Escape Southern Highlands stays at a new five-star boutique hotel and finds a splendid historic establishment with a big future.
A magic otherworldliness appears in the Highlands as autumn’s first chill wind arrives. Trees blaze with colour, woodpiles are stacked and woollens unpacked as the rhythm of time resurrects an old friend.
Checking into the Old Bank is abit like that. A new boutique hotel with beautiful bones, restored to the cycle of life. A grand former bank, built in 1892 the Old Bank underwent a seven-year restoration, and walking inside feels like going back in time. To a bygone era 124 years ago when Mittagong’s streets were filled with horse and carts, the Seventh Earl of Jersey was Governor of NSW and Queen Victoria was on the throne.
The Victorian-Romanesque building with its towering ceilings, intricate rose cornices, wood panelling and grand cedar staircase was first used as a branch of the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney. The first bank manager, resplendent with handlebar moustache and felt hat, can be seen in the many heritage photographs that line the new hotel’s walls. He lived upstairs with his large family, and saddled his horse in the stable, now one of the hotel’s two self-contained options in the courtyard area, and rode out to collect mortgage payments.
The building ended its life as a bank in 1970, and fell into disrepair. Restoration man and new owner, Warwick Wainberg and wife Barbara Whitehouse bought the building in 2009. Its future looked bleak. A flock of pigeons was resident, and developers were circling.
‘Warwick actually didn’t mean to buy the building,’ says the charming Barb, once personal chef to Kerry Packer, who does all the cooking for guests. One night stays come with afternoon tea, after-dinner port, and shortbread, full breakfast, and a takeaway jar of Barb’s jam, made from the cumquat trees outside in the sandstone courtyard.
‘Another bank from the Victorian era had recently been demolished in Bowral, and Warwick was so upset. When this one came up for sale he couldn’t bear to see the same thing happen, so he bought it.’
Warwick, a long-time farmer at Cayonleigh, and a former owner of Eling Forest Winery, worked with builder David Feld, and other local tradespeople. Together, they breathed new life into the large two-storey building, with its grand Victorian proportions. The finish and look they have achieved is lavish, elegant with every effort made to remain true to the period. The hotel has six luxurious suites with wood detailing, ornate drapery, and shuttered windows. We stay in the Gibraltar Suite, with its sumptuously grand king bed and Egyptian cotton sheets. The designer bathroom, with its granite tiling, monsoon shower, heated floors and Australian made toiletries by Biology, a welcome 21st century touch. We breakfast like .. well, bankers …. in the dining room with its views of Barb’s eclectic tea-cosy collection on the dresser, and orangery outside, Lake Alexandra in the background. Barb’s yoghurt and mixed berry compote is followed by a full Highlands breakfast of bacon, pork sausages, eggs, grilled tomatoes and toast, accompanied by jams.
We have only been here overnight, but it is hard to drag ourselves away. We will be back. Perhaps to enjoy dinner or to relax in the sitting room with its Chesterfield sofas, and enjoy another drink from the original bank vault and its one-tonne door, cast in London in 1852, which now doubles as the cellar and bar. The place feels like an old friend already.
Old Bank Boutique Hotel
83 Main Street, Mittagong
4872 4496 oldbankhotel.com.au