Why the Blue Mountains?
Once regarded as an impassable barrier to the Australian interior, the Blue Mountains is now Sydney’s favourite escape. To city types, it’s a place of homely B&Bs, friendly cafes and muddy hikers’ boots. To those from further afield, it’s a World Heritage region packed with some of the most staggering gorge and valley views imaginable.
The blue in the name comes from the sun meeting the oil from the eucalyptus leaves, bestowing a near-permanent blue sheen. The mountains part is a mistake – the area is actually a high plateau cut through by rivers and creeks.
Often done as an overly rushed day trip from Sydney, the area comes into its own when you’ve got the time to spend walking through those views rather than taking snatched photos of them.
A comfortable bed
Of the 26 towns and villages in the Blue Mountains, Katoomba, Leura or Blackheath make the best base. In Katoomba, 14-bedroom heritage-house Echoes (www.echoeshotel.com.au) has a fine on-site restaurant, gorgeous paintings of architecture from around the world and adorable bay windows. But it's the balconies with jaw-dropping valley or cliff views that make it. Doubles cost from 260 Australian dollars (Dh733) per night.
Of Katoomba's many B&Bs, the Kurrara Historic Guesthouse (www.kurraraguesthouse.com.au) has the heritage – it has been hosting visitors since 1902. Four-poster beds, well-stacked bookshelves, electric blankets, and lounges kitted out with board games add thoughtful charm to the old-world looks. Expect to pay from A$125 (Dh352) a night.
The Fairmont Resort (www.fairmontresort.com.au) in Leura is brilliant for families, with two game rooms containing large soft-play areas for different age groups. There's an indoor and outdoor pool, as well as a golf course next door. Rooms cost from A$184 (Dh519).
Find your feet
The inevitable starting place is Echo Point in Katoomba, where the archetypal postcard view of the Jamison Valley unfurls, the Three Sisters rock formation framing it to the left. Nearby, the Giant Stairway descends into the valley via hundreds and hundreds of thigh-straining steps. At the bottom, a walking trail heads through the eucalyptus forest, accompanied by riotous birdsong.
About 90 minutes into the trail, there's the choice of either ascending a similar number of steps, or taking the world's steepest railway back to the top. The Scenic Railway has genuine rollercoaster qualities to it, and is part of Scenic World (www.scenicworld.com.au). A day ticket, which costs A$39 (Dh110), will also allow access to the Scenic Skyway – a cable car across the Katoomba Falls. At the other end, it's an easy and spectacular walk along the clifftops back to Echo Point.
Meet the locals
The lower Blue Mountains are generally skipped in favour of the more spectacular views higher up. But the section of the Blue Mountains National Park near Glenbrook has some beautiful walks to lookouts over the Nepean River and some gorgeous swimming holes. It’s also the best place to see kangaroos – they’re practically guaranteed in the Euroka Clearing.
Book a table
Leura is the gourmet hub of the mountains, with Silk's Brasserie (www.silksleura.com) being a long-standing higher-end favourite. From Monday to Thursday, three-course dinners can be had for A$69 (Dh194), with mains including Tasmanian salmon fillet with kipfler potatoes, grilled aubergine and salsa verde.
More chilled is Zest (www.zestleura.com.au), which has Mediterranean and Middle Eastern leanings – seafood tagines and lamb koftas are the stars, and most mains are around the A$27 (Dh76) mark.
The Leura Mall is basically the village’s main street, lined with agreeably independent shops. Bijou offers colourful jewellery, Moontree is all candles, the Leura Toy Shop mixes games and stuffed toys, while the Teddy Sinclair Man Cave has everything from beard wax and wallets to vintage compasses.
Katoomba’s main street, meanwhile, mixes the quirky with the useful. So slightly theatrical hat shop, The Hattery, mixes in with numerous outdoor gear stores, such as Mountain Designs.
What to avoid
The Waradah Aboriginal Centre (www.waradahaboriginalcentre.com.au) is a scant introduction to Australia's indigenous cultures. Unless you want men with painted faces telling a couple of stories, indigenous culture is best explored elsewhere.
The Jenolan Caves (www.jenolancaves.org.au) are thought to be the oldest cave system in the world, and are packed with impressive shawl-like formations, stalagmites, stalactites and sparkling crystals.
The ticketing system is needlessly complicated, but suffice to say that tours of different caves run at different times of the day, and it’s worth checking ahead which is going when.
The Chifley Cave is a good all-rounder with a bit of everything, while the Lucas Cave wins on scale.
Emirates (emirates.com) and Etihad (Etihad.com) fly direct to Sydney from Dubai and Abu Dhabi respectively. From Sydney Airport, Katoomba is a 90-minute drive or two hours and 40 minutes by train, changing at Sydney Central.