It is difficult to recall when the Margaret River Region, or Western Australia (WA) for that matter, forged its identity as a must-see destination. People are now willing (and able) to travel that extra mile for somewhere special. Growing up with it on my doorstep (it’s practically just down the road if you’re from WA) I’ve taken it for granted. I’ve made the 3 hour pilgrimage south from Perth numerous times, throughout my childhood, adolescence and now adulthood. We’ve stayed in all forms of accommodation from camping grounds to caravan parks, hostels, motels, B&Bs and luxury escapes. At any time of the year. Although familiar with the area (I have a long list of my favourite hangouts) I’ve always been surprised that with every visit I discover something new. These days when I visit I’m more of a tourist than a local (I guess living 14,000 km away tends to have that effect) and with new venues sprouting up regularly, like a newcomer, I find it hard to choose what to see in this compact region. Having returned from a recent trip I’ve put together a few highlights for what to visit. Consider it a starting point to exploring this region.
The journey typically begins in Perth, the state capital, and where all international flights come and go. I would recommend looking into hiring a car for many reasons but ultimately it gives you flexibility. As I’ve mentioned the drive south takes approximately 3 hours. To break the journey up you can stop along the way, for example, at Miami Bakehouse for an award winning gourmet meat pie (meat pies are an Australian institution), or at Busselton to walk along the iconic Busselton Jetty but at almost 2km long, it’s the longest wooden jetty in the world, it may be quicker to take the dedicated jetty train.
From Busselton you enter into the Margaret River Region which stretches from Geographe Bay and Cape Naturaliste in the north to Flinders Bay and Cape Leeuwin in the south; each cape is protected by its own lighthouse and each in its own right worthy of a stop even if it is just to take in the view of the rugged coastline and vast Indian Ocean. If you time it correctly you can join a whale watching tour, the season starts in May and stretches into September, from either Augusta into Flinders Bay or Dunsborough and Busselton into Geographe Bay.
Finding accommodation can be difficult over the summer holiday period especially in December and January with the more popular choices located in Dunsborough or Margaret River. In the small town of Cowaramup, 12km north of Margaret River, you’ll find a comfortable, colonial-style guesthouse with a pleasant garden to relax in: The Noble Grape. Be warned that not much happens in Cowaramup after dark and you’ll have to venture into nearby Margaret River for restaurants to eat your evening meal. Despite the sleepy town vibe the host Jacqui is friendly, chatty, and although not a local, is very knowledgeable of the area. A continental breakfast and parking are included in the price. For a luxury escape alternative look into the boutique hotel Cape Lodge which boasts its own wine label and world renowned restaurant within the grounds.
The Margaret River Region is world famous for its wine but with over 200 wineries the choice can be daunting. The tendency is to over indulge on free wine tastings but setting a steady pace and limiting the number of tastings to 3 or 4 a day allows time to enjoy the wine and the environment the grapes were grown. Try not to overanalyse the wine tasting experience. If you enjoy it that’s all that matters – leave the colourful descriptions to the vintner. A vineyard can be a romantic setting for a meal overlooking the regimented rows of vines, undulating through the valley, hemmed in by the gum trees in the horizon. There are however limited wineries that serve food so if you are planning to have a lazy lunch book in advance; I list a few wineries with restaurants below. As a side note although wine is a huge draw card here there are other regional delicacies to try like venison from the first commercial deer farm in WA, Margaret River Vension; cheese and yoghurt from Margaret River Dairy Company; nougat from Bettenay’s Margaret River Nougat Company; and chocolate from Gabriel Chocolate and Margaret River Chocolate Factory.
Vasse Felix is acknowledged as the first vineyard and winery established in this region, founded near Cowaramup in 1967 by Dr Tom Cullity. Historical significance aside Vasse Felix has a fine dining restaurant in addition to its free tasting bar. If you haven’t booked you may be in luck as the wine lounge doesn’t take reservations and is the perfect place to enjoy the scenery while sipping on wine and tucking into a cheese and charcuterie board. Nearby the family owned Cullen Wines also serves food with outdoor seating on the verandah decking or within the garden. They are proud to be carbon neutral, offsetting carbon emissions through reforestation projects amongst other planting schemes, and biodynamic where all the vegetables they use in the restaurant are from their garden.
Further north towards Dunsborough is Wise Wines which has two restaurant locations but it’s hard to resist Wise Vineyard Restaurant for the view alone. From your lofty position on the wooden deck you can survey the expansive bushland below reaching out to the edges of the ocean – the start of Eagle Bay. The adjoining cellar door will give you an opportunity to taste and choose the right bottle of wine to go with your meal.
Other lunchtime spots in the area can be found at two local microbreweries: just down the hill at the Eagle Bay Brewing Co, which is also a vineyard, or the family run Bush Shack Brewery, closer to Yallingup, with outdoor wooden tables set under the shade of the gum trees. Eagle Bay has a larger menu with a focus on regional produce while Bush Shack’s main focus is the beer. In this area there are also some magnificent beaches like Meelup Beach, Yallingup Beach and Smiths Beach and interesting rock formations like Sugarloaf Rock.
If you are heading south of Margaret River it is worth taking the time to visit Voyager Estate even if it is just to meander through the manicured rose gardens. This is one of the few places in the region that charge for wine tastings however you can recoup your cost if you purchase at least one bottle of wine. Don’t be deterred as their wines are worth it. Everything here seems to be done at a grander scale and with pride: the largest Australian flag and flagpole, two sittings for high tea, a 4 or 6 course degustation menu. You may as well embrace the grandeur of the experience and take your time – indulge.
Head further south of Voyager Estate along Caves Road and the vineyards are swallowed up by the tall, open forest of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park: karri forests, a type of eucalyptus and one of the tallest hardwoods in the world. The winding roads are overshadowed by the towering karri forests which squeeze sunlight unto the understory. On the northern fringes hidden within Boranup Forest is Café Boranup and its next door art gallery. An ideal spot to soak in the forest atmosphere. As you drive deeper south the trees thicken along the edge of Caves Road enticing you to pull up and enjoy the scenery from one of the viewing platforms or to take the time to hike one of the paths or to stop for a picnic. It’s a horticulturists’ heaven especially during wildflower season; a photographers’ playground anytime of the year.
Hamelin Bay is a worthwhile detour off Caves Road along the coastline north of Augusta. The forest relinquishes its grip on the road and gently recedes into banksia trees then shrub. Here the turquoise shallow waters of the surf has frequent visitors whose black shadow-like body is distinct against the white sandy background: stingrays. Several (3 or more) curious stingrays will venture beyond the gently breaking waves unintimidated by the clambering but cautious crowds. The majority of the fever (the name for a group of rays) can be found in the southern reaches of Hamelin Bay beyond the boat ramp and beyond the remnants of the old wooden pier. To be able to interact with nature at close quarters in their own wild habitat is such a gratifying experience and shouldn’t be missed.
As can be seen from the above recommendations the Margaret River Region is a mixture of activities all based around the natural beauty and fertility of this region. I’ve provided a skeleton list, a starting point, with full knowledge that there is so much more to explore. This is what makes this region fun: on your way to developing your own list of recommendations you will always uncover a new little nook for you to discover.