Experience the extraordinary landscape of the South West in one great road trip.
By Sue Gough Henly & Georgia Rickard
Take the time to relax, soak in the scenery and discover the incredible food and wine on offer in Australia's South West. This 14 day itinerary showcases the best of the region, while ensuring ample time to indulge in life's simple pleasures.
Rent a car and get an early start to drive 190 kilometres (118 miles) from Perth along the pretty South Western Highway to Bunbury, stopping en route to pick up some handmade cheese at Harvey Cheese in Wokalup. Bunbury is known as the City of Three Waters thanks to its beach, bay and inlet. Head over to the Dolphin Discovery Centre where wild bottlenose dolphins come into shore every morning between September to April to interact with humans. Make sure you're here by 9am, wade into water up to your knees and the dolphins will swim around you. Or join a Dolphin Eco Cruise or Swim Encounter in Koombana Bay. Have lunch at Mojo's, where an appealing menu is complemented by great coffee, craft beers and local wines. Drive 52 kilometres (32 miles) to Busselton, which sits on a white sandy beach on the north-facing shoreline of the tranquil waters of Geographe Bay, a popular family holiday destination. Take a stroll or ride the train for 1.8 kilometres (1.1 miles) over the Indian Ocean on the beautifully restored historic jetty, the longest timber-piled jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. At the end visit the Underwater Observatory and Interpretive Centre, where you descend eight metres below the surface to see one of Australia’s greatest artificial reefs alive with corals, sponges, fish and invertebrates living in the warm Leeuwin Current. Have a dinner of fresh local produce (standard practice all over the South West) at the seaside Goose Beach Bar and Kitchen before driving 38 kilometres (24 miles) to Smiths Beach Resort in Yallingup. It's an environmentally sensitive resort with villas, apartments, beach shacks and beach houses, and a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
Spend the day exploring the beautiful Margaret River wine region, whose 150 wineries produce more than 20 per cent of Australia's premium wine (Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays are particularly impressive). After breakfast at the hotel you'll be picked up by a driver for a day-long tour visiting some of the region's wineries. These may include Vasse Felix, one of the first wineries in Margaret River, with a designer lounge bar and views across the region; the biodynamic Windows Estate, run by young married couple Chris and Jo Davies, who manage the entire viticultural process; or Wills Domain, owned and operated by the Austrian Haunold family and offering some of the region's best food. You'll also visit a range of gourmet producers along the way – pick up a collection of cheese, bread, pate, biscuits, olives and chocolates and enjoy a gourmet picnic back in your suite this evening. Or have a drink at your accommodation's brilliant wine bar, then dine on ocean views with a side order of superb food at the on-site restaurant.
Go for a swim just in front of the resort at Yallingup, where the water (protected by surrounding reef) is flat, rip free and laps against a stretch of powdery sand. Then drive six kilometres (3.7 miles) north to explore Ngilgi's huge cavern of illuminated stalactites and stalagmites. You can also do an Aboriginal cultural tour here with Josh from Koomal Dreaming. Head out to Sugarloaf Rock, a beautiful lookout with a dramatic rock formation showcasing the West Australian coastline in its full glory (you can climb the Cape Naturaliste lighthouse while you're here too). Or enjoy a day walk along part of the 135 kilometre (83 mile) Cape to Cape Track, which goes along ocean cliffs, behind powdery beaches and through tall forests. Head west of Margaret River township to watch pro surfers in action at Surfers Point and drive four kilometres (2 1/2 miles) south to White Elephant Café, where you can enjoy a delicious brunch overlooking calm Gnarabup Beach. Do a stand-up paddleboard lesson with Stand Up Surfing or just go for another swim. There's nothing like a refreshing beer after the beach, and luckily there are plenty of craft breweries to choose from. Try the Brewhouse (in Margaret River township), The Beer Farm, and Black Brewing Co. End your day with a polished great-value pub meal at Settlers Tavern in Margaret River township. Or for authentic Japanese cuisine you can't do better than Miki's Open Kitchen.
