You have your bush camps, you have your harbourside urban design hotels, you have your backpacker haunts in the likes of Sydney's King's Cross. Australia has all that when it comes to lodging. More than that, it has luxury digs, too, superb 5-star luxury resorts and lodges, growing in number, sprinkled around the country.
I discovered this first-hand in February, when I ventured Down Under to check-out three high-end, beautifully realized lodges there. I went first to Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa, just west of the Blue Mountains, in New South Wales; then, to the wine-growing region in the Barossa Valley, South Australia; and finally to the Saffire, on the east coast of Tasmania - "Tassie,'' as I'm learning to call the island. I could hardly have hoped for a better time.
At the Louise, I sat down with Penny Rafferty, executive officer of Luxury Lodges of Australia (www.luxurylodgesofaustralia.com.au). This is a joint marketing group of high-end places, all of them resorts or resort-like, formed in November 2009 to shift the perception among foreign travelers like me of just what is on offer at the high end of the market in Oz.
There are, at last count, 17 member properties, from Queensland, near the Great Barrier Reef, to the west coast near Perth, to the middle of the country, near Ayers Rock (Uluru).
"In the last decade, the luxury experience has changed dramatically,'' Rafferty told me over drinks in the Louise's snug, buzzy bar. "Australia has always been a welcoming and safe destination, but people haven't associated it with luxury.''
And yet, they should. International luxury hotel chains such as Four Seasons, Shangri-la and Ritz-Carlton have got city properties and resorts in Australia. Increasingly, home-grown operators are also going upmarket, both in-town and in-country.
Me, I ate freshly harvested salt-water oysters and drank sparkling wine while standing in a gently flowing tidal river near the Saffire, in Tasmania - er, Tassie; went to a lively farmers' market in the Borassa with Mark McNamara, the gifted chef at the Louise's fine-dining restaurant, Appellation; and accompanied the acutely knowledgeable food and beverage chief cum executive chef at Wolgan Valley as he visited artisan purveyors of food and wine near his resort. In every case, these excursions were fine ways to see the surroundings and learn about local culture, not to mention seeing the flora and fauna that Australia is rightly known for.
Luxury does cost more, to be sure. If you can meet the initial rates and fees, you typically get meals and special, customized spa treatments, walks, boating trips and other ventures included in the overall expense. Since many luxury lodges are located far from towns of any size, this can end up being a surprisingly good deal, as well as being convenient.
Like other elements of the travel industry, luxury took a hit over the past few recessionary years. However, "luxury is coming back sooner,'' Rafferty reports. Besides, she adds, properties like those in her non-for-profit group enable travelers to access "unique Australian experiences.'' As I can attest, she's right.