IF the abundant signs are any indication, Kangaroo Valley is populated less by kangaroos than by wombats.
At nearly every turn, we're greeted with road signs or handwritten boards advising that these muddle-headed creatures could be sauntering across the road for the next five, 10 or 15km. Just not today, it seems.
When we do emerge beyond the bush-lined roads that pave the way to this National Trust-listed valley south of Sydney, we instead discover gently undulating fields dotted with grazing cattle and horses, and a backdrop of striking sandstone escarpments.
On arrival at Crystal Creek Meadows for our midweek escape, our first animal encounter is of the barnyard variety. Our one-year-old is beside himself as a bevy of chickens wanders over to feed. Napoleon, in particular, is a hit; he's a noble rooster with sturdy feet and a scarlet plume. Apparently rabbits and those elusive wombats pop by in the evenings (preferring nocturnal gatherings, we discover). They are part of a brigade that includes frogs, galahs, kookaburras, crimson rosellas, spoonbills, superb fairy wrens and a satin bowerbird that's often seen swooping in the gardens.
Crystal Creek Meadows is an award-winning accommodation option just a few minutes from the centre of Kangaroo Valley. It's been a long-term labour of love for Sophie and Christopher Warren, who purchased the land with two rundown cottages several years ago. Beyond an elaborate rose metal gate stand four fully self-contained cottages with all the luxury extras.
"These chickens are more important than me," Christopher is explaining to my husband, elaborating that the 16 or 17 chickens (they're a little tricky to count on the move, apparently) have a hefty schedule providing farm-fresh eggs for guests' breakfasts and devouring kitchen scraps from the cottages. When it comes to being eco-friendly, Napoleon and his pals have it nailed. The Warrens aren't doing badly either, becoming the first accommodation providers to receive "climate action-leader" accreditation from a program developed by government, peak bodies and Eco Tourism Australia. Only two other businesses in the country have achieved this level of recognition.
As part of their commitment to the environment, the Warrens have an extensive recycling program, use 100 per cent accredited green renewable energy, provide free rail transfers to and from Berry and complimentary mountain bikes for guests during their stay, and plant trees regularly.
Sophie shows us into the English country-style Rose Cottage, where floor-length panelled windows offer garden views. There are comfortable lounges, a basket of chopped wood by the fireplace, shelves of books, television and DVD player, full-sized kitchen, dining area, two bedrooms and an ample spa bathroom.
The master bedroom is enormous, accommodating a king-size bed and fireplace. The supremely comfortable bed, layered with crisp sheets, duvet and plump pillows, is conducive to sleep-ins, and brocade curtains lining the bedrooms and lounge are perfect for blocking out early morning rays.
We find the cottage well equipped for our little son; there's a cot made up with layers of snug bedding, a change mat, high chair and toy box. After his newly discovered love of chickens, the pull-along quacking ducks prove a hit. There's a generously wide veranda on two sides of the cottage and a hammock ready to be slung over an old ash tree.
Dieting is not recommended at Crystal Creek; splurging on the deluxe package is. Among the extras, you'll find the dining table set with tiered trays of afternoon-tea treats: scones with fresh cream and jam, moist lamingtons and cupcakes, and everybody's favourite Tim Tams. There's also a small box of scrumptious home-made chocolates from The Treat Factory in Berry, a decanter of complimentary port and, in the fridge, a basket of breakfast goodies including smoked salmon, asparagus, yoghurt, fresh sliced ham, and eggs courtesy of Napoleon's hen friends.
The Warrens source local produce and products, including optional dinner in the freezer that we'll take advantage of later (Berihurikari of Berry curries, rice, pappadums and homemade Yarrawa pickles).
Sophie has devised a Five Senses Walk, with a map pointing to interesting spots on the 6.5ha property. There are plenty of walking (and driving) options and specific packages allow guests to borrow the couple's silver 1969 MGB. The drive up Wattamolla Road provides lush views of undulating fields below the jagged cliff-edge hills on the left. It's just one of several arteries we'll explore over the next couple of days, all branching off Kangaroo Valley's main thoroughfare.
Kangaroo Valley's village centre includes a sprinkling of shops and cafes just a minute's drive south of the valley's historic, sandstone Hampden Bridge. We fossick through antiques, wooden crafts, Asian handicrafts and jewellery and second-hand books, and discover local treats such as thick slabs of home-made multi-coloured fudge.
Travelling farther afield we visit Fitzroy Falls for lovely views of the waterfall and Morton National Park. Alternatively, it's just a 20-minute drive, under a cooling canopy of eucalypts, to Berry for cafes, antiques shops and the popular Berry Woodfired Sourdough Bakery. We inadvertently return via the Bugong Fire Trail, which is scenic but not so gentle on the Corolla, we later discover.
For one of the most spectacular outlooks in the valley, pay a visit to Yarrawa Estate Winery, run by Mark and Sue Foster (and Muscat, their golden Labrador). The Fosters purchased the property several years ago with the idea of growing walnuts. They instead opened a winery, and now Mark is finally creating his first batches of walnut liqueur.
We also try their tasty chambourcin with cheese and Sue's delicious homemade pickles.
On the lawn outside the tasting room, the breathtaking views of lush grassy fields and hills, grazing cattle and a small dam, hemmed in by ancient cliffs, are enough to make us start dreaming of a valley change.
Back at Crystal Creek the next day, we're taking advantage of in-house spa treatments. We both try the aromatherapy massage and I double-splurge with a facial using French Sothys products and, best of all, they're available in the comfort of our cottage bedroom. Guests can book a range of therapies or packages, from a simple massage to a full day of treatments. The Warrens create all the aromatherapy products using 100 per cent natural essential oils and premium-quality ingredients from their aromatherapy garden.
Deluxe package guests will also find the bathroom stocked with bespoke goodies -- rows of bath salts, gels, lotions, face balm for men, peppermint foot lotion (which makes the feet go zing). Alas we, get off to a bad spa start when my husband (not really into sweet-smelling intricacies) gets confused and fills my bath with children's Space Bubbles.
There's not a huge selection of restaurants in Kangaroo Valley, but one that is proving popular is Cafe Bella, an eclectic eatery run by Tish Banks, former chef at The Wharf Restaurant in Sydney. It's open Thursday through Sunday only, but we do manage breakfast on our day of departure.
Our eggs and bacon on Turkish toast is tasty rustic fare. And it's a casual and comfortable environment: rose-coloured walls are painted with fruit trees and lyrebirds and strewn with the offerings of local artists, and there's a cosy central nook lined with books, lamps and tea-lights.
We also sample Jing Jo, which serves Western meals for breakfast and lunch and Thai by night. Our dinner choices are tasty if very mild by traditional Thai standards. There are lovely views over a grassy field to Hampden Bridge.
Kangaroo Valley is just a couple of hours' drive south of Sydney, with a choice between the scenic Princes Highway coastal drive and the more direct Hume Highway. On our way back, we're just near the Picton turn-off when five parachutists descend perilously close to the busy road. It's a thrilling sight but can't compare with remarkable Kangaroo Valley.