||DESTINATION: Blue Mountains
By JOHN ROZENTALS
TRAVEL: 6 MAY 2015
Awe-struck by the phoenix-like resurgence of the Hydro Majestic
They used to tell a joke in Medlow Bath, just west of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, that if you paged Mr and Mrs Smith at the Hydro Majestic then half the guests would front up at reception.
Stories about the 5am warning bell signalling time to get back to your own room, and the offer of a confessional as part of the check-out procedure, are quite possibly apocryphal, but you get the gist.
Yes, back in the 1920s and 30s, and probably beyond, the Hydro certainly had a reputation for being a venue where Sydney’s well-to-do conducted their affairs, so to speak.
And the presence of a bar/lounge affectionately known as ‘Cat Alley’ clearly shows that not all Mr Smiths were accompanied by a Mrs Smith.
You could just imagine the Rollers and Bentleys pulling up outside and the occupants rubbing their hands with glee at the expectations.
For many years though, certainly for as long as I can remember, the Hydro languished and became rather tacky as it fell victim to neglect and failure to update facilities in line with modern expectations.
A few years ago it became part of the Escarpment Group which also owns Lilianfels and Echoes in Katoomba and Parklands Country Gardens in Blackheath and was closed and fenced off for a major overhaul.
I was given a tour of the refurbished Hydro last week, prior to an overnight there, by Ralf Bruegger, the group’s general manager, who probably should have collapsed under the enormity of the task but has emerged, at least superficially, unscathed.
So, I asked, how much did this sort of makeover cost?
Ralf confessed he wasn’t quite sure, simply because the figure had started to become too daunting, but reckoned somewhere around $45 million would be close to the mark. Some $1.5 million alone was spent on fitting out a new kitchen.
“In a way, we were lucky that previous renovations had been carried out quite cheaply,” said Ralf.
“Many of the original features had just been boarded over, and it was often a case of simply uncovering and restoring them.”
He made it sound just so, so easy.
And they were lucky, too, that local antique stores still held some of the fabulous bronzes and other original decorations that had been installed by Mark Foy of Sydney retailing fame when he established much of the property in the early 1900s.
Foy was obviously quite a visionary, who ensured that the resort had its own water supply and imported a German-made steam-driven generator that enabled power to be switched on four days before Sydney had electricity.
The main dining room The Wintergarden with its panoramic views over the Megalong Valley, surely has one of the world’s most stunning restaurant outlooks.
In winter, at least, dinner there seems almost a waste of the location. Better, I think to book in for the afternoon high tea, priced at $65 per head ($69 with a flute of sparkling wine) and including a selection of finger sandwiches, pastries, scones served with clotted cream and jams, and tea or coffee. There are also gluten-free and Asian options.
The Salon du Thé and adjoining Cats Alley have been stunningly renovated to correspond with the strongly oriental theme that runs through the dining experience there barbecued duck pancakes with hoisin sauce, twice-cooked pork belly, basket of steamed delicacies such as chilli prawn har gow, and Vietnamese rice-paper rolls.
All-day dining, featuring pizza and pasta and showcasing Blue Mountains regional produce is available from the Boiler House Café, while full buffet breakfast is served in the Belgravia Lobby Lounge. Both venues offer views of the Megalong Valley.
Rooms can be a bit tight size-wise due to limitations of the original layout, but they have been exquisitely renovated and have ensuites and wonderfully comfortable beds. Options range from Heritage Rooms though to the lavish Grand Majestic Suite.
And people are responding. Ralf Bruegger reports that occupancy is high, to the point of overflowing, and bookings for events such as the high tea are at a premium.
That’s good, because I salute Ralf and the owners, who prefer to stay very much in the background, for their vision and persistent dedication.
What they have achieved is simply outstanding. They have resurrected an Australian icon and I know that in this case I can use the term without fear of contradiction.