Out west: A week in the south of Western Australia

Australia is such a large and diverse country. People always ask me how we choose our next destination. Sometimes it’s somewhere we’ve really wanted to go, and sometimes because it’s off the beaten track, but other times it’s because there’s a sense that you need to say you’ve been there.

Western Australia (or WA as us Aussie’s call it) takes up approximately one third of the Australian mainland. If it was a country, it would be the ninth largest in the world. You can’t say you’ve travelled across Australia without going there. Our holiday dates coincided with a major food and wine festival – the Margaret River Gourmet Escape – so we chose to fly to Perth and drive down to the Margaret River wine region.

The stories you hear about Western Australia are of hot dry winds blowing across deserts and mines, with camels and jeeps the main modes of transport. But there’s another side to WA. Down south it is green grass, vineyards everywhere the eye can see and glorious beaches spoiled by temperatures not quite hot enough for swimming in the cold oceans of the south.

Our itinerary

  • Friday: Work Christmas party. Get stuck on broken tram. Finally get to airport. Vote. Stay overnight in Perth.
  • Saturday: Drive to Margaret River. Eat lunch with the locals. Match expensive degustation dinner with great wine.
  • Sunday: Catch bus to Gourmet Escape. Drink amazing beer and wine. Try to find the bus to take you home.
  • Monday: Visit a couple of caves before an afternoon wine tour. Tapas dinner at a local winery restaurant.
  • Tuesday: Sip ‘n’ cycle. Enjoy the sun and the wine. Head to Morrie’s for dinner.
  • Wednesday: Visit a lighthouse then a cave. Eat lunch in a winery. Drive to Bunbury.
  • Thursday: Swim with dolphins. Hopefully. Drive to Fremantle.
  • Friday: Rottnest Island. Adventure cruise. See a quokka or two. Ride around the island. Get scared at Freo Prison.
  • Saturday: Beer tour. Then sleep.
  • Sunday: Drive to airport. Fly home. Spend evening wishing we are still on holidays.

Margaret River Gourmet Escape

Margaret River is apparently a sleepy little country town, not that you’d know if the only weekend you spend there is the Gourmet Escape weekend. Filled with tourists, cafes struggled to have an effect on the queues and the local was packed to the bluesy sound of the Ten Cent Shooters jam along session. Settling down for the afternoon, we enjoyed large servings of parma and nachos and listened to the eclectic mix of guitar, mandolin, slide guitar, harmonica and slap-style double bass.

From late lunch to dinner, a four-course “natural, raw, fermented and aged” meal at Woodlands Winery prepared by Shane Watson of Print Hall, Perth and Matthew Orlando of Amass, Denmark.

People sitting around decorated table

Listening to commentary on food and wine

On Sunday, after fighting through the breakfast crowds, we managed to get a bite to eat and some coffee before catching the Harvest bus to the Gourmet Escape at Leeuwin Winery. A sunny day of beer and wine awaited us. With over 200 tents selling produce from the south of the state, the festival was the largest I have ever seen. The most accurate quote of the day came from a couple reaching the halfway point midway through the afternoon and realising there’s “still an entire festival to get through”.

Michael and I made the decision to try a range of beer and wine from some of the other regions, with plans to travel to a few wineries in the Margaret River region over the following couple of days. We still only managed to get through some of the Geographe and Great South regions, with several incredible wines on offer.

Unfortunately, much of the gourmet food sold out early in the day – our tip for future travelers: go both days and eat early. You might get through half the tents and you won’t go home hungry.

The four-day festival is well worth a trip, with over 150 incredible events across the region including music festivals, gourmet degustation dinners, long lunches by the beach and the Gourmet Escape festival itself. I seriously doubt this will be our last trip over; next time we’ll plan better and spend the full four days in the region.

Wine. Please Sir. Can I have some more?

Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle. – Paulo Coelho, Brida.

With over 200 wineries in the region, it’s hard to go to Margaret River and not visit a winery. Not that you’d want to miss the incredible cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc that the region produces.

Michael and I normally fight over who drives to wineries. Because we’re on holidays, and in a new location, this time we agreed to fork out and join a couple of tours.

Overall, the Margaret River region showcased some fantastic wines and I’d highly recommend selecting one of its flagship wines for your next meal – if Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabinet Sauvignon take your fancy. I still prefer the deeper side of red, but I’m excited about the prospect of some good Aussie chardonnays.

Taste the South “Wine into the Night”

Taste the South tours offer an evening tour, finishing with an exclusive light dinner at a local winery. Sounds worth the extra cost right? My idea of exclusivity and their idea of exclusivity is a bit different. The wine tour was great, taking us to some smaller local wineries, but tapas in a busy Margaret River winery restaurant isn’t quite exclusive.

The tour began at Windows Estate, where their chardonnay quickly became a favourite of mine. For those with children (big or little), the winery also has a life-sized chess board and a people-sized Connect Four.

