From the ashes of the Blue Mountains fires, a resort wins global kudos
The bush-luxe Chalets of Blackheath, built to sit lightly on the land, are the latest addition to the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group.
If the words “mountain” and “chalet” conjure up images of Heidi in a dirndl, the Chalets at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, about two hours west of Sydney, will reset your thinking.
Four rectilinear, timber and clay cabins set on almost seven hectares of natural bushland abutting one million hectares of World Heritage wilderness, the chalets are the latest addition to the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group. When it goes live in a few weeks’ time, that will make it the only such establishment in NSW and one of only three in all of Australia. (Switzerland, on the other hand, while a 20th the size of NSW, boasts 10 Small Luxury Hotels, many of which elicit a distinct yodel.)
Owner and operator Angela O’Connell looked for land to turn into an eco-resort for six years, originally convinced that Bali was her Nirvana. “But then ethical and environmental considerations began to muddy that vision,” she recalls now, seated fireside in the Library shack of the Chalet compound.
When O’Connell, who has a corporate background, first saw the Blackheath site, it was soon after some of the worst bushfires on record had destroyed the former Jemby-Rinjah lodge on December 31, 2019. The air was still acrid, visibility impaired, the landscape charred to a smouldering crisp.
But where locals saw the carnage of decimated pine cabins, O’Connell saw the potential of a phoenix rising from the ashes.
“The camp had been a treated pine paradise,” recalls Richard Unsworth, the landscape designer and one-time Blackheath resident who O’Connell called upon to steward the regeneration of the site, “the sort of place you’d come on a bad school holiday with up to 100 other kids.”
With guidance from Blue Mountains plant expert Alex Strachan, Unsworth identified 80 native species sprouting from the blackened earth, removing many of them – including grass trees, laurels and conesticks – to a rescue nursery in Katoomba to mature safely during the two years of construction. Once paths had been laid in the least intrusive manner and the discreet facilities completed, the vegetation was replanted to form a lush landscape with little trace of human intervention.
As for those facilities, they are “bush luxe” at its very best.
The first four chalets (10 are envisaged) were placed within the footprints of the original school camp buildings; a communal fire pit within another; the Library/communal room too. Even the timber yoga platform (which looks like it could do double-time as a helipad) sits nonchalantly in the landscape.
“Every effort has been made to ensure the built environment touches the earth unobtrusively,” says O’Connell.
The chalets, which are distanced from each other and facing bushward, are essentially double-height, timber, clay and stone cubes fronted by panels of glass, with gently inclined rooflines allowing run-off rainwater to be collected and filtered for use in the bathrooms. Occupying about a third of the cabin floorspace, these have double showers and a capacious bath.
The open-plan bed/sitting area is anchored by a robust stone hearth and a log-burning combustion fire which goes from zero to “roaring” in a heartbeat. The kitchenette – which includes an induction cooking surface (no gas!) and a dishwasher – is composed of slick black granite. Sliding doors open to a private terrace replete with sun beds and barbecue.
Local produce including pastries from Black Cockatoo bakery in Katoomba, chocolates from Zokoko (Emu Plains) and Garden Grown Gin made in collaboration with the Blue Mountains Botanical Gardens is stocked in the cabins and communal areas.
“Chalets at Blackheath perfectly fit our newly unveiled Private Collection of independently spirited hotels that offers the privacy of a standalone villa with the perks and services of a boutique hotel,” enthuses Mark Wong, senior vice-president of the Asia-Pacific operations of Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH), noting that the Chalets “offers our guests something truly Australian”.
“We’re starting to really move towards bush foods,” adds O’Connell, describing the refinements undertaken since becoming part of the global SLH group. “We’ve begun swapping out produce where there is a native alternative available. So, using things like pepperberry and saltbush for seasoning. At breakfast, we’re trying to replace imported fruit varieties with things like Davidson plum, quandong or emu apples. We’re finding that a lot of guests have never experienced native bush foods and it’s having a real impact.”
In the Library, books are selected by renowned publisher (and part-time Blackheath resident) Julie Gibbs from the local branch of Gleebooks, curated to showcase Australian art, design and literature.
“The village of Blackheath has long been a destination for outstanding hospitality,” says Gibbs, who with Damien Pignolet formerly owned and operated the guesthouse and restaurant Cleopatra, on the street of the same name. “In the tradition of Philip Searle’s great restaurant Vulcan’s, the baton has been taken up by the likes of Blackheath Chalets and Ateş, along with the Mexican bar Zoe’s.”
Both Ateş (Turkish for “fire”) and Zoe’s are owned and operated by Terry Tan in partnership with chef Will Cowan-Lunn. Tan has been running restaurants in the upper Blue Mountains since the late 1980s and moved to Blackheath when he bought the Victory Cafe – in the old theatre-turned-antique market of the same name – in 2000. Cowan-Lunn, although a more recent mountaineer (he cut his teeth at Rockpool and Tetsuya’s), made his mark at Mesa Barrio in Lawson, then at Black Cockatoo bakery.
“If you produce good food and good service up here, there’s a following,” insists Cowan-Lunn, and since the opening of Zoe’s in April, a younger, slightly edgier crowd has been notable about town.
As for Ateş, The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief restaurant critic, Terry Durack, described it a few months back as “local, serious but approachable”.
Which may well be the de facto town motto.
“It’s a really sophisticated village in one of the most spectacular natural settings imaginable,” says O’Connell, “with an appeal that is unique in the world.”
Home is where the art is
Vince and Helen Day moved to the Blue Mountains for the rock climbing and stayed for the art. They opened Day Gallery in the heart of Blackheath in 2010 and today represent about 40 painters, sculptors and photographers – including Jenny Kee, Morgan Shimeld and Claire Nakazawa (who also has a vibrant musical career under the pseudonym Chaos Emerald) – all of whom live and work above the Emu Plains.
Former celebrity and fashion photographer Harold David, author of that portrait of Bob Hawke sipping a strawberry shake, turned his hand and mind to oil painting almost a decade ago, and is one of the stars of the Day stable.
His new exhibition Into A Memory, opening this weekend, is a grandiloquent exploration of “nostalgia and hope and a time before we were taught to be perfect”. Fourteen spectacularly expressive exercises in radical optimism, from the Blue Mountains to you.
Need to know
- Chalets of Blackheath | $1300 a night for a minimum two-night stay. Tel: 0457 713 882
- Into A Memoryby Harold David | from November 5 to 20 at the Day Gallery. For more go to daygallery.com.au or call 0404 930 120
The writer stayed as a guest of Chalets of Blackheath.
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