Start your culinary, spiritual and physical adventure from Margaret River, and work your way up to Perth and New Norcia before cruising the Coral Coast.
Western Australia is so huge, it is easily Australia’s biggest state. But it has just 2.3 million people or 10% of the entire Australian population, of whom 85% huddle in the southwest corner!
Here, the climate is soothingly agreeable, land is fertile and resources like water are plentiful unlike the harsher, desert conditions of the interior.
The southwest is home not only to fine vineyards but also the world-famous giant karri trees which can reach 90m. Southwest Western Australia is lush and verdant, with a Mediterranean climate best exemplified by Margaret River and the Augusta area.
Marvellous Margaret River
Margaret River, Swan Valley and Great Southern in Western Australia are internationally acclaimed more for its wines than food but fear not, there are plenty of fabulous eateries to match the drinks.
Indulging in an extraordinary culinary adventure is easy as Margaret River is a mere three hours’ drive from Perth. Lonely Planet lists Margaret River as one of the Top Ten Regions of the World for great food, fine wines, lovely landscapes, interesting art galleries, pristine beaches, abundant wildlife and mysterious caves.
When it comes to untamed beauty and eco-tourism, few places beat Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge with its dramatic cliffs, rocky outcrops, tranquil bays and vineyards shrouded in morning mist.
Picturesque Hamelin Bay abounds with stingrays, dolphins and seals, while its hinterlands are home to kangaroos, possums and birdlife. In spring, the wildflowers form a carpet that has to be seen to be believed.
The Blackwood and Margaret rivers offer canoeing, swimming, fishing and boating while Augusta has one of the world’s most scenic golf courses.
The verdant countryside attracts artists, painters, sculptors, photographers, jewellers, glass blowers, wood carvers and craftspeople who find the convivial atmosphere so inspiring. As a result, the local galleries are always buzzing.
Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse is Australia’s tallest at 39m and guards the point where the Indian and Southern oceans meet. Set against a stunning blue backdrop of sea and sky, the lighthouse glows white in summer and moody grey in winter when the waves crash spectacularly against the rocks. Many come at this time just to gawk and gasp at Nature’s awesome power. Wildlife is abundant. I spotted rock parrots pirouetting among the crevices, sea lions, dolphins and the occasional whale!
Margaret River is justly famous for sweet treats like chocolate, hot fudge and ice cream. Stop over at Margaret River Providore in Wilyabrup and stock up on jams, oils, wines and spices from its own orchards, vineyards and vegetable farms. Or just gorge on meals cooked from these ingredients in Providore’s café. With more than 90 cellar doors and 200 vineyards, you are spoilt for choice.
Other must-try eateries include Vasse Felix, Xanadu, Leeuwin Estate, Cullen and Clairault where fresh local produce is expertly cooked and paired with some of the world’s most outstanding wines.
Hang your hat at Inntown Backpackers (A$66/RM200), Karri Cottage (A$120) or the five-star Constellation Apartments (A$550) or hang 10 at Surfers Point, voted one of the world’s best. It is the crown jewel of WA’s surf culture with waves reaching 5.5m.
Old religion at New Norcia
Step back in time at New Norcia, about 132km north of Perth, named after Norcia in Italy.
The Italian Norcia is the birthplace of St Benedict while the Aussie Norcia was founded in 1847 by two Spanish Benedictine monks. Just 132km north of Perth, New Norcia is the only monastic town in Australia with architecture based on Spanish churches. The exquisitely embellished chapels of St Ildephonsus, St Gertrude and Abbey Church transport you back to olde Europe while the New Norcia Museum and Art Gallery boasts paintings given by the Queen of Spain, drawing of an apostle by Raphael and 50 contemporary works of art.
The Benedictine monks continue to live, work at the monastery and are involved in almost all the enterprises in New Norcia. The monks live a simple communal life of work and prayer but welcome visitors.
Friends of New Norcia operate the twice daily, two-hour tours which allow tourists to visit the frescoed interiors and interact with the monks. Outsiders can also dine with them though they have to keep quiet during meals! I joined them for a vegetarian meal.
Surrounding this exquisitely preserved beautiful town is a 8,000ha working farm first tilled by missionaries Salvado and Serra in 1847. New Norcia has 69 buildings on some 4ha of which 27 are listed on the Australia’s National Trust for their important cultural heritage.
Cool coral coast
Coral Coast, two-and-half hours north of Perth, is one of the few places where you can swim with the world’s largest fish — the whale shark. And you can do this at Ningaloo Reef, the world’s biggest fringing reef stretching 260km.
A fringing reef means you can wade into the coral gardens a few metres from shore.
The bottlenose dolphins of Monkey Mia are world famous for swimming up to the shore to interact with humans thrice a day. Five to 10 dolphins swim up to your knees to be stroked and fed, a natural and rare phenomenon.
Nearby is Shell Beach which seems like any Malaysian beach with white sand. But step on the beach and you realise the ‘sand’ is made entirely of billions of tiny seashells! Stretching an amazing 200km and up to 10m deep, these coquina bivalve shells have no natural enemies, exist in huge numbers and are washed ashore after they die.
Even more astonishing are the world’s oldest living marine fossils — the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool, Shark Bay. This is a World Heritage area as scientists believe Hamelin Pool today may well be how planet Earth looked like 3.5 billion years ago when stromatolites first appeared! – By Kee Hua Chee
Visit www.westernaustralia.com to plan your itinerary.