Destinations

The Blue Mountains resort with Australia's highest density of wombats, and food by an ex-Biota chef

A visit to Wolgan Valley is like heading on an Australia safari, with native marsupials in place of lions. Now, chef James Viles is creating a culinary experience to pair with the unique encounter.

By Joanna Hunkin
The Wolgan Valley Emirates One&Only resort in New South Wales.
There is a wombat asleep on our front lawn. At least, it could be a wombat. Or perhaps a rock. Closer investigation is required.
As we creep silently closer and peer into the shadows of the undergrowth, the rock snuffles. It's a wombat!
There is perhaps nowhere else in the world you can play the game Rock or Wombat – certainly not with any real sense of anticipation – than Wolgan Valley, where two out of three games will result in the joyful delight of realising the static mound in distance is, in fact, a wombat.
The Blue Mountains resort and conservation park – officially called Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley – is home to the highest density wombat population in Australia. It's the Manhattan of the wombat world, with an estimated 300 wombats residing across the 7000-acre property.
They waddle happily amongst mobs of Eastern grey kangaroos and red-necked wallabies that litter the property, making themselves at home wherever they please. The boldest sunbathe in between the property's private villas, bounding across walkways with total disregard for human traffic. It pays to keep your wits about you.
A wombat in the wild. Photo: Konrad Kasiske
As you venture further from the main homestead, their numbers grow. You'll come across the brute loners that are black wallaroos, and watch as alpha males stare each other down, surrounded by harems of female roos. You'll see joeys peering out of their mother's pouches, unperturbed by the endless cooing and click of cameras from onlookers.
Staying at Wolgan Valley is like being on Australian safari, taking you up close and personal with wildlife that most Australians have seen only fleetingly in the wild, if at all. Just like safari, some creatures are more elusive than others. The property's resident platypus hasn't been spotted since February by any of the resort's trained field guides. Occasionally a guest will claim a sighting – but they, frankly, can't be trusted. After all, half of them are running around playing Rock or Wombat.
It's not just the wildlife that makes Wolgan Valley so uniquely Australian. It's also the landscape. Soaring red rock surrounds the valley plains, which oscillate from emerald green to sun-bleached blonde depending on the time of year. As dusk falls, the surrounding cliffs glow red, bathing the main homestead in a scarlet light that you won't find anywhere else in the world.
Since first opening in 2009, when Emirates established the former cattle station as a conservation reserve with a 30-year plan to return the land to its pre-settler condition, the resort has sold itself as the quintessential Australian escape.
In 2015, premium resort operator One&Only took over management, elevating the experience to a new level of luxury. But there remained a disconnect between the resort's culinary offering and its unique location and landscape.
Field guides take guests out to explore the property and get up close with wildlife. Photo: Konrad Kasiske
Enter James Viles; the acclaimed chef behind Bowral's award-winning restaurant Biota and self-confessed country boy. A man as comfortable cooking freshly caught trout over a campfire (which he serves wrapped in hand-picked garden greens) as he is finessing wafer-thin shards of burnt honey brûlée over a delicate sorbet of fresh Bilpin pears.
Viles moved to Wolgan Valley at the start of August and wasted no time overhauling the resort's culinary offering, rewriting menus and replanting the edible gardens. His focus, as it was at Biota, is on keeping produce hyper-local and using food to extend and deepen the Wolgan experience. He plans to introduce daily menus, highlighting the freshest, most seasonal produce each day.
"The beauty about here is there's really an opportunity to make a difference and create a sense of place. You've got to loosen it up a bit and make it fun. It can't be everything in a copper pot all the time. That's a big thing for me going forward, keeping it premium and telling a nice story that is a true story."
The main homestead is home to two restaurants, Wolgan Dining Room and Country Kitchen. Photo: Konrad Kasiske
Everything in the main dining room is now cooked over coal instead of gas, while downstairs in the Country Kitchen the days of ordering premium cuts of meat are gone. Instead, Viles champions "whole format" cooking.
"We'll buy a whole pig and break it down and use certain parts of it each day on the menu. That for me is what a real country kitchen should feel like."
As we bounce along a rutted dirt track in one of the resort's signature green Land Rover Defenders, Viles says he's still waiting to discover the property's full bounty, as the winter frosts start to give way to spring.
"At the moment there's heaps of mallow and lots of edible weeds," he explains. "But I'm waiting to see what else comes up."
Wild radish, mallow, dandelion and wild rocket are all in ample supply. Viles is also convinced there are yabbies and bass to be found in the dam in the back blocks of the property. His plan, ultimately, is to remove all ocean seafood from the menu and only use local catch from surrounding dams, rivers and estuaries.
"I just feel like coming up here and having a massive loin of fish from the Southern Ocean doesn't make sense. By the time it gets here, it's four or five days old. We've got to get a bit more real about what we use as fish. There's estuaries with yabbies. There's threadfin and bass, rainbow trout. We're going to tap right into all that stuff."
A private picnic at Point Haesnel, overlooking Wolgan Valley. Photo: Konrad Kasiske
At the moment, the property is only catering to domestic tourists due to border restrictions but typically, Wolgan Valley draws visitors from around the globe. For Viles, the challenge will be creating daily menus with broad appeal, whilst introducing guests to something new.
"I'm yet to put the old kangaroo jaffle on the menu but I'm going to. I think it's important to educate both international and domestic visitors that it's not all about beef fillet. There's more to it than that. A nice kangaroo tail braise, like osso bucco, is delicious. It's about education and making things delicious."
Part of ensuring that quality involves the kitchen team – comprised of 35 chefs and kitchen hands – creating as much of their own produce as possible. "We're making all our own butter, all our own cheese. We've just started making our own camembert," says Viles. A cured meats program is already underway and the chef is also planning a dry-aged meats program.
Tim Malfroy, NSW's famed beekeeper and honey producer, will soon be setting up hives on the property, to produce a wild flower honey unique to Wolgan Valley. Viles is already dreaming up ways to use it – along with a hundred other ideas. He wants to start making a wild flower beer so guests can enjoy a cool tinnie while out adventuring, as well as jams made with native fruits.
It's clear the chef is in his element, never more so than when he slips on his waders (always close to hand, he laughs) and casts a line to see what's lurking in the nearby dam.
"Growing up on the land, yabbying and all that sort of stuff was just everyday life. It was just something we did. Hunting and fishing was part of growing up. To be able to incorporate that into my cooking at Biota was great. Here, it's very similar. What I love about this place is I still have all the gardens and the space and the ingredients. It inspires me."

Getting there

Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley is just under a three hour-drive from Sydney. Packages start from $2950 per night for a one bedroom king villa, including breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, plus select wines and beverages. oneandonlyresorts.com/wolgan-valley
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  • undefined: Joanna Hunkin