A hunter hideaway: Tower Lodge, Hunter Valley

The burst of torrential rain that welcomes us to the Hunter Valley clears to reveal Tower Lodge squat­ting like an ochre bastion beside the Brokenback Range. The rather severe walls give no hint to what lies inside this five-star boutique hotel.

The word would be eclectic. The massive, ornate 1895 French coach house doors open onto a lodge that is part East African chic, part Roman villa, part Oriental retreat, part Santa Fe adobe, part colonial Raj. Yet in its fanciful way, it works.

Perhaps it’s the high ceilings, the terracotta flagstoned floors, the low sounds of water from numerous fountains or the internal courtyards, but the stress of being tailgated through the dusty streets of Cess­nock begins to dissipate. We’ve entered a strange and surprising world which is, when you think about it, exactly what “getaway” should mean.

And despite the whimsy, there is a certain order here – 12 is the dominant number, thanks to the vision of the late winemaker Len Evans, who decreed that 12 bottles in a case should reflect the ethos of Tower Lodge. Hence, there are 12 rooms, and what rooms!

In keeping with the eclecticism of the common areas, each room is different, the only similarities being their enormous size, the king bed, walk-in wardrobe, jacuzzi and pale painted adobe-style walls. Otherwise, they have different shapes, shades and influences, some with private courtyards, fountains or balconies. The Oriental room, unsurprisingly, has Chinese paintings, carved screens and a Japanese-inspired hot tub (actu­ally a 280-litre wine barrel sunk into the deck). The Chairman’s suite has a 300 year old hand-carved Rajasthani bed and its own tower and viewing platform. Six of the 12 rooms have fireplaces, certainly worth considering in winter (rooms with fireplaces carry a A$50-a night-premium).

And everywhere antiques, collectibles and treasures abound, as well as the jovial features of Len Ev­ans beaming down on his creation, which he devised in the late ’90s with others including chef Rick Stein and former News Limited head Ken Cow­ley, whose son Matt is now Tower estate’s managing director.

Our room looks through large French doors across the lawns to the Tower Estate winery and vineyards. Decorated in peaches, creams and greens, it too has a mix of styles with French provincial furniture compet­ing with Oriental lamps and English country manor hound prints. And once we have employed the insect spray to eradicate the ubiquitous blowies and mosquitoes of a Hunter Valley post-deluge heatwave, peace de­scends, the only sound the baleful caw of a thirsty currawong on our terrace.

Our lazy choices are as follows: a wallow in the walled, heated pool; a massage or treatment; a stint in the little gym (no thanks); an afternoon tea in the large sitting room with its colonial-style sofas and chairs, high wood-beamed and rattan ceiling; a Jacuzzi; or the cricket on TV. The cricket it is, flat out on our ridicu­lously comfortable bed with a cup of tea. Hard to stay awake as we’ve al­ready indulged in a wine-tasting at the Tower Estate winery, and been mighty impressed by the 2010 Panorama Vineyard Pinot Noir made of grapes shipped from Tasmania’s Huon Valley.

So why haven’t we heard much about this place? That’s something the general manager, Sean By­rne wants to change. Byrne, formerly of Jonah’s, Whale beach wants guests to use Tower Lodge as part of a European-style exclusive estate (Tower Lodge has been a member of French accommodation group, Relais & Châteaux since 2010). With this in mind, he reminds us that Tower Estate includes not just the winery, but also the historic 1876 Robert’s Restaurant, Peppers Con­vent (built in 1909), the lodge’s inti­mate below-ground Restaurant Nine and a pretty chapel.

The plan is to hedge the estate, build formal paths so guests can me­ander from winery to lodge to restau­rant as part of a holistic experience that also includes a sculpture garden. Peppers Convent will be renovated, a kitchen garden and farm will sur­round Robert’s Restaurant to allow ex­ecutive chef George Francisco to forage for produce; chickens will provide fresh eggs and fertilise the garden.

After a glass of Taittinger at the lodge’s lounge bar (which is open 24 hours), and a few very more-ish cana­pes, we take advantage of the valet transport service to ferry us to Rob­ert’s Restaurant. Robert’s is set in a historic settler’s slab cottage among lawns and vineyards. It’s charming with a lounge area for pre-dinner drinks, three private dining rooms, a dedicated wine room and a main din­ing room and terraces.

The food, Australian contempo­rary, is deft and gorgeous. For entrees, we have feather-light tempura ricotta-filled zucchini flowers with pine nuts, currants and basil pesto sauce (A$24) and a delectable spanner crab pasta with lemon, garlic, chilli flakes and parmigiano-reggiano cheese (A$25). Our main is the char-grilled aged Rangers Valley rib eye with garden salad, shoestring fries, green beans, bearnaise and jus (A$125 for two). Finally, groaning, we force down des­sert – the chocolate lover’s Callebaut chocolate souffle, Willie’s Indonesian black hot cocoa, chocolate mousse, Valrhona and Amedei chocolate curls (A$19) and Francisco’s trademark va­nilla panna cotta, fresh pomegranate, pomegranate molasses and lavender honey (A$16).

And there’s breakfast to look for­ward to on the terrace of the internal courtyard – poached eggs, mush­rooms, bacon, chipolata and tomato with grilled sourdough? You must be joking.

On second thoughts…

Each room is carefully decorated with unique furnishings


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