A long weekend in Sydney’s favourite getaway

Planning a weekend roadie for your next trip across the pond? Jacqui Gibson heads to the Blue...
Planning a weekend roadie for your next trip across the pond? Jacqui Gibson heads to the Blue Mountains, just 90 minutes’ drive from Sydney, for inspiration. PHOTO: JACQUI GIBSON

Most Kiwis heading across the pond beeline for hotspots like Sydney, Melbourne and the Goldie. But that leaves out the Blue Mountains, a world heritage-listed wilderness area and favourite local getaway, just 90 minutes’ drive from Sydney, finds Jacqui Gibson.

From an elevated plateau fresh water spills like unspooling yarn down the steep face of a sandstone cliff. 

It may have taken months, years, even hundreds of years for the bore water to form these cascading rivulets. But the rocks they catch as they tumble downwards are millions of years old.

Over time, this ancient canyon has sustained a variety of life from dinosaurs to eucalyptus forests to its traditional owners, the Gundungurra and Dharug people.

European explorers eventually found their way just west of here in 1813, opening up the Blue Mountains to gold, coal and kerosene shale mining, a railway, state highway and tourism.

Botanic Gardens, Blue Mountains. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Botanic Gardens, Blue Mountains. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Today, this giant forested chasm is part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area — a 10,000 square metre region of mostly forested mountains and valleys located about 60 to 180 kilometres inland from Sydney.

And, with the sky above me darkening, there comes the ominous crash of thunder and the threat of lightning.

For visiting hikers, in this case my husband and me, an afternoon walk in Australia’s Blue Mountains is a thrilling sensory adventure.

“Shall we turn back?,” I reluctantly venture as oversized raindrops start to fall and the sky momentarily flashes white. Then, at pace, we retrace our footsteps to the carpark where this short-lived but spectacular walk to see Wentworth Falls began.

On Sydney’s mountainous outskirts, weekend getaways occur year-round and in all weather. 

In the warmer months, Sydneysiders swap crowded city beaches for the cooler forested trails of Jamison Valley, luxe retreats and the historic villages of Leura, Katoomba, Medlow Bath and Blackheath.

In autumn and winter, there are festivals, farm-to-table restaurants, wineries and cosy brewpubs in which to bunker down.

A lookout at Echo Point at the Three Sisters peaks. PHOTO: JACQUI GIBSON
A lookout at Echo Point at the Three Sisters peaks. PHOTO: JACQUI GIBSON

We arrive in the Blue Mountains for a three-day road trip that starts with exploring the towns and hiking trails of Blackheath and Katoomba and ends in a scenic drive along Bells Line of Road through the lush bushlands and orchards of Mount Tomah and Bilpin.

Arriving from Wellington the previous night, we’ve based ourselves at Kyah Hotel, a family-owned boutique hotel in Blackheath.

In less than 24 hours, we’ve dined at BLAQ, Kyah’s in-house restaurant (definitely recommended), brunched nearby at Hounslow (the Rwandan orange, peach and hibiscus coffee, roasted by Grace & Taylor, is excellent) and tackled several easy hikes nearby (Wentworth Falls Track to see the 187-metre waterfall is a must-do. The ever-popular Three Sisters lookout is worth it too).

By the time we pull up outside Tempus, a bistro in Katoomba, around 7pm we’re ready to relax.

Found in a heritage building on the main street, the eatery has a welcoming vibe, warm timber interiors and dusky pink walls.

To start, I order the Lantana gin spritz; a zesty combo of gin, thyme, yuzu, lemon and soda, while my husband grabs a glass of the Yarra Valley Denton Shed pinot noir.

Over two hours, we share dishes that perfectly blend Aussie, Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean flavours. We love it all; from the locally baked Black Cockatoo sourdough and tuna carpaccio served with plum slivers and capers to the potatoes rubbed in red gum smoked salt.

Scenic Skyway looking towards the Three Sisters at Scenic World. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Scenic Skyway looking towards the Three Sisters at Scenic World. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

“Breathe into this and count from one to 10,” insists our cheerful guide at Scenic World, a third generation family-owned tourist park in Katoomba, the next day.

It’s only 8am, but the breath test using a handheld wand ensures we’re not over the legal alcohol limit and completes a compulsory step in Scenic World’s Beyond Skyway tour.

Dreamed up by Scenic World managing director Anthea Hammon, an engineer by training, the tour sees a maximum of four people climb on top of the park’s aerial cable car for a nail-biting but spectacular view of waterfalls (in one direction) and out to the peaks and lowlands of the wider Blue Mountains (in the other).

After wriggling into supplied harnesses, my husband and I follow our chatty host, Tony O’Neill, inside the cable car as it moves into position.

Then it’s up a short metal ladder and through a hatch in the roof where Tony tethers us to the carriage’s outer structure.

Despite our prime spot suspended on wires between two cliff tops we fail to see the much-anticipated scenery directly below or the dreamy blue landscapes of the national park in the distance.

A thick fog has rolled in and won't budge.


