Sleeping under the stars at Longitude 131°
The Red Centre is Australia at its most iconic and to visit here is to embrace this ancient land’s spiritual past. Longitude 131° honours Uluru’s significance with moving guest experiences, as Cathy Wagstaff discovers.
The desert sky is clear, the night lit by a full moon and a canopy of stars. My bed for the night is a double swag, set up on the deck of my tented pavilion at Longitude 131°. Alongside is a tray with bottles of cognac, port and Baileys, leather labels around their necks, and a bowl of popcorn. Before me is an uninterrupted view of Uluru, serene in the moonlight.
Every Australian should see Uluru, and there is no finer way to do so than waking up to admire its rosy sunrise hue under the canopy of one of the 16 tented pavilions at Longitude 131°. This boutique resort – a member of the Luxury Lodges of Australia and one of the family-owned Baillie Lodges group since 2013 – is a special place where the detail is everything. James and Hayley Baillie know this, and it’s why the lodge closed for four months last year to receive its most dramatic transformation yet. As part of the makeover, the Dune House that serves as the resort hub was expanded, the pool was reimagined as a modern outback billabong, Spa Kinara was added, and the Dune Top panoramic deck appeared.
The singular two-bedroom Dune Pavilion also made its debut at the reopening. The contemporary homestead is a design triumph from architect Max Pritchard, who previously collaborated with Baillie Lodges on Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island. In a first for Australia, it offers views of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta, which can be admired from the comfort of your bed or, perhaps more decadently, from the bathtub.
On the deck, a daybed is ready for the stargazing swag turndown service and a circular plunge pool looks inviting in the midday sun.
Art and country
The incorporation of the Aboriginal culture into the fabric of the resort is one of the most striking things about Longitude 131°. From the moment I arrive, I am surrounded by Indigenous art. When Baillie Lodges took over, Hayley Baillie sought to honour the traditional crafts of Uluru, Alice Springs and the nearby Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. Five years later, her purchases and commissions are an ongoing labour of love.
The works are more vibrant than I had expected (apparently this is distinctive of the APY Lands), and I’m particularly entranced with a canvas representing the Kungkarangkalpa or ‘Seven Sisters’
story by four of the Ken sisters from Tjala Arts Centre in the Amata Indigenous Community. Even the 500 or so handpainted tiles that adorn the Dune House bar have a story. The spinifex design comes from Marceena Jack, a 19-year-old artist from Australia’s oldest arts centre, Ernabella Arts Indigenous Community. And it’s not just Longitude 131° buying the artwork; guests are invited to take home a souvenir with Ernabella ceramics and other masterpieces available for purchase.
Art-loving guests can even choose a Bespoke Experience to visit the closed community of Ernabella, flying down to meet the artists at their remote studio to see how techniques are passed down through the generations and understand the strength of this ancient culture.
Meetings with Uluru
As the afternoon cools, I head out for my first encounter with the monolith that brought me here. At a distance, Uluru is imposing. Up close, it’s surprisingly nuanced. The flora that flourishes in its shadow changes as we walk along the base and the brilliant ochre hues I had expected is more of a reddish-grey. We finish our stroll at Kantju Gorge with drinks and canapés. Above us, the Rock glows brilliant red in the setting sun.
Most walks set off first thing in the morning to take advantage of milder temperatures, so sunrise the next day sees me walking in awe through Walpa Gorge. When we emerge, the domes of Kata Tjuta (Pitjantjatjara for ‘many heads’) have me reaching for my camera.
My favourite view, however, is out the large, curved windows of Professional Helicopter Services’ Eurocopter as we take off en route to Ayers Rock Airport to circle Uluru. From this vantage, you can feel the vastness of the landscape, swallowing the lodge and its surrounds into red dust and spinifex.
When the heat just gets too much, escape to Spa Kinara. The building, made of rusted steel, takes its inspiration from traditional wiltja shelters, while the menu uses LI’TYA products that call on the wisdom of Aboriginal healing techniques.
My relaxing Kodo Massage begins with a smoking ritual that clears the energy and transports me to my spiritual place.
This connection continues as we return to Uluru at sunset, this time to walk through the 50,000 glowing stems that make up Bruce Munro’s mesmerising art installation, Field of Light. We then have dinner under the stars at Table 131°, an open-air restaurant nestled among the dunes. Executive chef Jonathan Bryant incorporates native ingredients such as lemon myrtle, pepperberry, desert lime and quandong into his dishes, creating a dining experience that ties you to the landscape. That is ultimately the enduring appeal of Longitude 131°. No matter where you are on the property, the pull of the landscape and the landmark is inescapable. From the architecture to the art, the lodge marks itself as a celebration of Australia’s spirit, past, present and future.
Virgin Australia is currently the only airline to offer year-round direct flights from Sydney to Ayers Rock Airport, Yulara. (Qantas and Jetstar flights go via Alice Springs.)
This article appeared in volume 29 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.
All images © Longitude 131°