Updated: Oct 29, 2020
By Ellen Hill Photographs by David Hill
The Three Sisters are globally recognised, Scenic World’s an international drawcard and the Carrington Hotel has entertained guests from around the world for a century. But who’s trekked through Blue Gum Forest, visited the home of Norman Lindsay or dined at Michelangelo's Restaurant at Blaxland? The lower Blue Mountain is the overlooked drive-by end of the region, packed with hidden gems only locals know.
Hawkesbury Heights, Yellow Rock, Winmalee, Yarramundi. Never heard of `em.
Mt Riverview, Lapstone, Glenbrook, Blaxland, Warrimoo, Valley Heights, Sun Valley. The road signs disappear into the rear-view mirror.
Springwood, Faulconbridge, Linden, Woodford, Hazelbrook, Lawson. Are we at the Blue Mountains yet?
If you drive up the Great Western Hwy and don’t stop until Wentworth Falls you’ve missed half the Blue Mountains and what the region has to offer.
The lower and central Mountains is a treasure trove of hidden gems and local secrets purely because
they are overlooked and underrated.
But further down ``the hill’’ the landscape is a spiritual balm rather than a bucket list achievement. Understated, rather than jaggedly distracting.
There’s a quiet smugness about the locals, who know what their perpetually harried city cousins are missing when they whiz up the Great Western Hwy on a mad dash to dose up on serenity with everyone else before tackling another week in the big smoke.
There’s two ways to access the lower Blue Mountains from Sydney.
The first is the well-worn path up the M4 and Great Western Hwy, climbing the Lapstone Hill.
It’s worth taking a breather at #Glenbrook village, first to chat with locals at the Visitor Information Centre, then to sip a latte and nibble on a burger at one of myriad trendy cafes.
This is also a good place to access the bush, especially for first timers.
Some parts of Blue Mountains National Park are currently closed, including Nepean Lookout and Red Hands Cave, although Euroka Clearing is a great place to unpack a gourmet picnic hamper. If you’re lucky, you might catch a round of boxing kangaroos at dusk.
Kai Mercieca-Greenland has taken over the old Restaurant Como premises. Her menu for the Nook Restaurant interestingly serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
More upmarket is Blaxland mainstay since it opened as a milk bar in 1950, Michelangelo’s Italian Restaurant, which has served a la carte and banquet meals by the current owners for the past four years.
Wind your way through the farmlands along Springwood Rd (it’s Yarramundi Rd on the way back) and over the confluence of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River where, on blisteringly hot days, locals wallow in the shallows and picnic on the shore.
Hawkesbury Heights at the top of the hairpin bends reminds you of the lengths you’ve gone to escape the frenetic pace of normal life.
Far below, the river is a moat around our blissful Mountains lifestyle with its rambling lot sizes, lack of traffic snarls, lyrebirds in the backyard and endless trees.
The distant sound of horses whinnying and the odd tractor growl float up on the breeze from the #Castlereagh plains below.
Beyond, the office blocks and red tile roofs of Western Sydney meet the city skyline, and Centrepoint Tower glistens like a light sabre in the sun.
Weave your way through #Winmalee, past streets of families living the Great Aussie Dream, to the town colonial Governor Lachlan Macquarie named Spring Wood.
In times past, the Oriental Hotel was a popular overnight stopover for travellers on their way to Katoomba and the Central West.
These days the wait staff greet familiar faces of locals meeting friends for coffee and cake or a celebratory family dinner.
In fact, #Springwood has a profusion of cafes, overflowing mainly with residents who all have their preference depending on location, menu and occasion.
The Bunker is the trendy restaurant you go for a posh night out. Finn & Co café is renowned for its tradies’ special breakfast deals. Dbl Ristretto is where you dash for a takeaway turmeric latte and raw dessert before hopping on the train.
But don’t rush off.
A warning: leave New Age Markets (aka The Hippy Shop) opposite the station until last – the shop is crammed with a veritable vortex of fascinating trinkets you’ll need a deadline to get out.
Detour off the main road at #Faulconbridge and catch a glimpse into the life of original Blue Mountains bohemian, Norman Lindsay, at Norman Lindsay Gallery & Museum tucked away in the middle of a residential street.
