It’s perhaps the hardest part of being a responsible traveller: giving criticism when a venue has, overall, given you a good time.

Even professional travel writers sometimes duck their duty to give honest feedback, saving their opinions for the sake of peace.

So it comes as a pleasant surprise to learn that great establishments really do appreciate it when you point out a problem with your stay.

We’ve been to Bells at Killcare before – admittedly it has been a while. We stayed when Stefano Manfredi ran the restaurant and John Singleton owned the beautiful acreage in one of the Central Coast’s best places for beach and country holidays. 

We love its cosy luxury, simple but delicious food and relaxed resort feel.

The garden that greets you.

And all of that remains today. Indeed, we had a brilliant dinner at Wild Flower Bar & Dining, the onsite restaurant, and heartily recommend the snapper baked in salt as one of our all-time greatest dishes (and there have been a few!).

The restaurant has done a good job with what’s described as “the food of the sun” – a mainly Mediterranean menu.

But occasionally, the sun sets. A special occasion – Christmas lunch, for instance – may be an unfair test (especially in the age of Covid). But at $250 a head without wine, Bells set itself a high bar. And it’s fair to say that our experience was less than what we would have hoped at such a high price.

Two problems collided during this particular culinary challenge: it took three hours to plate and serve the many dishes being served, meaning a huge sense of anticipation built up around the main course. And it simply didn’t live up to all the anticipation. It was late and, well, underwhelming. Two pieces of turkey breast, a sliver of stuffing and 16 potato chunks. At least the string beans were good.

There were several courses in between, including snacks, beetroot gazpacho, Christmas pumpkin pasta and a semi-freddo dessert.

But the turkey should have been the star. And it wasn’t.

We knew we had to mention it. And when we did, we were told we were not alone. And that COVID has caused a culinary crisis.

“Our staffing was decimated in the lead up to and on Christmas Day, by COVID-19 isolation requirements. We are still feeling the repercussions of this during this stressful time,” said a spokesperson.

“This did create enormous pressure on our kitchen team, who obviously did not deliver to their usual high standard on Christmas Day.”

Bells added that it had considered closing – but felt that many people would not have any other option for their Christmas lunch at such short notice. 

So with that out of the way, we can turn to the fact that Bells delivered a lovely country retreat in spades.

Our mornings were greeted with kookaburras, bush turkeys and a family of ducks. The pool is a great size and not the token many country hotels lay on, and the lush gardens are beautifully manicured to give you a real sense of a stylish bush property.

We booked two villas with an enormous kitchen in between, complete with lovely country-style dining table and lush seats. Each of the adjoining rooms has a gas fire that creates a wonderful, welcoming warm feeling in winter.

Of course, Killcare has a personality all of its own, from the pier where locals leave an opener at the bus stop for beer from the local bottle shop to the surrounding countryside and beaches.

Bouddi National Park is a real treat, with 1500 hectares of amazing, rugged countryside and coastal walks. The rock star is the eight-kilometre Bouddi Coastal Walk from Putty Beach to MacMasters Beach. Beaches, birdlife and boardwalks, sweeping views and photo opportunities are everywhere. You might see migrating whales when in season.

There are plenty of shorter walks, too, and a picnic is perfect in the park.

Bells is happy to lay on a breakfast or lunch tray, and your room has a backpack to carry all sorts of treats. We took away breakfast packs including croissants and eggs, and it was delicious.

Bells Day Spa is also special, with iKou skincare products and an emphasis on Indigenous healing treatments. Our full-body massage was a wonderful, relaxing experience and the staff – our masseur had worked at the property for many years – were knowledgeable and helpful. 

So while our bells weren’t jingled over Christmas lunch, we still had a thoroughly enjoyable stay. 

A look inside the rooms

Take me there

Killcare is about 90 minutes drive from either Sydney or Newcastle, and four hours from Canberra.

A two-night stay in a two-bedroom cottage (sleeps four), including breakfast and two dinners, costs $3686. Packages start at $799 for weeknights.

Spa treatments are about $195 for 90 minutes.

Explore more: bellsatkillcare.com.au

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