Head for the Majestic Hydro Majestic...
Words by Dorian Mode and photography by Lydia Thorpe
The Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains of NSW
The gramophone’s on the fritz. The dunny man has broken a leg. What to do? Why not take a leaf out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s racy new novel, borrow your uncle’s Buick, and Charleston your way up to the leafy Blue Mountains to the Hydro Majestic?
Now, if you’re like us and have a love affair with all things early 20th century, you’ll simply adooore the Hydro Majestic. It’s an Art Nouveau/Art Deco paradise.
For the uninitiated, the Hydro Majestic was the brainchild of Mark Foy – the department store king. (Remember Mark Foys?) Foy connected the old Belgravia Hotel with the family residence of John Hargraves to create one giant linear resort that from end to end is longer than the Sydney Harbour Bridge – pylon to pylon. For its time it was exotic. A newspaper reported at the time that ‘Chinese waiters waited on each table and two little Turks dressed in their national costume poured coffee in the lounge’. (Surely pouring it into a cup would have saved ruining the lounge.)
The Hydro Majestic Pavilion is part cafe, part museum and shop. Casual visitors are welcome
Foy was a champion of hydro-therapy and visited Matlock Bath in England, among other resorts, where he came across Smedley’s Bath (indeed he often refers in his private letters to the Hydro as ‘Smedley’s at Medlow’). At Matlock, Foy noticed clients indulging in exotic hydro treatments and invigorating walks (indeed some walks at the Hydro are named after these same walks at Matlock). Moreover, in 1903, Foy successfully applied to have the name of the township changed to ‘Medlow Bath’.
With no expense spared, Foy hired a doctor from a health spa in Switzerland to create and supervise a stringent program of diets and weird and wonderful hydro treatments, with “bowel kneading, enemas and basting in mustard and chilli paste”. However, after importing water from Baden Baden in Europe (of all places) and storing it in voluminous copper tanks that infused the water with a foul aftertaste, and the strict European health regime, it was an abject failure. So in true Aussie style, he turned on the booze and opened it up as a hotel, replete with cross-dressing parties and clay pigeon shooting.
Over the years numerous luminaries such as Conan Doyle stayed at the Hydro. Indeed our first Prime Minister Edward Barton died at the Hydro. And old Melba warbled in its casino. Contrary to popular myth, the Queen did not stay there in ‘54 on her Coronation tour. Old Foy was a staunch Republican – he opened the Hydro on (a snowy) 4th of July: American Independence Day. (On opening night a power failure left 200 guests huddling under blankets in the casino. The Hydro had it’s own electricity a week before Sydney had electricity!)
Interestingly, the Hydro is a palimpsest of the taste of successive owners. The last owner ripped out the old tea rooms (yes, Seniors reader, I hear your groans) and turned it into a grey soulless corporate conference room and later a gymnasium. It’s now the superb Winter Garden Restaurant, thanks to the hip and stylish taste of new owners, The Escarpment Group. At last the old gal is in a safe pair of hands methinks.
Cat's Alley - where ladies once gossiped beneath pictures of Roman warriors spearing wild animals
We love the famous picture gallery (known as Cat’s Alley – where ladies once gossiped beneath pictures of Roman warriors spearing wild animals while their menfolk played billiards in the Billiard Room in starched collars). Beyond Cat’s Alley is the Grand Dining room, with its half-barrel vault ceiling and gilded touches.
Sadly, in 1922 fire destroyed the Belgravia Hotel. However, Foy took this in his stride and commenced work on the New Belgravia Wing, which opened in 1946. In 1942 the Hydro was taken over by the U.S. Defence Department and became a makeshift hospital for American casualties from the battles of the Coral Sea and South Pacific. In fact, convalescing US Servicemen took pot-shots at statues and feral goats in Wild West fashion and looted much of the Hydro’s artistic treasures.
The majestic (pun intended) domed casino (the original dome was pre-fabricated in Detroit and shipped to Australia in pieces), where many a grand event was held, is now the entrance. It’s a clever reimagining of the hotel.
