Monday, January 4, 2010

Bellachara in the Gong

The humble motel has long been an integral part of any family's Australian driving holiday but with the rise of the boutique hotel, hotel apartments and large-scale resorts, many of these ubiquitous Australian properties have been relegated to cheap second-class accommodation. However, Bellachara, in Gerringong on the often undervalued NSW south coast has taken this Australian holiday stalwart and reinvented it for the 21st century with a multi-million dollar makeover that puts it in a class of its own. We took a drive down the coast in the new 207CC for a weekend that mixes old-school nostalgia with contemporary luxury.

The south coast of New South Wales is the forgotten far shore of Australia’s most populous state. Even the illustrious Lonely Planet guide treats the region with less importance than its much vaunted seaside rival to the north. In fact the esteemed north coast is deemed worthy of 61 pages, while the intrepid south coast traveller makes do with an extremely uninspiring 29 pages to cover a similar expanse.

Lonely Planet’s myopic treatment is the region’s charm. In the 1960s, as the Big Banana found its resting place in Coffs Harbour and the north coast began sprouting four- and five-star luxury resorts, the south continued its dairy farming and charming ways. In fact the entire south coast isn’t home to a single Big Thing – a sure sign of an understated holiday destination.

It remains a mostly bucolic paradise largely underdeveloped. And nowhere is it more verdant and charming than the stretch from Kiama to Nowra, with Gerringong its epicentre.

The south coast is also the favoured driving destination of Sydneysiders. Crossing Tom Ugly’s bridge on the southern outskirts, Emerald City denizens begin to unwind, sit back in the car and – in this lucky author’s case – think about getting topless.

Peugeot 207 CC
For my chariot for coastal cruising was Peugeot's latest addition to the compact 207 range, the coupe convertible 207 CC. Offered with a choice of 88kW/160Nm naturally aspirated or blown 110kW/240Nm turbocharged 1.6-litre engines, the cute little 2+2 folding hardtop convertible is priced from $34,990 and offers the best of both worlds - rain or shine.

But the sudden appearance of dark clouds means I must wait until I’m 20 minutes further south of Tom Ugly’s bridge and through the Royal National Park before I can even think about pulling over to drop the fully electric hardtop. In the meantime, the 207 turbo is pulling me around corners like a Scalectrix – the mid-range grunt of the 1.6 is exhilarating, the steering tight and direct and handling solid as a drum. At the same time the car is so very, very comfortable and competent as I twist and turn through the single-lane road of the national park.

Driving south is a wonderful mix of fast, winding curves, sharp hills and sweeping, bejewelled beaches. The roads are built for enjoyable cruising; more so now, following the tremendous job done by local councils in removing the unsafe and outright dangerous sections of tarmac.

Pulling over at Stanwell Tops with the brand new Seacliff Bridge hovering in my sights, the top is quickly dispatched (the official Peugeot time is 25 seconds but I don’t have the clock on it). As the roof folds neatly into the boot, I pause to reflect on the sheer irrefutability of Peugeot’s pedigree in hardtop convertibles – they were the very first to produce such a cabriolet in the 1930s.

Winding around the Seacliff Bridge, the next stretch of spine tingling driving is from Dapto to our ultimate destination, Gerringong. In the meantime, I find myself zipping through the northern seaside suburbs of Wollongong. In reality, these small seaside suburbs are relaxed holiday towns. The buildings are a mix of the beach shack and funky, architect-designed, sea-change bungalow. I make a note that I really have to re-evaluate my thinking on The Gong.

Rejoining the highway, I settle into cruise control for 25 minutes before descending into Bombo. Every overseas visitor I’ve ever taken on this patch of road has gasped out loud at the sight and I feel as though I’m about to drive onto the beach.

Gunning through the Kiama bypass I launch into the Gerringong bends, gripping the wheel tightly as the cars sits flat and stable through the twisting tarmac. Diving in and out of the fast curves clinging to the steep sides of the cliffs that descend into the water below, I’m sent – no fired from a slingshot, more like – out onto the rolling dairy hills and into Gerringong.

I brake to a halt in front of a selection of rooms at my converted motel-cum-luxury-boutique-hotel. You can take the motel out of the hotel, but you can't hide the parking lots.

In 1954, Australia eventually caught the American craze of the motel – a motoring hotel – 29 years after the first one opened its garage doors in California. Our earliest local motel was built in Bathurst, with others springing up across all the country towns of Australia, Gerringong being no exception. They were built and run to a formula that provided affordable, comfortable accommodation but aesthetics and excitement were never on the agenda.

