The overlooked alternative to Australia’s Blue Mountains

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“You know it’s more of a hike than a walk, yeah?” says our bus driver Brad, as he drops us at our hotel after dinner. He sports an orange mohawk and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the regional town of Orange, which is located at the base of the dormant volcano Mount Canobolas, 130 miles west of Sydney – and just a little to the side of Australia’s famed Blue Mountains. Our group is taking the two-and-a-half-mile walk down to Federal Falls first thing in the morning. 

Tucked up at the Byng St Hotel, enjoying the adorable turndown service (cookies and tea placed at the foot of the bed), I looked up the Federal Falls website. It described the walk as ‘easy,’ except for the last 1,100ft, which ‘should only be attempted by confident walkers.’ I walk my Beaglier, Hermione, with confidence, I think to myself as I turn out the light. I’ll be fine. 

The hotel is located in Orange’s heritage precinct, alongside picture-perfect rows of Federation-era houses, near the bustling main street. Orange has long been a go-to destination for Sydneysiders willing to travel a little further than the Blue Mountains for their weekend jaunts. Australian airline Qantas’s snappy new 50-minute flight has made the trip even more appealing to those who don’t relish the idea of sitting in the car for four hours. 

It’s also wine country. The area is home to Australia’s highest altitude vineyards: all are above 600 metres, and some are over 1,000. As a result of the cool climate, it has attracted some of the country’s finest, and most innovative, viticulturists. The wide range of varietals produced in the area is due to the diversity in elevation – the wine region stretches from from the peak of Mount Canobolas down to the Towac Valley. 

Brad drops us at the track bright and early. And, as we head deep into the forest of snow gum trees, the occasional gurgle of the Currawong reminds us that we are the only humans for miles. My thoughts turn, as they often do in such iconically Australian bush settings, to Picnic at Hanging Rock. I can’t help but wonder how many of us will make it out.

The houses of Orange

The houses of Orange

Credit:
getty

We quickly separate the strong from the weak, merging into two groups. The first charges ahead, led by an influencer with over 30,000 followers on Instagram and an attitude as peppy as her designer activewear. She makes it to the base of the falls before the rest of us and then leads a masterclass in how to pose for photos alongside a dramatic cliffscape with a thunderous 50ft waterfall. 

As we start the steep ascent back up to our bus, I feel last night’s chardonnay rising up, and comment, in between gasps for air and an airlift back to Sydney, that the website could have used stronger language. 

Over lunch the previous day at Ross Hill Wines, owner James Robson tells us about becoming the first certified carbon neutral winery in Australia.

“Because viticulture is so in tune with the climate, scientists are saying it’s a canary in the coalmine in terms of the impact climate change is having on agriculture.” Robson says. “Our premium chardonnay needs to be picked in the middle of March, now we need to pick it in mid February. That’s a big problem.” 

A trip to Orange isn’t complete without a visit to Hoosegg, the new winery presided over by Phillip Shaw, arguably the major-domo of Australian wine-making. Shaw’s irreverent spirit leaks into the youthful brand; the wine labels range from the cheeky to the positively lewd (check out the label on the Sorry For The Slow Reply bottle of Rose).

The vineyards of Mount Canobolas

The vineyards of Mount Canobolas

Credit:
getty

The wine tasting experience takes place at his Tuscan-inspired home, and is among the most memorable I’ve encountered. Shaw, in his mid-seventies, is hard of hearing, drops the F-bomb a few times and, when his beloved dog Lucca (who might actually be older than Shaw) needs a walk, he takes the whole group (glasses in hand) along with her and we watch the sun set over Koomooloo, the vineyard he planted here over 30 years ago.  

But there’s more to Orange than wine. The excellent shopping options include The Sonic — a light-filled temple of homewares, clothing and art housed in a former Masonic Hall. Just up the road is Spilt Milk Bar — an artisanal gelateria that uses a ‘cow to cone’ ethos, seasonal produce, and low sugar content to produce the area’s best gelato. And while Racine Bakery might be located in a car park, don’t let its inauspicious digs fool you; this is an ideal spot to sample a classic Aussie sausage roll. 

And then there are the bushwalks. There are many easier than the one our group tackled. And while some of us power walked the way from the base of the falls all the way back to Brad (damn influencers), others found a solitary pace and enjoyed the butterflies overhead with a solemn introspection reserved for time spent alone in nature. And then there were those that emerged last – panic attacks and visions of emergency airlifts long forgotten – triumphant and ready to tackle the next challenge. Like another chilled glass of chardonnay, perhaps?

Getting there

Australia’s borders are currently closed to overseas travellers. It is expected that tourism to Australia will begin to resume in 2021. Please see our guide on Australian travel restrictions to keep up to date on the latest news.

The drive west from Sydney through the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains takes 3h 40 min. Qantas has flights from Sydney to Orange from £99. (qantas.com)

Where to stay

Byng St Hotel has 22 rooms spread across two wings – the historical homestead and its design-centric extension. In an ode to Orange, much of the art and design was sourced locally, and there is a focus on the region’s produce at breakfast. 

Eat here

Charred Kitchen and Bar for fine dining with warm service. The Agrestic Grocer has live music and regional produce you can take home with you.  

More information can be found at orange360.com.au