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.
A number of Australia's loveliest houses and gardens are within an hour's drive of Cleopatra. Here are some places not to miss. Faulconbridge The Norman Lindsay Gallery & Museum (14 Norman Lindsay Crescent; 61-2/4751-1067) has a comprehensive collection of Lindsay's rather lurid paintings of pneumatic naked young women. His scandalously bohemian lifestyle was the subject of the 1994 Hugh Grant movie Sirens.
At Everglades Gardens (37 Everglades Ave.; 61-2/4784-1938), visitors can tour the Art Deco mansion and gardens designed by Paul Sorensen, Australia's great landscaper.
Barmans (169—171 Leura Mall; 61-2/4784-1951), Australia's largest underground retail wine cellar, is the perfect place to stock up on Shiraz.
The best-preserved heritage village in New South Wales is chock-full of country charm.
Mount Vic Flicks (Harley Ave.; 61-2/4787-1577), a small cinema in a 1930's building, has kept its old-fashioned character but shows all the latest releases. Locals bring their own mugs for tea and coffee during intermission.
The Blue Mountains may have a serious oversupply of Devon tea shops, but the Bay Tree Tea Shop (26 Station St.; 61-2/4787-1275), a tiny tearoom with a genuine bygone atmosphere, is worth singling out.
Memorabilia from Mount Victoria's glory days fills the cases of the quirky Mount Victoria & District Historical Society Museum (Mount Victoria Station, Station St.; 61-2/4787-1190; open weekends and holidays only).
It's a beautiful drive from Mount Victoria along the Bells Line of Road as you climb to one of the highest points of the mountain range, where some of the well-to-do of Victorian- and Edwardian-era Sydney came to escape summer's heat. You'll find the wonderful St. George Anglican Church, built in 1916, and many notable gardens that are open at times to the public. (The Garden Lover's Guide to Australia, by Holly Kerr Forsyth, has a detailed section on Mount Wilson gardens, including the days and times they're open.)
Visitors are welcome to drop in on Helen and Gary Ghent, owners of Withycombe (Church Lane; 61-2/4756-2106), the former summerhouse of Nobel Prize—winning Australian novelist Patrick White. It's part beautiful estate, part inn, where guests dine together at a baronial table. There are extensive grounds to explore.
The Turkish Bath Museum (The Avenue; 61-2/4756-2006) was built around 1880 by a wealthy (and eccentric) Mount Wilson resident who wished to bring the healthy benefits of a hammam to his ailing wife.
BLACKHEATH'S BEST SPOTS TO STOP
GOVETTS LEAP One of the area's most popular mountain lookouts is within walking distance of Cleopatra, down the Braeside Track in Blue Mountains National Park. If you'd rather leave the crowds behind, visit the Blue Mountains Heritage Centre (Govetts Leap Rd.; 61-2/4787-8877) for maps and expert advice on the best walks for your fitness level. Note: Time estimates for the walks are very conservative; if you're relatively fit, you'll finish in about half the time.
MEGALONG VALLEY This beautiful valley hemmed in by sandstone cliffs feels like a hidden kingdom. It's headquarters for the mountains' most famous trail-riding outfit, the Packsaddlers (Green Gully, Megalong Valley; 61-2/4787-9150), whose owners, the Carlon family, have been riding the mountains for seven generations. The 1,600-acre Megalong Australian Heritage Centre (Megalong Rd.; 61-2/4787-8188) includes a farm, a dinner theater, and a bush wilderness reserve.
GARDNER'S INN 255 Great Western Hwy.; 61-2/4787-8347; lunch for two $21. Try a traditional Aussie meat pie at the pub, washed down with a "coldie" (a beer, of course). The pies, made on the premises, are perfect for Sunday lunch. Ketchup, or "red sauce," is compulsory.
CAMBRIA BOOKS Collier Arcade, Govetts Leap Rd.; 61-2/4787-5232. The Blue Mountains are full of secondhand bookshops, and this is one of the best. Books are clean and in good condition, and have been intelligently sorted into subjects.
VULCANS 33 Govetts Leap Rd.; 61-2/4787-6899, dinner for two $52. Chef Phillip Searle moved up to the mountains after a successful career in Sydney. But when he found this old bakery, he was tempted back to the stove by its wood-burning oven. Come here for a casual dinner, and be sure to try the checkerboard ice cream.
VICTORY THEATRE CAFÉ 17 Govetts Leap Rd.; 61-2/4787-6777, breakfast for two $13. This café serves staples — including the Big Mountain Breakfast — all day in the front room of an antiques center that was once a theater.