The Blue Mountains can be relaxing as well as adventurous.
The Blue Mountains is a stunning wilderness area to the west of Sydney, Australia. If you’re spending time in the city and feel like getting away from it all, there’s no better place to go. The blue haze that fills the majestic valleys is caused by a phenomenon known as ‘Rayleigh scattering’, enhanced by millions of micro droplets of eucalyptus oil.
Many people come to this area for hiking and adventurous pursuits, but it’s also a great place to chill out if you’re a slow traveller. Here are my top relaxing things to do in the Blue Mountains.
You can enjoy the spectacular scenery of the Blue Mountains without the need for hiking gear. From Echo Point, just outside Katoomba, you can take various paths around the edges of the Jamison Valley and admire the views. The Prince Henry Cliff Walk takes you past the famous ‘Three Sisters’ sandstone structures (our feature photo). Watch out for bird life, butterflies and wild flowers as you go.
At Echo Point itself, there’s a visitor centre, cafe bar and toilets. If you feel like walking further, there are various options with indicators of how easy or challenging the path will be.
2. Visiting SCENIC WORLD
In all honesty, Scenic World is aimed at large tourist groups, who arrive by the busload throughout the day. We walked there from Echo Point, following the main roads for a while, then side-tracking onto a bush walk. It was a good place to stop for coffee and see what all the fuss was about.
On arrival at Scenic World, visitors are greeted by roaring model dinosaurs! Other attractions include the world’s steepest passenger railway, the ‘Scenic Skyway’ cable car which glides from one clifftop to another and the ‘Scenic Cableway’ which descends into the valley. These offer good alternatives to walking around the scenic paths, for anyone preferring to enjoy the amazing views in comfort. Day passes are available for those wishing to see the valley during the different lights of day.
It might sound odd to suggest shopping as an activity in the Blue Mountains. After all, Sydney has all the shopping you could wish for – from top-end designer labels to Australian high street fashion. But if you’re after something different, the small towns of the Blue Mountains can be just the place to find it. There are independent stores, galleries and boutiques selling locally-made goods that make great gifts.
20 years ago, I bought some items from two unique stores in Katoomba – The Hattery and Incantations. Revisiting all these years later, I was delighted to discover that these wonderful stores were still there. The Hattery has every kind of hat you could ever need, including Australian originals. Incantations is an exotic little boutique full of very colourful boho skirts, tops and jewellery.
I remember being stopped by a passer-by in London some years ago, when I was on my way to work. She wanted to know where I’d bought my hat, as it was exactly what she was looking for, for a wedding. She was most disappointed when I said I’d bought it in Australia! The skirt I bought from Incantations has also attracted lots of comments over the years as nobody had seen anything quite like it. Needless to say I couldn’t resist buying more items from both stores on this visit. Even my husband bought a hat.
If you’d like to find local gourmet products, along with other Australian fine foods, wines and beers, pop into the Carrington Cellars and Deli. Housed in Katoomba’s former power station, you can enjoy the industrial heritage of the building while checking out the cheeses, charcuterie, snacks, bottled oils and sauces and gift hampers.
Craft beer fans can pop over the road to another heritage building. The Katoomba Brewing Co. is housed in a former coal-fired power station. The Cellars and the Brewery are both part of the Carrington Hotel precinct – see ‘Where to stay’ below.
Depending on where you base yourself, it can be easy to get around the towns of the Blue Mountains. We stayed in Katoomba, a down-to-earth, un-touristy town with good value shops and excellent amenities. We really enjoyed strolling around there, but this only takes half a day. So for a change of scene, we hopped on the train for one stop to Leura, a 7-minute ride away. (You can also take a bus there).
Leura is a pretty town with a tree-lined main street and lovely boutique shops. There’s even a teapot museum! We spent a very pleasant morning wandering around the town and dropping into one of the many cafes for a flat white. The local garden centre and gift shop, full of quirky stuff as well as pretty plants, was particularly delightful.
An alternative to the ‘do it yourself’ touring option is the Blue Mountains Explorer bus, which has a hop-on, hop-off day pass for around $49 per person. You can also do the full circuit in about an hour for $29. Stops include Katoomba, Echo Point, Scenic World and Leura.
A lovely way to relax, after an exhausting day of exploring, is to submerge your tired limbs in a warm pool or spa bath. The Blue Mountains offers some great options.
Lilianfels resort has two pools: one indoor and one outdoor. The indoor one is next to their day spa, where you can enjoy a range of therapeutic treatments. The outdoor one is located in the gorgeous gardens and is provided with sun loungers. We mainly used the indoor pool as it we found that we had it all to ourselves!
For something a little different, The Japanese Bath House just outside Katoomba offers a range of indoor and outdoor bath experiences including an onsen pool. The water comes from a mineral spring and is infused with herbal treatments. Private bathing is available along with a range of therapies.
