A One&Only Experience | Emirates Wolgan Valley

Wolgan Valley. All the villas are thoughtfully positioned such that they face the valley out from the escarpments. The view, as a result, is extraordinary – and one of a kind.

It is perhaps fitting – in a bittersweet way – that one of the rare luxuries in our time-poor, stress-inducing lives is the simple unadulterated joy of sitting back and carry out precisely nothing. Doing so while letting your gaze melt into some of Australia’s most serenely beautiful bushland from your homestead-style villa and sinking into the plush sofa with a glass of complimentary wine while the fireplace radiates waves of warmth? That’s sumptuous. Did I mention the curious kangaroos and wombat onlookers outside the windows just steps away? Welcome to the understated luxury that is Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley.

Date of trip: 21/Jun/2019 – 24/Jun/2019

This blog post is based on an independently-paid visit to Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley. All opinions and experiences are my own.

This post contains affiliate links. Purchases made by clicking on an affiliate link may earn a small commission for me, but never at extra cost for you. Please go here for more information.

Entering a one & only landscape.
Guests are picked up via Land Rover Defenders. A refreshingly utilitarian element that encapsulates the resort’s ‘understated luxury’ feel.

Airlines are a tough business to run, but Emirates seems to be doing better than most. In 2007, the Gulf Airline’s executives splashed out a cool $125 million, snapping up 7000 undisturbed acres in one of Australia’s most ancient landscapes, nestled between the Gardens of Stone and Wollemi National Parks. But of course, it’s what you do with the place that counts: in what must seem like a case of ‘diversifying your investments’ taken to the extreme, Emirates built a resort of 40 prodigal villas with all the mod cons, a hunters lodge-style Homestead, ploughed $2 million into restore the original homestead dating back to 1832, and a few years later, commissioned One&Only – an expert in running ultra-luxury ‘experiential’ accommodation – to run the shindig.

A welcome lounge with refreshments, because you’re never made to just wait – you do it in style.

Emirates execs even coughed up funds to pave the only road winding down into the depths of the valley to make the drive easier on the suspensions of guests’ vehicles. With phones losing reception and our ears slowly popping from the descent as the valley’s magnificent escarpments loom below, and eventually above, it was clear as the brisk, cloudless day that we were going somewhere special.

A Wolgan Valley sunset

Secluded. Unspoiled. Awe-inspiring. Bespoke. Look into the world of One&Only, and you’ll begin to come across these adjectives – or their synonyms – as a regular part of its narrative. Using the ‘ultra-luxury’ moniker, properties of the One&Only breed define the idea that hotels themselves can be destinations in their own right, as opposed to merely being a means of lodging. In this vein, such accommodation is often located in remote areas, small in scale, and offer all or half-inclusive meals and a selection of beverages*. In fact, Wolgan Valley, accommodating a maximum of 80 guests, is considered large in this rarefied group.

*For example, at Wolgan Valley, local wines, beers and many cocktails are unlimited and free of charge; anything premium or imported is at extra cost.

@stephwoon pondering ‘golly, this is gonna hurt the mortgage’. Worth it.

All this is capped off with impeccable service: deferential, respectful, always there when you need them, but never servile. Our names were almost always remembered, even by staff that we hadn’t spoken to till that point. Table service is up there with the best of fine dining restaurants, and as some might say, it’s as if our minds were sometimes an open book. All that, and the fist-to-heart salute that staff gives guests on check-in is still one of the most memorable parts of the trip – it’s the little things. The service was so good, in fact, that the odd time or two that we actually had to get somebody’s attention (to be seated at a table for dinner) – which would be quotidian behaviour anywhere else – we noticed, as the service experience was otherwise superlative.

Not that the staff were new to this: many we spoke to regaled us with their jealousy-inducing CVs at other Luxury Lodges of Australia and New Zealand – a dream job if there ever was one. It must be said that with a lower occupancy during the bone-chilling months of winter, we definitely received a lion’s share of attention, so I can’t help but wonder if things would be the same during peak season. I remain optimistic that rostering will take care of that. Besides, it’s not my problem to worry about – in fact, for four days and three nights, I’m pretty sure I didn’t worry about a single thing other than figuring out how to ride a bike all over again (I know, I grew up wrong).

All this means that Wolgan Valley cannot be compared to your usual 5-star Ritz-Carlton or Mandarin Oriental stay in a big city. Both are technically ‘fruits’, but golly, you’d never substitute a durian for a grape, right? This, unfortunately, includes the price: at $2050 per night per villa (notwithstanding the occasional special), it makes a regular hotel stay seem positively plebeian. But all things considered, it really is an appropriate price to pay – an out-of-this-world price for an out-of-this-world experience makes sense to me. We came across many couples who were celebrating special occasions (as were we), though I guess even I couldn’t figure out what the family with three young children were doing here. Now that’s goals.