The beloved creator of children’s classic The Magic Pudding, talented sketcher and model ship builder lived an unconventional life with a bevy of muses who roamed with naked abandon. See for yourself in the front gallery room with painted red walls but distinctly blue artwork.
To the right of the main buildings is a short track through the bush down to the famous bathing pool in which Elle McPherson, Tara Fitzgerald, Portia de Rossi and the actress formerly known as Kate Fischer cavorted for the film Sirens.
After all that blushing, you’ll need to calm down at the charming Chapters & Leaves tea and bookshop in the nearby shopping strip before taking to the road again.
Also owned by the National Trust, Woodford Academy is a trove of colonial life.
From Thomas Pembroke’s crude 1831 roadside inn to wealthy Sydney merchant Alfred Fairfax’s Victorian-era country retreat, then John McManamey’s school and home to his aged daughters, the essence of the ages and characters past oozes from the sandstone.
The Indigenous heritage of the property is equally important, and #Darug man Chris Tobin chats about country and culture while eucalyptus smoke cleanses the air.
Just $10pp to explore (there’s also a café selling homemade food), the property has regular open days, site-specific art events and interpretive displays and proceeds directly contribute to the conservation of the property.
Long a pastime of Sydneysiders escaping the city, antique shop trawling begins in the lower Blue Mountains.
Pull into the service road just before the pedestrian overpass bridge at Warrimoo to access former Australian Ballet dancer Robyn Kirkland’s tiny shop, Robyn’s Nest. A little further along there’s Whimsical Notions Antiques.
Also westbound is Faulconbridge Antiques & Giftware just before the petrol station.
On the way back down the highway, drop into Hazelbrook Cottage Antiques near the Scouts hall and Faulconbridge Farm Gallery near Todarellos Fruit House at Linden (you might have seen owner Geoffrey Croft waving a huge Australian flag on the way up).
Before making the downward trek back to Sydney, replenish at the Ben Roberts Café next to the carpark behind the Lawson Hotel. The café supports people with a disability.
Another option is Rust & Timber chocolate bar where the cappuccino is as good as the handmade choccies.
If you’re at Lawson on dinner time, Napoli Corner is more than a cheap eats pizza joint. It’s a 100 per cent authentic Napolese dining experience, according to pizza chef Luca, who trained at Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. The oven was even handcrafted in Naples using volcanic ash.
But why come to the Blue Mountains if not to experience the bush?
The 5km Empress Pass track in north #Lawson passes through a gorgeous gully of temperate rainforest and delightful waterfalls, while the South Lawson Water Circuit Walk is one of the few dog-friendly walks in the region.
Great for walkers and mountain bikers alike, the 13km return Faulconbridge Point track ends at a remote clifftop with a gob-smacking view over the wild, untouched lower Grose Valley and river. There’s a walking track down to a swimming hole for the spritely.
Another good mountain bike track when open is the Oaks Fire Trail from Woodford to Glenbrook (or vice versa). Ride or walk one way and get the train back. Either way, stopping in at 20 Mile Hollow Café is a must.
The 2-hour Blue Gum Swamp Track at Winmalee descends into the valley between two ridges behind St Columba’s Catholic College. A civilised stroll along a wide fern-lined track, wild waratahs daub the greenery with splashes of red in spring.
For an energetic day on the track, the Victory Track starts from Faulconbridge not far from the grave of Sir Henry Parkes and the Prime Ministers’ trees at the Corridor of Oaks. It winds through patches of rainforest and connects with the Sassafras Gully Loop Track ending behind the Springwood shops.
There’s another pretty little track in Springwood, within ``Cooee’’ of the town.
Lined with flannel flowers and sporting two after-rain ponds brimming with wildlife, we like to sit on a rock overlooking the valley at the end of the track and stare out at serenity.
But I’m not telling. That’s a true locals-only secret you’ll have to discover yourself.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE…
EAT: Vincent Diner, Glenbrook
DO: Grose River Trees Adventure Park, Springwood Rd, Yarramundi
Ellen & David Hill have been lower Blue Mountains locals for 25 years and experienced these businesses at their own expense.