In Review

Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley review: extreme luxury in the Australian bush

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As hotels and resorts around the world continue to raise the bar in the ever-escalating luxury arms race, several – mostly across Asia and the Middle East – have begun advertising themselves as six- or even seven-star establishments.

Most are vast, exclusive, glitzy or a combination of all three. The first hotel to claim a seven-star rating was the Burj al Arab in Dubai, which describes itself as “the most luxurious hotel in the world”. Not to be outdone others followed suit, including the Pangu 7 Star Hotel in Beijing, Tameer Tower in Abu Dhabi, and The Flower of the East in Iran – all promising a full seven stars worth of luxury.

Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley makes no such claims, but brings the same level of ambition to a sleepy corner of the Australian bush, and just nine years after opening, the resort can rightly claim to be one of the most deluxe places to stay on the vast island nation.

Outback luxury

Wolgan Valley is a lesser known ridge of the Blue Mountains, the extensive mountain range that lies just to the west of Sydney.

The area is a popular tourist destination, but most visitors make it no further than Katoomba, home to the Three Sisters, a spectacular three-pronged rock formation that towers over the Jamison Valley.

In this picture taken on May 12, 2013 people visit the 'Three Sisters' rock formation in the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains is a mountainous region in New South Wales, some 50 kilometers

Hkg8573850

2013 AFP

Keep driving just a little further, though, and the spectacle continues while the tourists drop away.

New vistas emerge and vanish along the twisting roads, but the most breath-taking of all might just be the first glimpse of Wolgan Valley itself, surrounded as it is on all sides by soaring orange cliff faces, and covered in dusty green trees, soft grasses, and that blue haze that blankets the whole of the Blue Mountains.

Further down the road, a signpost to Emirates Wolgan Valley points to a large gate where a valet guides you to a shaded car park, unloads your bags into his waiting 4x4 and drives you through the vast grounds and up to the resort’s front doors where you are greeted by receptionists with a bow – a first taste of the luxury to come.

The resort

Every guest’s first experience at Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley is to fill in their check-in documents while overlooking the mountainscape that will become a constant companion throughout your stay.

With a touch of the heart – a gesture common to all One&Only resorts – waiters offer arriving guests a signature cocktails as they complete the check-in process.

It is here that you begin to meet the team who will accompany you during your stay and get into the groove of Australia’s interpretation of high-end hospitality, which is based more on warmth than obsequiousness. Everyone you meet seems to have a high-level expertise – from biologists to sommeliers, world-class equestrians to horticulturalists – and the whole One&Only team quickly comes to feel more like new friends rather than hotel staff.

Check-in complete, you can either walk or take a golf buggy to your cabin. To call it a room would do it a disservice; every suite is its own self-contained lodging, perched either up on the hill or down in the valley itself. All have been carefully arranged so that their windows face out towards the bush rather than overlooking one another, which affords a sense of seclusion to every guest.

On the porch are as many bicycles as you have guests in your group. These are yours for your whole visit – and the ideal way to explore the resort’s massive estates, although by day three if you have used your bike a lot you may start to feel a little sore in the saddle area.

Inside the front door a roaring fireplace greets you, which may not be strictly necessary in the height of summer, but is a romantic addition to the room nonetheless. Surrounding the fire are plush armchairs where you can relax during the day, and around the corner sits a huge welcoming bed with perfectly crisp linen.

Each cabin has its own walk-in wardrobe, a very well-stocked (and restocked) mini-bar – which is complimentary – and a vast bath and shower, with all the lotions, essential oils, mosquito repellents, sunscreens and diffusers you could possibly wish for – all, again, entirely complimentary.

The highlight, however, is the private pool and large deck in each cabin. Huge folding doors surround the pool so an indoor dip can quickly turn into an outdoor one if you want to let nature in, or not if the weather is less than perfect (contrary to popular belief, it can sometimes rain in Australia).

The deck is also the perfect spot for sun downers, with a surrounding flyscreen to keep out the mosquitoes and a couple rocking chairs to sway the evening away.

By day or by night

While The Week Portfolio only stayed for two nights, there is more than enough to keep you occupied here for a week if you want to truly relax and unwind in the Australian outback.

A perfect itinerary will include plenty of bike rides around the estates, with shorter or longer routes to explore, depending on your level of fitness and ambition. Along the way you are sure to encounter copious kangaroos, wallaroos and wallabies.

Birds swoop and sing, in varying strains of mellifluousness and discordance. The sounds of the Aussie bush are a fascinating symphony – not always sweet, but instantly recognisable. Added to this, the sound of cicadas rings round the Blue Mountains in summer too, a noise that sits in the midpoint between a cello drone and the hiss of a snake.

To experience the bush the way early British explorers and settlers would have seen it, a horse ride is a must. The resort has a stable filled with plenty of horses to cater to all levels of riders. My partner’s horse, Splitty was faster and better suited to her level of equestrian know-how than my rather dopier, slower stallion Banjo.

Trail rides are a glorious way to get out into the bush, but younger or nervier riders can also stay in the stable’s purpose-built arena to learn skills such as mounting and dismounting, riding position and balance, holding the reins, steering and so on.