Wollemi Pines, Botanic Gardens. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Wollemi Pines, Botanic Gardens. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

It’s an eerie, yet exhilarating experience up here enveloped in an impenetrable white mist and even without the view we feel a thrill.

Sipping hot chocolate Tony’s poured from a thermos, we agree the tour (available to the general public only in clear conditions and at twilight) is a fun addition to the park’s many attractions.

In the following hours, my husband and I sample most of Scenic World’s remaining attractions on the Buunyal walking tour with Uncle David King, a Gundungurra elder and the park’s first-ever indigenous engagement officer.

The Scenic Railway, originally built to service the Katoomba coal mine but converted to a tourist attraction in the 50s, delivers us down a sheer cliff face to the rainforest floor.

“It’s the landscape and our connection to Country that’s most important in Aboriginal culture,” explains David as we wander the boardwalk discussing tribal plant use and looking for lyrebirds.

I’m wowed by David’s openness as a tour guide.

Earlier, he touched on reclaiming his Aboriginal identity as a young man, following the example of his late mother; a child of Australia’s Stolen Generations.

Today, supported by elders, David is a Gundungurra custodian responsible for advising planning authorities and educating others about Aboriginal traditions.

Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains. PHOTO: JACQUI GIBSON
Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains. PHOTO: JACQUI GIBSON

To finish the tour, we take a return trip on the Scenic Cableway to see the Three Sisters rock formation before leaving via the park’s retail area.

“We used to stock cheaply made imports from overseas,” says David, pointing to the racks of Aboriginal souvenirs for sale.

“Now we source high quality products made by wonderful indigenous artists and craftspeople from all over Australia,” he says, beaming.

Driving away, we soon see a sign saying ‘Really good beer’ and follow the arrow to a warehouse and car park.

Ethan Littlewood is a tall man with colourful tattoos, a thick red beard, resplendent locks and a ready pour.

We’ve barely stepped inside Katoomba’s popular brewpub when two glasses of award-winning Hazy IPA, Status Quo, are set down in front of us.

“Two years ago I wanted out of the kitchen and into beer and here I am," enthuses Ethan, a former head chef and now the venue manager of Mountain Culture’s brewpub.

Inspired by the US craft beer scene, the brewpub makes Mountain Culture’s limited release range, giving their beers inventive names like ‘Better Than Lego’ and serving them in artfully designed cans.

“The company’s headquarters, closer to Sydney, brews most of our beer. But this place is unquestionably the heart of the operation,” Ethan explains, strolling the floor of what was once a busy newspaper office and printing press operation.

To prove his point, he says, the venue was named Best Brewpub in New South Wales in 2023.  

“Competition was definitely tough,” says Ethan from behind the wooden bar, the iridescent green, yellow and red Mountain Culture logo glowing on a black wall over his shoulder.

“Some of the other venues open onto beautiful Aussie beaches. But the judges could see there’s something very special about drinking really great beer, in a space like this, here in the Blue Mountains.”

The scenic drive to Mount Tomah the following morning provides little traffic and yet more impressive scenery. Blunt rock valleys and stands of silvery blue gums hug the highway.

We pull into the carpark of the botanic gardens and arrange to meet Michelle Grima, the visitor experience manager.

Walking the grounds, we see it’s a fantastic place to learn about the park’s specialty: cool climate plants and alpine forest. Temperatures here hover around the mid 20s in summer and average around 10 degrees in winter.

Near the highest point in the Blue Mountains, the garden hosts more than 6000 species spread across 280,000 square metres.

Perhaps its most famous is the Wollemi pine. The so-called living fossil from the age of dinosaurs was discovered in the 1990s by a national parks field officer exploring an isolated valley of the Blue Mountains.

“No one had ever seen one; it was thought to be extinct,” explains Michelle.

“We grow them here for people to enjoy, but also as back up for the original trees,” she says, leading the way to the park’s collection of juvenile pines.

To my eye, their shiny dark green colour and simple shape seem to perfectly evoke the Jurassic era.

That I’m standing in front of one of the world’s rarest plant species blows my mind. 

“Even to this day the exact whereabouts of those original Wollemi trees remains a highly-guarded secret,” Michelle says matter-of-factly as she waves us off.

Hillbilly Cider, a rustic cidery in Bilpin about 10 minutes’ drive further on, brings us back to the present day and completes our stay in the Blue Mountains.

The open plan barn, on the edge of an apple orchard, serves homemade ciders and juices on tap and by the bottle, as well as freshly baked pizzas and Hillbilly’s signature apple calzone.

Pulling up a chair on the outside deck, we order a Margarita pizza and calzone to share and two glasses of Hillbilly’s recently-crowned Best New World Cider.

The apple cider tastes great, crisp and full of tangy flavours. I take a mouthful, then dig into the calzone.

Based on Hillbilly owners Tessa and Shane McLaughlin’s recipe, the warm dessert is made from seasonal apples soaked in their award-winning cider, flaky pastry, thick caramel sauce and a generous dusting of icing sugar.

It’s a sweet ending to the perfect mountain adventure.

Blue Mountains

Getting there:  Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Sydney. Pick up a rental car from Sydney airport or from the city centre.

Online:  visitbluemountains.com.au