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Wild Australian Weekend

After stalking the elusive kangaroo in the beautiful Blue Mountains, outside Sydney, Daniel Mendelsohn recovers with amazing meals and soothing spa treatments at urbane hotels.

I'd heard that the food in the Blue Mountains of Australia was fabulous; what I hadn't realized is that I would end up on the menu. It was the first day of a long weekend visiting this outdoorsy destination, an hour and a half drive from Sydney, with breathtaking views of valleys, forests and some bizarrely lunar rock formations. Mostly to show off to my brother, Matt, a photojournalist who has braved a few wars, one major riot and several natural disasters in the course of his career, I'd opted for what's called an eco bushwalk, a vigorous nature hike at the Mount Tomah Botanic Garden.

As we wandered through the flora—towering tree ferns, huge psoriatic eucalyptus, wrist-thick vines snaking everywhere—I suddenly realized something slimy was crawling across my ankle. I glanced down and saw what looked like a very fat, black-and-yellow worm with (I could have sworn) a mouth on either end. "Oh, that thing?" our guide, Rusty, said, responding to my yelp. "It's a leech. When they sense the heat from warm bodies, they drop out of the vegetation." Oh great, I thought. Not only was I wearing shorts, but my head is shaved. I felt like a walking smorgasbord.

Fortunately, I wasn't the only appealing meal around. The Blue Mountains are becoming something of a hot spot for restaurants. And this combination of culture and nature is the perfect balance for my brother and me. Matt loves nothing better than shooting closeups of some rare fauna at the edge of a cliff; my idea of adventure is going out to eat instead of ordering room service.

As we drove west from Sydney on a Thursday afternoon, the coastal plain on which the city sits soon seemed to rise up. After a series of hair-raising hairpin turns, we realized that we were in the mountains, whose inky blue color, when seen from a distance, is due (it's said) to the refraction of sunlight off tiny beads of eucalyptus oil that hang suspended in the air. There's basically one set of roads to get around—the Great Western Highway and the Bells Line of Road—and it's along the ragged circle formed by these two highways that the region's few, sonorously named small towns lie. Their names ring like gongs in your mouth: Katoomba, Lithgow, Leura, Megalong.

At the botanic garden—a 70-acre preserve with more than 5,000 species of cool-climate plants—even I couldn't help staring at the stark and sometimes eerie beauty of what Rusty pointed out to us: terrain that ran the gamut from formal European gardens to canopied rain forest to areas with Gondwana-heritage plants, such as Wollemi pines and proteas, which evolved in isolation on this continent and therefore resemble no other species. Matt and I were perplexed to see the Australian visitors gawking at trees whose leaves were turning their fall colors until we remembered that the country has relatively few deciduous trees.

This encounter with nature at its most primitive (don't forget that leech—I haven't) was rewarded with an encounter with culture at its most refined: Jason Saville's Mount Tomah Restaurant. Saville—who at 36 is the gregarious wunderkind entrepreneur primarily responsible for the Blue Mountains renaissance—lured chef Robbie Stapleton out of semiretirement (Stapleton worked the Sydney restaurant circuit for years, then took time off and lived on the beach until he felt ready to cook seriously again). I loved Stapleton's risotto cakes with smoked trout and lime béarnaise and his roast lamb with anchovies, rosemary and mustard—so much that I followed him to ParkWest, the tiny inn in Mount Victoria that Saville also owns. Mount Tomah closes after lunch, and Stapleton rushes off to prepare the evening meal at ParkWest.

At ParkWest, Saville has created a retreat for those who want total intimacy: The inn is about the size of a large house, and indeed, a stay in one of the nine rooms feels like a visit with attentive friends. Sitting on a soft sofa in the tiny sitting room, you can chat with Stapleton as he bustles in and out of the kitchen a few steps away, just behind a small bar where Saville is likely to pour you a late-afternoon drink. Five strides from the sofa is the dining room—a dozen wooden tables grouped around a large, round marble one. (A few steps past that and you're in the limestone-lined "mind, body and soul salon," which offers an array of facials, massages and body treatments.) After enjoying two more of Stapleton's meals and the obligatory pampering, Matt and I were ready to head to Leura and Katoomba, about 15 minutes away, which, we'd been told, were major gallery and antiquing centers.

