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Blue Mountains, NSW driving routes: Into the blue with the new Volvo XC90

TIME : 2016/2/26 17:13:51


Today I am surrounded by the first piece of Swedish design technology I haven't had to screw together. With apologies to the good people at IKEA, this is Scandinavian ingenuity I can relate to. I am test-driving the top-of-the-range new Volvo XC90 seven-seater family SUV up to the picturesque Blue Mountains. The sun is shining, the air is crisp and even sitting in traffic is a pleasure in this cocoon of comfort and style.

Once I clear the gridlock and hit the freeway to the hills, I become more aware of the superb handling. The signature Volvo upright grill and high shoulders make it look like an elite power athlete and I find it moves like one too. The luxury seven-seater SUV hugs the bends and glides along the bitumen and before I know it I have reached the pretty town of Wentworth Falls. The views of the eponymous three-tiered waterfall and the Jamison Valley make this an essential first stop on any scenic trip to the Blue Mountains.

Just a few minutes further up the road is Katoomba, the "capital" of the Blue Mountains, where a visit to see Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo – more famously known as the Three Sisters – from the Echo Point lookout is a must. It is here that I give the XC90 the chance to show-off its Park Assist Pilot. I have always prided myself on my manual parallel parking but this automated iteration is poetry in motion. I watch the 360-degree "overhead" camera image on the iPad-sized screen and control the movement with brake and accelerator as the car makes the parallel parking manoeuvre with astonishing precision. The XC90 is able to park like this in spaces as small as 1.2 times the length of the car, which most humans wouldn't even attempt.

Echo Point gets very crowded so either go early or head to other lookouts if you want a more secluded encounter with the spectacular views. like Sublime Point, Katoomba Cascades, Narrow Neck, Evans and Govetts Leap. Katoomba is also home to Scenic World, where you can take in the majesty of the area from two different cable cars, by railway or on foot.

Many designated scenic routes pass through or near Katoomba and you can enter your desired destination into the XC90's navigation system and visit the Jenolan Caves, Hartley Historic Site, Megalong Valley and other attractions in the area without unfolding a map. Known collectively as The Greater Blue Mountains Drive and totalling 1200 kilometres all-up, the Drive also offers 18 "discovery trails" that branch off the main route and take you to a plethora of scenic, historic and delicious destinations within this vast, remarkable World Heritage landscape. Or you can just drive along the clearly marked tourist trails until you find an idyllic spot for a picnic, a hike, bird-watching, fishing or a local-produce meal.

The Blue Mountains is a proud foodie region and there are plenty of gastronomic gems to be found, from fine-dining to funky cafes to specialist providores. Wintergarden restaurant at the Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath – a Blue Mountains institution – is the jewel in the crown for grandeur and a high tea or dinner here is an opulent silver service experience. Other top-end eateries include Echoes Restaurant and Darley's Restaurant at Lilianfels Resort, both in Katoomba, while Ori Cafe in Springwood, Restaurant Como in Blaxland, Tomah Gardens Restaurant at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden in Mount Tomah and Flemish Flavours in Leura are all well-regarded. And if you're passing through Wentworth Falls, drop into the German-themed Schwarz Patisserie for a decadent pastry or strudel.

For a taste of cool climate wine, take the pretty drive from Blackheath down the escarpment and through the native rainforest to Dryridge Estate winery in the Megalong Valley. This boutique vineyard produces riesling, shiraz and cabernet – all tended by hand – which you can sample at the Cellar Door. Dryridge also offers modern, self-catered accommodation.

Enjoyable distractions can be found along pretty much any road and you are sure to find something interesting, from a street stall selling something unique and tasty to a welcoming cafe or heritage inn with an open fire and excellent coffee.

After two wonderful days cruising around the Blue Mountains, I decide to take the twisting and turning Bells Line of Road back to Sydney. The weather has turned nasty and this freezing winter's day provides a demanding test for the new Volvo. It is so cold that it begins to snow as I wind my way up and down the scenic hills heading out of Lithgow, home to the Newnes Plateau and the Glow Worm Tunnels. Snowflakes blow on to the windscreen and the road becomes very slippery. The dodgy conditions are exacerbated by the number of cars that stop to take snow-selfies beside the road. I am comforted by the XC90's assured handling and by its heated seat.

This is where I try out the four distinct drive modes – Dynamic, Comfort, Eco and Off-Road – that adjust the gearbox, steering and braking. The control is outstanding and the pick-up more than adequate to pass less confident vehicles in the overtaking lanes, all with total safety. This Volvo 7-seater SUV handles like a much smaller road car: sharp, efficient and totally at ease in these tricky conditions.

I take a detour to bucolic Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine and am rewarded with more great lookouts, walking trails, gardens and historic houses. The Bells Line of Road also passes right by the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden at Mt Tomah, which is a nice spot for petal-heads.

Heading down out of the mountains I am informed of the ever-changing speed limits and my relation to them – as well as warnings of approaching speed cameras and school zones – by the optional hologram-esque heads-up display, which presents information as if it's hovering two metres in front of the car. I never need to take my eyes off the road.

The traffic thickens and darkness closes in as I reach Sydney, two wonderful days of luxe motoring and sight-seeing behind me. The Blue Mountains never looked so good.