We adored our stay at the Hydro and I know Senior readers will too. Young people don’t understand that the rooms are smallish because that’s what hotel rooms were 100 years ago. But you are part of living history staying at the Hydro. Do the tour. Do the high-tea and have dinner in the Winter Garden Restaurant.
It’s a thrilling 1920s experience.
The inaptly named ‘casino’ was never used as a gambling den. Foy may have been inspired to name it thus after the successful hydro resort in Chicago – with a domed roof.
High tea overlooking the magnificent Megalong Valley
Escarpment Escape High Tea: added value for seniors
Senior travellers can experience a taste of the nation’s opulent history, a portion of its rich heritage and a slice of cake when they indulge in the Escarpment Escape High Tea package to the Blue Mountains – for just $75.
Begin your journey by exploring Mark Foy’s “Palace in the wilderness’’, the genuinely iconic Hydro Majestic Hotel, on a history tour at 11 am and learn fascinating tit-bits about the famous hotel’s glorious past on a guided history tour.
Recharge over a decadent high tea in the luxurious Wintergarden restaurant while taking in the magnificent views overlooking the Megalong Valley.
Head 15 minutes down the Great Western Hwy to the quaint village of Leura and Everglades Historic House & Gardens. Roam the gorgeous art deco house and art gallery and Paul Sorensen-designed gardens.
Mature travellers can explore the home of one of Australia’s most beloved fictional personalities, the Magic Pudding, and the cantankerous character’s creator at the Norman Lindsay Gallery & Museum at Faulconbridge
The Escarpment Escape High Tea includes high tea in the Hydro Majestic Hotel Wintergarden, a hotel history tour and booklet and entry into Norman Lindsay Gallery & Museum and Everglades Historic House & Gardens.
Escarpment Group general manager Ralf Bruegger said: “The Hydro Majestic holds a special place in the hearts of many people, none more so than mature travellers who remember it in its heyday as well as when it did not look so glamorous.
“We are delighted to offer this value package with our industry partner the National Trust, which owns the Norman Lindsay Gallery and Everglades properties. Together, we can showcase this marvellous collection of Blue Mountains heritage buildings to people most likely to appreciate them.
“Team that with the Gold Opal Senior/Pensioner card available to travellers aged 55 and over and capped at $2.50 for the day, decadence becomes even more affordable on Sydney Trains and Blue Mountains public buses.”
National Trust NSW director of enterprises Anne Weinman said: “The Blue Mountains is fortunate to be home to three National Trust NSW properties. This high tea package highlights the pleasures to be found at our premiere Everglades Gardens and unique Norman Lindsay Gallery. We are thrilled with this partnership between the Escarpment Group and our regional properties.”
Phone (02) 4782 6885 or go to www.hydromajestic.com.au for more information and to book accommodation and dining options.
Everglades is one of Australia’s leading heritage gardens
While there do visit the magnificent Everglades. Everglades is one of Australia’s leading heritage gardens. Created by visionary landscape architect Paul Sorenson in the 1930s for Henri Van de Velde, it sits in 12 acres of European-style gardens and native Australian bush with breathtaking views over the Jamison Valley. It’s a must-see on any Mountains sojourn. But for us the real treasure is old Hank’s Art Deco house.
Van de Velde had pots of money so he built his dream home sparing no expense. Fortunately, it fell into the auspices of The National Trust in 1962 and it remains one of the most stunning examples of Art Deco in Australia. Moreover, in April 1938, journalist Nora Cooper wrote a feature titled ‘The lovely home at Leura’ for The Australian Home Beautiful in which she describes said garden, its plantings, and the home.
She writes ‘the whole of the building and planning have been carried out with a controlled and orderly genius which has left not the smallest detail to chance’. She adds that the house is ‘something simple and boldly planned, modern in feeling and equipment yet in full harmony with its mountain setting’. We love the Deco his and hers bathrooms and gorgeous staircases.
PSST! OTHER BLUE MOUNTAINS TRAVEL TIPS
Blackheath’s Annual Rhododendron Festival is held in November each year. The Festival weekend is the first weekend in November.
Yuletide is always a special time of the year in the mountains. The main street of Katoomba has a parade celebrating the festival, complete with a grand winter ball. Another great time to visit.