Hiking to the Ruins of Fretus Hotel

This is a story of privilege. Glorious privilege in fact! A hike to an amazing sandstone ruin in prime position overlooking Calabash bay, NSW. I saved the photos and video until the end.

The story goes that at the turn of the 1900’s, John Fretus built a hotel to take advantage of the passing trade from a planned roadway that would link Berrilee and Berowra. The hotel was built but the road was built elsewhere, leaving the venue with no customers. This is the widely reported story and there are many others.

A repository of local history, Facebook site “God made the city but man made the bush”, tried to clear up the myths surrounding this site. There was never a liquor license issued for the site so no one would be driving by or boating by and popping in for a beer. Indeed it seemed that the owner wasn’t even called Fretus, rather he was John Fretar! He did own a venue in Sans Souchi that held a license but that is on the other side of Sydney. It seems the truth of the property is that it was a simple holiday cottage for the wealthy. They would arrive by boat or by bush track and sit with their drinks on the large terrace, taking in the views of the waters below.

After Mr Fretar died the property fell into disuse and during the Great Depression it was used by squatters and stripped of its contents, in great contrast to its past. Before the Second World War it was consumed by a bush fire.

I found this all very intriguing so I decided I’d take a look for myself. My first struggle though was trying to understand whether the property was on private land or not. There were many stories on the internet about people being turned around by locals or by private property signs erected at the trail head. I found though that the track was a public road reserve through crown land. There was certainly private property at the start of the trail and below the ruins but really it was impossible to see how you could diverge from the trail into these properties – it only went one way! Likely there were efforts to deflect visitors from the area during covid lockdowns. I also had a chat with a local who mentioned that I had parked in a truck turning area, something that wasn’t obvious but it could be that this becomes an issue and perturbs the locals quite a bit. I moved my car a few hundred meters up the road. Some folks forget that nature is for everyone and others forget to be respectful to the locals. Check your privilege and entitlement everyone!

The walk was quite lovely as the wildflowers were out and gave me something to admire along the way. I was puffing quite early on as a runner passed by. There were glimpses of views either side of the ridge. I saw the runner returning, having run up a steep section of track. I’d struggle with my poles and here she was powering her way through. I told her I was impressed and she said she did it every few days and that she simply loves it. I guess that’s the response to anyone wanting to block a public right of way, you are stopping people from doing what makes them happy.

The forecast rain hit me I popped up an umbrella as it was too steamy for a rain jacket. It didn’t last long but the track did become muddy in areas and I was worried about slipping, having only recently recovered from a nasty fall on a previous walk. Soon enough I reached the property.

They sure knew how to pick a spot! The view at the back of the cottage was of the area around Calabash Bay. There were mangroves and sandstone rock formations (that I found impossible to photograph due to a few poorly placed trees).

I began to explore the ruins. There was an outbuilding of some sort, then the back of the main building had two rear rooms. There was a long central corridor with additional rooms on either side. At the front was a large terrace area with two additional rooms. Twelve rooms in all and I counted three fireplaces. The roof was missing, likely repurposed after the property fell into disrepair.

I could see a ledge where the floorboards would have rested. There was still some wood above the main entrance in the doorway which had survived the bushfires. The building interior was filled with graffiti, the earliest I saw was from 1932. I didn’t add to it. I tried to imagine the uses of each room. One of the larger rooms with a fireplace I thought could have been a sitting room or a dining room. There was a thin room possibly for storage. I could figure out where the laundry would have been done or the toilet would have been. Possibly the outbuilding but that could just as easily have been a shed.

I could imagine having tea on the terrace and welcoming guests and discussing the world from the safety of this extremely exclusive spot. It was a playground for a wealthy family and their friends, an escape from the business of modern life.

It was all lost now. A wealthy family built something wonderful, to be enjoyed solely by them and their selected guests. Now, we can all visit and see their amazing spot and dream of what it would have been like. It would have been glorious. If there was a bed and breakfast there now it would have been very popular! In a way we all want that kind of privilege, but I’d much rather such places be shared by all.

Enjoy the photos below, and there’s a YouTube video as well showing the walk and the ruins. Thanks for reading.

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