This resort will look better in a year or so, when it has had time to bed down and meld with its surroundings.
Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa, Australia
The final stretch of the three-hour drive from Sydney consists of a bone-rattling gravel road, so leave the Bentley at home (one guest unwisely brought the Ferrari instead). And watch out for the turn-off to Emirates' new $125m (Dh399m) resort, indicated by a sign so discreet it is almost invisible. At the car park, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is waiting to whisk you to reception, where you are greeted by a smiling staff member. Inside, a cooling drink and a tour of the building await.
Set in 1,550 hectares tucked into the Wolgan Valley, just beyond the Blue Mountains. It is very secluded, which is perfect if you want escapism but means guests are dependent on the resort's activities and facilities (the nearest town, Lithgow, is 50 kilometres away.) The setting is beautiful, and it's hard not to be mesmerised by the shifting colours of the sandstone escarpment dominating the view from the dining room and infinity pool. The meticulously designed main building's decor draws heavily on recycled timbers and other materials salvaged from the site, a former cattle-grazing property (the furnishings include a lamp made from an old tractor axle). The resort is modelled on the conservation-based Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, near Dubai, and claims a similar sustainable ethos. Mobs of kangaroos, wallabies and wallaroos hop around the property, particularly at dusk.
The scene Very self-consciously Outback. Staff wear uniforms designed by RM Williams, the iconic Australian bush label. It was very quiet in mid-January, although I was assured that it had been packed over the New Year.
Like the main building, the 40 exquisite free-standing suites combine rustic cosiness with design chic, and are generously sized, with a living-room, sleeping area and large bathroom, as well as veranda and heated lap pool. The tasteful furniture includes a leather ottoman and comfortable four-poster bed, while among the thoughtful extras are binoculars and a leather-bound backgammon set. The wooden deck, with its two rocking chairs, is an agreeable spot to sit and gaze at the landscape, and the seven-metre pool - either outdoor or indoor, depending on whether you roll back the concertina window - is decidedly decadent. It's disappointing that, despite the abundance of land, the villas have been built rather close together, detracting from the feeling of privacy.
Unfailingly pleasant and polite, if somewhat unpolished and a bit try-hard. The staff are always on hand to give you a lift in the light electrical vehicles used around the resort - some suites are quite a way from the main building - and pass on phone messages promptly. The guide who took us on a Colonial Heritage Tour was enthusiastic but not terribly well-informed, and some of the other "nature-based activities" are slightly baffling. The resort's own literature states, for instance, that horseback tours are available for beginner to intermediate riders; when we arrived, however, we were told a minimum of three years' experience was required - and that it was not possible to ride faster than walking pace. Not surprisingly, the handsome horses are standing around, looking rather bored.
It's billed as "regional, seasonal and organic", but it was plain disappointing. My snapper fillet (served with a risotto of crab, sweetcorn and scallops), was overcooked; my green salad underdressed. A caramelised warm banana tart (with coconut ice cream) had received a sprinkling of salt rather than sugar. At the breakfast buffet, the fruit plates had flies buzzing around them. The small portions, meanwhile, seemed plain miserly. The resort is planning to grow its own produce, but has not yet started. The kitchen, overseen by the well-regarded Dwayne Goodman, fresh from the Banyan Tree Resort and Spa in Bintan, Indonesia, needs to get its act together.
The enormous bathroom, with its glass-roofed shower and roomy bathtub; the big walk-in wardrobe and dressing room; exploring the property on a mountain bike; the Sodashi green tea and eucalyptus salt therapy exfoliation (one of the treatments at the Timeless Spa); the outdoor jacuzzi, with its wonderful views.
The resort has no mobile phone reception, although it claims otherwise, and the staff have an irritating habit of including themselves in every question ("How are we today? Have we decided on a starter? How was our tour this afternoon?"). There are clouds of flies, in midsummer, at least, and they stick like glue.
A beautifully built place and an idyllic setting, but - particularly at current levels of service and food - definitely not value for money. The resort will look better in a year or so, when it has had time to bed down and meld with its surroundings.
The standard Heritage Suite is US$1,950 (Dh6,221) per night for two people, including all meals and soft drinks, some alcohol and two nature-based activities daily. With three nights or more, the rate drops to $1,660 (Dh5,296). The three Wollemi Suites, which sleep four, are $3,500 (Dh11,166) per night, or $2,975 (Dh9,491) if you stay three nights. The Wolgan Suite, which accommodates four guests plus two staff (bring your own butler) is $5,500 (Dh17,547), or $4,675 (Dh14,915). At these prices, it's a shock to learn that the minibar, with its pricey cookies and snacks, is not included.