Exploring the NSW Southern Highlands
There are many reasons why the NSW Southern Highlands is alluring. Lush pastures, fresh air, pretty English-style gardens with tall oak trees and picturesque towns with craft shops and cafes are some of the region’s attractions.
The country getaway is close enough to Sydney for a day trip and an easy drive from Canberra. It has a rich heritage that is celebrated with a year-round program of cultural activities, including music, theatre and festivals. One of the biggest festivals is Brigadoon, a celebration of the region’s Scottish ancestry.
The main town, Bowral, is famous as the hometown of Sir Donald Bradman and for The International Cricket Hall Of Fame and it’s no surprise that celebrities, writers, artists, musicians and business magnates have holiday homes in the Southern Highlands, including Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban.
Above all, those seeking a healing getaway will find inspiration from a community passionate about feeding mind, body and soul.
A tour with Jill Dyson of FoodPath Culinary Tours will appeal to those interested in learning about how food is grown and produced. It’s an opportunity to connect with farmers and chefs who practise sustainable principles as well as visit gardens, attend private tastings and producer dinners. You could find yourself picking chestnuts or visiting a free-range pig farm or learning about potatoes from a farmer who grows over 30 different varieties.
“The area is rich with a variety of foods grown and produced by people who have moved here later in life and have a passion for food. There are six truffle farms, three berry farms, three cheese makers, and olive and potato growers,” says Dyson.
We stroll around Basinghurst Farm, where Boer goats graze in a lush pasture and ducks preen beside a pond. The farm is the home of Alan and Jeannette Burniston, who have a vegetable Garden planted with horseradish, zucchini, strawberries, King Edward potatoes, butternut pumpkins and gherkins. Honey comes from their beehives and fresh eggs from free-range chooks. A greenhouse provides suitable conditions for green chillies and kaffir lime.
“Our aim is to be as self-sufficient as possible,” says Alan Burniston. “It’s a great feeling to sit down at the table to eat what you’ve grown and produced yourself.”
Rows of English oak (Quercus robur) trees have been inoculated with truffle spores. A friend bought trees from the same supplier a year earlier and has already reaped rewards of 40 truffles.
Down the road in Bowral, lunch at Biota Dining is a three-course meal full of flavour, texture and creativity. The menu is written like a shopping list: an entrée of local sheep milk curd, asparagus, roe, hen yolk, smoked rye; followed by a main of Burrawang duck, cauliflower, white raisins, pear and pine needles. The duck is free range and pasture fed. Dessert is a divine dish of seasonal stone fruit, roses, chamomile, peach sorbet and bee pollen. The roses are from the garden and only natural ingredients are used, with no added sugar.
The restaurant and bar is the brainchild of chef James Viles, who designed a menu driven by a kitchen garden and a philosophy of supporting small growers who engage in sustainable practices.
Viles worked as a chef in big cities such as Sydney, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai and Oman. While in Oman, importing thousands of different foods from six countries made him realise he needed to be close to the produce. “I felt I needed to be true to what Mother Nature has provided us,” he says.
The result is a stylish but unpretentious fine-dining restaurant with an innovative menu perfect for those with a leaning towards healthy cuisine.
Down the road, passionate gardener and cook, Steve Hogwood, is chopping onions in the kitchen of the Bowral Golf Course. The former advertising executive is pursuing a passion for preserving organic food using traditional methods and teaching others how to do the same by conducting preserving classes.
Under his label, the 1910 Bottling Company, he has a range of products such as organic rhubarb, pears and pineapple preserved in honey, organic beetroot in raspberry vinegar and organic marmalade.
Retreat to wellness
Accommodation choices in the Southern Highlands include B&Bs, motels, hotels, cottages and farmstays. But for a holistic health-focused experience, the Solar Springs Health Retreat is the spot.
Over a healthy dinner of savoury profiteroles, labna, seeds and herbs followed by a main of salmon, sweet potato, pea puree and lemon, a quick survey of the other guests reveals that most have stayed at Solar Springs several times. One female guest has been visiting regularly for the past 20 years. Nine out of 10 are female and most are staying for a week.
After dinner, we head off on a brisk walk through Morton National Park in search of glow-worms. The hike takes us down a flight of steps into a glen where we turn off our torches and let our eyes adjust to the darkness. Fluorescent pinpricks of glow-worms hanging on the rockface pierce the darkness. It almost seems like a slice of the sky has fallen to earth in front of us.
Solar Springs Health Retreat has been running wellness programs for more than 30 years. Included in the room rate is a daily schedule of outdoor and indoor activities catering for a range of fitness levels: bushwalking, cycling, tennis and archery. Aquarobics classes are held in the 25-metre indoor heated swimming pool, which is in a complex that also houses a Jacuzzi, steam room and sauna.
The day usually begins with a gentle stretch class followed gentle yoga, Pilates, meditation, circuit, boxing and power bar classes.
For an additional fee, you can book a private session with a naturopath, dietician, life coach or personal trainer, or take a therapeutic treatment in the spa. The most popular spa treatment is the Ying & Yang, a pampering sequence of dry skin-brushing, exfoliating, hydrotherapy bath and massage. The treatment hydrates and balances using both energising and relaxing essential oils.
