Berowra Waters Inn
Call it the final piece of the puzzle. Dietmar Sawyere's restoration of Berowra Waters Inn brought one of Sydney's sacred restaurant sites back to life in 2007. Now that he and his wife Nicole have refurbished the bottom floor of their house, just a minute up the river, creating a small, perfect guesthouse, Berowra Waters is a destination that offers a combination of fine dining and thoroughly comfortable digs. It's a package unmatched in the state and rivalled by few in the country - and includes breakfast genuinely worth leaping out of bed for.
At your disposal as a guest is a long open room, with glass opening out to the garden and water, and a bedroom down the north end with an ensuite bathroom, decked out with a rainwater shower head, duckboards and Duchy Organic amenities, running off it. The linens on the bed are lush, and the quiet at bedtime is deep - barring the odd splash of a mullet in the waters below. It's not somewhere to party-hearty, but a place for a couple to take it easy and enjoy the kind of rejuvenation that's achieved through drinking Burgundy with your bare feet dangling over the river.
If dining ranks high among the pleasures you take from this life, you're going to really enjoy your stay. That the top drawer in the thoughtfully curated kitchen holds a stingingly sharp Global rather than the usual beach-house Ikea kit isn't entirely surprising in this context, but finding a wine thermometer next to it should still make you smile. There are framed menus from the Sawyeres' extensive collection on the walls, and while the shelves aren't solely populated with books about food and wine, the bias is distinct. If Simon Hopkinson on roast chicken or Richard Olney on Romanée-Conti (or indeed Wilde, Eliot or Gill) aren't what you need to unwind, there's a place to dock your iPod, not to mention a small stable of movies - only some of them involving food - on DVD next to antique wine accessories.
You're invited to choose your own adventure as far as stocking the fridge is concerned by indicating your snacking preferences when you book. Ours was loaded with the likes of Echiré butter, jamón Ibérico, Holy Goat cheese, salty olives, bottles of good lager, Voss sparkling water, Bundaberg ginger beer and Valrhona chocolate. There's ice-cream in the freezer, and Duchy oatcakes and crackers and other things to have with cheese in the cupboard. Wine, meanwhile, is as straightforward and satisfying as ordering from the copy of the restaurant's list on the shelf.
Every night you stay includes as part of the package a six-course lunch or dinner at the restaurant itself, with breakfast and the remaining meal served in the guesthouse. Depending on when you arrive and how you choose to play it, that could mean a tapas-style dinner or something like chicken salad and Ruinart for a picnic lunch on a nearby sheltered beach. It's up to you, and the Sawyeres work to ensure it complements rather than competes with what you're having at the restaurant.
For us it was a fondue Chinoise - superb raw scallops, tuna, prawns, organic chicken, thoroughly marbled beef, shiitake mushrooms, blanched broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower - all cut and ready to be skewered and poached at the table in a hot rich chicken stock, and then introduced to the battery of sauces - inky tapenade, rémoulade, wonderfully cheesy and salty pesto, a blushing cocktail sauce and a spicy tomato number among them. Accessorised with leaves and potato salad, cold Sancerre and Mount Mary pinot, it was one of those simple suppers that puts most restaurant meals to shame.
Breakfast is pretty much a reason to come in itself. Is this Australia's best? Depending on your feelings on the subject of muesli, the platter of sav blanc-poached pears, fruit-dense blueberry muffins, hot bread swaddled in cloth, fat raspberries, yoghurt with honey in the comb, perfumed strawberries and maple crunch may or may not move you. But with the sun streaming through the open windows, and the sight of a neighbour's launch (the fittingly named Bludgin') bobbing on the river a few yards away, it's pretty close to idyllic. Then the second course arrives - creamed eggs, one with smoked salmon and oscietra caviar, another with shiitake mushrooms and guanciale - and you're looking at something less like the full English and more like nirvana.
The quality of the restaurant is a story unto itself; suffice to say that this is one of the best in the country, where the pleasures of fine food, wine and service are magnified dramatically by a highly unusual and captivating setting. You may have enjoyed Sawyere's food at Forty One, but here on the river it's like he's a new man.
This sort of bliss can be overwhelming. It's understandable if you want to go back to bed to luxuriate or recover from it all. But if you're up for it, there's plenty to do. A kayak and a tinnie are there for your use, so you can grab a Thermos of coffee or liberate some booze from the fridge and go exploring. There's a sauna next to the house, and jumping into the river is a very tempting option.
Even a single night's stay is enough to engender deep relaxation of the kind that normally takes a good few days to gain momentum holidaying elsewhere. The trick is to remove as much stress from the equation as possible by taking traffic out of it. The most perfect expression of the visit is to arrive by seaplane. The 20-minute ride from Rose Bay is one of Sydney's deadset must-do experiences in itself, and since the restaurant and guesthouse are both river-locked, you can pull up pretty much door-to-door, with the plane mooring at the restaurant's jetty. When you're done, consider a ride with the London Cab Company. It's hard to deny the element of rock 'n' roll decadence to climbing into a black cab by the river at the end of a lazy afternoon.
