4 January 2024

Luxury retreats flourish in Berry amid growing demand for holidaying in your own backyard

| Kellie O'Brien
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Mt Hay swimming pool

The 33-metre indoor pool and spa with spectacular views at Mt Hay Retreat. Photos: Supplied.

The quaint historic town of Berry has seen a surge in high-end guesthouses and luxury retreat-style accommodations in recent years, driven by a growing desire among people to holiday in their own backyard.

Mt Hay Retreat owner and Berry Chamber of Commerce member Louise Warren said when her multiple award-winning property first opened in 2015, the market was significantly different, with Airbnb playing a transformative role.

Louise said the platform’s introduction to Australia in 2012 paved the way for property owners to explore new avenues in the tourism market.

“That, in a lot of ways, changed the landscape because before then it was just B&Bs, renting a whole house through often a real estate agent, or staying in a motel,” she said.

However, Louise said a shift occurred in recent years, with an increasing number of property owners recognising the potential for transforming their properties into luxury accommodation.

“The trends towards luxury have pretty much only been in the last few years, particularly as prices for properties have grown,” she said.

Louise said holidaymakers’ awareness of such accommodation had expanded through online platforms like Airbnb, Riparide, and bookings.com.

She said it was privacy that had become a priority for luxury travellers, with Mt Hay Retreat beginning as a private family getaway and evolving into a luxury retreat with five adult-only suites featuring spectacular views, lush gardens, and even a giant swing.

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Hannah Bligh of The Drawing Rooms of Berry, a 15-acre multiple award-winning retreat with four self-contained lodges on a stunning former dairy farm set in peaceful bushland and landscaped gardens, said visitors to Berry were also often quite discerning.

“To be here, they are likely to be interested in the finer things in life, such as good food, wine, independent shopping and heritage architecture,” Hannah said.

“That naturally extends to the kind of accommodation they look for.

“Many visitors come from Sydney so with those budgets they want to enjoy a luxurious home away from home which allows them to relax as much as possible away from city life.

“They have high expectations of accommodation standards, offerings and styling for that reason.

“But to achieve ‘luxury’ it’s about the detail – small, thoughtful touches that make our guests feel appreciated. Luxury is also about the wider landscape and visitors’ first impressions on arrival.”

Louise said Berry’s small-town charm and heritage, combined with the passion of small business owners, had made it a distinctive and appealing destination.

“You still get cafe owners who know most of their clientele or are already making your coffee as you walk in,” she said.

“That’s a lovely little bit of community to walk into, where actually people do say hello to you and do have a chat and engage and that’s what people want to do.”

Hannah agreed: “It’s retained a great deal of charm and offers visitors the warmth and friendliness of small-town hospitality.

“But it also punches well above its weight in the quality of foodie and winery offerings.”

She said that included two nearby hatted restaurants – South on Albany and Bangalay Dining, a chic French bistro, Queen St Eatery, alongside incredible coffee, independent homeware shops and now a pop-up gin bar – Tara Distillery and SocialLife.

Louise said the majority of visitors were from Sydney and Canberra, with even higher local numbers post-COVID as changing attitudes prompted more people to opt for travel experiences in their own backyard rather than fly interstate or abroad.

“What’s really exciting about Berry, particularly with a lot of work that we’ve been doing with the chamber, is we’re now seeing a lot more small business owners and operators who are coming into Berry and their passion for what they do really comes across to our visitors,” she said.

“We’ve got so many award-winning restaurants now.

“They’re getting such a following behind them that they’re eating it up – literally and figuratively.

“I have to watch my diet living in Berry. It’s way too easy to go out and eat a lot,” she said, laughing.

“It means it’s a real experience for people and that’s really exciting.”

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Michelle Bishop from Bangalay Luxury Villas, an award-winning boutique self-contained family accommodation opened in 2018 at nearby Shoalhaven Heads with hatted a la carte dining and chef-prepared in-villa dining, was able to bring style to her property thanks to being a former interior designer and her husband formerly a builder.

However, Michelle agreed it was also the location that appealed to visitors, with a typical itinerary including a day at one of the many wineries, a day to trip to Jervis Bay, Kangaroo Valley or Southern Highlands, or exploring Berry itself.

“We really are a bit of a gateway,” she said.

“I think also the fact that it’s all year round – we really want people this time of year to start thinking about winter travel.

“While summer is great for relaxing, it’s really great to come down in winter, because you can make the most of the nature-based activities and the destination dining offerings that we have in the region.”

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