Rooms at Solar Springs have a homely feel. There are no televisions or telephones in them. They range from small single rooms with shared bathroom facilities to the country motel-style Valley View rooms with ensuite bathrooms, verandahs and peaceful views.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Gibraltar Hotel in Bowral has spacious, luxuriously furnished rooms with flat-screen television sets and a European-chic style. Its facilities include an 18-hole golf course, heated indoor pool, cold plunge pool, gym and regular Hatha and Hatha Vinyasa yoga classes suitable for students with some experience.
Also part of the complex is the Bowral Day Spa, a pampering oasis with five treatment rooms (two with Vichy Showers) that uses Li’tya and Kerstin Florian spa care ranges.
Mind and soul
Hidden among the towns and gardens of the Southern Highlands is the Sunnataram Forest Monastery, a Theravada Buddhist monastery in a forest setting. It’s an enchanting location on the outskirts of Bundanoon, set on a sprawling 40 hectares of bushland adjoining Morton National Park with a backdrop of views of Kangaroo Valley.
Buddha and Kwan Yin statues grace the gardens while the centrepiece is the impressive Gratitude Pagoda, a Thai-style pagoda decorated with large golden Buddha statues representing images of Buddha from Laos, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The monastery offers Buddhist workshops, courses and meditation retreats. You can wander around and enjoy the atmosphere, participate in the lunch offering to the monks and attend introductory talks. Or just soak up the tranquillity of the grounds and soothe your soul by gazing at the mirror-like reflection of the pagoda in the pond next to it.
Spiritual nourishment comes in many different forms. In the countryside of Canyonleigh, positive vibes swirl around the hall at the Sunday morning satsang (gathering of truth) of the Shanti Mission Harmony Centre.
The centre is one of 14 Shanti Mission Harmony Centres in Australia offering training and educational programs, events and seminars based around a form of energetic healing called Ignite Your Spirit.
A group of about 30 attendees sit on chairs and floor cushions, eyes closed, hands held open with palms facing upwards. At the front of the room, spiritual healer and counsellor Savitur Dhanvantre leads the group through a blend of teachings, positive affirmations and cleansing of negative thoughts by chanting and meditation. His flowing white cotton tunic, peacock-blue shawl and chunky lapis lazuli necklace are reminiscent of the Indian spiritual masters.
The centre’s approach is a blend of self-help principles, psychology, meditation and various spiritual practices such as pranic healing. Teachings also draw on values from traditional religions and participants may choose to pray to any god. The podium is festooned with statues and wallhangings of deities of the world’s major religions, including Buddha, Kwan Yin, Jesus Christ, Mary and various Hindu gods.
The Shanti Mission Harmony Centre was established by Shakti Durga (formerly Kim Fraser), who swapped a stressful life as a barrister for a spiritual calling after 15 years of studying a gamut of spiritual traditions.
Ideas are presented in an easily digestible form and teachings are focused on practical ways of dealing with day-to-day issues faced by people in the developed world today.
The satsang ends with individual energetic blessings. We take turns to kneel before Savitur Dhanvantre and another teacher, Nityananda, while the congregation radiates healing thoughts.
As soon as Nityananda places his hand on my head, I feel an unmistakable tingling as the energy sweeps through me, leaving me feeling full of light.
What to do
Southern Highlands Shanti Mission Harmony Centre, Canyonleigh, has satsangs (Sundays 9.30am to 11am), healing mediation (Tuesdays 10.15am to 11.15am) and healing clinics (11.30am to 12.30pm), open to the public by donation. shantimission.org
Sunnantaram Forest Monastery, Bundanoon, welcomes visitors Monday to Friday (1pm to 4pm), Saturday and Sunday (11am to 4pm). On weekends, the 11am food offering to the monks is followed by a 12.30pm Dhamma talk and short meditation. sunnataram.org
Where to stay
Solar Springs Health Retreat, Bundanoon, has two-night packages from $450 a person. solarsprings.com.au
Gibraltar Hotel Bowral has a mid-week spa package with accommodation for $199 a person. gibraltarbowral.com.au
FoodPath Culinary Tours runs a range of food tours and food-related activities. foodpath.com.au
Biota Dining, Bowral, is a fine-dining restaurant awarded two chefs hats biotadining.com
What are truffles?
Truffles are the edible fruiting bodies of a subterranean fungus, Mycorrhiza, which forms a symbiotic relationship with a host tree. The tree provides the truffle with a source of carbohydrates and nutrients and in return the fine thread-like filaments (mycelia) of the truffle coat the tips of the tree roots to form mycorrhiza, which helps the tree to absorb soil minerals and nutrients.
When to go
Southern Highlands Food & Wine Festival (September 13-14, 2014). southernhighlandsfoodandwine.com.au
Brigadoon Highlands Gathering is a non-profit registered charity held in Bundanoon in April each year. brigadoon.net.au
See Destination NSW’s website, visitnsw.com
Christina Pfeiffer is a freelance travel writer, photographer and host of traveltherenext.tv who has recently been reminded of the power of positive energy.