After a rejuvenating bushwalk in the very crisp mountain air, we defrost our hands with the open fire, and declare it’s good to be home. Faith, a new trainee at the hotel, stands nearby and sighs in agreement. “It is good to be home,” she echoes, more to herself than anyone.
Our home for the weekend is the Mount Victoria Manor, built-in 1876 originally as a mountain retreat for John R Fairfax. The bottom floor is a maze of cozy rooms with a mismatch of furniture, velvet Victorian wallpapers, and eclectic light fittings. There is a library with deep armchairs and walls lined with books and a sitting room with gold embossed mirrors, literally fit for a queen. It was decorated in preparation for the Queen’s tour in 1954 in the hope that she might call in.
The Manor’s historical décor is a fitting setting for Hotel Etico, which has made history in becoming Australia’s first social enterprise hotel. Doubling as a training facility for young people with intellectual disabilities, the hotel helps prepare them for work in the hospitality industry at the same time as teaching them valuable life skills.
The idea came from Italy, where a young man with Down Syndrome, Niccolò, had a dream of working in a hotel and was given an internship at a restaurant owned by brothers Antonio and Egidio De Benedetto.
Wanting to expand the program to accommodate more interns, they gained financial backing from local banker Alex Toselli, and the first Hotel Etico, Italian for ‘ethical’, was opened in Asti in Northern Italy. The program has grown to six hotels in Italy and Europe, with seven more due to open over the next few years, and now our own here in Australia.
The program, named “Academy of Independence”, covers a range of skills, from housekeeping to bar work. Gaining independence is at the heart of the program, so the trainees also learn valuable life skills, staying on-site in staff quarters on their rostered workdays, away from their families. Many of them catch the train up from Sydney by themselves to get here.
The hotel is small with 16 rooms in total. All have ensuites and are elegantly furnished, but every room is slightly different, adding to the personalized experience. Room prices start from $219 per night and include a cooked breakfast, with a choice of eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, and spinach; cinnamon porridge with stewed fruit and toast or walnut and banana bread.
At night the restaurant, named after Niccolò, serves a predominantly Italian menu, specializing in pasta and pizza. However, they do have other options including a fish of the day, tasty steak, and soups. The wine selection is limited but well-priced, and as we proved, very drinkable. In any case, the profits from whatever we ate and drank were supporting the program, so we felt encouraged to drink up.
Setting up the hotel has not been without its challenges, even without Covid interruptions, says Jon Ackary, one of the hotel’s directors. Staff not only need excellent hospitality skills but are additionally expected to teach and mentor the trainees. And they also need to have a lot of patience, as do the guests sometimes. “You don’t come to Hotel Etico if you’re in a rush” says Jon.
But in a way, this is part of the appeal. You are encouraged to relax and make yourself at home. There will always be a quiet nook free to bury your nose in a book. As Faith alluded, the hotel feels like a second home to the trainees as well, and the team at Etico is like a second family.
Faith is one of six new trainees, who started only three weeks ago but already seems like an old hand as she smoothly carries an antipasto board over to our table, heaped with homemade bread, olives, and cold cuts. It’s a testament to the nurturing and caring environment Hotel Etico provides to give Faith and her fellow trainees the support and security to learn.
You may need to come prepared for some overflow coffee in your saucer and a dropped fork on the way to the table but, while the service might not be quite five stars yet, the warm, welcoming, and friendly atmosphere certainly is.
Hotel Etico places you at the backdoor of heritage gardens, a national park, and a scattering of small towns and businesses. Though it’s only two hours from Sydney, you can really slow down here and surround yourself with nature to catch a breath of mountain air. If this sounds enticing, here are a few ways to fill your day when you go:
- Everglades House & Garden: A heritage-listed garden designed by Paul Sorenson in the early twentieth century now owned by the National Trust. Take a stroll through winding paths, visit the man-made hidden glade and enjoy a Devonshire tea with panoramic views of the Blue Mountains.
- Victory Theatre Antique Centre: A two-story maze of jewelry, clothes, furniture, records, and knick-knacks from Australia and around the world, this shop is fascinating even for those with no interest in second-hand goodies. Located in Blackheath, you can’t miss the grand building which used to be a theatre for films and live performances.
- Cliff Top Walking Track: A 6km, 3 hour return walk that offers some of the best scenic views of the Blue Mountains. Taking you from Govetts Leap and Evans lookout, the walk starts just out of Blackheath and is abundant with birds, wildflowers, and lookouts.
This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com