On a cold winter’s weekend, I headed to Yulefest in the Blue Mountains, Christmas in July celebrations that are held every winter in the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba.
I may be from the Southern Hemisphere, but after spending several years Christmassing in the colder climes of the Northern Hemisphere, having a BBQ and going to the beach on Christmas Day just doesn’t feel right anymore. I had heard about the Yulefest Christmas in July in the Blue Mountains and knew I had to go.
Some Irish tourists visiting Katoomba back in 1980 thought the same. In the cold winter air of the mountains they felt homesick for Ireland and nostalgic for a traditional White Christmas. After mentioning it to the hotel owner, a Christmas dinner was arranged for them and Yulefest was born.
Yulefest Blue Mountains has since become a yearly tradition with many guesthouses, hotels and restaurants in the Blue Mountains participating each year in the winter months of June through to August.
A lot of hotels offer Yulefest packages, usually including one or two nights’ accommodation, breakfast and a multi-course Christmas dinner with entertainment. I decided to go with a two night package at Katoomba’s original hotel, The Carrington.
Staying at the Carrington Hotel for Yulesfest
The Carrington Hotel was first opened in 1883 under the name The Great Western. It was changed to The Carrington three years later in honour of the then Governor of NSW, Lord Carrington.
Before the hotel was built, Katoomba was a quiet mining town but quickly became a thriving mecca for tourists that came to soak up the fresh mountain air. It is the only 19th Century Resort Hotel in New South Wales that is still in use.
The Carrington is a grand old Dame, sitting pretty above its manicured gardens in the centre of town. Everything about it speaks of elegance and old fashioned charm.
The stately library, well stocked with books. The ornate wood panelled bar. The cavernous lounge with its leather recliners and roaring fire. The tastefully decorated rooms. The opulent dining room replete with chandeliers and embellished ceiling.
The hotel was lovingly restored to its original splendour after eight years of restoration works, finishing in 1998. Wandering through its many rooms and halls it felt like I had slipped back to a different time.
To get guests in the Yulefest spirit, there were Christmas trees in the lounge, dining room and bar, various Christmas decorations and even Christmas tunes playing in the background.
My first evening was spent by the fire, sipping a beer, entranced by the flickering lights on the Christmas tree. Contentment personified.
I loved my room. I chose one of the traditional rooms, which are the original rooms in the hotel. They have shared bathrooms which can be annoying when you wake up in the middle of the night and need to use the facilities, but they are a fair bit cheaper than the other room options and the rooms themselves look the same.
The shared bathrooms were quite beautiful, with a white tiled Art Deco style, and they even had original claw foot baths. It was a bit creepy going in there late at night when there was no one around. I kept thinking of the movie ‘The Shining’. An overactive imagination and a penchant for horror movies when I was younger always comes back to haunt me.
I was very impressed by the sumptuous breakfast spread which included freshly baked pastries, fresh tropical fruit (including passionfruit!), various cereals, Bircher Muesli, cold cuts, cheeses, assorted breads for toasting and juices. There was an option to purchase a cooked breakfast but with the included breakfast options being so good, there was no need.
The Carrington Cellars out the back of the Hotel was a great place to visit for organic produce, international wines and beer, specialty foods and cheeses. There is actually a chilled room just for cheese.
Yep, a room JUST FOR CHEESE! Definitely my kind of place.
So enough about the fabulous hotel (for now).
The Best Katoomba Restaurants
Hiking was my main focus when I visited the Blue Mountains back in April but this time around it was about taking it slow, eating and enjoying the Yulefest spirit. The people of the Blue Mountains take their food seriously and are passionate about creating good food with local ingredients.
I revisited Sanwiye for lunch, one of my favorite Katoomba restaurants, and still loved their chicken bulgogi, and I tried the seafood version this time too – freaking delicious.
At the Elephant Bean Café the coffee wasn’t the best I have ever had but I loved watching all the locals interacting. It seemed like everyone in the place knew each other.
I popped into Hominy Bakery for a pastry and everything in there looked as incredible as ever. It’s a top place to get pies too.
I spoke about my short visit to the Yellow Deli when I was last in the Blue Mountains. It looks unassuming from the outside but inside it is a magical land of exposed polished wood from floor to ceiling, nooks and cubbies with small wooden tables tucked into them, cute lamps and a cosy fireplace.
Like the idealised version of an English country pub – but with hot apple cider and various teas instead of ale. It reminded me a lot of the Green Dragon Inn of Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings movies. Spending time in this dreamy cafe was the highlight of my Blue Mountains in winter weekend.
I went for coffee on Sunday morning at the Paragon Café, a Katoomba icon and the oldest Cafe in Australia. It has been operating since 1916 and the interior is a beautiful Art Deco Masterpiece.
It is also a Chocolatier but it was a bit too early in the day for chocolate for me. I’m sure that if my brother was with me he would have disagreed. UPDATE April 2019: The Paragon has now sadly closed.
Shopping in Katoomba
As well as my adventures in eating, I spent a lot of time browsing the many antique and second-hand stores in Katoomba. I especially enjoyed the warehouse sized Katoomba Vintage Emporium and the massive collection of old books at Mr Pickwick’s Fine Old books.
They were both a treasure trove of trinkets and curiosities, more like museums than shops. Mr Pickwick’s even had authentic roman coins! I bought a book but was tempted by so much more. Pretty exciting stuff for a history nerd like me.
Hiking Around Katoomba
I managed to fit in a bit of hiking while I was in the area too. I couldn’t completely abandon my favourite hobby! I did the short walk from Katoomba town to Echo Point then along the trail to Katoomba Falls.