Head 40 kilometres (25 miles) south to Augusta, where an unusual microclimate means the local weather is almost always a few degrees warmer than the rest of the region. Take a two hour whale watching tour. It’s said that humpback whales come here to flirt with each other, so you're likely to see plenty of action when they're visiting between August and October, such as slapping, breaching and jumping. Have lunch at The Colourpatch Café in town, where fish caught that morning is served by noon, and for an extra treat, look out for the dolphins that often cruise by the outdoor tables here. Drive 11.5 kilometres (7 miles) to Cape Leeuwin, where the Indian and Southern oceans meet at the south-western tip of Australia. The 1895 Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse is one of Australia's best land-based vantage points for spotting humpback and southern right whales on their annual migration. Drive 135 kilometres (84 miles) into the forest around Pemberton, a former logging town surrounded by soaring white-trunked karri trees. You can actually climb three karri trees, which have such great views over the area that they were originally used as fire lookouts. Make an appointment to visit pretty Picardy Wines, which makes superb Pinot Noir. If you are into truffles, it is worth taking a 31 kilometre (19 mile) detour to the Truffle & Wine Co and enjoy wine and truffle tasting at Western Australia's largest truffle farm. Stay in a luxury self-contained chalet or studio at Foragers, which also runs cooking classes and seasonal dinners on most Saturday evenings.
Travel 140 kilometres (87 miles) to the former lumber milling town of Walpole and have a coffee at Four Sisters Coffee Shop before you visit the Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk, a 40 metre (131 foot) high walkway through the forest's canopy designed to move – which is fun or scary, depending on your perspective – with the majestic red-barked tingle eucalyptus trees that are found nowhere else in the world. They also just happen to be some of the tallest trees on Earth. Then descend to the boardwalks below and explore the Ancient Empires Walk through a grove of veteran tingle trees, some more than 400 years old. Drive 45 kilometres (28 miles) along spectacular coastal scenery to William Bay National Park, where you'll find the giant granite boulders of Elephant Rocks, and the turquoise waters and white sandy beaches of Greens Pool. Drive the Mount Shadforth Scenic Drive to meander through the scenic farming region around the town of Denmark, with views across to the Porongurup granite domes. Enjoy a gourmet lunch platter at The Lake House, a pretty lakeside vineyard and restaurant. Check in to a lovely cedar chalet at the Karma Chalets in the birdlife-rich hills behind Denmark and enjoy a relaxing massage at the Karisma Spa. At night, frogs will sing you to sleep.
Spend the day exploring Denmark. The 34 kilometre (21 mile) Scotsdale Scenic Drive links up a string of family-owned wineries. At Rockcliffe the wines are all named after local surf breaks. Singlefile Wines is named after the resident geese that march, in single file, around the tree-lined property. At Rickety Gate Wines you can enjoy a country lunch, including vegan dishes. If you are keen to explore more wineries off the beaten track, head 59 kilometres (37 miles) up to Mount Barker to taste cool climate wines at Galafrey and Plantagenet Wines. If you want to stretch your legs, walk a small part of the 1000 kilometre (600 mile) Bibbulmun Track, one of the world's great long distance walking trails, which runs from Perth through the Southern Forests and along the coast from Walpole to Albany. The section around Denmark runs along coastal heathland awash with wildflowers in spring.
Have breakfast at a Denmark favourite, Mrs Jones Café, before driving 105 kilometres (65 kilometres) to Albany. Call ahead to book a cellar door tasting at bucolic organic winery Oranje Tractor on the way. Birdwatchers should also stop at Wilson Inlet (11 kilometres or 7 miles east of Denmark) to twitch for blue splendid wrens, ospreys, parrots, red-tailed and white-tailed black cockatoos, and purple-crowned lorikeets. Albany is where the first European settlers set foot in Western Australia in 1826 and much of their legacy remains today, with colonial buildings housing museums, galleries and restaurants. You can actually board the Brig Amity to find out what life was like on the ship that brought the first settlers and convicts here. Visit the National Anzac Centre, a state-of-the-art interpretive museum that uses multimedia, interactive technology and historical artefacts to pay tribute to the Australian and New Zealand forces who served in World War I. Have lunch at its Garrison Restaurant, then explore the Albany Heritage Park, a reserve that stretches from the shores of Middleton Beach to the port of Albany. Enjoy an inventive dinner of Vietnamese-French inspired fare at Liberte at the London and stay at The Beach House at Bayside, an upmarket bed and breakfast behind the sand dunes of Middleton Bay.
