A splash of the good stuff... Western Australia
The wild coastline, fabulous beaches and superb food of Western Australia have become more easily accessible thanks to new non-stop flights to Perth from the UK. Hannah Summers takes a tour of the Margaret River area, where stop-offs at vineyards make the perfect accompaniment to its natural wonders.
Travis and Elizabeth Wray are gamblers. Risk takers. Entrepreneurs. “In the winemaking business you have to play the hand you are dealt,” Elizabeth tells me, as I settle onto a high stool in the airy, sunflooded space that is her tasting room. “That’s what inspired our winery’s name, House of Cards. It represents the risk that winemakers and growers take with every vintage.” She hands me a glass of 2015 chardonnay made with grapes hand-plucked and pressed at the couple’s vineyard. I take a sip, then sneak in another. If this was a risk you’d never know it – it’s a delicate and delicious concoction with notes of pears, apples and… buttered toast?
House of Cards vineyard
Perhaps you think Australia is a long way to travel for a glass of wine – even the most serious of oenophiles would baulk at the prospect of an entire day and night negotiating planes, stopovers and transfers. And usually, Margaret River, which sits just south of Perth in Western Australia, is trumped by better-known holiday hotspots, such as Queensland and trendy Sydney – at least for first-time visitors to Oz. But new direct flights with Qantas mean the fastest way to reach Australia from the UK is now by flying to Perth. Could it become our new favoured gateway to the country? Could this western region with incredible nature in the north, and the fabulous Margaret River, home to House of Cards, and hundreds more wineries, in the south, become first choice? The holy trinity of sun, sea and sauvignon are now just a 17-hour flight away, after all.
Travis Wray and his dog
And the gateway to the region is no longer just somewhere to fly through either. Perth – the world’s most isolated big city – has, for decades, (thanks in part to its previously booming mining industry) been labelled bland; in 2007 one scathing TripAdvisor reviewer declared it “the most boring city in the world” and slapped it with a one-star review. But since then it has transformed into a colourful and buzzy metropolis packed with culture, boutiques, bars and restaurants. After arriving there I spend several days sipping gin, orange and thyme concoctions at The Standard and feasting on punchy salads at the Young Love Mess Hall in Northbridge. I buy bargain-priced silk dresses on William Street and snap pictures of huge, vibrant murals on brick walls. I could happily spend my entire trip swimming and sunbathing at Cottesloe, one of the city’s urban beaches, which lures me in with a dazzling combination of talc-white sand and turquoise sea, but I have some exploring to do.
Australia is a huge country – a flight east to Melbourne from Perth takes five hours, and the state of Western Australia is the size of Texas and Alaska combined – but that’s not to say that exploring by car is out of the question. In fact, one of the easiest and most rewarding drives is a three-hour journey out of Perth to Margaret River, a 55-square kilometre patch of vineyards, forests and spectacular beaches. There are over 200 vineyards to choose from in Margaret River, and the region produces close to 20 per cent of the country’s premium wine (with a leaning towards cabernet and a blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc), thanks to a climate that’s fairly similar to the Mediterranean.
Vineyard, Margaret River
Taking a cruise along the tree-lined ‘highways’ (almost always peaceful, narrow roads) and dropping in to wherever takes your fancy makes for a great experience. Wine tastings are very normal here, and vineyard owners will happily teach you as much or as little as you like. House of Cards is fantastic for a tasting with the bonus of a little something sweet: Gabriel Chocolate next door is Australia’s first ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate shop, and the shelves are stocked with bars rich in antioxidants. I also love McHenry Hohnen, a family-run winery that complements your wine tasting with plates of salami and ham, and Brookland Valley, which employs a ‘minimal interference’ approach, minimising human interference so the region’s climate, characteristics and cool Indian Ocean breeze shine through.
It’s that magnificent warm-watered coastline that proves to be one of Margaret River’s most spectacular attributes. I spend a while at Gnarabup Beach at Prevelly, where surfers take on a break called the ‘Bombie’, an Indigenous term for waves breaking over a shallow area. Elsewhere, I love Yallingup’s raw, rugged feel, where powdery sand is backed by grass, and Canal Rocks, although not safe for swimming, is a crazy jigsaw of eroded rock surrounded by swirling jade and turquoise ocean. One of the most rewarding things to do, though, is get lost. Wiggling along the coast’s back roads I discover tiny peaceful little stretches of sand that are the perfect place to spend the late afternoon hours, when the sun has dipped and happily I have no place to be.
Sunbathing guilt kicks in, however, and there’s plenty more to see. I wind down the windows and take the car down the shaded track of Boranup Drive, buried deep in Boranup Karri Forest. The area is made up of tall, spindly karri trees – the third-tallest tree species in the world – and there’s a lovely shaded picnic spot in the middle (grab a bottle from your preferred vineyard, and a sausage roll from Margaret River Bakery – they’re the best in town). Elsewhere, on vast open plains I spot kangaroos, gulp fresh air that’s subtly scented with eucalyptus, and wander in a vast, dark space packed with stalactites and stalagmites in Ngilgi Cave.
At the southern tip of the region I reach Cape Leeuwin, which owes its name to the Dutch ship that chartered the coastline in 1622. It may be a dramatic point, home to mainland Australia’s tallest lighthouse, but the most picture-worthy sight is during May and September, when humpback and blue whales pass by, virtually grazing the rock. In September to November this whole area, a biodiversity hotspot, explodes into riotous colour, as 2,500 species of wildflowers bloom, setting the outback ablaze.
Then there’s the food. After all, this is the place that holds the Margaret River Gourmet Escape food festival, a glam affair that sees the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Nigella Lawson jet in to swoon over the region’s produce every November. At other times of year you can sit beneath the forest canopy and feast on huge, colourful sharing plates of wings, salads and prawns at the family-run Brewhouse, in Margaret River town, or opt for fine dining with views at Flutes in Wilyabrup. Here, proprietor Francois Morvan blends French techniques for inventive dishes that advertise the local area’s finest fare (the seafood platter is my choice) with tranquil views over the Margaret River thrown in, too.
I round off my trip with an alfresco breakfast at the White Elephant Beach Cafe near Prevelly. The sky is intensely blue, the topaz sea laps squeaky white sand just metres away. Fluffy dogs frolic on the beach, their coats ruffled by a lovely breeze, while locals tuck into bowls of pear bircher muesli and plates of flouro-green avocado topped with poached eggs and bacon. Life may be a house of cards, but here in Margaret River they’ve been dealt a pretty great hand.
Recommended C&K tour: Highlights of the South-West - 7 Days & 6 Nights from £845
Beginning in Perth, this self-drive itinerary is the perfect introduction to the rich diversity of the south-west. Soak up the dramatic coastline, sample the foodie delights of Margaret River and walk through towering karri forests.
To find out more or plan a tailor-made itinerary, speak to one of our Australia experts.
Images supplied by House of Cards vineyard and the Margaret River Region tourist board.Share: