts around Katoomba include Honeymoon Bridge and Echo Point.
Tea at the Hydro Majestic: We loved this experience. You can opt for an Eastern Dim Sum-style tea, but we preferred the English style tiered cake stand full of sandwiches, scones (with all important jam and cream) and a wonderful selection of teas. All overlooking stunning mountain views from the grand dining room.
During the apple season (starts December) you might want to venture off the tourist trail to one of the fruit farms close by. Recommended are Pine Crest Orchard or Bilpin Fruit Bowl.
Leura: Everglades House, with its tearooms, gallery and gardens is a tranquil spot and a lovely chance to have a potter through a beautiful garden. The ‘Moderne’ style house was built by Henry Van de Veld in the 1930’s with the help of Danish landscape designer Paul Sorensen. A January summer treat would be to catch a Shakespeare production on every weekend in the garden theatre at the house. You can also visit Josophan’s Fine Chocolates whilst in Leura, too.
Where to stay
We stayed at Parklands in Blackheath, which is a great base, as it’s fairly central. The cottages are perfect for family groups, and the grounds are stunning. You can put children up on the sofa bed or get interconnecting rooms. As its name suggests it’s set within stunning parkland with a lake, ducks and beautiful beds of hydrangeas – it’s perfect for an amble or in our case a quick game of cricket.
You can use the pool and tennis courts at Sister hotel Lilianfels, too. There isn’t a restaurant on site for dinner, unfortunately, but we ate nearby. Breakfast is served in the main building, made by Chef Enzo Bergagnin, and is a feast! See the recipe for his incredible strawberry pancakes below:
For 1 litre of mixture. Keeps for 3 days
300g self-raising flour
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
60g golden caster sugar
700ml -1 litre whole milk
Butter for the pan
Sieve the flour into a bowl and stir in the sugar. Mix the egg, extract and 500ml of the milk. Make a well in the dry ingredients and using a hand held electric whisk, whisk in the egg mixture. Continue adding more milk to make a thick but pourable mixture. Rest for 30 minutes, then whisk in a little more milk if needed to get the right consistency. Rub a little butter over the surface of an individual frying pan. Pour in a 2-3 cm layer of the batter then scatter with chopped strawberries. Gently cook and once the pancake has bubbled and turned golden underneath, carefully turn it over. Cook until golden. Serve with whipped cream and maple syrup.
The Blue Mountains is a place of four seasons — a delight to those travelling from Singapore! We visited during Australian summertime. Though the city centre was hot hot hot, we were pleasantly surprised by the drop when we reached the mountains, enjoying the balmy days and cool evenings. During wintertime it can get much colder. The highlight, however, is springtime (September to November). The deciduous trees and shrubs once again sprout leaves and spring blossoms burst out in a rainbow of colours. This is the time of the famous Spring Garden Festivals of the Mountains — the Leura Garden Festival, the Blackheath Rhododendron Festival and many other Springtime events.