What defines luxury accommodation? Is it the organic linen, tranquil views, art on the walls or high-end appliances? Or, rather, is it about sustainability, considered encounters with the natural world and an unmistakeable sense of place?
Matt Cantwell believes the true magic of a luxury escape is in the flora. He would know, having conceptualised some of Australia’s most enchanting landscape projects. As the founder and director of the landscape architecture firm Secret Gardens, he has created green havens on coastal clifftops, nurtured lush oases on top of skyscrapers and sculpted gardens from native wilderness. He relishes a challenge and is especially excited by the opportunities presented by difficult terrains. He points to Crane Lodge, a recently revitalised retreat in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, as a prime example of a tough brief that resulted in a spectacular outcome.
“The fact that you enter the property via an inclinator gives you a great perspective of the hallenges across the site,” he says. “There’s nothing duller than [a site] with no trees or a change in level. “We felt nothing but excitement when we saw the property,” he continues. “But we also needed to get our heads around how we would achieve the brief — how we would touch the landscape only lightly while doing a major overhaul, while also remaining sensitive to the protection of the trees.”
Crane Lodge is the latest addition to Wild Luxury’s portfolio, helmed by Kim and Derek Ellis. The lodge is perched on a hillside behind Whale Beach, a stone’s throw from Palm Beach. With views across the native canopy, it offers an immersive bush stay like no other. It’s a place where local artisans are championed alongside native plant varieties. “The property has a strict biodiversity ruling from the local Northern Beaches council, meaning we had to plant a minimum of 90 per cent endemic species,” says Kim. “But it’s as Aussie as you can get … or as Palmie as you can get.”
The site features an array of lemon myrtles, native blueberries, Pittwater spotted gums (endemic only to the area), Bangalow palms, staghorn ferns and lichen that has been growing on the site for more than 250 years. Many plants were chosen to attract native bees to keep the ecosystem in good health. Cantwell says the project took 14 months from concept to completion. The greatest challenge was protecting the local flora — construction had to stay away from sensitive root zones and ensure existing trees were not impacted in any way.
The result? “A botanical experience, a real connection with the landscape and a luxury lodge that looks like it’s floating above the garden,” says Cantwell. “What I’m most proud of is the restraint in the rear garden. There’s very little that we didn’t turn over, but it doesn’t feel like the site has been abused.
“I hope when people visit, they’ll feel like they’re experiencing a very special piece of Sydney that’s familiar, but unique in its own way. The design is meant to encourage people to explore and discover the garden and feel comforted by the volume of vegetation. It’s an opportunity to explore the bush without leaving home.”