You no longer have to choose between countryside and beach destinations as the ultimate escape. GABRIELLE LANE gets away from it all in the Australia's Blue Mountains and Whitsundays
It takes more than getting on a plane to relax and unwind. And, unfortunately, sometimes it takes more than spending a sizeable chunk of your annual salary on a summer break to guarantee quality. In this business, we see luxury hotels with various bells and whistles – disco balls in the bedrooms, the largest pearl in the world casually set into the wall (Abu Dhabi) and a dedicated team whose entire job it is to polish gold surfaces (again, Abu Dhabi). But there are ones that stand out; ones that I would go back to even if I wasn’t ‘working’.
Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley is one of them. Set on Australia’s Great Dividing Range, about three hours’ drive from Sydney, the 7,000-acre nature reserve includes rolling flats, creeks and sandstone cliffs that glow rust red in the sun. The resort itself occupies around one per cent of the land, fronted by a main homestead with verandas overlooking the mountains, crackling fires for the cooler climate and an emphasis on local produce served in the Wolgan Dining Room.
All guests are accommodated in free-standing villas with private indoor pools and terraces. Decor is similarly homely but luxe – expect walk-in wardrobes, four-poster beds, stone hearths and lounge rooms for unwinding after hours of exploring. It’s romantic and indulgent (rates start at AUS$2,300 per night), but excursions keep things energetic. With phone signal unavailable this far out, there’s no excuse not to disconnect from city life and make the most of the surroundings.
This being their natural habitat, you’ll stumble across wallabies, wombats and kangaroos on your way to the main house, particularly at dusk. But the best way to see the land and learn about its Aboriginal history is to take a trail ride on horseback from the stables with a guide. The horses know the routes well, and the leisurely stroll is easy for beginners. On my trail, there were just two of us, amping up the sense of escaping it all. We saw handfuls of roos and wallaroos bounding across the hills, as well as traditional markers of the land used by the first tribes.
Another of the most popular expeditions is a Guided Glow Worm Walk, which takes place in the tunnels of the Newnes Plateau and entails a hike through twisted rock formations and streams to see the fluorescent lava of its native insects. By night, a rustic stargazing and campfire experience is available, complete with fine food, private campfires, telescopes and guided talks of astronomy and Antipodean folklore. Don’t let anyone tell you that Australia is devoid of depth or culture. This is a place where you’ll rethink your priorities in an instant.
For lazy afternoons, the resort has an impressive spa. The outdoor pool alone is worth ten social media posts: chic and contemporary, it’s juxtaposed against a backdrop of copper-coloured ridges and wild scrubland.
Inside, it again takes the form of a beautiful country house – one that’s flooded with sunlight from floor-to-ceiling windows that also make the most of the view, and styled with lots of natural stone, with the emphasis on relaxation. All treatments are designed using Australian skincare brand Sodashi and essential oils, and options include Mountain Aromatherapy massages that tease stress out of the muscles from top to toe.
"Don’t let anyone tell you that Australia is devoid of depth or culture. This is a place where you’ll rethink your priorities in an instant"
Keen to twin its other international resorts, One & Only recommend teaming a stay at Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley with time at its ocean resort, One & Only Hayman Island – travelling from bush to beach. Around two-and-a-half hours from Sydney Kingsford Smith airport, the 74 Whitsunday Islands are in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, making them ideal for bucket-list divers. Hayman Island is one of the only inhabited islands and is a draw for both families and honeymooners.
There are various styles of accommodation at the hotel, and my tip is to book a Pool Access suite, which is flooded with light and includes a tented bed, access to the outside via two sets of double doors, and both a sitting and dining area – all styled in cream and white. The hotel itself is slightly more laid-back than the other properties under the One & Only umbrella, which will suit those who prefer a fuss-free break that feels beachy rather than sophisticated.
That said, its amenities are excellent, including its Pan-Asian restaurant Bamboo, which combines Chinese, Korean and Thai influences across dishes including Glacier 51 toothfish with a mushroom and ginger sauce – a light, well-balanced and tangy main – and sweet and sour pork with peppers, onion and seasonal fruit. The latter is a particularly juicy and rich version of a classic.
If seafood is your thing, book a private cabana on the beachfront to feast on platters of local king prawns, oysters and sashimi that arrive in enormous ice boats accompanied by Champagne. The doors that open out onto the sand can be left open, while inside the romantic hideaway is covered in candles: for special occasions you can also ask for tables to be set in the open air too.
Water sports and diving are big business here, and one of the biggest buzzes in the resort comes from talk of using a scuba doo – a hand-held motorised buoy that enables divers to roll and bob beneath the surface of the water as it propels them along. A regular spot for diving and snorkelling is Blue Pearl Bay, which also has training areas for beginners, and providing you’re diving in peak season when the visibility is good, there is a range of multi-coloured coral to see on the inner reef, as well as small barracuda, bumphead parrot fish and turtles that call its waters home.
Back on dry land, the nightly hike to the top of the island’s peak to see the sunset is always popular. It’s punctuated by appearances from the local wildlife: the island is very much its own habitat, with koalas, 100 cockatoos and two white swans (of only six in Australia) among its resident species, and in October and November you can also take part in a ‘butterfly walk’.
The sunset peak hike is energetic and steeper than you’d expect. But it’s precisely the ability of the trip to offer the spirit of adventure that keeps mind and body occupied. And perhaps counterintuitively, that means it promises ultimate relaxation.