The famous hydro majestic at NSW’s Blue Mountains is grand once more, finds Michael Adams.
Visitors to the Blue Mountains have long marvelled at The Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath. Perched on a cliff edge hundreds of metres above the Megalong Valley, framed by gum trees and an enormity of sky the zinc tiles of this palace’s domed casino roof shine like dragon’s scales and its castellated walls rise up as if from a fairy tale. “There was Monte Carlo, whirled across 12,000 miles of sea… with a slice of the Louvre and the Tuilleries thrown in,” was how “a British globe-trotter” described his surprise at espying the hotel in his 1907 booklet How I Saw The Bush.
For much of its life, the Hydro offered visitors grand European style from which to savour the Australian panorama. But it fell on hard times towards the end of last century. When Men’s Style visited in 2009 there wasn’t majesty on offer – the façade was worn, the dining room had all the charm of a supermarket cafeteria and the marvellous casino ballroom had fallen into dusty disuse. Not long after, the hotel shut its doors.
But last January, The Hydro Majestic reopened, returned to its former glory after a seven-year $30 million restoration project carried out by the Escarpment Group. The results are impressive, preserving the hotel’s rich history while offering modern luxury.
Arriving to check in at the Belgravia Lounge, the eye is drawn to huge windows offering ever-shifting views of the cloudscape. Sitting in a wingback chair and sipping a Badlands Pale Ale from nearby Orange ($8), it’s easy to be mesmerised by nature’s flatscreen as cirrus and cumulus rearrange themselves across the heavens. The furnishing, as elsewhere in the hotel, are a mixture of original antiques and tasteful reproduction, with an emphasis on art deco, which coincided with the Hydro’s peak years in the 19205 and 1930s.
Our Heritage Valley View room ($479 per night, breakfast included) is chic and comfortable. But again, the view is the thing. Also: don’t expect a vast space. The Hydro was designed to encourage guests to enjoy its public lounges and explore the natural and man-made attractions of Blackheath, Katoomba, Leura and the Jenolan Caves.
To understand the hotel’s history, we join a tour hosted by concierge Patrick Verity. He starts beside his desk in the marvelous Casino Lobby, which he tells us was never used for gambling, and recounts how Sydney retailing king Mark Foy in the early 1900s wanted to replicate the hydropathic spas he was so fond of frequenting in Europe. The hotel – then known as The Hydropathic Establishment- opened in a snowstorm on 4 July 1904, with guests ferried in some of the country’s first cars from Penrith. Luxurious though it was, Foy was serious about his health resort, with a 10pm lights-out policy, a prohibition on alcohol and tobacco, and guests offered baths in restorative imported mineral waters along with an eye-watering selection of enema cures.
With hydrotherapy fading from popularity, the hotel was relaunched in 1906 as the Hydro Majestic. Famous faces came -Dame Nellie Melba, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – and went, literally, in the case of our first PM Sir Edmund Barton, who died of a heart attack in the hotel in 1920.
During WWII, the Hydro was requisitioned as a hospital for wounded American soldiers. Later, the hotel was vandalised, restored, relaunched as a family destination, then begun its long, steep decline.
But that sad past is over.
There are few better places to watch the sunset from than The Wintergarden, the expansive dining room at the heart of the Hydro. Men’s Style chooses the three-course menu ($90) of shellfish bisque entree, lamb backstrap main and dessert tasting plate. As the sun sets and the wine flows, a comment Verity made earlier echoes in my mind. “The hotel is the icon,” he said, gesturing out these very windows, “but the star is out there.”