Only a couple of hours drive away from Sydney, and easily accessible by rail, the Blue Mountains are a welcome refuge away from the city’s hustle and bustle. Perfect as a weekend getaway, the Blue Mountains are actually a collection of villages strung along the train line. The biggest and most well known of these is Katoomba, where the renowned Three Sisters are located, but other options for a base include Blackheath, Leura and Wentworth Falls.
We drive up early on a Saturday morning, and arrive in Leura by lunchtime. Leura Garage is a cute little cafe housed in an old garage (hence its name) which serves locally sourced foods as well as seasonal products like flowers, honey and cider. The food is fresh and delicious, and there is also an extensive selection of local wines. Leura itself is a picturesque village filled with vintage shops, candlemakers, and a beautiful stationer’s. We spend a few hours wandering the streets. There is also Josophan’s, an artisanal chocolate shop and we indulge in some Mayan Chili and Mango & Chili (spot a trend? We love spice!) chocolates.
The best accommodation in the Blue Mountains is in bed & breakfasts, or B&Bs, and every time I’ve visited I’ve tried to vary both the villages I’ve stayed in, as well as the B&B. This time we’ve booked with Lurline House in Katoomba, a federation style home with homey, cosy rooms. There are mint chocolates on our pillows on arrival (replenished every morning), hiking guides to borrow and an eclectic and interesting collection of artifacts and art displayed on the walls. We are greeted by a comfy couch, hot tea and fresh cream cake. The remainder of the afternoon is spent reading, relaxing, and listening to the birds calling outside the windows.
We’ve made a booking for the Mysteries and Ghosts Tour at the Jenolan Caves, which are some of the oldest discovered open caves in the world. The plan is to drive from Katoomba to Jenolan Caves – Google Maps informing us that the journey will take an hour and fifteen minutes – stopping by for dinner on the way at St Mount’s Trattoria, a cute, kitsch Italian style restaurant that serves up a mean ragu.
It starts to rain just as we hit the Great Western Highway and we hit a snag immediately – we haven’t made a reservation and it is a long weekend, which means the restaurant is full. Our waitress takes pity on us and seats us, on condition that we leave within the hour. We assure her that we’ll be long gone, given that we have to be at Jenolan Caves by 8pm for our tour.
She’s a little hesitant about our plan. “The caves are at least an hour and a half away, and on a night like this, the roads are going to be pretty dangerous – drive slowly!”
Good advice, as it turns out. We make good time for most of the journey, but as the road descends towards the caves, the hairpins get tighter, the road gets narrower and the night fills with fog. If you intend to take the night tour at Jenolan Caves, a better plan would be to drive there while there is still light (apparently the scenery is stunning, with a view of the Blue Lake on the approach), and eat at Cave House or another on-site restaurant.
The caves themselves are calcite, almost pure white and magnificent. Equipped with a lamp each, we start the tour in almost pitch blackness, and our guide takes us through the main caves, turning on the lights for effect at certain points. Some of the formations are eerily striking, lit to showcase their extraordinary, otherworldly beauty.
The two hour tour does involve some steps, and if you go, make sure you wear good shoes as the ground is uneven, and in some places, wet and slippery. Surprisingly, it is pleasant inside the caves, where being underground means the temperature is kept at a constant 15 Celsius on most days, so you won’t need too much warm clothing. Lastly, as ghost tours go, this one is decidedly tame, and suitable for families with children.
The natural beauty of the Blue Mountains is best appreciated from one of the hundreds of bushwalks that criss-cross the Jamison and Megalong valleys. One of the most popular trails is the National Pass, which meanders its way for 6 kilometres through bush, up and down cliffs and past three waterfalls. It takes us about 4 hours to traverse the trail (with photo stops and a lunchbreak), which loops back to the trailhead at Wentworth Falls. The trail brings us to steep stone stairs cut into the rock face, across the trickling base of waterfalls (where we jump from stone to stone in order to cross), and to lookouts of spectacular views of clouds drifting across the poetically named Valley of the Waters.
The trail is very well maintained and some sections are wet, but not excessively muddy. There are many level spots where you can stop and have a picnic with a view, or you can drop by the Conservation Hut at the end of your hike to refuel. There are no toilet or drinking water facilities along this trail, but there are picnic huts, water fountains and bathrooms at the trailhead. It starts to rain just as we finish the trail – mountain weather is notoriously fickle, so we complete the last sections of it dodging raindrops.
By the time we head back to our warm rooms and a hot shower, it’s close to sunset, so we take a short drive to Echo Point to see the Three Sisters. Aboriginal dreamtime legend has it that three beautiful sisters, Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo who lived in the Jamison Valley fell in love with three brothers from a neighbouring tribe, but tribal law prevented them from marrying. The brothers attempted to kidnap the sisters, and sparked a tribal war. To keep the sisters safe from harm, a witchdoctor turned them into stone. He always intended to reverse the spell, but he was killed in the battle, and so the Three Sisters remain, locked into stone to this day.
The rock formation changes colours throughout the day, and as the sun sets, purple shadows fill up in the valley beneath, while the Sisters themselves are touched by liquid gold. The area is dramatically flood lit at night, outlining the rocks against the inky blackness of the valley behind.
As a weekend getaway, the Blue Mountains offers a bounty of activities, from hiking to shopping, horse riding to jumping onto the world’s steepest railway, just two hours away from Sydney. Each time I’ve been to the Blue Mountains there’s been something new to discover, even when hiking the same trails – the light has changed, or there is more birdcall, or the rivers are in full spate.