ADELAIDE, Australia — On Ash Wednesday, 1983, fire burned out of control over miles of the Adelaide Hills, consuming brush and forests, homes and mansions, leaving in its wake ashes, lost fortunes and broken dreams.
In one disastrous day the elegant Mount Lofty House, built in 1852, was reduced to a charred shell of solid hand-hewn rock walls, a pile of rubble amid 15 acres of blackened trees and gardens.
The mansion, with a total area of 12,700 square feet, had consisted of 20 main rooms including a drawing room, pantry and kitchen, servant halls and scullery, a lounge, conservatory and many bedrooms for family and staff. Its floors were of flawless Baltic pine and jarrah; doors and mantels were of cedar, and all of the rooms facing east had a sheltered view across the veranda to the Piccadilly Valley, on the other side of the ridge from Adelaide.
After Ash Wednesday, on Feb. 16, 1983, midsummer in South Australia, all that remained of the grand mansion were the stone walls of the main house, a wooden lean-to that had been part of the servants' quarters, and the coach house with its cobbled floor and carpenter's loft.
Three years later to the day, Adelaide architect Ross Sands and his wife, Janet, opened the restored Mount Lofty House as an inn. During its first year of operation the inn won the 1986 National Tourism Award as South Australia's top tourist resort.
Lasting impressions are of quietly beautiful guest rooms, marble fireplaces, extensive wainscoting and other woodwork, original paintings, heirloom tapestries and fresh flowers in every room.
In one corner of the drawing room a large window frames a picture-perfect view of Piccadilly Valley. A brass plaque on the sill reads: "An Australian Landscape" by Arthur Waterhouse. (He was a former owner who had expanded Mount Lofty House in the late 19th Century.)
Before starting on the Mount Lofty House project, Sands was the architect for resorts in Tahiti and Fiji, restaurants, commercial buildings, hotels and hospitals around Australia and a select few private residences.
The Sandses bought the remains of Mount Lofty House a few months after the fire. They personally oversaw the design, reconstruction and decor of the luxurious country estate. Throughout the house are their selection of more than 100 original paintings by five Adelaide artists.
Most of the furnishings are custom-made and other pieces are antique Victorian furniture imported from England. The carpet, a copy of a 19th-Century English design, was loomed in Tasmania especially for Mount Lofty House.
The eight guest bedrooms are individually designed and furnished. All have private bathrooms, fireplaces and color TV. The nightly room rate is $112 to $175.
From friends, neighbors and former residents, along with old photographs, the Sandses learned about the details of house and garden. The staircase is a replica of the original, for example. In the dining room a striking Victorian frieze pattern, concealed for years by later decoration, has been duplicated, printed to order and hand-gilded.
The inn features two small restaurants, both open to the public as well as to overnight guests. Hardy's, with mahogany furnishings and an ornate fireplace, offers elegant formal dining for up to 50 guests. The Australian-gourmet menus feature such entrees as kangaroo loin, fresh lobster ragout, venison medallions and guinea fowl. Prices are a la carte, with entrees ranging from $10 to $16. And the wine cellar features an extensive list of South Australian and imported wines. A garden on the grounds provides fresh herbs and vegetables.
Piccadilly seats 35 and is the place for breakfasts, lunches and afternoon teas. Stone and timber dominate the decor, but the earthy tones are lightened by an atrium setting. Luncheon menus include such offerings as kangaroo and bacon brochette, fresh fish, lobster risotto. Champagne brunch is a regular Sunday event.
There are also two lounges, a formally appointed conference room, a spring-fed swimming pool, tennis court and croquet court. Nearby are Cleland Wildlife Park, Mount Lofty Botanical Gardens and Mount Lofty Golf Club. Adelaide is a 20-minute drive down the hill.
Another place to stay in Adelaide gives the visitor a very different experience. The Mansions is right in the heart of the city instead of high above it and the place is as regular as Mount Lofty House is extraordinary.
But if it's convenience you want, The Mansions is right around the corner from Rundle Mall and that's where all of Adelaide turns out to shop and stroll on the one night a week, Friday, that the shops are open. Also nearby are Adelaide's Festival Centre, art gallery and museum, casino, theaters and restaurants, stores and business district.
The Mansions, five stories tall and built in 1912, was billed as Australia's "first high-rise apartments." The 52 units are fully modernized and available by the day or week. Nightly rates are $42 for a studio, $46 for a one-bedroom apartment, single or double.
The apartments are comfortable and homey, nicely appointed and complete right down to the extra quilts in the closet and an alarm clock on the night stand.
Each unit has a fully equipped small kitchen that comes with everything except food, and if you put in your order before you arrive, they'll buy that for you as well.
Mount Lofty House, 74 Summit Road, Crafers, South Australia 5152, phone (08) 339-6777.
The Mansions, 21 Pulteney St., Adelaide, South Australia 5000, phone (08) 232-0033.