They say the Blue Mountains have some of the best scenery in Australia, certainly in New South Wales. We booked an apartment in Leura in the heart of the Blue Mountains, and headed off in our rental car with Helen who was visiting from the US. The sun shone as we drove out of Sydney and our spirits were high.
As we drove up onto the plateau just past Penrith, we should have known. The clouds descended. The sun disappeared. By the time we hit Warrimoo we were at a standstill in Easter weekend traffic, in a torrential downpour. The rain didn’t stop for two days.
Our apartment was cosy and spacious. We changed and braved the weather, strolling down the pretty old-fashioned high street looking for dining options and maybe a bar for later. Spookily there was not one bar in sight, just the Alexandra Hotel which didn’t look too bad until a peek in the window showed lots of lumberjack shirts and – wait – was that banjo-playing? Perhaps not.
Down in the dizzying heights of downtown Katoomba, in the pouring rain, we did a circuit of the town and saw nothing. No amazing views, no decent restaurants, no bars. A second circuit offered us a bleak-looking place by the train station, but once inside they played excellent music and they were friendly enough. Dinner at the Greek place across the road was passable. But I was disappointed: where was the gourmet heaven I had been promised?
Next morning we awoke with fresh eyes, hoping for better weather. Breakfast was in a great place called the Loaves and the Dishes. It became our weekend breakfast place.
Down at Katoomba we stood and waited at the Scenic Viewpoint with hoards of others, hoping for a glimpse of the spectacular views we had been promised. At least the rain had stopped, but we were actually above the clouds. Then, mystically, tiny chinks started to appear in the armour. A tantalising moment of glory as the Three Sisters rock formation appeared then dematerialised; brief hints further away of the sheer drop down from the plateau to the lowlands.
We should have known the weather was mercurial: the Blue Mountains tourism people have actually set up a giant screen cinema complex where they show movies of the Blue Mountains to the tourists. In the Blue Mountains. Only yards from where the movie was shot. Hmm. Do you think it might be misty and raining here much of the time???
Dejected, we headed for the Jenolan Caves, way down on the plain. The steep curving road down from the plateau hinted at the spectacular views we were missing, but we persevered. Now and again the clouds parted giving us more hints of the amazing countryside around us. At least it would not be raining under the ground.
More than two hours later we arrived at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. A friendly man in oilskins told us that the save car parks were full and if we came back later or tomorrow they would let us in for free. A detour to the little town of Oberon proved fruitful: a bakery served fresh pies and good coffee while we waited a decent interval to try our luck again.
Back at Jenolan, we were not disappointed. The cave system is huge, and we chose a late-afternoon guided tour of the Imperial Cave.
We saw Lot’s Wife, a 2 metre stalagmite, tall and slim, and the Alabaster Column (creamy white calcite).
The Crystal Cities looked like ancient fortifications in a far-off land.
And as its name suggests, the Shawl Cave is filled with delightful shawl formations.
The journey back was treacherous, it was late and we had reservations at Darley’s, the best restaurant in the region. Miraculously Orlando got us back with time to spare, so we threw on something posh, did our lippy (not Orlando obviously) headed to Lillianfel’s resort. Darley’s is in the heritage listed, original homestead of Frederick Darley, the sixth Chief Justice of NSW. We were seated in the enclosed verandah and settled in for the evening.
Each course was divine. We drank wine by the glass (red, white and sparkling) from an encyclopaedic wine list. The candles flickered and the service was discreet but efficient. It felt a little old-style colonial, sitting on the verandah with overhead fans.
Next morning we woke up and – amazingly – the sun had come out. The views from all sides were spectacular. We took photo after photo from the main viewpoint, then headed down to “Scenic World”, where you can take a cable car, a “skyway” (hmm still not sure what the difference was), an old funicular-style railway or a scenic walkway down onto the valley floor.
We purchased a three-for-one thing which allowed us to try all three styles of travel. First up was the railway down to the valley floor. We sat in an old-fashioned funicular railway, and then we set off at what seemed like hair-raising speed to the tune of – wait for it – the Indiana Jones theme music! Hilarious! It was all over in about 30 seconds and I could have happily yomped back up to the top and gone down again.
We spend a happy half hour or so wandering in the rain forest at the bottom, before heading back up to the plateau on the cable car. We were crammed in like sardines so couldn’t really see the amazing views stretching out before us, but it was fun and I did get a few random shots over people’s heads.
Finally Orlando and I braved the “skyway” which featured a frosted glass floor which turns see-through when you are half-way across a gaping chasm, giving you 360 degree views. With my fear of being able to see downwards (I don’t want to say fear of heights, because it is only when I can see downwards without restriction that I get queasy) I was nervous enough. But the translucent bit of floor was small enough, and reinforced enough, that I felt quite safe in the end.
Our evening was spent in the local Japanese restaurant, Hana, across the road from our apartment. The weather had turned nasty again as we braved horizontal rain for the 100-metre dash to this little upstairs den. It was crowded for a late Sunday evening but welcoming and warm. The food was very tasty, but I have decided that in general Japanese food is simply not spicy enough for my tastes. I shall stick to sushi from now on.
Next morning Helen had to leave early by train to catch her flight back to the US. Orlando and I took advantage of some of the sunniest weather of the weekend to stroll part of the Prince Henry Cliff Walk east of the Three Sisters.
We saw spectacular views of Mount Solitary in the distance, as well as Katoomba Falls and the Leura Cascades. It was ironic that we saw the very best of the Blue Mountains in the two or so hours before departing.