Along the way I marvelled at the spectacular views over these incredible mountains and the Jamison Valley. I finished our short hike back at Echo Point, looking out over the majestic Three Sisters. Blue Mountains in winter is cold, but it worth braving the weather to get out into nature.
All this eating, shopping and hiking was wonderful, but the main reason I revisited the Blue Mountains at this time of year was for the Yulefest dinner and entertainment.
Celebrating Yulefest at the Carrington Hotel
Five delicious courses of Christmas themed food as well as a welcome drink and canapés. Needless to say I had been really looking forward to Yulefest at the Carrington.
Unfortunately on Saturday afternoon I had a bad reaction to something I had eaten (probably the takeaway burger the night before) and my stomach became bloated and incredibly sore.
I didn’t want to miss out on this symphony of food so I took a couple of painkillers, unzipped my dress as much as I could to ease the pressure on my stomach and I soldiered on. I was pretty uncomfortable despite the painkillers making a dent in the pain but I still enjoyed the evening – just not as much as I could have if I had felt 100%
The evening began by being led into the dining room behind a bagpiper who fancied himself as a bit of a Pied Piper. Guess that made us the rats.
I was shown to my table that was set with a mistletoe wreathed candle and colourful Christmas crackers.
The welcome drinks were poured and the canapés were served. They were a great start to the evening with delicious dumplings, spring rolls, mushroom tartlets and asparagus wrapped in bacon.
Unfortunately the Starter and Entrée didn’t match up to the canapés and were underwhelming: Pumpkin soup and a seafood taster plate of an oyster, a prawn and a scallop. I love seafood but am not that keen on it chilled and I really don’t like raw oysters. They weren’t bad dishes, just not very inspired.
During the meal the larger than life host kept everyone entertained with his outrageous wit and personality.
We were also serenaded by carollers and a Scottish Highlands band throughout the evening. Not my favourite forms of entertainment but you have to expect this type of cheese at Christmas events.
The main course was a Turkey Ballotine with cranberry, sweet potato puree and buttered asparagus and was the highlight of the meal for me.
There was a plum pudding covered in brandy and lit on fire for dessert, served with ice-cream. Traditional but I would have much preferred a piece of pie. You can’t beat a nice piece of pie.
I didn’t stick around for tea and coffee but quickly ate my after dinner macarons and truffles before leaving.
It was a fun evening, if slightly tedious at times, and I would recommend it to any Northern Hemisphere expats living in Australia and missing the cold charms of a White Christmas. It’s just a shame that it didn’t snow.
Visiting Leura in Winter
I woke up on the last morning feeling a lot better. I walked to my other favourite Blue Mountains town, Leura, under a sky dark with thick clouds. It was chillier than Saturday.
Smoke billowed from chimneys and my breath was visable in the cold air. The grey and cold reminded me a lot of Christmas time in the UK and I admit to feeling a twinge of nostalgia.
The Leura Handmade and Produce Market was on in the Country Women’s Association Hall. I bought a homemade candle in a glass jar from a friendly local. I was tempted by the local produce and cute knitted mittens. The stallholders are so friendly it makes you just want to pack up and move there.
I walked the main street and explored the gift shops and homeware stores. A shop entirely dedicated to candles held my attention for a long while. I do love candles.
With a short train trip back to Sydney, so ended another fabulous weekend in the Blue Mountains. I managed to get my mountain fix and White Christmas fix in one go, while gorging myself on the fresh local food. It was a treat to stay in the opulence of the Carrington Hotel and I felt more relaxed than I have in ages, nursing a drink by the hearth.
Unlike many places in Australia, there is actually four distinct seasons up in the Blue Mountains and I will be exploring again in summer to see what is on offer then.
This place never gets old.
Planning your Blue Mountains Getaway
Where to Stay in the Blue Mountains
For Yulefest, my number one recommendation is to stay at the historic Carrington Hotel in Katoomba with one of their Yulefest packages. If you don’t stay there, go for Yulefest dinner there at least.
For a more budget option, I have stayed at the Flying Fox Backpackers in Katoomba and loved it. Our private double room was cosy and we met some cool people during our stay. The lounge had comfy couches, lots of books, a friendly hostel cat and fireplace.
There was a free pancake breakfast each morning and the hostel was only five minutes walk from town.
I have also stayed at No14 Lovel St Hostel and loved it too. It is very similar to Flying Fox in that it has a great location close to town, a free breakfast and a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
If you want to treat yourself to something nicer, the Hydro Majestic Blue Mountains Hotel in nearby Medlow Bath is a great choice. Like the Carrington, the Hydro Majestic is also very grand and beautifully decorated – it really does feel like stepping back in time.
Getting to the Blue Mountains
Blue Mountains by Train from Sydney
The cheapest and easiest way to visit the Blue Mountains is by taking a regular train from Sydney. On Sundays it will only cost you $2.80 if you are using an Opal card! The usual one way price for a ticket from Sydney’s Central Station to Katoomba is $6.20 and it takes two hours.
You can check the Transport NSW Trip Planner to check departure times.
Hire a Car from Sydney
If you want more freedom once you get to the Blue Mountains, then you should definitely hire a car. The drive up there takes around 90 minutes to two hours and it is a beautiful drive. Budget Car Rentals usually has the most competitive prices but check around before booking.
The Best Travel Insurance for your Blue Mountains Trip
Make sure you get travel and health insurance before your Blue Mountains trip, just to be on the safe side. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with.
Safety Wing also allows you to sign up when you are already traveling, unlike a lot of other travel insurance providers.
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