A sign of the times, Wolgan Valley self-describes as an example of a conservation-based eco-luxury lodge. This isn’t just marketing drivel: it is the only carbon-neutral luxury resort in the world and staff are proud of the fact. 100% of the water is provided from the eternal spring of Carne Creek which runs through the property, and over 200,000 trees have been planted by staff over the years in order to rejuvenate the land. Heck, even the coffee pods (which, by the way, come in three levels of intensity – yeah, it’s the small things) come in biodegradable packaging! Furthermore, there is an active conservation effort – with full-time staff – to contain pests, minimise disease and restrict the proliferation of feral animals. It’s too much to unload everything in this blog post – but suffice to say, I’ve never been more conscious of our environment thanks to what I learned from the knowledgeable and clearly passionate on-property conservationists.

While we’re on the subject of green credentials, there are two aspects that Wolgan Valley management admits still need work: fuel use, and single-use plastics – particularly prominent in the amenities & minibar goodies. While the property provides charging facilities for guests arriving by electric vehicle, it’s a simple reality that many of the operational requirements in running a resort – ferrying passengers, supplying the property etc. – require vehicles that burn dinosaurs. We’ll get there one day.

The Villas & Main Homestead

Our Heritage Villa: even the smallest are at least this big!

The entire built-up area only occupies 1% of the property’s total footprint. The villas are elegant, crafted of wood and insulative thick stone with a Federation period design motif/hunter’s lodge. Each villa – from the smallest Heritage Villa (which we stayed in) to the ginormous Wolgan Villa (yours for a low low $32k/night!) comes with its own private swimming pool, gas-powered fireplace, bikes to explore the rest of the property, as well as front & back decks with all the views you could ever want. The minibar – chocolates, chips, nuts, wines, bath salts and more – is complimentary. Suffice it to say, we were glad we had extra travel bags on-us for those ‘just in case’ moments – we had never taken a haul so big!

The nexus of the resort, as you saw earlier, is the main homestead, a gorgeous wood & sandstone building with high ceilings that exuded … Both of the resort’s restaurants are located here, as is the bar, souvenir shop, wine cellar, and meeting rooms. Due to the sheer size of this building, it is much more difficult for it to stay insulated (unlike the villas), and so it did get a bit chilly during our winter stay. That’s where the wood-fuelled fireplaces come in. In a word: toasty.

The Food

Continuing on the conservation theme, almost all produce is grown and sourced locally within 160km of the resort. Wines & spirits are obvious exceptions, though the local options do exist, and you’ll save money choosing them as they tend to be the free-of-charge selections. In the same locavore spirit (though I’m not ashamed to say penny-pinching had an undue influence), that’s exactly what we did. The property has two restaurants: the dining room in the main homestead (breakfasts & dinners), and the Country Kitchen on the homestead’s lower floor for lunches.

On breakfasts, Wolgan Valley takes a hybrid approach: a cooked-to-order menu with all the classics – think eggs benny, avo on toast, baked eggs and so on – plus a bountiful buffet of pastries, cold cuts, juices, fruits and of course, ‘more’. There’s certainly something almost childishly exciting about ordering from a menu with no prices, and knowing that you can order as much as you’d like. In fact, management knows this and thus keep individual portions small: so you can just keep on going for the sake of variety. As a result, we managed to cover the entire breakfast menu in our 3-night here.

Don’t get me wrong, the cooking – unlike the rest of the stay – wasn’t out of this world. For example, we were dealt a particularly weak hand on the cooked-to-order items in terms of consistency and seasoning. The buffet corner, on the other hand, was the ace up the kitchen’s sleeve: a surprisingly good showing, spearheaded by some excellent pastries.

Lunch is served as bistro fare, and while there were hits and misses like breakfast, ours were a definite step up from breakfast. The burgers, for example, were pretty bland, (though the chips were off the hook good), and can you really call a French onion soup without cheese a French onion soup? On the other hand, a minute steak with herb butter was as if Neil Perry cooked it himself at Rockpool Bar & Grill, and the pumpkin ravioli was so moreishly good it could have come out of LuMi Bar & Dining.

Stepping it up again, dinners – like an unintended progression from good, better, to best – were exceptional, befitting the sit-down, fine dining atmosphere set by the dimly-lit candles, crackle of the (real wood) fireplaces, and starchy white tablecloths. A tasting menu/degustation option is available every night, as are a set of a la carte options, both of which rotate every 3 days. Each of our three meals would have earned plaudits from food critics and our last supper, in particular, was so impressive I’d have given it a chef’s hat if my surname was Durack. Yes, once again, the occasional dish ‘wasn’t to my liking’, or ‘too salty’, but that’s the case almost anywhere. Suck it up, princess.

The below pictures are a mix of dishes from two degustation dinners & one a la carte dinner. Click/tap on any photo to enlarge.

There’s something to be said for a place that costs $2050 a night and yet doesn’t deliver a consistent culinary offering. But this isn’t a food-focussed blog post, and neither is Wolgan Valley a food destination. That it should be good enough, should be good enough – though it’s certainly better than that. Suffice to say, the food isn’t going to hold me back from revisiting.

