The fire is blazing in the historic Great Hall, a stunning heritage-listed baronial room with high ceiling and towering bay window overlooking the garden, at Peppers Manor House in Sutton Forest when we arrive. It’s a welcome sight and we can’t wait to snuggle in front of it with a vino or two to kick start our romantic weekend away.
Just ninety-minutes by car south of Sydney, the Southern Highlands is a favourite romantic getaway. Autumn turns the trees golden and the winding country roads thick with a flurry of yellow and orange leaves, while winter is for truffles and foraging, log fires and rustic fare washed down with a good bottle of red.
Weekends past, we’ve criss-crossed the leafy towns of Berrima and Bowral, Kangaloon and Moss Vale in search of antiques and farmers markets, farm gates and paddock to table restaurants. This trip there is a burgeoning wine scene and new food and wine cluster maps to explore.
At Bendooley Estate, the restaurant fully booked, we sit at the bar of the new tasting room, a high-ceilinged space adjunct the original book barn restaurant with soft brown leather armchairs and a dramatic artisan fire pit with custom bronze flue.
Beneath the watchful gaze of a large, bloodshot yellow chook’s eye, the work of artist, John Olsen, and inspired, we’re told, by the Head Chef’s coq au vin, we plough through an impressive selection of tasting wines, before retiring to a small table by the full-length window to sip a buttery hand-picked 2014 Chardonnay and share a fantastic meal of zesty kingfish ceviche with native finger limes and a melt-in-the-mouth master stock braised pork belly on a bed of Asian salad greens.
Back at the hotel, a stretch of our legs before dinner brings us to the kitchen garden. The largest of its kind in the region, it’s a newly planted mélange of leafy greens, root vegetables and herbs, some of which appears on our plate that evening: the five-course degustation dinner paired with wines at acclaimed Kater Restaurant.
In years past, the restaurant has been hatted – five times, no less - in the SMH Good Food Guide and the current menu by new head chef, John Shelly, is an inventive paddock to table epicurean journey with unusual pairings of local produce and wines (think: goats cheese sorbet and chilli chocolate with Cabernet Merlot, scallops, spiced chorizo and squid ink meringue with Pinotage, pork belly and quinoa fennel crisps with Riesling).
It’s an elegant affair, down to the linen on the tables, the attentive service and soft pendant lighting. It’s not overly rich either, something we appreciate at night’s end as we slip between the sheets of our king-size bed and drift comfortably into sleep.
The next morning, fuelled up on coffee and scones from local Berrima favourite, The Loch, we set off for Joadja Historic Ghost Town, now a distillery and, in its mining heyday, we discover, the birthplace of the Highlands’ Scottish heritage.
A twenty-minute drive full of hairpin bends and unexpectedly beautiful stretches of isolated bushland leads, at last, to an unsealed road and final 6-kilometre descent into Joadja. Though the whiskey and vodka won’t be bottled till next year, the tour of the town with its extant stone cottages and heritage-listed Scottish retorts (furnaces) used to burn shale is fascinating.
McVitty Grove is the final stop on what has been an indulgent romantic weekend away. Newly reopened, it’s an intimate space with a tiny cellar door of gorgeous biodynamic wines and a room-with-a-view restaurant where share plates and sustainable, locally grown produce are the mainstay. Over a relaxed meal of tender organic chicken and juicy eye fillet steak, our eyes are drawn to the bucolic scene before us and we’re surprised by the sight of horses galloping over the rise.
WHERE TO STAY
The newly refurbished 43-room Peppers Manor House is a gracious and elegant romantic stay. Set among lush country gardens, there is tennis, croquet and badminton, an outdoor pool and 18-holes of golf on offer at the adjacent Mt Broughton Golf Course. Our luxurious Garden Wing Deluxe room, located in the Annexe, has a garden view and stylish white interior with teal accents. There is a 1920s-style bathroom with Appelle toiletries and deep bath, a flatscreen HD TV with video on demand and complimentary, WiFi. It’s a tad sketchy, but this is the country. Weekends, a bonfire blazes in the gardens for those wanting to toast marshmallows and gaze upon the starry night.
A short drive from the hotel, the delightfully cosy Exeter General Store, a book-lined café-cum-shop set amid rambling estates and country gardens in the historic town of Exeter, has great breakfast food, strong coffee and a friendly small town vibe. Afterwards, have a poke around The Village Pump Antiques, a dusty jumble of books, quirky dolls, crockery and garden implements with a great selection of old vinyl in the record crates out front.
The writer was a guest of Peppers Manor House and visited the area courtesy of the Southern Highlands Food & Wine Clusters.