After two hours’ driving from Perth towards Busselton, the tip of Margaret River wine country, the landscape soon changes. Forests sprout from grassy scrubland, late morning sunshine bounces off the empty roads. Margaret River is one of Western Australia’s best-loved wine and food destinations, but it feels like we’re the only people here.
This 55-square-kilometre patch is Western Australia’s premier wine region (it’s responsible for 20 per cent of Australia’s premium wine sales each month, mainly cabernet and semillon/sauvignon blanc blends); a growing foodie destination (every November is the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, with past visiting chefs including Heston Blumenthal and Hong Kong’s very own May Chow); and home to postcard-perfect landscapes (clear topaz seas and rolling green Tuscan hills)
It’s a pretty perfect package for a gentle winter trip. But consider this: the first tourism outfit, the coastal, still-in-operation Prevelly Caravan Park, only opened in the 1950s; while the first vines were planted at Vasse Felix in 1967 (after Australian viticultural researcher Dr John Gladstones wrote about the region’s suitability for wine production in his report The Climate and Soils of Southern WA in Relation to Vine Growing). Surfers soon followed, as did thirsty visitors in the 1980s and ’90s, with the now-iconic Gourmet Escape opening in 2012. Now, 5.5 million tourists on average arrive each year in Margaret River.
‘The Margaret River region has, over the past few years, become one of Australia’s leading culinary destinations,’ says John O’Sullivan, managing director of Tourism Australia. ‘But it’s not all about the food. The region is full of natural attractions, from unspoiled beaches to ancient limestone caves and opportunities to view the more than 35,000 whales that pass by each year.’
I’ve decided to pair what the region does best – food and wine – with views and landscapes, from one end of the region to the other.
Three hours after driving out of Perth’s fringes, we’re pulling up at The Equinox by Busselton Jetty, overlooking 180 degrees of green-blue water at Geographe Bay. We drink restorative cappuccinos and nibble flaky-fresh croissants in a late breakfast underneath the shade of drooping fig trees, before walking the almost two-kilometre-long Busselton Jetty, peering down at the 300 species of fish and other marine life in these crystalline waters.
To the south in Margaret River town, a lazy day’s eating itinerary would start with brunch at Swings Taphouse, a ‘locals’ local’ according to manager Kris, a Napa Valley import. The brewers and vineyard managers are ordering plates of chicken pancakes and vine tomatoes on toast, washed down with spicy Bloody Marys and mimosas. (In the evening: ‘chardy’ straight from the tap and guest wines from surrounding Margaret River wineries.) A late lunch would be at Morries: small plates of beef tataki, chicken with Kewpie mayo and grilled sardines, washed down with cocktails named things like ‘Fizzy Navel’ and ‘Trophy Wife’. Inch into dinner at cosy seafood grill Katch-Up (the pairing? Seafood chowder in front of a log fire).
Margaret River takes its name from the river that snakes through the region. We canoe down it one afternoon with Sean Blocksidge, founder of the Margaret River Discovery Company. Once a vineyard manager, now he’s more likely to be showing tourists the region’s most stunning natural spots. As the sun sinks beyond the deciduous trees that hang over the narrow river, he talks about Margaret River as ‘the adventure capital’ of Western Australia: ‘You’ve got fishing, hiking, surfing, mountain biking, caving, kiteboarding, climbing.’ So far, we’ve just been eating.
We paddle a bit further, buoyed by a gentle current. The conversation moves to wildlife, as birds of prey dip and swoop into the water from above us. Sometimes you’ll see a kangaroo drowning another kangaroo, Blocksidge says, in the fight to become the alpha. Then he points out knots of wood that rise out of the water. ‘Snake!’ My heart stops. ‘Only joking…’
Now I really need a beer – preferably from one of Margaret River’s newest breweries that have started to spring up around premium wine country. The Cheeky Monkey Brewery and Cidery at Wilyabrup has a different kind of tasting menu: a beer flight of five ales on a wooden paddle. In nearby Metricup, The Beer Farm is one-third zeitgeisty brewery, one-third old dairy farm and one-third summer festival, with a carnival-like atmosphere that infects everything from its cartoonish art to the breezy hammocks by the river.
It’s been 700 words and I’ve only had one glass of chardonnay. Need to change that.
There are more than 200 vineyards up and down the region with the best known – Vasse Felix (the oldest), Cape Leeuwin (the southernmost), Barnyard 1978 (in my opinion, the most picturesque) – snatching most of Margaret River’s publicity. The boutique Rivendell Estate in Yallingup, meaning ‘place of love’ in the native language, is a family owned winery with a chic terrace restaurant overlooking the manicured gardens and lawns, growing mainly cabernet grapes. Here, it’s a periwinkle lavender bush paired with a tasting menu of lobster and sticky pork; oak and cherry trees with a glass of Howling Wolves cabernet sauvignon.
Nearby Rustico at Hay Shed Hill, with its glass conservatory overlooking the most typical Margaret River scene of swollen vines rolling down a hill, matches a degustation menu that includes Hervey Bay scallops, wild mushrooms with sherry cream and sirloin steak with chimichurri, all paired with premium Hay Shed Hill wines.
Further south, the landscape gets wilder still: ancient limestone caves, karri and jarrah forests, smashy coastlines.
At the White Elephant Cafe on Prevelly Beach – a gnarly surfer haven that curls out epic waves – are equally epic brunches of avocado and eggs on toast, freshly squeezed juices and coffee strong enough to wake even the limpest of surfer bodies.
In Boranup, en route to Cape Leeuwin, the most southwesterly point in Australia, where the Indian and Southern Oceans collide, we find Margaret River’s one landscape with absolutely no food or wine involved: Cave Road’s Kodak Corner, with a majestic view of century-old karri, marri and jarrah trees. (The nearby Boranup Gallery, a gallery and shop flogging karri wood furniture, is where you can buy what you’ve just driven through.)
At Cape Leeuwin, named after a Dutch ship that charted its coastline in 1622, we reach the end of Margaret River country. Today it’s no less dramatic: the wind whips around the lighthouse and the tour buses parked in the gorse-covered hills, swirling over the graphite ocean. A last lunch of simple sandwiches and cups of sugary Earl Grey from the Lighthouse Cafe, under an angry sky, is a long way from Margaret River’s sun-shilled vineyards and cellar doors – and from Perth’s conveyor belt of faddy restaurants.
Need to know
You’ll need to stay in Perth for at least one night to drive down to Margaret River. Recently opened is the premium Crown Towers hotel, part of the Crown casino complex across the Swan River from Perth’s city centre. Rooms are generous with blockbuster views across to Perth’s groomed crop of skyscrapers.
Cathay Pacific flies to Perth from Hong Kong 10 times a week