And so it remained until 2004 when Gregg Currie, then CEO of Stockland Hotels, bought one of Gerringong’s original motels with an idea in mind.

Before Currie’s rejuvenated and renewed motel opened for business as a boutique hotel in 2006, Gerringong had been a prime holidaying destination with a style of accommodation that hadn’t really changed since the early 1960s.

After purchasing the motel, Currie ran it for a year before taking the ultimate risk.

“Had I listened to the public consensus, I would never have done it,” he says.

“Who’d spend $8.6 million on a motel in Gerringong?”

Throughout 2005, he gutted the buildings and rebuilt their internal fittings, from wiring to plumbing and the occasional wall. A year later Currie raised the curtain on his creation – Bellachara.

Bellachara is a combination of three separate buildings. The reception and staff amenities are housed in the property’s original farmhouse. The restaurant is in the hay shed. The youngest and most recognisable structure is the traditional cookie cutter L-shaped motel. The motel structure remains, but with a totally refurbished interior and fresh exterior.

And the refurbished rooms are exquisite.

“We’ve created 52 identical rooms,” says Currie of the new boutique outfit.

Well, almost identical: “Half of them have a double shower, half have a double bath. For the male market we have the showers; for the women, we have the baths.”

They’re beautiful rooms with a careful and considered fit-out of quality finishings. The chocolate leather sofa is full-sized so, to recover from the drive, I stretch out easily in front of the largest flat screen TV I’ve ever seen. The inviting matching chocolate bed with white linen makes me want nightfall to come early. The only fault is that the TV isn’t really watchable from bed – hence the full length leather sofa.

Dragging myself off the sofa, I fall into the shower (the warm chocolate tiles, marble bench tops and fluffy white towels are befitting of a boutique luxury hotel) before scaling the roof to the spa.

Currie doesn’t deny that the spa on the roof is a little unusual.

“We didn’t want to make it a penthouse,” he says. “That would limit the fantastic views and space to just one guest. We wanted to make it available to everyone.”

The penthouse equivalent suite is actually at the bottom of the building with a private pool.

The views from the spa are spectacular; rolling green hills, beach in the distance and adults-only uber cool pool for all guests just below in the middle of the hotel complex. An hour’s massage flies past and I sit, a little dozy, in the spa reception enjoying tea and the spa milieu.

Bellachara’s spa is attracting some significant plaudits. It’s one of only three “worldwide recommended Payot spas” in Australia. High praise indeed for an ex-motel.

Back in the room, the kitchenette is somewhat wasted, since ignoring Bellachara’s restaurant and eating in-room would be a crime.

Currie knew the clientele he wanted would demand a restaurant of the high standard. So he recruited smartly.

“Matt Hillford lives what we offer,” he says. “He loves his surfing and cooking. This is the perfect setting for him. A happy chef makes great food.”

The setting is also perfect for guests and travellers. The restaurant, in the old hay barn, is a warm luxurious space with the ubiquitous chocolate and some cosy reds thrown in. There are multiple spaces for every occasion. I could eat outside in the courtyard, the club area next to the French doors, or the more formal dining area.

But first, the fireplace is too enticing to pass up. The lounge area in front of the hearth is perfect for pre-dinner drinks. Having an established appreciation for Bellachara’s lounges, I couldn’t resist sprawling with a G&T on another one before setting off for Hillford’s uncomplicated local fare.

Dinner that evening is excellent: lamb that melts in the mouth, simple vegetables and not overly complicated or interfering sauces. The service is swift but not officious, courteous but not stiff and attentive without being overbearing.

Hillford is using his grounding with some of Sydney’s elite to complete the Bellachara offering of a luxury boutique hotel with excellent food and spa. Hillford studied under the masters at MG Garage and Level 41. His role before joining Bellachara was sous chef at Sydney icon Est.

“Matt has met the brief brilliantly,” says Currie. “He’s using the best of local produce in very modern cooking. We’re not trying to do Sydney style – this is the south coast.”

Bellachara philosophy is based on not trying to impose the best of the city experiences on regional Australia, but instead to reflect the best of Gerringong. It gives travellers a contemporary, luxury and – most importantly – local experience. Gerringong is not and will never be a destination for the ostentatious, flashy or those who like to be seen. It’s a lot more subtle and understated.

Or, as Currie says: ”This is all about the luxury experience with local charm.”

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