Go for a walk or swim along Middleton Beach, and if you are here on a Saturday, browse the Albany Farmers Market, one of the best grower and artisan markets in Australia. This morning you're off to learn about the area's gory whaling history at Discovery Bay, 22 kilometres (14 miles) away. This former whaling station houses a museum where you can see giant whale skeletons, harpoons and scrimshaw (etchings on whalebone). Happily, from May to October you can spot whales from shore here, or see them up close on a whale watching cruise in Albany's main port. You can also visit the nearby Australian Wildlife Park, where you'll see kangaroos, bandicoots and wombats, or stop in at the beautiful Regional Wildflower Garden. From here, follow Frenchman Bay Road for eight kilometres (five miles) to Torndirrup National Park and The Gap. This natural gap in the granite cliff has a thrilling see-through skywalk platform extending out 10 metres (33 feet) over the cliff's edge, so you can walk out and look down at the pounding surf below. Natural Bridge, a thick, horizontal column of rock, is a few steps away. On the return to Albany, visit Limeburners distillery to sample whisky made with locally sourced peat while you watch out the window for dolphins in the bay.
Over the next two days you'll make your way from Albany to the stunning holiday town of Esperance. Along the way you'll pass through the Fitzgerald Coast. This scenic wilderness region is flanked by a coastline of pristine white beaches and dotted with small towns, offering several opportunities for interaction with wildlife and some of Australia's most untouched areas (bring your camera). Start the day by driving 49 kilometres (31 miles) inland to Porongurup National Park. Here you'll find the Granite Skywalk, a suspended walkway that rises 670 metres (2200 feet) above sea level to offer panoramic views of (and a great introduction to) your remarkable surrounds. Return to your car and continue along Chester Pass Road. If you are a wildflower enthusiast, birdwatcher or hiker you may wish to continue onwards to Stirling Range National Park. Otherwise, set your GPS for the small seaside town of Bremer Bay. This is one of only three places in Australia where southern right whales come in large numbers to calve, and between June and October you can watch them frolicking in the water from purpose-built platforms on the shore at Point Ann, 71 kilometres (44 miles) from town, on the west side of the Fitzgerald River National Park. Even if it's not whale watching season, you should stop here: the national park is one of the most significant biospheres in the world and a plant lover's dream, with 62 plant species found nowhere else on earth. It also has prolific native wildlife (look out for kangaroos), several beautiful beaches (go swimming at Barrens Beach), hiking trails, the beautiful hills of Hamersley Dunes and on-site accommodation at Quaalup Homestead Wilderness Retreat. After a day's exploring, return to the town of Bremer Bay, and watch the sun set from one of its serenely beautiful white sand beaches. Stay at the Bremer Bay Resort, where the Mount Barren Restaurant offers panoramic views across the bay.
From February to April you can join Naturaliste Charters off the coast at Bremer Bay to watch the gathering of the largest pod of orcas in the Southern Hemisphere. This incredible sight is only a recently discovered phenomenon and little is known about why it takes place. Tours support the Bremer Canyon Killer Whale research project, which aims to uncover the mystery behind this remarkable event. As well as seeing these magnificent creatures you'll likely see seabirds, dolphins, sharks, tuna, giant squid and seals, and watch and learn as scientists gather information about the orcas, collecting whale photo identification, towing underwater cameras and recording the orcas' vocalisations. If it's not orca season, hop on a quad bike for an adrenaline-charged, 2 1/2 hour guided tour of the area's beautiful sand dunes, beaches and bushland at Bremer Bay Quad Tours & Mini Golf (book ahead). Then spend the rest of the day exploring the area's gems including Gnorbup Wines, Wellstead Heritage Museum and the many beautiful beaches (don't miss protected Blossoms Beach, which is great for swimming). Either way, get to bed early tonight – you have a day on the road tomorrow.