I’m not going to name and critique every dish (gosh, that would be the epitome of dull), but all photos are included, so if you have any specific queries giving you heartburn, do drop a comment!

The Activities

Despite being physically close to Sydney – seriously, we are so lucky to have something like this on our doorstep (sorry, non-Sydney readers!) – Wolgan Valley’s geography and isolation meant that we may as well have driven to Mars, if Mars were full of wombats, wallaroos and kangaroos. As such, like many of its ultra-luxe brethren, the property offers a comprehensive set of activities (some free, many not) to keep guests fully occupied. Think heritage walking tours & hikes (guided or otherwise), horse riding, archery, conservation activities (how would you like to plant a tree? No, it doesn’t give you a discount off your stay), nocturnal adventures, and even a stargazing talk. You can also pay through the roof to turn any of the activities into a private experience. Given it was winter when we stayed, many of our activities were pretty much private anyway – score!

The 1832 Homestead tour:

Archery:

Time to embarrass myself
Would you believe me if I said I hit the bullseye? Yeah I wouldn’t either (but really, I did! Once…)

The Conservation Tour & Activity:

Glow Work Tunnel Track (self-guided, guided option available):

The nearby walks provide an excuse to leave the property, though it definitely took some convincing!

Self-guided bike ride of the property (bikes are provided for all guests):

Of course, the whole point of a stay like this is to do as much, or as little as you want: we only had so much time, and with every activity we signed up for, it meant less time in our lovely villa. I guess it’s one of the better problems to have in life. As I’m the kind of person that always must be doing something, I definitely found it tough to just stay put and chill. Wolgan Valley went some way to teaching me that.

Stables Tour (we chose not to ride):

Carne Creek Walk:

Then there’s the Wolgan Valley One&Only Timeless Spa: an elegantly-appointed building housing several villa-sized spa rooms staffed with top-tier therapists. Such is its reputation, that the O&O spa is singled out as one of Australia’s best, and if there was to be any mandatory activity when staying here, it’s this. I’m no spa tragic, so I have no idea what my frame of reference should be – but when I walked out of our ‘Purity’ treatment which consisted of an aromatic oil bath, whole-body exfoliation, body mask and scalp massage, I walked – nay – floated out on a cloud, with baby-soft skin to boot. I daresay it was a taster of heaven, delivered over 2.5 hours.

Prices for the spa treatment are steep: individual treatments vary between $100-$300 (30-90 minutes), while whole-body experiences (2-2.5 hours) can breach the $400 barrier. Well…if you’re already here…I guess I’ll add my voice to the oversaturated chorus: if you’re already coughing up for a stay, what’s another couple of hundred for one of Australia’s best spa experiences?

A One&Only Experience

It got misty and rainy on the final day but golly, what a scene it made.

To most people, yours truly included, the eyewatering cost of such an experience cannot be justified from any one of its constituents: the lavish villas, the all-inclusive dining, the signature activities, or even the impeccable service. The otherworldly, primeval landscape and its wildlife inhabitants come awfully close, but even that’s a hard sell for $2050 a night – entire holidays could be had for less.

Wolgan Valley: the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Well the whole, as they say, is greater than the sum of its parts. Take it all together, and a stay at One&Only is its own holiday – one of the very few experiences in Australia capable of eliciting genuine awe from this frequent traveller – in the true dictionary sense of a word that’s far too overused these days. No, your piercing is not awesome, the enormity of the universe is. Your Instagram picture is not awesome, Wolgan Valley is. As far as the resort is concerned, it’s one of the few luxury lodges in Australia that doesn’t have the natural postcard advantage of ocean views. That it stands up to the best of them despite this fact is an absolute achievement. If I had the wherewithal, I’d be booking my next visit already – never has winning the lottery seemed more appealing.

It is bewildering to think that such a place – a sanctuary from the excesses of city life – exists less than three hours out from Sydney. A place that isn’t of the same earth, a place that lives up to its inimitable namesake. After we checked out, we drove up the windy road, climbing out of the valley. As the resort and the ancient landscape disappears from view, it feels as though the whole place was just a dream.

Did all this really happen?

This blog post is based on an independently-paid visit to Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley. All opinions and experiences are my own.

This post contains affiliate links. Purchases made by clicking on an affiliate link may earn a small commission for me, but never at extra cost for you. Please go here for more information.

This blog post is based on an independently-paid visit to Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley. All opinions and experiences are my own.

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4 comments on “A One&Only Experience | Emirates Wolgan Valley”

  1. Jenny Reply

    Noice thanks a lot for sharing 🙂 Will be sending one of my students there as an intern cook! It was helpful to have a bit of this information 🙂

    • Michael Shen Reply

      Hopefully it’ll be an amazing experience for your student – even if it’s for work! The staff all spoke very positively of their experience working at O&O.

    • Michael Shen Reply

      Thanks man! And golly, I’d love to but not sure if I can justify it since I’ve been to Tassie quite a few times now. I think Lizard Island might be next!

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