I had been in Sydney before but had never got around to making this short journey (you can get there and back in a day by train or car) because the Blue Mountains sounded too twee: people had told me I would love the cute villages reminiscent of Surrey. Surrey is not what you are looking for if you have just spent 24 hours flying around the world. This time, however, any hesitation evaporated when it was suggested that we could make the journey by helicopter. Now you're talking.
Sydney airport is the HQ of the Heli-Aust company which runs numerous tours, starting from A$99 (pounds 39) for a brief flight over the city. Our trip could either be done in a day, or there was the chance to stay overnight in the award-winning Lilianfels hotel at Katoomba. We had chosen to stay the night; but whatever you select, you'll head one way by helicopter, the other by car. Our day was to start with the chopper.
Before we could board, the pilot had to assess the load, which turned out to be us. He brought out some scales and a clipboard and made everyone reveal their weight. The meanest thing about this is it makes you realise how much you have been eating since you left home. Seven people were eventually squeezed into the helicopter, we were given headphones so that the pilot could commentate during the flight, and, within seconds, he was lifting off and heading over the smart apartments of Darlinghurst and the naval dockyards at Woolloomooloo, and out across the bay. He then banked westwards, skimming over the top of the Harbour Bridge, and straight away, in the distance, you could see the vast ridge of the Blue Mountains.
The mountains get their name because in the summer months, when the heat is at its most fierce, oil from the forests of eucalyptus trees rises as a blue mist. Today the weather was more spring-like, and I guess if the early European explorers had spied the mountains on such a day, they would have been called the Blueish Mountains. These are not jagged alpine mountains and although there are spectacular gorges, outcrops and valleys, many of the "mountains" are nothing more than very big hills. But what is extraordinary is that they just come in wave after wave, which made it impossible for the early settlers to find a route through the labyrinth.
The helicopter lands at a farm where you take lunch and get a chance to see some Australian wildlife. The staff had befriended some possums and a mother brought her infant down from the trees, tempted by the fresh fruit. Then, lured by the aroma of liver, two giant monitor lizards sauntered out of the undergrowth. It's at moments like this that you remember why you don't live in the countryside.
The trip from here to Lilianfels is in a 4WD through the forest with a driver and guide who seemed to be polishing up a comedy double-act as they bantered away. In between their one-liners, they imparted their knowledge of the flora and fauna, stopping to pick leaves off the eucalyptus trees to show how each of the varieties gives off a distinctive scent.
Lilianfels is on the edge of Katoomba, the biggest of this national park's 26 townships. It pulls in the visitors because just two minutes' walk away is the mountains' most famous attraction, the Three Sisters. This spectacular three-fingered rock formation is draped in Aboriginal legend (too long a story to tell here, but here's a hint: no matter how good an idea it appears at the time, don't turn yourself into stone unless you know how to reverse the procedure). Katoomba is also home to the world's steepest railway incline.
Lilianfels was built in 1899 as a home for Sir Frederick Darley, chief justice and lieutenant-governor of New South Wales, but is now a hotel that mixes the old charm of colonial Australia with the needs of the modern traveller. This is a smart hotel with an indoor swimming-pool, two wonderful restaurants, and excellent service. There's a great snooker room and even a Lilianfels' teddy bear. And guess what, it's all owned by the Japanese.
Even on a short trip there are plenty of excursions to tempt you away from your G&T. All the guest- houses and hotels will help you organise bushwalks. These can last for just a couple of hours, to weeks if you get lost. There are the botanic gardens at Mount Tomah, a lodge at Mount Victoria where JFK is said to have stayed after the Second World War, the dramatic Wentworth Falls and the much-visited Jenolan Caves. And then there are the places that are supposed to remind you of Surrey.
We took tea in the pretty village of Leura, its high street dotted with antiquarian book shops, cake shops, very odd gift shops, and more cake shops. The cakes won out. Sitting there munching our way through a million calories (grateful the scales ordeal would not be repeated on the return journey), staring out over the hills, it was hard not to conclude that the Blue Mountains are a mix of the naff (coach tours, synthetic English charm) and the sublime (the scenery and hotels like Lilianfels). And yes, they are worth leaving Sydney for.
THE BLUE MOUNTAINS
Andrew Tuck flew to Sydney with Malaysian Airlines (tel: 0171-341 2020), which has flights from London and Manchester via Kuala Lumpur.
The Heli-Aust company can be contacted in Sydney (tel: 00 61 2 9667 3142). Helicopter day-trips to the Blue Mountains cost A$299 for adults, A$229 for children. If you stay overnight at Lilianfels, prices start from A$975 per couple including the helicopter journey. Otherwise, Lilianfels, Lilianfels Avenue, Echo Point, Katoomba, NSW, can be booked directly (tel: 00 61 2 4780 1200).