Major antiquing? Not really. Lining these streets are places with names like Bygone Beautys [sic], where no one's ever heard of midcentury modern and where the most stylish items you're likely to find are flowered Shelley teacups. Still, these are the kind of towns where something fantastically offbeat often lurks. While strolling around Katoomba, we happened upon the Purse Museum, which displays an amazingly rich collection of handbags from 1650 to the present (one 1960s model features a working telephone).

That evening we moved to Lilianfels, perhaps the plushest of the local hotel-spas. Set on two acres of English-style gardens, with steep, gabled roofs and white Tuscan columns, the resort has the feel of an Edwardian country house, with overstuffed couches covered in chintz. It's only too easy to imagine that this was, in fact, once the estate of Sir Frederick Darley, the Chief Justice of New South Wales at the end of the 19th century.

The sense that this is a place for total comfort extends not only to the spa menu—which offers treatments like a 30-minute hand massage (Miji Polama) and a three-hour face and body treatment that claims to be able to deliver "the unseen vibration of creation"—but also to the kitchen. Located in the original manor house, Darley's restaurant is surrounded by a veranda on three sides. Matt and I sat out on the porch and sampled a few appetizers—a Fourme d'Ambert cheese and fresh fig tartlet and a foie-gras terrine with pickled plum—while watching the sun set over the valley, which just happened to be the color of figs and plums. As the evening grew cooler, we moved inside to finish our meal. Our server gave us ample help with the 14-page wine list, which featured an array of superb Australian wines that were entirely new to us, including a delightful 2002 Cape Mentelle blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Fortunately, my room was on the ground floor, so I didn't have to negotiate any stairs as I weaved my way to bed.

The next day, Matt was determined to get a picture of a kangaroo; we'd been told they are plentiful in the area. So we got in the car and once again braved the wilds (to say nothing of the left-side driving). But the only thing we ended up snaring was another fabulous meal: lunch at Collits' Inn. A chestnut bavarois topped by crème brûlée with crème anglaise had us practically horizontal by the end of the meal, so we took a walk in the dusty and abandoned cemetery out back, where generations of original settlers of the area are buried. As for kangaroos, we finally decided to take a picture of me standing in front of a yellow road sign featuring the silhouette of a kangaroo—and one with a wombat, too.

Later that afternoon, we checked into Shaina Gliener's Old Leura Dairy guest house for our final night in the mountains. When I'd first heard about this offbeat hotel, some of whose buildings were once part of a working dairy, it sounded too cutesy for me. But Gliener, who cheerfully met us at the gate to give us our keys, has gutted the original buildings and built two new ones of corrugated iron, stuffing them with every comfort: shabby-chic furniture, gleaming kitchen appliances and CD players. The buildings are different sizes, from The Studio (for two) to the Straw Bale House, which has five bedrooms and three bathrooms. As Gliener gave us a tour, Matt and I looked at each other with the same thought: Next time we're bringing our families.

The friendly owner of the Purse Museum had recommended a restaurant in Leura called Solitary, high up on a promontory with spectacular views of the mountains, as a special place for a final Blue Mountains meal. I ate so much of Matt's quail appetizer with pecorino, mâche, prosciutto and sage that he finally pushed his plate resignedly across to me and ordered another.

Given Solitary's minimalist decor, it would be hard to find a place more different from the Old Leura Dairy, yet they have one thing in common that sums up what gives the Blue Mountains their special allure. As we finished our last meal in Australia, our waitress gestured out the big picture windows at the mountains. "The place is pretty old," she said. "But we're pretty new."

Daniel Mendelsohn, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, is the author of The Elusive Embrace, a memoir.

Published November 2003
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