Next up was Cape Grace, a lovely small winery where the owners hand make premium wines. A quick trip out the back to see the machinery was followed by a tasting of some very nice dessert wine.

Our third winery – Howard Park wines – was a grandiose cellar door overcharging for simple mass produced wine so it was nice to head on down to Adinfern Winery with its large variety of tasty dessert wines and wonderful service.

The final stop – our “exclusive” restaurant was Swings and Roundabouts a small winery restaurant at the edge of Margaret River. Essentially a fancy pub, the tapas dishes were stunning and the light pizza finished off the night with a bang.

The front facade of the Windows Estate Winery in Western Australia

Windows Estate – Our first stop on the Taste the South “Wine into the Night” tour

Dirty Detours “Sip and Cycle”

It was time for some exercise. What could be better than combining a light 18km bike ride with four wineries and some lovely wine? My first cycling winery tour was a grand success and I highly recommend the experience.

Michael riding a bike down a dirt path between tall trees

Michael on his bike between Cape Mentelle and Xanadu wineries

We rode down the long winding driveway at Cape Mentelle in our high fashion cycling gear, arriving slightly before 10am and slightly before the winery opened its doors for the day. Feeling slightly like a wino (not in the high class sense), we tasted their lovely but expensive wines and toured the barrel room that held over a million dollars of their world-famous cabinet sauvignon.

It was on to Xanadu where we were greeted by an effervescent cellar door server with plenty of great wine and an overabundance of stories.

Michael and Susan sitting on desk chairs under an umbrella looking tired

Relaxing after a frantic wine tasting at Xanadu

Also providing great wine, at bargain basement prices, was Watershed with its extraordinary view. Well worth the longest stretch of road we’d cycled for the day.

Michael and Susan in front of the vast vineyard at Watershed Winery

The incredible views at Watershed Winery

A final quick trip on the bike led us to our lunch destination – Stella Bella Wines. Easily my favourite winery of the week that we were in Margaret River, Stella Bella produced all my faves, from sickly sweet fizzy moscato to buttery chardonnay and rich Italian-style tempranillo.

Thanks to Rob and Tamara at Dirty Detours – highly recommended tour for any non-lycra wearing cyclist.

Lunch at Vasse Felix

Our final two wineries were on the way out of Margaret River. Stopping for lunch at one of the oldest wineries in the region – Vasse Felix – and a quick stopover at close neighbor Cullen Wines. Both were expensive, as expected, however the wines at Vasse Felix were worth the price. At over $100 a bottle, the flagship Cullen Wines were great quality without tempting our wallets from our pockets. With so much amazing wine in the region, you’d have to be crazy to consider paying the prices they charge.

The front of Vasse Felix - where we had a beautiful lunch

The front of Vasse Felix – where we had a beautiful lunch

Now to enjoy our purchases…

Caving with jewels, lakes and mammoths

Wine is not the only thing that Margaret River is famous for. About twenty minutes from the township, underneath one of the famous wine strips, is a series of caves famous for some unique rock formations.

The suspended table – once two columns reaching from top to bottom, now a grand table sitting on top of a lake – is the highlight of the beautiful Lake Cave, the only cave in the region with a lake. One of two caves we visited on Monday morning before our wine tour, the suspended table is one of the only formations of its kind in the world. From the top of the cavern, 300 steps take you down to the start of the cave, dodging the once grand Karri tree now lying across the pathway after falling over the night before we arrived.

A panoramic view of Lake Cave Western Australia

The “postcard picture” of Lake Cave Western Australia

A large Karri tree blocks the normal path down the doline to the cave entrance

A large Karri tree blocks the normal path down the doline to the cave entrance

Next up was Mammoth Cave, famous for the 35,000 year old fossils of Pleistocene fauna found during ongoing excavations. The self-guided tour took about twice as long as it should have given the lack of information it provided, the upside down ice-cream cone was pretty awesome.

The upside down ice cream cone rock formationin Mammoth Cave Western Australia

The upside down ice cream cone in Mammoth Cave Western Australia

We visited the third and biggest cave – Jewel Cave – on Wednesday morning to see, amongst other formations, one of the longest straw stalactites in any tourist cave in the world. The most touristy of the three caves, we headed in with a huge group of over twenty people and were “wowed” by the fancy neon lights that somewhat ruined the atmosphere but impressed the kids.

One of the longest straw stalactites in the world

One of the longest straw stalactites in the world

Cape Leeuwin lighthouse

Located at the most southwesterly point of mainland Australia, where the Southern and Indian oceans meet, Cape Leeuwin lighthouse has provided continuous assistance to sailors since 1896.

