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Travel & Holiday

Wildlife amid luxury

Wolgan Valley is a haven for wildlife and the resort there is also a great place to relax and recharge
The Straits Times - September 20, 2011
By: Corrie Tan
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Wildlife amid luxury Sunset at Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa, which has breathtaking views of the Blue Mountains that cup the valley. -- PHOTOS: WOLGAN VALLEY RESORT & SPA

Each week at the Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa, at least one person gets down on bended knee and proposes.

And since the Australian resort's opening two years ago, every answer has been a resounding 'yes'.

It must be just about impossible to say no, given the breathtaking views of the Blue Mountains that cup the valley. The sunsets here have the Midas touch, cloaking everything in gold. At night, a thousand pinpricks of stars glitter above the resort's 40 suites.

Sure enough, over one of our luscious five-course dinners, general manager Joost Heymeijer whispers that the couple at the next table has just got engaged.

With a maximum capacity of 90 people, the resort is nestled in a prime location - along Australia's Great Dividing Range, bordered by the Blue Mountains and two national parks.

While the property sprawls across 1,618ha (more than three times the size of Sentosa), the buildings comprising the resort and spa occupy only 2 per cent of its area. The rest of it is a lush conservancy reserve, a haven to more than 100 species of vertebrates and more than 90 species of birds.

These animals seem to recognise their protected status. As dusk falls, kangaroos, wallaroos and wallabies wander close to the rows of villas, dotting the landscape as they graze. I found a wombat snuffling unabashedly in the shrubbery a few feet from my doorstep.

We set out in a luxury four-wheel vehicle an hour before sunset with field guide Simone, who drove us along meandering dirt tracks, identifying animals and birds along the way.

If you are lucky, you might get a glimpse of the rare albino wallaroo - they have a genetic mutation that occurs once in every 25,000 births. In the wild, these albino wallaroos are often easy targets for predators because their white fur offers them meagre camouflage.

But there are at least four albino wallaroos on the property, a testament to their safe surroundings, and on our wildlife ramble, we spot three of them, including one that seems to have made its home close to the tennis courts.

Another excellent way to take in the resort's expanses is on horseback. The guides will determine your horseriding ability before pairing you with the horse they feel best suits your experience level. Having ridden horses before, I was paired with the youthful Trigger who, true to his namesake, was raring to go.

After a simple lesson on how to guide our horses, we walked through clear creeks and over gently rolling hills. A longer route will take you to the base of the nearby Donkey Mountain, against a backdrop of stony escarpments and lush forest. You can even pack a picnic.

Wolgan Valley is home to the Wollemi pine, one of the world's oldest and rarest tree species.

Fewer than 100 adult trees are known to exist in the wild. This pine belongs to a 200 million-year-old plant family and was previously known only from fossil records. Botanists presumed it extinct until 1994, when a New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Services officer went trekking in the mountains and stumbled across it.

The exact location of these adult trees is a fiercely guarded secret. So secret, in fact, that only select researchers are allowed to visit the area on rare occasions and according to our field guide, they must be blindfolded for the entirety of the helicopter ride.

If you are caught damaging an adult pine, you will get a stiff fine and/or a jail term. But you can see the Wollemi pine up close without becoming a criminal - the resort has a tiny grove where a clutch of artificially germinated pines has been planted.

The resort also has the honour of being the first hotel in the world to receive internationally accredited carbon neutral certification. Not a single tree was destroyed during the construction of the resort, which cost A$125 million (about S$159 million) to build.

Part of its conservation drive included the restoration of a heritage homestead on the property. Dubbed the 1832 Homestead, the single-storey dwelling captures what it might have been like to live in the times of the early Australian settlers. We discovered a different sort of settler on our tour of the homestead: A curious possum perched on one of the timber beams in the outhouse.

Behind the homestead is the resort's kitchen garden, where a fair amount of the resort's organic produce comes from. All ingredients for the resort's menu come from this garden and local farmers within a 160km radius of the property.

This sensitivity to the environment permeates every inch of the resort's philosophy.

Buildings are equipped with energy- efficient light bulbs and have their own tanks for rainwater collection. All of the domestic water used at the resort is recycled. The resort has more than 100 solar panels for its hot water systems. Even the Babor soaps and gels in each bathroom are completely biodegradable.

The resort's furniture reflects the same attention to detail.

Many of the pieces were made from artefacts on the property following the departure of farmers. A discarded cattle trough, for instance, was turned upside- down and converted into a light fixture.

I spent two nights in the incredibly cosy Heritage Suite, mostly cocooned on a A$3,700 mattress. These pillowtop mattresses are custom-made and have a top layer comprising seven layers of different foams and latex for a good night's sleep.

Mr Heymeijer said that a surgeon was reduced to tears after his first night at the resort, saying that it was his best sleep in nearly a decade. So it is no surprise that the resort has sold 45 of these beds so far.

I could not resist taking a dip in my private, temperature-controlled plunge pool, lapping up the view of the surrounding mountains through the ceiling-to- floor windows.

Guilt-free luxury does come with a bit of a price tag. Room rates start from A$1,560 a night for the Heritage Suite and from A$4,400 a night for the presidential Wolgan Suite. These rates include a gourmet breakfast, lunch and dinner, and two daily nature-based activities for every person. These include mountain biking tours, guided walks and stargazing.

To take everything in and give yourself time to unwind, a good length of time to spend in the resort is at least three nights. You will not need to leave the place because everything you need is readily available.

Walking back from a relaxing massage and a body scrub at the resort's in-house Timeless Spa, the sun is beginning to sink over the horizon and I can hear the eerie call of the kookaburra.

I realise that I am witness to the best marriage of all - man and nature co-existing in quiet harmony.

I hope it is a marriage that lasts because I am definitely coming back.

The writer's trip was sponsored by the Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa.

5 things to do

1 Do carry enough water, sunscreen and insect repellent with you, andbring a hat if necessary as temperatures in Wolgan Valley can be very high, especially in summer. Bring a fleece or jacket, even in summer, because temperatures can drop at night.

2 Do wear fully enclosed shoes when out to help protect yourself from wombat holes and unstable river banks.

3 Do ask for wine pairings with dinner. The resort boasts a walk-in wine cellar and a wide range of local and international wines. The wine list was created in partnership with Australian wine expert Peter Bourne.

4 Do leave your mobile phone behind. There is no mobile phone reception there but free Wi-Fi is available.

5 Do keep a lookout for Wolli, a handcrafted wooden wombat placed next to each bed. Put him on the bed when you need a change of bed linens. Or grab a pair of binoculars from the mantlepiece and look for real-life wombats when they emerge at twilight.

2 don'ts

1 Do not feed, approach or handle the animals on the property. Wallabies and wombats may look cute and cuddly, but they are not tame.

2 Do not litter or leave anything behind. Wolgan Valley is located in a fragile environment bordered by two world heritage-listed national parks ? the Wollemi National Park and the Gardens of Stone National Park ? so make sure all you leave behind are your footprints.

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines operates daily direct flights to Sydney. Qantas also flies daily between Singapore and Sydney.

It is a three-hour drive from Sydney to Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa. Go to www.wolganvalley.com for details, including transfers by helicopter, as well as instructions for those who wish to self-drive.

 

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