A century ago, the Blue Mountains were a sylvan hideaway where Sydney's smart set escaped the heat of the city in elegant houses with shady verandas and lush, cool-climate gardens. Back then the journey took two days by horse-drawn carriage; now this quiet Victorian haven is only a two-hour drive west of town, and a choice weekend destination.
The foothills of the Blue Mountains (just 40 miles from the coast) have become part of Sydney's creeping sprawl, as the suburbs colonize the bush before shifting into cream-tea-and-artsy-craftsy territory. But don't be put off. Carry on up that winding road, through increasingly rugged countryside and steep terrain, and you come to a place that is the updated version of an old-time mountain getaway—Cleopatra Restaurant & Guest House in the town of Blackheath.
The exotic name is misleading. There are no gilded sphinxes here, or even any gilded faucets. Rather, this is a glorious historic house dating from the 1880's, with its original tennis court intact and its garden created in the 1930's by the esteemed Danish-born landscape designer Paul Sorensen.
Last year Cleopatra was taken over by one of Sydney's most respected chef-restaurateurs, Damien Pignolet, the man responsible for the city's wonderful Bistro Moncur. His goal was to burnish Cleopatra's status as the Blue Mountains' premier dining establishment, and at the same time to give the interior and five guest rooms a makeover. The result proves that country doesn't have to mean Austrian blinds and needlepoint pillows. You might expect to find lace doilies, potpourri, and all such tizz, but instead there's an uncomplicated, modern interior by the New York—based Australian designer Neil Bradford.
A curator was commissioned to fill the inn with works by contemporary Australian artists (the earliest piece is dated 1990) such as Tracey Moffat and Lindy Lee. The museum-quality collection, combined with the earth-toned décor (subdued, natural shades of clay, mushroom, coffee, and moss), produces a sophisticated sense of calm. The feeling is sustained by bedroom walls covered in padded fabrics, including a glorious toile de Jouy, and the clean lines of the furniture, from Henri Becq's Modenature collection.
THE NEW OWNERS HAVE ALSO OVERSEEN A RESTORATION of the gardens, planting thousands of annuals in pretty borders near the house and clearing brush from the woodlands. The garden's plan draws you around the tennis court, which is protected by the New South Wales Heritage List, through the arboretum, and down secluded paths. Small groups of tables and chairs are set out on the lawn, where the cool, green beauty of hundred-year-old trees and the genius of Sorensen's layout wrap visitors in an atmosphere of peace.
Pignolet is a famous perfectionist, and no detail at Cleopatra has been scrimped on or overlooked—plush down pillows, thick towels, superb Australian bed linens, Limoges china, Christofle flatware, and so on. At an intimate country guesthouse like this, such refinement is unexpected, and it's especially delightful.
The largest of the suites is the Apartment, which has a spacious drawing room with a fireplace, and an upstairs bedroom and bath. Guests dining with friends often use the drawing room for private pre- and post-dinner drinks.
PIGNOLET IS PROBABLY AUSTRALIA'S FINEST EXPONENT of French provincial cooking, and both he and head chef Fabrice Boone have an unusually delicate touch. His aim is for diners to leave the table satisfied, not stuffed; he achieves this through intensity of flavor, rather than richness, using cooking procedures of dizzying complexity.
A recent dinner started with truffled game essence served in a little porcelain cup under a puff-pastry hat. It continued with Pignolet's signature dish, a perfect daube of beef that is deceptively simple but takes days to make: the meat is braised forever with red wine and vegetables. The meal ended with a heavenly fig-and-poached-quince trifle accompanied by lavender ice cream. The hotel's classic dessert, a warm and creamy chocolate pudding, is worth a two-hour drive in its own right.
If you want to try your skill at matching a wine to such a dessert, you can rely on your own cellar. Cleopatra only recently acquired a full liquor license, but it's such a long-standing tradition for guests to bring their own special wines—with some toting a case for the weekend—that Pignolet continues to allow it.
Pignolet's other plans, to be completed next year, include a new guest wing with six suites and a larger dining room, which will free up the current dining areas for use as a library and sitting room. He also intends to expand the kitchen and offer the cooking courses for which he is renowned throughout Australia.
Sydneysiders race to Cleopatra for weekend getaways, but if you've come to Australia on a longer vacation you can make the most of visiting midweek, when the Blue Mountains are far less crowded. The guesthouse is a perfect base for exploring, especially on foot; Blue Mountains National Park offers superb wilderness hikes and bush walks, many of them accessible by foot directly from Cleopatra. Or you can simply enjoy the house for itself. Many guests start off full of the best intentions to visit famous gardens and cozy bookshops, and find instead that they can't bear to leave the serenity of Cleopatra and its contemplative grounds.
And what's wrong with that?
Cleopatra Restaurant & Guest House, 118 Cleopatra St., Blackheath; 61-2/4787-8456, fax 61-2/4787-6238; doubles from $90.