It would be appropriate if guests were brought to so exclusive a hideaway as Pretty Beach House in a chauffeur-driven limousine, gliding serenely along coast roads to their destination. Instead, most opt for a noisy, bumpy but thrilling seaplane flight to the New South Wales resort – and they enjoy every single minute of the rip-roaring ride. Swooping in from the sky is just one of many novel elements of a stay at Pretty Beach House, one of the most exquisite boutique hotels in the world. It has just four villas, each with a swimming pool and lounging sala. It was built as the private hideaway of an Australian advertising tycoon.
The 20-minute flight from Sydney is a prime part of the experience. The seaplane takes off from the city’s oldest airport, Rose Bay, where flying boats used to make the final landing on their 30-stop journey from Britain via the Middle East, India, Singapore and Queensland. The seaplanes bound for Pretty Beach House are smaller and more basic, designed primarily for parts of the world where access overland is difficult. But their compactness and nimbleness are just as suitable for taking VIP guests up the coast.
The plane roars into the air from Rose Bay, climbing to a height that allows the passengers a panoramic view of the city. The rest of the flight is equally dramatic, as the aircraft soars above the Pacific coast, where powerful waves crash into the towering rocks or roll towards the sandy beaches, picking up daredevil surfers along the way. The plane passes over the most exclusive part of Sydney, where sprawling residences are set in spacious grounds, invariably with a swimming pool among the amenities.
Passengers barely have time to mentally digest all this magnificence, natural and man-made, before the pilot announces over the intercom that touchdown (or should it be splashdown?) is minutes away. The plane scoots across the water, comes to a rest and is moored to a buoy. The passengers are slickly transferred to a water taxi, which shuttles them ashore to a four-wheel-drive waiting to take them on the final, hilly stage of their journey.
Pretty Beach House is something of a misnomer, the lodge at the centre of the resort being on a hillside in the bush rather than on a sandy shore. But it is a beautiful situation, chosen carefully to allow striking views of the terrain at hand and the distant ocean. The lodge, built of wood and stone, is flanked by a tree-shaded infinity pool.
New arrivals are treated to a captivating welcoming ceremony conducted by Wooluba, an elder of the area’s Aboriginal tribe, who relates in a soft but passionate voice the story of the land his forebears trod and the lives they led. If anything awes more than the stunning luxury of the resort, it is Wooluba’s monologue. This is no hokum song-and-dance show for tourists, but a potted history given by a deeply thoughtful and innately charming man who regards his guests from overseas as conduits for spreading the word about Aboriginal culture.
Wooluba, meaning palm-tree fruit, tells how the Darkinjung tribe of hunter-gatherers have inhabited the area for 10,000 years or more. Evidence of the tribe’s claim is at hand. He points out a boulder a few metres from the main entrance to the lodge, on which artists of a bygone age chipped out the shape of a whale and used pigment to highlight the wavy lines they carved. The short ceremony, conducted in the twilight among the gum trees, concludes with a haunting song sung by the tribal elder and a farewell refrain played on the didgeridoo. As a mood-setter, this delightful and thought-provoking one-man show works a thousand times better than any welcoming cocktail.
Afterwards, dinner is served in the lodge, where the master chef, Stefano Manfredi, has designed a menu that makes the most of the fabulous produce available in and around the Bouddi Peninsula and, of course, Australian fine wines. Manfredi is a household name in Australia. The chef has had numerous books published. He was one of the figures that helped revitalise the national cuisine, moving it away from fish and chips and meat pies toward today’s preference for fresh, seasonal produce.
A typical evening’s fare – to be savoured at a leisurely pace, in keeping with the relaxed ambience of the main house – includes Tasmanian salmon with a mushroom sauce, followed by scallop crudo, Queensland spanner crab with avocado, and blow-torched prawns with spinach puree and citrus brown butter.
The vegetables and herbs are picked from the resort’s own gardens as they are needed, so they are always fresh. The pork, beef and chicken comes from local organic farms. All the eggs are free-range. The honey served at breakfast is taken from the resort’s own hives. The pastries and sausages are made in the resort’s kitchen.
Meals are eaten at tables laid with Italian linen tablecloths and napkins, and vintage cutlery made of Sheffield steel. They are served on Bernardaud white porcelain crockery from France. The tableware includes a nice Australian touch: pottery hand-made by local potter Lino Alvarez. There is a wood-fired oven on the porch that turns out pizza for guests that hanker for less formal dining.
The villas are called pavilions, in keeping with their ultra-luxuriousness. They are furnished with custom-made beds that can give the occupant massages ranging in intensity from gentle ripples to rolling waves. The pavilions are open-plan, to make the best use of light. The bathrooms have sliding glass doors giving onto the swimming pool and hillside. A log fire ensures that guests are nice and toasty during the cooler winter months.
The self-contained cosiness makes it tempting to spend all day luxuriating in or by the pool. But Pretty Beach House tempts guests out of their pavilions with an array of activities. Foremost among these activities are the ones that make use of the resort’s launch. This powerfully swift but spacious vessel can surge out into the distant ocean on deep-sea fishing expeditions, in search of tuna, marlin and shark. Or it can whisk guests off to otherwise hard-to-reach beaches for the gentler activity of washing down a picnic lunch with champagne. For guests staying only a short while, the long-lunch option allows sightseeing to be combined with gourmet pleasures. The launch has a top speed of 38 knots and can charge up the coast to deliver guests to a deserted, soft-sand beach along with a hamper filled with goodies: chilled champagne, fresh prawns and crayfish, bread or panini baked at the resort; and lovingly cured hams.
Visitors in search of the full Ernest Hemingway experience can opt for seriously strenuous trips far offshore to do battle with the mighty denizens of the deep. For finding fish, the launch has all the latest electronic wizardry, including thermal imaging equipment and underwater cameras. For catching the fish, it has a huge bait tank, rods with ratings ranging from 3 kilograms to 37 kilograms, and a comfortable fighting chair.
If that sounds too much like hard work, there is always the option of spending the day in the Pretty Beach House spa. The flagship treatment is The Dreaming, an experience lasting over three hours which is inspired by methods Australia’s indigenous people have used for centuries to cleanse the skin and soothe tired muscles. It includes a floral foot bath, a mud cocoon and a massage that uses hot stones. The 90-minute Rhythmic Kodo treatment also draws on techniques employed by Aborigines for thousands of years, which make use of aromatic oils and spiralling movements to relieve stress.
Bush walks are among the activities Pretty Beach House arranges. A guide will point out the kinds of wild fruit that can be eaten, and the wild herbs and berries used for medicine. A half-hour stroll through the native flora takes you to Box Head, which is held sacred by Aborigines and enjoys a stunning view of the ocean. Given notice, the staff can arrange jaunts by helicopter around the region – or even further afield, to wine country.
And there is always the alluring option of doing not much at all, simply lounging beside your pavilion’s own pool or the lodge’s infinity pool, sipping your way through the list of cocktails offered at the bar, or contemplating what you will choose from the menu that evening.
It is difficult to tear yourself away from Pretty Beach House, although the flight back to the city is exciting enough, giving a different perspective from the outward journey. The pilot is allowed to make a low pass over the harbour, swinging right past the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. It is seat-of-the-pants flying that is sure to give pilot and passengers alike an adrenaline rush. The plane banks steeply to allow the occupants a look at one of the world’s greatest coastal jamborees: cruise liners and container ships, sightseeing vessels and ferries, speedboats and launches and, at weekends, motor yachts and sailing craft, spinnakers a-billowing – all set against the backdrop of the Sydney skyline.