Some people will describe the Blue Mountains as a long city stretching out over about 60 kilometres, hemmed in by dramatic escarpments and dense wilderness. Others say it's more like a series of villages, each with their own unique personalities. To explore it properly, perhaps it's best to approach it as both.
The geography of the urban development in the Blue Mountains is, of course, no coincidence. It roughly follows the path that Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth took in 1813 to find a way across the rugged mountains from Sydney to the west. And, although they've done the hard work, there's no reason a visit can't still be a journey of discovery. I've decided to make my own trip across the Blue Mountains, stopping at some of the towns along the way, like breadcrumbs the explorers have left for me to follow.
According to a journal from the time, Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson were "attended by four servants, with five dogs, and four horses laden with provisions, ammunition, and other necessities". For my expedition, I have just a small backpack on my shoulders (and no horses) when I jump on the train in Sydney.
The Blue Mountains is one of Australia's 12 natural World Heritage Sites and is easily the most accessible. Within an hour from Central station, I've reached Glenbrook, my first stop. It turns out it's a popular stop for a lot of people and, in recent years, a number of excellent new cafes have opened in response. Kickaboom and The Church have great coffee, while 2773 Cafe has more space for larger groups.
Glenbrook can also be your first taste of the Blue Mountains National Park. A longish walking track leads to Red Hands Cave, where the traditional owners painted earthy-coloured layers of handprints and stencils to create a collage up to 1600 years old. It's a much shorter walk to Jellybean Pool, a natural swimming spot popular in the warmer months.
At Springwood, 15 minutes further along by train, things are a bit livelier. As the second largest town in the Blue Mountains, Springwood has a number of local institutions - Braemar Gallery hosts exhibitions of regional artists, while the Blue Mountains Theatre normally has a vibrant program of events. Springwood is also where you'll find the 1Two1 Organic Grocer, a vegan cafe that opened last year. The Blue Mountains has long had an emphasis on wellness and, in recent years, that's included even more focus on organic food.
Is it the mountain air that arouses this salubrious way of life? Certainly, something seems to encourage small businesses to follow their passion, as I'm finding a lot of people using the relaxed environment close to Sydney to launch their own creative odysseys.
A good example is the Black Cockatoo Bakery in Lawson, another 20 minutes up the mountains. Before I even get to the town, I've been told to pop in and grab an almond croissant, although the bakery is best known for the sourdough which has made baker Alex Rivière, originally from France, a local favourite. (While I'm there, a young couple comes in with their toddler and, when mum asks what they should get their child, dad replies, "something that he's not going to finish". It's that kind of place.)
I've also had a local tip for a hike here, so I head off to burn some of the croissant's calories. Called the South Lawson Waterfall Circuit, it's one of the few in the Blue Mountains where you can take your dog because it's not in the national park. Leading through variations in foliage, from lush ferns to eucalyptus, the three-kilometre track meanders past four small but magical waterfalls, where I spot frolicking dogs (and kids).
Of course, the scenery is one of the main reasons visitors come to the Blue Mountains but too many people think that just means Echo Point and the Three Sisters. Actually, some of the best viewpoints are on walking tracks away from the crowds - for example, the dramatic Wentworth Falls, the stunning Grand Canyon walk near Blackheath, or Victoria Falls.
That's not to say Echo Point isn't worth visiting but, on the way, stop in nearby Leura, which has the reputation as the prettiest town in the Blue Mountains. The streetscape is charming but stepping inside the shops along the main avenue reveals the quirky local businesses that give the area its textured character.
You may also want to pop into the Bygone Beautys Treasured Teapot Museum, where owner Maurice Cooper has more than 5000 teapots from his collection on display. ("I can live with my neuroses, but my family think I'm out of touch with reality," he jokes with me.) Maurice has travelled all across the country over the past 44 years to buy teapots from people and estates.
"I like a teapot to be expressive of somebody that owned it and the tales behind it - both the warmth and the sadness associated with it."
While Leura has the quaint feel of somewhere you can go antiquing, neighbouring Katoomba has emerged recently as a modern and cool counterpart. The largest town in the Blue Mountains now has a few craft breweries, interesting bars, and more hipster cafes than hipsters themselves. And with all of this has come a bold art scene.
The Blue Mountains Cultural Centre hosts a range of exhibitions from local artists, with many of the current works inspired by the summer's bushfires, while an alleyway has been converted into a street art walk. At the back of Katoomba's more established and traditional art galleries, street artists have painted large murals. One of them is by Nastia Gladushchenko, who tells me she was inspired by the colours of the vivid landscapes.
"It's nice to see what's going on in the minds of local people and local artists," she says when I ask about the street art walk. "It's a lot more spontaneous, the art here, and there's something really beautiful about that."
Nastia - like many of the people I've met here - came from Sydney to find a new path in the Blue Mountains. These modern-day explorers may not come with horses and servants, like those of 1813, but they'll still leave their mark on the shape of the mountains.
WHAT TO DO:
- One of the best activities in the Blue Mountains is hiking. You can take your dog on the South Lawson Waterfall Circuit, try a harder trail at the Grand Canyon, find spectacular cliffs at Wentworth Falls, or get the iconic vistas on the Prince Henry Cliff walk between Leura and Katoomba.
- There are a number of interesting museums in the Blue Mountains, including the Bygone Beautys Teapot Museum, the Leuralla Toy & Railway Museum, the Woodford Academy, and the Norman Lindsay Museum.
- You'll find excellent art galleries in Katoomba with the Lost Bear Gallery and Gallery One88 in Katoomba, for instance. There's also the City Gallery in the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, and there's the Street Art Walk at Beverly Place.
WHERE TO EAT:
- There are lots of excellent in restaurants in the Blue Mountains, but you can try Vincent Diner in Glenbrook, Lily's Pad Cafe or Madame Wangs in Leura, or Station Bar or Pins on Lurline in Katoomba.
- For some of the vegan restaurants that are now popular in the Blue Mountains, head to 1Two1 in Springwood, Little Niche Nosh in Leura, or Plantbased Wholefoods in Katoomba.
WHERE TO DRINK:
WHERE TO STAY:
For more ideas on exploring New South Wales, Destination NSW has put together a list of the 213 most memorable experiences in the state.
Michael Turtle will be bringing you a new idea each week for a trip within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website for things to do in the Blue Mountains.