6. sketching, writing and reading
If you enjoy sketching or painting, the stunning scenery of the Blue Mountains will undoubtedly inspire you. So make sure you take your sketch pad and paints with you. It’s a lovely way to spend an hour or two – and the vista changes constantly during the day.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the weather in this area can be unpredictable. My first-ever visit saw heavy tropical downpours lasting for most of a day. Luckily my hotel, Lilianfels, had a lovely library and reading room where I wrote letters home and browsed the shelves. It’s still there today, and Lilianfels now also has a games room with a pool table.
There are some fine local products to enjoy in the Blue Mountains, including wine and chocolate. Dryridge Estate and award-winning Megalong Creek wineries are located in the Megalong Valley (I love that name!) The Explorer Bus company, mentioned earlier, offers a Megalong Valley Wine Trail Pass, which gives you transport and 4 hours to spend at these two delightful wineries.
Chocolate lovers can visit the Blue Mountains Chocolate Company and discover their amazing handmade chocolates. Don’t let the unpretentious façade of their premises fool you – these chocolates are exquisite! You can taste the individually-made delicacies and enjoy some with a coffee or hot chocolate, then buy gift packs to take home.
8. Fine dining
There are some wonderful places to dine in the Blue Mountains, some with incredible views. One of the latter that we particularly enjoyed was Echoes. The restaurant has a lovely setting overlooking the Jamison Valley. At sunset, everyone took out their phones to capture the magnificent vistas!
The food and service were equally memorable. I chose the scallops entrée, roasted blue cod with accompaniments for my main course and the chocolate and citrus fruits for dessert. All exceptionally good and beautifully presented.
Another lovely fine dining restaurant we tried was Darley’s. The setting is more formal and traditional, in keeping with the period building. Everything is plush and luxurious, with comfy upholstered chairs and crisp white tablecloths. I tried two dishes I’ve never eaten before: coral trout for my main dish, and porcini ice cream for dessert! Both delicious and beautifully presented. The ice cream wasn’t overly ‘mushroomy’ and went really well with the dark chocolate accompaniment.
Alas, we weren’t around on the right days of the week (Thursdays to Sundays) to try Pins on Lurline which looks amazing. Next time! I should mention that all these restaurants are in Katoomba.
When to visit
My favourite time to visit Australia is spring (September to November), when the country literally blossoms. Jacaranda, flame trees, rhododendron, jasmine, honeysuckle and beautiful wild flowers fill the countryside and streets with colour.
Spring is also one of the drier seasons for visiting the Blue Mountains – which is a big plus as when it rains, boy does it rain! The temperatures are not too hot and not too cold, and there are fewer tourists at this time too.
Trains to the Blue Mountains leave from Sydney Central station every hour. The journey takes about 2 hours. It’s not a fast journey – there are 19 stops to Katoomba! – but there are some ‘express’ services that only stop at 4 or 5 stations, including Katoomba but not Leura. Further information and a travel planner can be found on the New South Wales Transport website. There are good local bus services between the main Blue Mountains towns.
Paying for your journey in the Sydney area is easy. You can use the New South Wales pre-paid Opal Card or alternatively, your credit or debit card, to tap on and off buses and trains.
If you need a taxi at any time, bear in mind that these are not always plentiful. We were almost caught out, despite booking an hour ahead of the time we wanted. All the taxis in Katoomba were fully occupied and we had to wait around 40 minutes. Luckily we just made it in time to catch our train back to Sydney. If your taxi journey is time-critical, it’s probably best to book it the day before if possible.
If you’re staying in Sydney and can only spare a day, it’s possible to visit the Blue Mountains on an organised tour.
As I mentioned earlier, rain can be heavy in this area and can last for days! So do bring your wet weather gear. Temperatures in shoulder seasons can vary enormously from the rather cool to the very hot. You’ll need high factor sunscreen and a sunhat. And don’t forget your repellent as there is plenty of insect life to contend with, especially if you go walking in the valleys.
Where to stay
We stayed at Lilianfels Blue Mountains resort and spa, which is near Echo Point just outside Katoomba. It’s a beautiful, luxury resort with a historic homestead at its heart and is one of my Top 18 unforgettable hotels. I’ve been there 3 times and hope to go again!
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LILIANFELS BLUE MOUNTAINS
The central building was once the home of a Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales. We loved the luxurious ‘home from home’ feel and the delightful gardens.
Echoes boutique hotel
Built in 1990 as a retreat for Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, Echoes is a luxury boutique hotel with great views and an award-winning restaurant.
This historic grand hotel is situated in the heart of Katoomba. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth popping in for afternoon tea or a drink, just to appreciate the beautiful period architecture and decor.
These hotels are on the luxurious side of what’s available, but there are plenty of alternatives to suit all budgets.
The Blue Mountains area offers a wonderful antidote to the busy cities of eastern Australia. I love it because of its fascinating mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary. The scenery is incredible but the towns are very down-to-earth; the luxurious and the humble seem to co-exist comfortably. You can find unique individuality behind an unpretentious facade. So make sure you leave room in your suitcase for a purchase or two.
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