A Royale Visit...

Words by Dorian Mode and photography by Lydia Thorpe

We explore historical boutique accommodation in the Blue Mountains

If you have visited the Blue Mountains in NSW recently, chances are you’ve stayed at the Hydro. You’ve may have also stayed at the Carrington. But have you ever stayed at The Palais Royale?
Situated in the heart of the main street of Katoomba, we’ve been curious about this historical boutique hotel for donkey’s years. About ten years ago, we even shamed a bored receptionist into showing us around to have a ‘sticky’. With its beautiful stained-glass windows and grand ceilings, harking back to another age, the Palais Royale is an affordable alternative for those like us, enamoured with the history of the Blue Mountains.

Built in 1896, the Palais Royale began life as two separate cottages (much like the Hydro). In 1900, the Sisters of Charity made it their convent, and in 1905 both cottages were connected to become Mount St Mary’s College – a day and boarding school for young ladies that offered languages, mathematics, needlework, art, calisthenics and music. However, by 1912, after St Mary’s moved to purpose-built premises (you can still see the old convent from the Great Western Highway across from Katoomba Station) the old college was operating as a guesthouse.

The lounge at the Palais Royale - note the stained glass windows

At the bar, we chat with the current owner, Ron, who proudly tells us the guesthouse is just been listed with the National Trust. Ron adds that in 1997 the Palais Royale underwent a multi-million-dollar restoration. Over 15 months the property was transformed, updating the 40 guest-rooms, three lounge areas, a heated spa and sauna, Grand Ballroom and Gazelles Restaurant – a spacious dining room that seats 140 and still retains its original floorboards, fireplace, light fittings and colour scheme, with classic dining chairs recreated from old photographs to match those first installed by erstwhile owner, the stylish, Mrs Marsh.

The Marsh family - they added a second story when they won the lottery

The Marsh family purchased the guesthouse sometime between the First World War and the early 20s. Here it was subsequently rebranded The Palais Royale. Mrs Marsh, a lady of some refinement, added a new façade to the building’s exterior and painted the building cream – the colour scheme to its present day. The Marsh’s added a second story to the building when they won a public lottery (some people have all the luck, eh?). Here they indulged their passion for ballroom dancing by creating the Grand Ballroom – a magnificent mirrored room, inspired by 18th-century French design and featuring lead-light windows and intricate cornice work.

Take in the Goon Show between tasty Yuletide courses

Cut to the present. It’s here we sit, mulled wine in hand, in this grand ballroom, imagining dancers in elegant ballgowns and men in dress-suits and boiled shirts. We are here for a special Yuletide evening with Chrissie tucker and floor show, complete with hot wine and crackers.
Seniors will remember the surreal and wonderful BBC radio show The Goon Show. It featured the triumvirate talents of Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Seacombe. Sellers was a master mimic and indeed got his break on the radio by impersonating the head of the BBC; insisting that they engage a young comic called Peter Sellers. (A decision the BBC didn’t regret.) Along with Welsh cannonball, Harry Secombe – a dramatic tenor and eccentric comic, Spike Milligan, the Goons were born. Milligan was a comic genius, ahead of his time, and influenced surrealist comics today such as Noel Fielding and Ross Noble. On a personal note, Spike’s brother Des Milligan was a mentor to me when I was a teen at PACT Youth Theatre. At the time I was espousing the talents of the Pythons and the Goodies when Des gave me some of his brother’s scripts to read. I became an acolyte and have been ever since.
So being an avid Goon Show fan, I was most impressed with the accuracy and professionalism of this revival, with actor D.C. Callan a standout. The Goon Show is the apogee of comedic entertainment and almost impossible to replicate. However, the crew at The Palais Royal make it work surprisingly well. Timing is crucial to this genre of humour, this opening night show whipped along at a thoroughbred pace.
In the original series, the musical asides were performed by the Ray Ellington Quartet: a Nat Cole Trio style ensemble that was punctuated by virtuoso Dutch harmonica player, Max Geldray. However, our musical asides were handled expertly by Canadian Singer/guitarist, Andrew Russell – with lots of good humour thrown in from the cast. Moreover, we were surprised that we were treated to not one but three full episodes of the Goon Show secreted between tasty Yuletide courses.
So, downing the last of the mulled wine with its Yuletide clove and cinnamon notes, we deemed the hotel and floor show both punched above their weight and represented great value for our senior dollar. Not to be missed!

Belle of the Ball
On our return, we stop at the foot of the mountains to join the Nepean Belle Paddle-wheeler at Penrith (just off the M4 – indeed you can almost touch it from the freeway). This too represented great value for money as we were treated to a hearty – and I mean hearty – Yuletide feast with sweet roast pork and chicken, with lashings of gravy and Chrissy veggies. Seniors will not be disappointed in the meal. For a local cruise, it’s outstanding.
If you are one of those seniors who suffer seasickness by simply watching the dishwasher, this is the cruise for you. This tranquil, serene journey is so smooth. Indeed, the Belle is as steady as a steamroller, chugging along the placid waterway at a gentle 3.5 knots.

The upper reaches of the Nepean are a virtual bush paradise

We glide past waterfront McMansions, to then shimmy through the ‘Narrows’. Here we enter a veritable bush paradise. From the top deck, we spy wedge-tailed eagles stalking the boat, while fat mullet bellyflop in the river below. Indeed, Mrs Pictures and I agree that every Sydney-sider should do this trip once in their lifetime. It’s special. It is such a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. And post Belle you can walk off those Yuletide kilos by taking the ‘river walk’ along the Nepean. It’s senior-friendly and easily done in sensible shoes.

Celebrate Christmas in July with a Yuletide Dinner aboard Nepean Belle

Palais Royale Seniors Package
From $149 per room per night (midweek) for a Deluxe Twin room, including complimentary hot buffet breakfast in Gazelles Restaurant.
For bookings, call 02 4784 6300 or email stay@palaisroyale.com.au
Psst! The Palais Royale has lovely views (that they don’t advertise lest everyone wants a room with a view) but less mobile readers may wish to choose a room downstairs.

The Goon Show
The dinner and show will be held in le Salon Grand at the Palais Royale, Katoomba, each Saturday night from June 29 to July 20, with a special afternoon tea on July 14. Tickets: $135 Saturdays, $80 Sunday afternoon tea, seniors and group discounts available. Bookings and details: www.goons.com.au
Psst! If you miss the fabulous Goon Show (and make sure you don’t) check the hotel website for other shows such as the Sinatra Tribute and Sleep Apnea the Musical!

Nepean Belle river Yuletide luncheon cruise, Jamisontown

This renowned heritage-style Nepean Belle paddle-wheeler will be festooned with festive decorations and guests will board for luncheon to the strains of popular carols against the picturesque backdrop of the Blue Mountains escarpment.
Tuck into two-course Yulefest fare with all the trimmings, beginning with a shared platter of succulent roast turkey with fruit seasoning and tender roast pork with apple sauce and gravy followed by a dessert platter of festive favourites all washed down with your choice of freshly brewed tea or coffee.

Cost: Monday to Friday – $59 adults, $53 seniors, $39 teens (13-16 years), $20 children (3-12 years); Weekends – $65 adults, $58 seniors, $39 teens, $25 children. Bookings: nepeanbelle.com.au or (02) 4733 1274.