Augusta Lighthouse

Augusta Lighthouse

A sign pointing left to the Southern Ocean and right to the Indian ocean

Located at the most southwesterly point of mainland Australia, where the Southern and Indian oceans meet, Cape Leeuwin lighthouse has provided continuous assistance to sailors since 1896.

We took a short tour to the top of the lighthouse, 39 metres above ground level and 56 metres above sea level. Even though it wasn’t a warm day, the blue skies made for lovely views over the ocean and across the mainland.

Susan standing on top of the lighthouse with the coast in the background

39 metres above ground level and 56 metres above sea level

We also found the cow. In 2010, the Margaret River region held the annual cow parade, a cow-themed, open-air sculpture exhibition held in a different place around the world each year.

Michael giving two thumbs up in front of the cow statue looking through a telescope with the lighthouse in the background

The cow statue at Augusta lighthouse. In 2010, the Margaret River region held the annual cow parade, a cow-themed, open-air sculpture exhibition held in a different place around the world each year.

Swimming with somewhere near the dolphins

Thursday’s plans were to head out on a boat in the sun and play with some dolphins. It’s WA right?

Nope. WA put on a typical Melbourne day, with the wind just adding to the chill factor.

Nevertheless, we put on our wetsuits and jumped out on the boat looking for dolphins. And while we got close to a few, we just couldn’t get them to come and play with us. I was luckier than most, catching sight of a dolphin swimming underneath my feet.

Thanks to the guys from the Dolphin Discovery Centre who put on this fantastic and tour and tried really hard to call/sing/dance to the dolphins. Maybe next time.

Michael in his sexy wetsuite carrying the flippers up the beach

Michael in his sexy wetsuite carrying the flippers up the beach

Rottnest Island

From dolphins to quokkas. And while we couldn’t get close enough to one of them, we couldn’t stay far enough away from the other.

Mum and baby quokka chewing at a leaf on Rottnest Island

Mum and baby quokka chewing at a leaf on Rottnest Island

Quokkas are a “vulnerable” creature found mainly on islands off the coast of Western Australia. They’re from the same family as wallabies and kangaroos (the macropods for those that care). They actually look more like large rats, so much so that a dutch explorer visiting an island off the coast of Western Australia mistook them for rats and named the island “Rotte nest” coming from the dutch word rattennest meaning “rat nest”.

And that’s why we went to Rottnest Island. Even though the swells rendered quite a few people just a little queasy as the ferry rocked from one 40 degree angle to another.

Arriving on the island, it was hard to see why so many people rave so loudly about “Rottie”. Yes, it has nice beaches. But so does the rest of the coast of Western Australia (and Australia, in general). It’s jam-packed full of people, the accommodation looks shabby at best and the quokkas like to steal your food away from you before you’ve had a chance to eat it.

With Rottnest not at it’s best in terms of weather (thanks for the Melbourne weather again), we opted for an Adventure ride. Not for the faint-hearted, it’s a great way to combine the thrill of flying over large waves at high speed with some pretty awesome scenery and wildlife.

New Zealand Fur Seals on Rottnest Island

New Zealand Fur Seals on Rottnest Island

Watch the guys run down the sand path

Check out the locals running down the sand path

Back on land and with the weather warming up a bit, we grabbed a couple of bikes and went for a 10km ride on one of three island cycling trails. Halfway round, for some excitement, we decided to head up to Wadjemup Lighthouse for a view of the island. Can’t say it was worth the bike ride up the hill…

A view of the island from Wadjemup Lighthouse, looking towards the main township.

A view of the island from Wadjemup Lighthouse, looking towards the main township.

Heading back towards the mainland, I pondered the trip. Glad I went, yes, but will I go again? Probably not. I could find some much better family vacation locations than Rottie I think.

Fremantle Prison

Fremantle Prison was built between 1852 and 1859 and remained in continual use until 1991. The prison saw its fair share of hangings, floggings, escapes and riots with inmates who included imperial convicts, colonial prisoners, enemy “aliens”, prisoners of war and maximum-security detainees. A 1983 royal commission following riots and growing concerns about poor conditions recommended the prison closure, and the prison was eventually decommissioned in 1991. It is now maintained by the state as one of the largest surviving convict prisons in the world today. (Source: fremantleprison.com.au).

We headed off the Rottie ferry straight into hell. The Fremantle night prison tour. Stories of punishment, escape, escape attempts and hangings filled ninety minutes of our lives.

The Fremantle Prison up in lights during the night tour of the prison.

The Fremantle Prison up in lights during the night tour of the prison.

Breweries of the South West

We spent our final day doing something Michael absolutely loves. I’m sure he’ll post about it on his blog – beerwithmikey.com – but suffice to say, we spent a day tasting probably one too many. Cheers to the boys of the 29 November Beer Nuts tour.

The boys on the Beer Nut tour

The boys on the Beer Nut tour

Check out the Down South WA photo gallery for more on our adventures out west.