A world away from the flesh-heavy beaches of Australia’s East Coast, Western Australia’s Margaret River region serves up an astounding platter of pristine and unpeopled white sand stretches, where you’ll struggle to spot footprints beyond your own. The sense of solitude is transfixing.
Mile upon mile of soul-rinsing coastal sweeps, achingly gorgeous with colours so vivid they’re virtually cartoonish. But it’s not just the breath-taking coastline and booming breakers, worshipped by surfies, that serve as the region’s calling-card.
There’s the giddy spree of glorious wineries, craft breweries, art galleries and artisanal purveyors including chocolate, ice cream and cheese producers, along with the coterie of luxury retreats and health spas. I got more than my fill of these enticements on a pre-spring foray to the Margaret River.
Within a gorgeous bucolic setting, Eagle Bay Brewing is crowd-favourite with exemplary handcrafted beers and undeniably scrumptious woodfire pizzas. This family owned and operated venue is located on their 66 year old working farm in Eagle Bay. Cheeky Monkey Brewery is another top performer with stand-out beers and ciders, including their Hatseller Pilsner with New Zealand hops.
Another recent start-up worth sampling is Young Henrys Brewery. Stuffing myself silly, other stand-out experiences included a lip-smacking gourmet lunch at Wills Domain, one of the region’s most decorated wineries, and deservedly so. Nestled among the tumbling hills of the Gunyulgup Valley, it’s a celestial spot to revel in an exclusive four course lunch with matching wines.
I fell in love with their Semillon – and the tiger prawns with almond and orange. I tasted more wines in their Cellar Door while admiring the local art. Another great option is Leeuwin Estate, one of the region’s founding wineries, and a consistent producer of award-winners. If you’re short on time, or want a grand introduction, a winning way to discover the regional flavours is to join McLeod Tours and their full-day Eat+Drink+Explore Margaret River Tour.
The McLeod family can trace their roots way back, first settling in the region in 1860. Today, Neil and Coralie and their son, Lincoln, operate McLeod Tours from the old family farm that Neil was raised on. Picking you up and dropping you off, you won’t have to worry about driving and imbibing.
They’ll showcase the region’s highlights and give you time to relax and savour your favourite producers. You’ll call into a variety of wineries and breweries, enjoy a restaurant lunch, indulge in chocolate, cheese, barrel wine and olive oil tasting, plus a great caffeine fix at Yahava Koffee Works. It’s a masterful and memorable full-day tour.
This wonderful family-owned business also now offers an even more comprehensive 3 day tour of Margaret River, including travel from Perth. For full details on all available tours, head to www.mcleodtours.com.au
My Margaret River roost was the Pullman Resort Bunker Bay, a stunningly secluded oasis, hugging the bone-white sands of Bunker Bay, just south of Cape Naturaliste. Artfully designed and lushly landscaped, with natural materials to the fore, every conceivable creature comfort is laid on, nestled in natural surrounds. August and September is Djiba season, growing season in the Aboriginal calendar, and the first flush of wildflowers were blooming during my stay. The wildlife was in full cry, with colourful birds having fledglings and marsupial babies learning to forage.
I spotted some quendas, a cute little marsupial often mistaken for a rat, mooching about in the resort gardens. The award-winning on-site restaurant, Other Side of the Moon, offers indoor and alfresco dining, and a cracking buffet breakfast. Fancy some personal pampering? Indulge at Vie Spa – the perfect place to rejuvenate the body and mind, with exclusive offers for in-house guests. You’ll float out of her feeling reborn. www.pullmanbunkerbayresort.com.au
You should definitely stretch the legs and expand your horizons on the nearby Cape to Cape Track, an ocean-hugging 135-km long ramble between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. I first headed south on a 6km taster from Smiths Beach to Injidup, instantly fixated by the photogenic interlay of burnt-orange granite and pale limestone coastal rock formations.
Just minutes from Smiths Beach, I trudged across a mighty granite headland before staring in awe of a sandstone cliff face. Mitchell Rocks is another arresting natural monument of iron-rich red granite boulders, as big as buses. Scattering out in an orderly arc from the shoreline, Canal Rocks turns on an Insta-worthy crowd-pleaser, too.
