Sip some of Australia's best wine, marvel at bush-edged beaches and watch whales in Western Australia's picture-perfect playground, Margaret River.
By Fleur Bainger
Take a road trip to this favourite getaway of West Australians, the Margaret River region. Loved for its endless vineyards, tall tree forests and pale beaches, it's where world professionals go to surf and food lovers go to eat in style. Few regions can lay claim to such a magical combination.
The Margaret River region begins about 2 1/2 hours drive south-west of Perth. Hire a car from Perth Airport or city centre, and make the seaside town of Busselton your first stop. Here you'll find the 150-year-old Busselton Jetty, the longest wooden jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. Walk the 1.7 kilometre (1.1 mile) stretch, or take the miniature train to the end, where a living aquarium, the Underwater Observatory, can be toured (entry AUD$33, no bookings required; guided tours 9.30am on Tuesdays and Thursdays for AUD$15). A circular room studded with windows eight metres (26 feet) beneath the ocean's surface reveals up to 300 species of colourful coral, fish and other marine life, fed by an unusually warm current. For added adventure, sign up for an underwater helmet walk, and walk along the sea floor.
Margaret River is best known for the excellent wines produced here, but the region is also home to great craft beer breweries. Sit down to a lunch of wood-fired pizza or slow-cooked meats paired with a paddle of craft beers at Eagle Bay Brewing Co, 30 kilometres (19 miles) west from Busselton, which overlooks rolling farmland. Then follow the road to Eagle Bay and comb the coast, stopping in at some of Western Australia's most breathtaking beaches. Meelup and Castle Rock, where the bush meets the sand, are local favourites. In season (August to December), you might spot whales swimming at these sheltered points. For your best chance of seeing them, head to Bunker Bay at the end of Cape Naturaliste Road and watch the horizon at either Bunkers Beach Café or the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse (or book in with Naturaliste Cruises for a closer look). Stay at nearby Pullman Bunker Bay Resort and dine in-house at the Other Side of the Moon Restaurant.
There's nothing better than waking up with a swim in a calm, clear ocean lagoon, and that's exactly what you get at the peaceful holiday township of Yallingup. Protected by surrounding reef, the ocean is flat, rip-free and refreshing, lapping a gentle stretch of golden, powdery sand. You'll never want to leave. But you should, because Ngilgi Cave is just around the corner. First though, fuel up with breakfast at Lamont’s on beautiful Smiths Beach, then drive 6 kilometres (3.7 miles) north to explore Ngilgi's huge cavern of illuminated stalactites and stalagmites, discovered in 1899. Book ahead for a thrilling cave crawl with a cave expert (the 2.5 hour tour costs AUD$110).
The Margaret River wine region only accounts for about 3 per cent of Australia's wine production, but is responsible for 20 per cent of its premium output, so visiting some of its standout wineries is a must. You'll love the cellar door lounge at Vasse Felix, the rose gardens at Voyager Estate and the tall trees at Leeuwin Estate. Either self-drive or do a tour. There are loads of options here. Treat yourself to a six-course degustation with views at the region's newest restaurant, Rustico, at Hay Shed Hill winery. The kitchen is open until 5pm for all-day lunch and you don't need to book, but it gets busy. Finish the day with some award-winning camembert from Margaret River Dairy, then spend the night at the charming and intimate Margaret River Guest House.
If it's a Saturday, there's only one place to be: exploring the produce stalls at Margaret River township's farmers markets. Arrive early (locals get there before 10am) to buy sweet, juicy apples, snap-fresh watercress, earthy garlic and organic potatoes all pulled from the dirt or plucked from the tree that morning. Once your calico bags are full – or if it's any other day – spend an hour or two wandering down the main street, stopping in at providores, boutiques and cafés and consider treating yourself at Millers Ice Cream shop, which uses milk produced on a nearby farm. At the far northern end of the shopping strip, stop for a lazy lunch in the sunshine at the new, forest-edged Brewhouse Margaret River.
After a 10 minute drive west from Margaret River township you'll arrive at the rugged coast. Follow the bitumen to the mouth of the river where you'll see cars piled high with surfboards. Surfers Point is where the world's professional surfers come for giant swell. If you don't have a board (or the courage), relocate four kilometres (2.5 miles) south to White Elephant Café, which sits above a cove protecting Gnarabup Beach. Grab a coffee and jump in for a swim or rent a stand-up paddle board from Stand Up Surfing. If you're enjoying the scenery, join the coastal walking trail and stroll above the sand. End your day with a hearty, polished pub meal at the best-value restaurant in town,