This review of North Bundaleer in Clare Valley is taken from our guidebook Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection Australia/New Zealand.
‘Last night I dreamt I went to North Bundaleer again,’ said Mr Smith a week after our two days of pampered relaxing at this gracious homestead. Although it wasn’t Manderley, and our own story didn’t have quite such a melodramatic conclusion, I knew what he meant; this is a hotel that transports you to another, more romantic, era.
From the hill that crowns 160-hectare grounds – the perfect sundowner spot – the sandstone chimneys of North Bundaleer peek through the blue gums. The house, built in 1901 in the Victorian Queen Anne style, is one of the grandest in the district and has shades of wild folly about it. Above the front door sits a fabulous tower that serves no purpose. At the property’s core, there’s a ballroom where I could imagine the ladies of Longbourn coquettishly munching ices while waiting for Darcy to ask them to dance.
Evoking English country-house Victoriana on the fringes of the Outback is no mean feat, and it’s testament to the owners’ imagination that North Bundaleer has the power to transform you into an Austen heroine – until, that is, a family of kangaroos bounds past and bursts the bubble. About six years ago, Marianne and Malcolm Booth bought a crumbling pile and have since turned it into a mansion retreat with every comfort. Today, it’s a luxurious hotel from which to explore parts of the striking South Australian Outback, from the Clare Valley to the Flinders Ranges.
With only four rooms, a stay here is inevitably intimate. We were lucky enough to secure the headline act – the Red Room Suite, with its enormous canopy bed. It also has a private, ruby toile-wallpapered sitting room with a Chinese theme (a blanket box is topped with the latest editions of The World of Interiors – what more could a decor-obsessed Mrs Smith require?), and a conservatory converted into a modern bathroom. If you’re bedding down here, follow my lead and take a leisurely candlelit bath, gazing out through the wall-filling windows at the sky flocked of stars.
The other bedrooms are no aesthetic slouches either. In short, if you’re into period furnishings done tastefully, you’ll like North Bundaleer – I am, and I do. When we were there, every room showcased vases of seasonal flowers and eucalypts, but I can imagine perfume filling the house when the rose garden is in its full summertime bloom. Stepping eagerly into the ballroom, we were struck by one detail in particular – a restored wallpaper adorned with a winged seahorse, the hippocampus of mythology, now the homestead’s logo. Perhaps it was wishful thinking on the part of the original owners that the symbol of a water god should loom so large in such a bone-dry place.
North Bundaleer’s surrounds are alluring enough, but coupled with Marianne’s inspired cookery (son Leo is executive chef) and Malcolm’s attention to detail, you have somewhere special indeed. As a guest, I am not without quirks – one of which involves tea. I am a staunch subscriber to the etiquette that a pot should be served alongside milk and hot water for those of us who like their flavours delicate. Most people don’t bring it, despite repeated requests. Not here. Delivered to our room with a pot of hot water and a fresh cupcake, my brew was perfect and continued to be, without fail, every time afterwards – heaven for tea purists and exacting guests alike.
Mr Smith and I had stayed at ‘hosted accommodation’ before with mixed (OK, bad) results, so when we discovered we were to dine with the owners in the grand but austere dining room on the first night, our hearts sank. It was with some trepidation that we joined Malcolm, Marianne and another guest for apéritifs in the drawing room.
At least there was lots of bubbly (all drinks are included in the room rate) and spicy deep-fried olives to get things going. And going they got. To our immense relief our hosts were delightful, managing the meal and conversation with tact and verve. By the end of the first course (a wonderful fresh-from-the-garden stinging-nettle soup) we felt as welcome as family members come home for the holidays.
In fact, we may have felt a touch too at home, if the hangover was anything to go by. We meandered into breakfast to find it was an all-in occasion once again, and I feared for Mr Smith – never his best in the morning. Fortunately for him – and me – the quality of the food soon made us shake off our fug. Everything was home-made: eggs from the chooks, jams from local orchard fruit – and more of that pot-perfect tea. When it came to the day’s agenda, we felt that we’d already had more than a fair sampling of the Clare Valley vineyards the previous night, so we planned to walk a small section of the famous Heysen Trail, which passes nearby, and then return to snooze, read, bathe and prepare for the next meal.
Named after Hans Heysen, an early 20th-century landscape artist spellbound by the Flinders Ranges, the Heysen Trail is a 1,200-kilometre trail that stretches from Cape Jervis to Parachilna Gorge. If you have 60 days to kill, you can walk its entirety. Mr Smith and I were less well time-endowed, but a few hours in the crisp air were more than appreciated. The countryside varies from rolling green hills to dry creek gorges, so if you want to see Australia au naturel with minimal effort, this is the way to do it. The trail passes by a property named Never Never – we pondered whether it was called that because it never, never rained there.
While we were getting back to nature, Marianne was busy cooking it; preparing, at my request, supper in our sitting room that night. There we sat at a cloth-covered table for two, napkins white and silver shining, with candles and firelight for atmosphere and a menu that featured the most delicious leek-and-stilton tart. As we ate, we reflected on how we could easily get used to living Marianne and Malcolm’s unique brand of Victorian high life. Leaving for Adelaide the next morning, our feelings were confirmed by the present of a cask of home-pressed olive oil packed in our luggage. North Bundaleer: it’s that type of place.