Towards the end of February, we celebrated my husband’s birthday and his new embassy job with a weekend escape to Katoomba in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. We also visited Featherdale Wildlife Park, located about an hour from Katoomba in the equally charmingly-named town of Doonside. On balance, even with weather extremes and about nine hours in the car over two days while only a month out from my back surgery, it was still very well worth the trip.
When I was a grad student in Sydney during 2005 and 2006, I remember taking day trips with my visiting American friends and family up to Featherdale and Katoomba. These trips were led by Blue Mountains bus tour guides and were packed with opportunities to experience Australian culture – throwing a boomerang, playing a didgeridoo, visiting the “steepest railway in the world,” and hearing Aboriginal stories explaining the origins of significant landmarks like Wentworth Falls or The Three Sisters.
Although these areas are within a couple hours of Sydney, they might as well have been on the moon for a starving student who didn’t drive on the left but still wanted to give her visitors a fun and memorable excursion. So bus tours it was, and good ones at that.
Now all these years and ostensible left-side driving skills later, a 4-5 hour road trip from Canberra seemed like far less of a challenge. After several months at Post with health and car troubles exacerbated by the stress of the embassy family member hiring freeze, I was elated to finally be able to get up to the Blue Mountains with my husband and enjoy a short break, especially in a place that I knew firsthand we’d both enjoy.
We love animals, so Featherdale was a major draw for us. I had fond memories from my previous trips there (pictured below).
Although I was a little disappointed at first by what I perceived to be more gimmicks and less access to animals than I’d remembered, ultimately I can say that Featherdale has evolved with the times and had to make some tough decisions in the best interests of the park’s wildlife. No more free photos with koalas or feeding free-ranging roos and ostriches, but is it really surprising when sadly, common sense isn’t common and some people seem to ruin everything they touch?
Counter-clockwise from top right: me enjoying Featherdale in December 2005, April 2006, and June 2006.
On this visit, we had a chance to feed wallabies, visit with injured birds, and even draw park staff attention to a lizard panting and near death while caught hanging upside down in a chainlink fence. (He lived!) We also saw a Tasmanian devil, echidnas, pelicans, tawny frogmouths, bettongs, bilbies, koalas, wombats, kangaroos, and many other favorites.
Eighty percent of Australia’s wildlife are species that are naturally present only in Australia, including 380+ mammals, 820+ birds, 900+ reptiles, and 5,000+ types of fish. It’s that incredibly diverse and unique biospecificity that makes Australian animals so interesting and unforgettable to see!
After spending hours in what turned out to be 99 degree weather that Saturday afternoon, we were ready to jump back into our air-conditioned chariot and head to Katoomba. We had a night reserved at Lilianfels Resort & Spa, a place I had never been but was really looking forward to.
We made it in plenty of time for my pre-dinner massage, after which we went for a walk to enjoy the early evening sky. We had dinner at Darley’s, which is a bit of an institution at Lilianfels. Unfortunately as the case sometimes ends up, this particular institution offered tiny portion sizes, long waits, and sky-high prices along with their historical Art Deco ambiance, beautiful gardens, and service that aimed for elite but landed closer to pretentious. Although I have to admit that the food was divine, there was so little of it (and our mains didn’t arrive until almost the end of the second hour) that I was less than impressed. Although I would dine elsewhere in the future, I have to say that it was an experience we will remember well!
We capped off the night by walking down to the Three Sisters rock formations, which were illuminated. I didn’t bring my Nikon, and thus we didn’t get a great picture, but it was worth it to see them in person from the viewing platform. As I had only ever been previously during the day, I wouldn’t even have known they were illuminated at night if one of my colleagues hadn’t thought to mention it to me.
Sunday morning dawned cold and rainy, perfect for a visit to the hotel’s indoor pool. We were lucky enough to have it all to ourselves, even though we stayed for an hour, and the buffet breakfast that followed at Orangery was nothing short of stupendous.
After checking out, we donned our rainjackets and took a little hike around nearby Katoomba Falls. At least, as much hiking as I could manage wearing sandals, as my feet were still not ready for anything closed-toed.
Sadly, the weather was so drizzly and foggy that we ended up postponing the plans we had to walk at Katoomba Scenic World and do the railway, skyway, and other outdoor activities until a future trip with better visibility across the valley. Instead we counted ourselves lucky that we’d taken pictures the afternoon before, and visited the Blue Mountains Chocolate Company for some sweet treats before heading home to Canberra.
With the exception of two quick overnight beach trips, this was our first weekend away during our initial seven months here (and still only an overnight). Although that seems sad, I’m counting my blessings and planning trips throughout the rest of our tour to make up for it!
I highly recommend the Blue Mountains for weekend getaways if you’re a reasonable distance from Katoomba, but flexibility on mountain weather will be key to a happy visit.