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DESTINATION: NSW Southern Highlands

By JOHN ROZENTALS

TRAVEL: 07 MARCH 2017

Restoring an essential piece of Southern Highlands history

When Warwick and Barbara Wainburg purchased the disused 1880s Commercial Banking Company of Sydney building in Mittagong’s main street in 2009 they did the town a tremendous favour, saving from almost certain demolition one of its most significant historic buildings.

“What we bought was essentially a dilapidated pigeon coop,” said Warwick, who put together a team of master craftsmen to restore the building to its former magnificence and open The Old Bank as one of the NSW Southern Highland’s premier B&Bs.

“But we just couldn’t let one the town’s most important buildings be destroyed, as had already happened to a similar bank building in Bowral.

No expense has been spared — I didn’t dare ask what the restoration cost has been — and the absolute dedication to detail is outstanding, whether it be on the bedrooms, which once housed the bank manager’s family, the communal lounge and dining rooms, or the exterior of the building, which really does look a treat right in the middle of town.

All up, including a self-contained studio apartment and a free-standing sandstock cottage, the hotel has seven rooms, with a coach house also under renovation — with the same fastidiousness as is obvious in the main building.

Step through the heavy front doors and you leave the busy main street for another era — for a time when things such as a polished cedar staircase, leather chesterfield sofas, handmade woollen rugs (we loved the ones replicating the old one-dollar note), ornate cornices and a fountain-festooned courtyard were des rigueur.

The bank’s original vault, complete with one-tonne, London-cast door now serves as a wine cellar. Now, that really does give new meaning to keeping a watchful eye on your best bottles.

Not that essential modern touches such as finest Egyptian cotton bedding, free wifi, heated bathroom floors and towel racks, or phone-charging points have been overlooked.

The plaque at the entrance really says it all … “A small elegant hotel”.

And Barbara, whose kitchen experience includes being personal chef for the late Kerry Packer, plus a stint as chef during the 1970s at famous Sydney restaurant You and Me, really can cook.

A full breakfast is on every morning and includes freshly squeezed juice, delicious yoghurt with raspberries, in our case home-grown ruby grapefruit that Warwick had steeped overnight in a sugar syrup, and local smoked bacon and eggs.

Dinner is by arrangement, and when we visited included wild New Zealand salmon served with burnt-orange sauce and avocado salad, and one of the best desserts we’ve ever had — ginger cream brulée with pineapple confit and gingerbread pistachios.

And there’s obviously plenty to do in the area. The Southern Highlands has history and scenery aplenty, and is rapidly becoming one of Australia’s most revered spots for foodies and wine lovers.

Berrima, now free of the shackles of being a busy highway town, is particularly charming and seems to be revelling in its new-found tranquillity.

We particularly enjoyed lunch at the multi-roomed Eschalot (http://www.eschalot.com.au), right on the Old Hume Highway.

The owner/chef Richard Kemp has given a uniquely Australian twist to a traditional European style and gets plenty of use from the garden and greenhouses out the back.

IF YOU GO

The Old Bank, 83 Main St, Mittagong, phone 02 4872 4496, visit http://www.oldbankhotel.com.au.

Above and below: The Old Bank … no skimping on attention to detail.

Barbara and Warwick Wainburg … plenty of effort and love coming out of The Old Bank’s kitchen.

The Old Bank … one of the NSW Southern Highland’s premier B&Bs.

Below: Eschalot … part of a thriving scene in historic Berrima.