How One Australian Resort Is Battling Back After the Wildfires and Involving Guests in the Recovery
At Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley, travelers can get a taste of outback luxury and help with the resort's conservation efforts.
Luxury may be deeply embedded in the DNA of Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley, but so is conservation. Nestled in Australia's World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains, the all-villa property was among the first hotels in the world to become carbon-neutral, and 70 percent of the resort's drinking water comes from rainwater, with the remaining 30 percent being pumped by windmills to an onsite treatment plant from Carne Creek, which flows through the property. The resort also generates 35 percent of its power from renewable energy and uses solar panels to power its hot water systems. It works closely with leading universities and top-notch field guides to care for and rejuvenate the native flora and monitor the well-being of its bustling native population of birds, insects, kangaroos, platypuses, wallaroos, wallabies, and wombats.
Along with the rest of the tourism industry, Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley has been working diligently to recover from the devastating bushfires in December 2019. Blazes burned down most of the 7,000-acre conservancy (resort facilities occupy just 1 percent), but since that time, the resort has reopened with a renewed sense of purpose. Creating a blueprint for luxury regenerative holidays, the resort encourages guests to take part in the renewal of the land. Where sustainable tourism traditionally works to minimize the negative impacts of tourism, regeneration travel aims to repair the harm that has been done.
Staying at Wolgan Valley is so much more than a passive outback or bush experience. Guests of all ages are given the opportunity to add and learn about the environment. Besides the habitat mapping, tree planting, and foraging, there are always kids (dubbed Wolgan Rangers) bounding after field guides, trying to spot wiggly insects or gliding birds, learning about the land and the weird and wonderful Dr. Seuss-like animals that only exist here. "The whole kids program now includes a regenerative element, where we teach through games and exploration, how to protect and repair," explained general manager Tim Stanhope.
Bouncing along dirt tracks in one of the resort's iconic Land Rover Defenders during the sundowners tour, my field guide Simone Brooks described some of the recent efforts. "All of these trees have been planted to help restore the eroded riverbanks and help protect the quality of the river and the native habitat, usually with help from the guests," she said as we navigate through the valleys and waterways. "The Carne Creek, for example, is the healthiest waterway in New South Wales, and the reason it's so pristine is due to the native regeneration, as healthy plants in the catchment help to filter out any impurities."
As we ventured deeper into the bush, passing through the mobs of frisky kangaroos, Brooks took me to one of the habitat recovery areas. In these spots, guests can roll up their sleeves and actively support the natural regeneration, placing natural mulch and planting seedlings to re-create habitat for wildlife and revive local flora. But the most significant site on the property, where the iconic Wollemi Pines live, sadly looks like a charred gravesite post-bushfire. The species, the oldest in the world and known as living fossils, was thought to have died with the dinosaurs before being rediscovered in the 90s by bushwalkers. "The Blue Mountains is the only place in the world where this tree can be found alive," said Brooks. "But we lost nearly all of them in the fire. With only six survivors, this is one of the most protected spots on the property. Next winter, guests will be invited to do a ceremonial planting as part of the ongoing bushfire regeneration."
Even the food has been given a regenerative spin. New head chef James Viles, who came from highly acclaimed restaurant Biota, is known for his hyper-local cuisine and spent his first two months planting edible gardens and exploring the vast slopes, dams, rivers, and valleys for native bounty. His next step will be to introduce daily menus highlighting the just-plucked seasonal produce. "I think it's important we respect the ingredients this country was given," Viles explained. "I hope this place becomes Australia on a plate."
One of the new guest experiences includes foraging and learning what can be planted, eaten, and cooked. I plucked and ate native asparagus straight from the ground (it tasted more like a sweet green pea) and learned that bulrush, a troublesome weed found in dams, can actually be used as a celery substitute. I also had my first 'bush tea' — a sweet and refreshing native strawberry gum iced tea.
Helping the community and farmers is a vital part of regeneration, so to set up hives on the property, Viles recruited a local beekeeper and honey producer whose 20,000 hives between the Blue Mountains and Sydney were mostly incinerated in the bushfires in December 2019. Next, he wants to get rid of all ocean seafood from the menu and only use local catch like bass, rainbow trout, and yabbies from surrounding dams and rivers. After that, he wants to introduce a fly-fishing program for the guests, with the opportunity to catch their next meal.
And this is all just the start of the post-bushfire regenerative program, proving again that luxury travel can be a force for good.