Other daytime diversions on offer at the resort include a champagne picnic that takes you deep into the valley, guided nature walks, archery, tennis, the pool, or bird watching tours to introduce you to some of the 150 bird species that call the region home.

(C)Brett Boardman Photography

As night begins to fall, two other wildlife experiences beckon: the first is the sundowner tour, which takes guests for an evening drive as animals begin to emerge from their daytime slumber and venture out to forage and hunt. True to its name, the tour stops half way for drinks on the hood of the four wheel drive and for perfect golden-hour photos.

After dinner, the second wildlife experience takes off: the nocturnal wildlife tour, which offers the best opportunity to come face to face with some of the valley’s more retiring residents.

Alongside the wealth or roos and wallabies, wombats are at their most active at night. Despite growing up in Australia, I had never seen a wombat in the wild until I took this tour. The squat marsupials made up for lost time, emerging in droves, waddling in front of our truck, burrowing, munching on grass and, ahem, marking their territory.

Our tour also stumbled upon a pair of possums, a mother and her young joey, their eyes glowing orbs in our red spotlights. Gliders, quolls, potoroos, and dingos are also frequently seen in the valley at night. Koalas have been spotted, but they are rather less common, so don’t get your hopes up.

Food and drink

Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley has a pair of restaurants, which offer two very different dining experiences.

The Country Kitchen is the resort’s more casual option. Sort of like a smart gastropub but with the world’s greatest pub garden – one which spans 7,000 acres.

The Country Kitchen’s menu features a selection of classics, while the blackboard is updated daily with seasonal specials to ensure you won’t run out of new dishes to try during your stay.

On one of our visits, we began with Sydney rock oysters, which were perfectly fresh despite the fact that Wolgan Valley lies more than 100 miles from the coast.

The salmon tartar with avocado and herb dressing and sharp pickled shallots and potatoes was pitch perfect for a warm spring day. The burgers that we both ordered for our main course, one chicken katsu burger with kimchi and a more traditional beef burger (here named the Wolgan) were both good if not dazzling. The meal finished on a high note though with a triple cream brie (good things always come in threes) with shaved truffle and, curiously, honeycomb – unexpectedly perfect.

The real culinary fireworks are on show at the Wolgan Valley Dining Room, which may only be located upstairs from the Country Kitchen, but is approximately 7,000 acres away in terms of its aspiration and complexity.

Head chef Nancy Kinchela’s career has taken her from Dubai to South Africa, Kuala Lumpur and the UK, mostly working in similarly high-end hotels and resorts.

Here, she has composed a tasting menu that draws on the best ingredients from the Wolgan Valley region. In fact, wherever possible, Kinchela uses ingredients grown in her own kitchen garden.

Evening meals are, as ever, accompanied by panoramic views across the valley. Kangaroos bound across the plains and birds come in to roost for the night as the evening draws in.

Back at the table, though, Kinchela’s “Taste of the Wolgan” degustation menu offers few clues about what guests should expect, with each course labelled with just one or two words.

“Wagyu” is the first cab off the rank – which proves to be a thin slice of Wagyu carpaccio leaning nonchalantly on a stack of finely cut crisp vegetables, a pearl of black garlic and whisp-thin onion skins. A triumph of understatement.

That subtlety follows into the next course, “1832 young garlic” a finely composed plate of asparagus stems, spring onion, garlic and parsley, subtle and fresh as you like.

Two meaty main courses inject a little more heft into proceedings next. “Parpadalle” featuring a boar ragu turns out to be two or three sheets of pasta, coiled like pythons around a central ragu. This is quickly followed by “Veal” a medallion of perfectly cooked calf meat on a bed of gnocchi.

Some tasting menus leave you reeling by offering rather too much of a good thing, but Kinchela knows when to quit, ending the meal with her “Expressions of rhubarb”, a collection of different presentations of the deep red vegetable, as a sorbet, crisp and reduction.

Spa

In the early days of British colonisation of Australia, the land on which Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley sits was occupied by a large ranch tended by convicts. It is hard to reconcile the harshness of the life they must have endured with the valley’s current purpose. Hard graft seems as remote as can be from the One&Only experience, and nowhere does it seem more distant than at the resort’s spa.

Overlooking the valley, the spa has six treatment rooms big enough to accommodate couples if joint massages are your thing, or individuals if you prefer a more private experience. All sessions use products that are 100% chemical-free and derived, largely, from Australian plant extracts for that local touch.

Every room also has a private shower and change room, meaning total privacy while you are in the spa complex. So how are the treatments themselves? Our 60-minute Mountain Aromatherapy Massages are perfectly pitched, neither too noninterventionist nor too remedial. The therapists even managed to sell my partner some of the Sodachi oils that had featured in her massage – not cheap, but a lovely souvenir to return with to ease the stress of day-to-day London life.

Verdict

So does Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley live up to the hype? From the warm, knowledgeable staff to the exceptional facilities, massive grounds, impeccably appointed rooms, and excellent activities on offer, the resort sets a new benchmark for luxury in Australia, and might even stake a claim for that sixth or even seventh star of luxury.

Nightly rates start from £1,598 in a Heritage Bedroom King Villa. For more information or to book, visit oneandonlyresorts.com

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