Go Country Down Under
The trees are beautiful, the view is glorious, and the animals are wimps so you can r-e-l-a-x, writes BERNARD ZUEL.
It's a boy thing. There's a shed 260 metres or so down the hillock upon which sits Ambers Retreat, its roof looking ordinary to those with their testosterone balanced by a reasonable amount of estrogen. But Ross Nable knows his blokes, you see. He knows there's a part of most of us which says "me big boofy bloke, you impressed chick thing" and so he has set the challenge: can you hit a golf ball all the way to the shed roof? Many have taken the challenge: a handful have hit the mark; more will try. Are you feeling lucky punk? Well, are you?
Ambers Retreat does not otherwise inspire feats of manly action. This is relaxation country, somnolent even, if you so desire. An evening arrival suggests the prettiness only as you drive in under the canopy of liquidambars along the driveway. If you are lucky enough to be in the Valley View Room, your stay only truly begins when you throw back the heavy curtains and get a wash of warm sun and see the glistening dew just hanging on in the face of the morning's obvious pull.
You have to remind yourself that while you are seemingly deep in the boonies, the Central Coast beaches, shops and crowds are barely 15 minutes away, and Sydney not an hour.
Struck by the desire actually to sniff this carbon monoxide-free thing called fresh air, we wandered down to meet the peacock whose plumage we had glimpsed as we drove in the previous evening. Past the chook run, but still in sight of the lone goat back beyond the barn thingy (you guessed I am not from the country?) the peacock, still a young 'un, wandered blithely by. Brilliant blue and cocky with it, he drew attention away even from an idle golden pheasant. Even as we checked out his harem this peacock cared nowt. Not so the geese that followed at a discreet distance for 10 minutes but finally could take no more and approached us.
Lesser folk might have hesitated but, emboldened by Ross's encouragement to "kick them hard if they get too close", I waved a boot in their direction. Like Peter Reith in the first weeks of the wharf dispute, there was the pleasure of a violent action without actually harming anything or anyone directly. Goal! Gotta love the country, eh?
The animals - or, rather, peoples' reactions to them - have changed the focus of Ambers Retreat to a certain extent. It was set up two years ago to cater for couples (unless you and your mate(s) want to share a queen-size bed - how close are you to your buddies?); children were not encouraged.
But Nable, having seen friends' children besotted with the chooks and other birds, and noting that even a little bit of country life isn't a bad idea for city kids, now occasionally indulges guests by letting them bring children. Don't worry, though: you are warned if rugrats are expected on the weekend for which you are booking.
Speaking of country... Needless to say, breakfast is a real breakfast, not namby-pamby foreign weakling muck such as pastry or bread with a smear of jam or butter. We didn't beat back the boche and the Japanese on a diet of croissants, you know, but with good old bacon, egg, toast and coffee. (Mind you, Ambers Retreat's croissants looked appetising, and the fruit was tasty). The only problem arises if you are neither a coffee nor a tea drinker, in which case you'll need to make do with a small glass of orange juice.
There is no "subtle" encouragement, as found in some lesser establishments, to vacate the premises ASAP after breakfast. Instead, you are encouraged to take up your stick and walk in the "backyard", the one also known as the Ourimbah State Forest. The path begins just outside the house, quite steep at first, before flattening out and stretching itself before you, unchanging but always subtly different. Of course, serious walkers would be properly shod, unlike this pair of city footsloggers. If you are not one for hiking you can always crowd into a 4WD and pound your way up the dedicated 4WD path.
While autumn finds Ambers Retreat quite attractive, winter beckons as an even sweeter treat. You can avoid the Blue Mountains' crowds but still flit between crisp cold air outside and toasting fires inside. And staying inside has its attractions. The four rooms all have en-suites (I don't know about you but I am not a huge fan of sharing bathrooms; that's why I left share households) and there are two common rooms decorated in late '70s style but nonetheless appealing. One is a more traditional leathery room, the other a convivial area with the feel of a sports bar (dart board, South Sydney club history book on the coffee table, miniature cricket bat collection on the wall). It's your call whether you want privacy or company.
The key to Ambers Retreat isn't the gorgeous liquidambars, nor is it the farm ambience and abundant bird life. It is in the atmosphere created by Ross and Robin - as much or as little of it as you desire. Either way they will welcome you. If you wish, Robin will book you into a local restaurant for dinner, though she may gently suggest you need not rush to see the local tourist spot, The Fragrant Garden.
As the clinching argument, there can be no higher praise for a man than to say that despite being a dyed-in-the-wool South Sydney fan, Ross treated this pair of Manly supporters with decency. Sure, he may have spat a curse at us and Ken Arthurson as we drove away remembering that glorious 1970 grand final, but we can only speculate.
The Place: The Ambers Retreat Bed & Breakfast Farmstay, Ferntree Lane, Palmdale, 2258; phone (02) 4362 3403, fax (02) 4362 9115.
The price: Valley View Room, $110 a night; other rooms $95 a night.
How to get there: F3 out of Sydney, take the Ourimbah/Palmdale exit, follow signs to Palmdale, turn into Palmdale Road, then left into Ferntree Lane. About half a kilometre on, the big white house on the hill to the left is it.
Rooms available next weekend: Yes.
Wheelchair access: Yes, all rooms are at ground level.
Smoking or non-smoking: non-smoking.
Pluses: Only four rooms, so no crowds. A winter hideaway without the hike up the mountains. Within striking distance of the Hunter Valley and minutes from the coast. Good breakfast.
Minuses: Not much "farm" in this farmstay, if truth be told. Nor is the surrounding area culinary heaven, exactly.
19-20 Outstanding. Can we move in?
15-16 Very good. We'd do it again.
13-14 Good. Comfortable, clean, well-run.
1-9 Stay at home.
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