Ecology and luxury exist in harmony at Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley, just three hours from Sydney, finds Michael Adams.
Nature’s gateway to Wolgan Valley, NSW is a geological marvel called ‘The Gap’, where sheer sandstone walls soar against the sky as the bush road twists down into a verdant corridor between Greater Blue Mountains cliffscapes. Mobile reception drops out, adding to the feeling you’ve entered a remote and ancient world. It’s easy to believe the “living fossil” that is the Wollemi Pine, thought extinct for two million years, was rediscovered in these parts in 1994.
Its silhouette is now the logo of Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley resort, which we reach another 15 minutes down the road. After nestling our modest ride beside one of three Maseratis in the car park, we’re whisked via four-wheel drive to the resort’s main building deeper in the valley. Having arrived early, our villa is still being readied. While we wait, friendly staff bring us fruit and coffee. Sitting in the shade of the deep balcony, looking out on lawns framed by escarpments, the relaxation that settles is one you don’t usually get until the second or third day of a holiday. The serenity’s got a lot to do with the seclusion.
Wolgan Valley is 190 kilometres west-northwest of Sydney, hidden between Wollemi and Gardens Of Stone national parks. A staff member tells us the resort’s origin story. Just over a decade ago, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman and Chief Executive Emirates Airline & Group, was looking to build an environmental resort, the company’s first tourism project outside of Dubai. Upon landing his chopper on the property, he took a look around and bought it that afternoon for $4m. There was no sealed road, no electricity even, just dilapidated pastureland and a falling-down homestead that dated back to 1832. After spending $125m over six years, Emirates in 2009 launched what was the world’s first carbon-zero resort on 4,000 acres of land henceforth dedicated to a conservancy reserve. Not a tree was cut down to build the enclave, indeed some 300,000 have been planted in the past six years as part of the 30-year-plan to restore to health the Wolgan River that runs through the valley.
Environmentally enlightened, yes, but banish any thoughts of some mudbrick hippie haven. One&Only Wolgan Valley is five-star all the way, with the dramatic main complex housing a graceful bar, library, business centre and two restaurants. Just a stone’s throw away, there’s the infinity pool, gym and spa buildings. Accommodation is in 40 Federation-style villas, spread across tranquil grounds that comprise just two percent of the otherwise wild property.
Our one-bedroom Heritage Villa (from $1,640 twin share per night, inclusive of breakfast, lunch, dinner and regional beer and wine) is 83 sq m of wood-and-stone elegance. There’s a four-poster bed, as comfortable as a cloud, along with a large dressing room, huge bathroom and skylit walk-in shower.
The spacious lounge and screened deck adjoin the seven-metre private indoor/outdoor pool that overlooks a spring-fed creek whose waters are so pure they’re bottled for guest use. There are two entertainment systems, iPad connected to the resort’s wifi, air-con and a double-sided fireplace. That all of this is possible with minimal environmental impact – via locally sourced produce, recycled building materials, solar and wind energy, efficient design and insulation – is impressive. You could stay here with a clear conscience for, say, a decade.
After a splash in our pool, we wander up for a swim in the infinity pool beneath the blazing sun. Staff offer watermelon angles and cool drinks as we enjoy the shaded lounges and soak up the beauty of the surrounding mountains. A 747 cuts through the blue sky and, for once, I don’t envy people up there enjoying first-class luxury. You can see why celebs – Michael and Kyly Clarke, Hamish Blake and Zoe Foster – get married here.
We have lunch on the Country Kitchen’s deep terrace. My entrée is zingy marinated kingfish. I follow it with tuna, cooked medium rare, accompanied by rich prosciutto and velvety red pepper sauce. As great as my meal is, I can’t help but marvel at my other half’s salad. Who knew pumpkin could taste so amazing? We finish with a cheese board and head back to the villa to lapse into a minor food coma.
Later, with grey clouds massing on the honeyed escarpments, we meet Cara, our field guide on a Sundowner ($55pp) four-wheel drive tour of the resort. Bumping along dirt tracks and across fields, the air filling with petrichor as raindrops spatter the dry earth, she points out superb fairy-wrens and red-rumped parrots, shows us where goannas have dug into termite mounds to incubate their eggs and jokes about pesky wombats uprooting anything in their paths.
But, really, the tour is all about Australia’s most famous macropods: kangaroos, wallaroos and wallabies are everywhere. There are hundreds – fluffy joeys, rangy teens, calmly watchful does and big bucks doing bodybuilder flexes. Cara provides plenty of insight into their behaviour (wallaroos wrestle; kangaroos box) and breeding (I can’t wait to drop “embryonic diapause” in casual conversation). As an Australian, it’s amazing. Overseas visitors must be simply agog.
We retreat to the Heritage Homestead for an afternoon picnic. As rain drums on the tin roof, we stand in the same room Charles Darwin did when he came here in 1836. Bizarrely, the famed naturalist managed to see not a single kangaroo on his travels in this region and thus became convinced they’d soon be extinct.
Dinner at the Wolgan Dining Room is another winner. My entrée is a corn velouté with plump prawn and squid. The other half goes for a zesty scallop ceviche. For main, I have melt-in-the-mouth duck breast, while my partner’s pork assiette achieves that perfect trifecta of crispy crackling, fat layer and fleshy succulence. The plating of the dishes is artful, with the pièce de résistance being my Kandisky-like dessert of deconstructed pavlova. I want to eat it molecule by molecule so it lasts forever.
With the drizzle clearing to reveal a full moon, we walk back to the villa as roos spring off through the shadows. In the morning, with scarves of silver clouds trailing the escarpments, Skippy and Co. greet us on our lawn.
After breakfast (locally foraged mushrooms with feta and sourdough – excellent) we’re off on the Signature Trail Horse Ride ($155pp), a gentle one-hour clip-clop up hill, down valley and across creek. Even more relaxing is my 90-minute Mountain Aromatherapy Massage ($265). Full disclosure: it’s my first professional massage. Dimi, my therapist, expertly applies hands, hot stones, eucalyptus and lemon myrtle oils and it’s all of five minutes before I’m a convert. By the time she’s done, it’s close to an out-of-body experience.
A Zen state’s useful when it’s time to check out because, truthfully, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to leave. Driving out, we’re aglow, sad to go and already planning a return.