The spooling reel of knock-out scenery continued with heart-stealing rock pools, like the Spa and the Aquarium – as the locals have dubbed them. Vegetation ranged from thickets of tea trees and petrified forest to valleys embalmed in native rosemary, emitting a potent perfume cloud to out-muscle a freshly incensed Catholic Church.
The region is renowned for its sprawling carpet of wildflowers, with over 2500 species in full blaze through spring and early summer, including 150 types of orchids. The Cape to Cape track shadows the Indian Ocean’s Humpback Highway, where 30,000 whales cruise between June and November, with many coming inshore to calf.
From Bunker Bay, I also took the short hop north to the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse, where I met up with Josh Whiteland from Cape Cultural Tours. Jutting out from Cape Naturaliste, I spied the offshore islet of Sugarloaf Rock. 6 million years ago, it marked the joining point between Sri Lanka and Southwest Australia, before the landmasses drifted apart.
Josh descends from the Wadandi people and enraptured me with his authentic Aboriginal insights and commanding storehouse of knowledge about Cape country. We headed out on the Cape to Cape Track on an easy bushwalk, where Josh introduced to me a wealth of native floras and its traditional uses. Melaleuca trees are held in special regard, providing great shelter and still used as camping sites along the coast, as they have for tens of thousands of years by indigenous Australians.
We foraged and feasted on a plethora of native plants, including native peaches and apricots (gumbi), and berries, while admiring the freshly laid kangaroo tracks. I also learnt how his ancestors invented one of the first forms of fibreglass using natural resins from the bush.
There was a palpable sense of spirituality, an aura, a worldly sense of knowing, in Josh’s company. A revered sense of inter-connectedness with nature. Josh remarked that spring was arriving three weeks early. He’d just been up at Ningaloo Reef and noticed the whales had started turning south for home, in Antarctica. “They can sense the seasons,” he noted.
After feeling suitably immersed with a deeper appreciation of ecology and culture, my tour finished at the Meeting Place Josh has constructed, adjacent to the lighthouse. His astonishing display of indigenous artefacts and tools spans the ages and he does a fine job on the digeridoo. It was an honour to meet Josh and strike a cultural connection in the heart of Wadandi Country. It’s a must do. www.capeculturaltours.com.au
Josh has also been involved in the conception of an exciting new restaurant, Yarri. Lustily honouring nature, locality and the six seasons of the Aboriginal calendar, Yarri Restaurant & Bar is creating a lot of buzz. A collaboration between co-founders of Snake + Herring Wines and chef Aaron Carr, Yarri is a sure-bet for great food and quality in the glass. They source ethically produced seasonal ingredients and present them simply, at their fullest potential.
It’s a celebration of the specialist growers and farmers, vignerons, distillers, fishermen, butchers, cheesemakers and artisans across the region. I ordered up a series of small plates for lunch, including Polenta fries with parmesan and rosemary; Burnt pumpkin with nori and togarashi; and Wood-grilled marron with xo and saltbush. www.yarri.com.au
Drifting along quiet country roads, shaded by towering gum trees, with road signs warning you to look out for roos, the abundance of offerings from food and beverage producers in this blessed pocket of WA is astounding. As is the scenery and cultural encounters. It’s the little surprises and secrets that also add to the Margaret River’s appeal. If you’re visiting in the summer, stake out Meelup Beach. (Close to Eagle Bay Brewing.)
For a few nights each month, the full moon rises over the Indian Ocean horizon. It’s a truly ethereal spectacle. As I wended my way back to Perth, plump on Margaret River’s bounty of goodness, I popped into Busselton for a coffee break. Don’t miss clapping eyes, or taking a stroll, on the colossal Busselton Jetty, the longest wooden jetty (pier) in the world. Fanning out across the water for almost 2km, the shallow waters of Geographe Bay prompted the need for such a long pier, so that timber and other cargo could be transported to the ships. It’s just another marvel of Margaret River.
Air New Zealand offers year-round direct services from Auckland to Perth, and non-stop flights from Christchurch with its seasonal summer service between December and April. Go West in style and comfort. A variety of inflight product choices are available including; Seat, Seat+Bag, The Works, as well as Premium Economy and Business Premier. Connections are available ex all Air New Zealand serviced domestic airports. Bag a seat to suit at www.airnewzealand.co.nz
For more tips and insights on exploring the great temptations of Western Australia, head to the regional tourism site. www.westernaustralia.com
By Mike Yardley. (October 14, 2018)