The Sawyeres have plans to build on this brilliance by luxeing-up some houseboats moored nearby and perhaps one day putting up more accommodation on the land behind the restaurant itself. For now, the Berowra Waters Inn Guesthouse is a worthy extension of this restaurant's near-fabled reputation and a sublime treat for food lovers in its own right.
Pretty Beach House
Every weekend getaway needs a checklist. Not a list of clothing to pack (although that, too, will come in handy when hastily tossing things into a bag in the dim glow of an imminent dawn on the day of departure). I'm talking a checklist of desirables when considering your destination and accommodation. Mine runs something like this:
One, proximity and travelling time. A weekend getaway demands just the right amount of travelling time; a comfortable two-ish-hour drive is ideal and Pretty Beach House, 100km north of Sydney, fits the bill. Peak- hour traffic notwithstanding, you'll have the lower Central Coast breeze in your hair in no time.
Two, location and surrounding environments. Of course, a naturally beautiful location is a must for any break, preferably one with panoramic views. A steep climb up a somewhat hair-raising driveway lands you high on the Bouddi Peninsula, with sweeping views through the eucalypts and ancient angophoras to the sparkling Brisbane Waters. Take a deep breath and inhale - this is pure holiday air. Exhale - you've arrived.
Three, amenities and furnishings. After a brief tour of the Main House (all vaulted beamed ceilings, sandstone floors and lots of glass framing that spectacular view), which accommodates the dining room, cellar and cocktail bar complete with white baby grand, we're shown to our pavilion, Treetops. Pretty Beach House is boutique accommodation at its absolute best, with luxurious understatement the order of the day. Open-plan lounging areas take full advantage of the views, with inviting sofas, combustion log fires and the little touches that add a personal feel to the rooms - think vintage travel trunks and lamp bases fashioned from fallen angophora branches. A well-stocked bar has all the fixings for a good G & T - no mini-bar sizes here. Downstairs is the expansive sleeping and bathing area, the centrepiece of which is a vast, pillowy bed, clothed in luxurious linens and lush blankets. A generous dressing room and bathroom (with a free-standing bath with water views) complete the master suite. The private terrace and pebble-lined pool (heated in the cooler months) beckon beyond. Pure bliss.
Four, dining and food. If I weren't writing this list in some kind of logical order, food would take first place. If you were to require any further incentive to stay here, perhaps knowing that Stefano Manfredi mans the pans is enough. So often, when you travel out of any Australian metropolis you leave hope of good food and decent coffee behind. Not so here. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all have the distinctive Manfredi touch, often taking advantage of the vegetable garden at sister property Bells at Killcare. Breakfast could be eggs from the hens at Bells, cooked any way you like, paired with, say, gorgeously smoky bacon, or sautéed silverbeet (again, from Bells) or roasted tomatoes. Or perhaps house-baked bread, toasted and served with local honey, house-made jams and insanely good clotted cream. For coffee junkies, a perfect espresso from the Main House is sure to allay withdrawals - Manfredi's own blend, of course. The three-course dinner menu changes daily, with simplicity and freshness being its focus and each dish ably explained by the chef. Slippery pappardelle with duck ragù is deeply rich, while a lighter touch is evident in a dish of grilled mulloway served with a piquant anchovy and egg salsa. A rose-scented panna cotta served with lightly poached rhubarb and strawberries rounds things off beautifully. Textbook Manfredi, and all expertly paired with wines from the cellar. You can choose to eat all meals either in the dining room or in the comfort of your pavilion. Lunch poolside seems a good idea, and it's not long before smoky wood-fired pizze are set down (keep an eye out for the prosciutto-swiping kookaburras). With only three one-bedroom pavilions on the 3-hectare property, the style of hospitality needs to be pitch perfect - and it most certainly is.
Five, activities and entertainment. If you fancy a wander beyond the gates of PBH, there are bushwalks a stone's throw away. Lobster Beach, Box Head and the surf at Tallow Beach are all close by, as are the picturesque seaside villages of Hardys Bay, Wagstaffe and Killcare. Or charter the 38-foot PBH cruiser, Pretty Beach (for a pretty price, from $3000 for a morning), replete with picnic hamper. When your villa has a private plunge pool and cosy cushioned daybed, however, there's no pressing reason to leave its confines. That way, you'll have plenty of time for the obligatory siesta.
The final item on my weekend getaway checklist is what I like to call relaxation immersion. How long does it take to feel utterly relaxed - in a bone-deep kind of way? Given the brevity of a weekend escape, it's ideal that all worldly, weekday cares should fall from your shoulders pronto. And Pretty Beach House delivers this in what seems like the blink of an eye.