This review of Bells at Killcare in Central Coast is taken from our guidebook Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection Australia/New Zealand.
Large white capital letters jutting from the blue wall of the reception area at Bells at Killcare grab you on arrival and command: ‘RELAX, UNWIND, ENJOY.’ It leaves you in no doubt as to what’s expected of guests here. There’s nothing Mr Smith and I can do but step up to the mark.
It’s not a tough job, of course. There’s the place itself, with graceful central manor house and English country estate-style gardens. We’re led to our room, a king suite, although ‘suite’ is a rather misleading term. It’s more a diminutive cottage with a spacious living and bedroom area, an iron fireplace resting on exposed brickwork, a fully equipped kitchen and an enormous bathroom with an oversized spa bath. Sydney designer and textile goddess Chrissie Jeffrey is behind the decor, which features a crisp mix of nautical blues, whites and beiges alongside elegant antique furniture, chic rattan and sumptuously comforting fabrics and cushions. Bliss.
Mr Smith and I head directly to the big veranda with a cafetière of chef Stefano Manfredi’s rich own-brand coffee, and within a few moments are already getting stuck into the wall instructions that greeted us on check-in.
It doesn’t take long for our thoughts to shift to dinner because, first and foremost, this destination is renowned mostly for what it serves on a plate. With Manfredi, an acclaimed chef at the helm, the award-winning restaurant here has made this quiet spot on the Central Coast a point of pilgrimage for foodies. His menu is a robust take on Italian cooking, backed with considered flavouring and a strong emphasis on local and organic produce.
And then there’s the wine. Owners Brian and Karina Barry have long been names in the nearby Hunter Valley wine industry and have brought their expertise to an extensive and encyclopedic wine list that offers the best from Italian and local vineyards, with staff only too happy to talk you through the choices.
Decision-making over dinner itself isn’t too troubling. It’s a simple menu that lets the ingredients speak for themselves and inspires snap ‘I want that!’ decisions. There’s an antipasto of meats and oysters, but Mr Smith and I get straight into the primo courses: crisp pork cheek with mushroom ragu and sweetly buttery spinach and ricotta gnocchi. For secondi we try the grass-fed beef rump and roast rabbit with veal sweetbreads – both are boldly flavoured, hearty portions.
But it’s not all about gorging yourself silly or sitting on your behind at Bells we discover – there’s plenty to do. The picture-perfect setting of Hardys Bay, a typical Australian coastal village complete with fish and chip shop, is just a few minutes down the road. The sweeping views here treat us to an eyeful of the many small islands, bays and waterways that weave around this part of the coast out to Ettalong Beach and Daleys Point. On the other side of the peninsula is Killcare Beach, a big open crescent marked only with a surf club at one end. We walk across the peachy-coloured sand and enjoy the pounding of the waves. As Killcare is nestled on the edge of Bouddi National Park the lure of bushwalks also offsets any conscience about indulging in Manfredi’s dishes and the Barrys’ wine selections. We spend a couple of hours traipsing the six-kilometre Maitland Bay Circuit, one of the many walks suggested on a map given to us on check-in and dotted with beautiful views.
Calories burned, back at Bells we settle down on the Manor House terrace, overlooking the grounds with a couple of sundowners, enjoying the dying daylight, peacefully huddled among the fat navy-and-white cushions on the lounge. Marita, one of the many friendly and attentive staff members here, has come to see if she can bring us anything. She tells us that this small haven gets many visitors from all over the world and lots of weekenders from the city. ‘It’s only a short drive from Sydney,’ she says, ‘but you could be anywhere.’ She’s absolutely right. Although Bells is firmly planted in the middle of some of the Central Coast’s best beaches and bays, it’s rather unique as a coastal resort in that you can’t actually spy the water. The sea is just a few minutes’ drive away and the nautical decor throughout doesn’t let you forget your coordinates, but the leafy privacy afforded here also makes it a country retreat that is truly about getting away from it all. ‘We’re anywhere and nowhere at the same time,’ sighs Mr Smith, ‘and it feels heavenly.’
With the flush still in our cheeks from all that salt-air-kissed strolling, we head to the inviting embrace of the main dining room. The blue-striped walls (another fitting seaside touch) and larger-than-life mirrors are especially seductive when teamed with chic chandeliers and flickering tealights. Pre-dinner drinks are soon in our clutches, and we flop into the large Chesterfield sofas in the cosy bar, olives and crumbly caper-and-parmesan biscuits to hand. Home-made simple-but-delectable bread is our next treat, along with an olive oil that’s so deliciously light and flavoursome I’m tempted to drink it. As romantic as the setting is, it’s the menu of two courses and a glass of wine for AU$39, served as a special offer on Tuesday nights, which has us enraptured. Salt cod soup gets both votes as does roast pork belly with savoy cabbage and chestnuts. Hey, it may be corny, but when our waiter, Hayden, brings our dishes, it’s the line he delivers with them that captures our sentiments about Bells at Killcare in a nutshell. ‘Enjoy!’ he smiles.