The exquisite town of Esperance is a 726 kilometre (452 mile) drive from Bremer Bay, which will take about 8½ hours – but it's well worth the journey. Arrive to the stunning pure white sand shores of Esperance Bay, fringed by more than 100 islands that make up the Recherche Archipelago (known locally as the Bay of Isles), where whales, seals and dolphins can often be seen in the translucent waters. Toast your discovery of this little piece of paradise with a glass of craft beer at Lucky Bay Brewing, followed by a relaxed meal at family-friendly Ocean Blues Café & Restaurant. Rest your head at Esperance B&B by the Sea, which has spectacular views over the archipelago.
This morning you can leave the car keys in your room, as you'll be picked by your Aboriginal guide for a eco cultural discovery tour of the area with Aboriginal-run company Kepa Kurl. This memorable half day experience will give you some truly interesting insights into how the local Aboriginal Noongar people have hunted and gathered food here for thousands of years. You'll see plenty of native wildlife and some Aboriginal rock art as well as getting a great orientation to the area. Returning to town about midday, hop in your car and head to Yirri Grove, a restaurant in an olive grove 20 minutes out of town (open Fridays to Mondays only; alternatively, grab ingredients for a picnic from one of the four supermarkets in town). Esperance has some of the whitest sand in the world. After you've eaten, get a feel for the area's beauty on the Great Ocean Drive, a 38 kilometre (24 mile) loop from town that showcases the sugary beaches and translucent waters of the area. (Be warned, you won't be able to stop yourself from pulling over every few minutes to take photo after photo.) Along the way, look out for Twilight Bay – a firm favourite for its translucent, turquoise waters, sculpted rock formations, picnic tables and showers – and the breaks at West, Fourth and Observatory beaches, where local surfers can often be seen enjoying the water. You can snorkel at Blue Haven Beach, Twilight Cove and the lagoon to the east of West Beach (hire your mask and fins here). Call in to the Esperance Museum if you have time (it's only open from 1.30pm to 4.30pm each day). This quirky space is filled with unusual artefacts steeped in Australian humour, including the remains of America's first space station, Skylab, which plummeted to the earth here in 1979. The Shire of Esperance charged NASA AUD$400 for littering. Have dinner at The Pier Hotel, a relaxed pub opposite the water in the middle of town.
Today you're departing at 5.30am on a cruise to the stunning bright pink Lake Hillier, on Middle Island in the Recherche Archipelago. Departures are on demand, so book ahead. It will take about four hours to reach the island; you'll then transfer to a tender and disembark to take a guided tour of the lake and the nearby historical remains of a campsite that belonged to Australia's only recorded pirate, Black Jack Anderson. Arrive back at about 6pm, just in time to prepare for dinner at the excellent Loose Goose restaurant.
Lucky Bay is arguably Esperance's biggest drawcard. It's 60 kilometres (37 miles) out of town at Cape Le Grand National Park. After breakfast in town, hop in your car and head to the world's only full size replica of Stonehenge, Esperance Stonehenge (it's as quirky as it sounds). Then continue to the national park, a place of white sand beaches, freshwater pools, massive granite outcrops and in spring, carpets of native wildflowers. At Lucky Bay you'll discover kangaroos lying on the fine, blindingly white, sand as though they're posing for a photographer – make sure you snap plenty of pictures. The beach is a popular fishing spot and in winter it's common to spot whales frolicking in the water. The five kilometre (three mile) length of beach is also a wonderful walk (don't forget to bring a bottle of water). The sheltered bay is popular with swimmers. You'll find picnic areas, solar-heated showers and toilets at the nearby caravan and campground. Return to Esperance at your leisure and return your hire car at Esperance Airport before boarding your 90 minute return flight to Perth.