I’m standing in the Meelup Regional Park on Western Australia’s Leeuwin-Naturaliste ridge, looking down over the coastal plain toward the Indian Ocean. It’s almost the end of my first day visiting the Margaret River region, and I’m listening to Wadandi man Josh Whiteland describe life here for his people – the Traditional Owners of this part of Western Australia’s South West – thousands of years ago. Josh points out the surrounding native flora: yellow banksias like candlesticks, dried-out melaleucas and low-lying eucalyptus still holding their blossoms.
“The rain doesn’t stop until the blossom falls,” Josh says, fondling the thinning white flowers in his palm. “So, more rain coming.”
Josh is a cultural custodian and owner of cultural tourism company Koomal Dreaming, where he imparts his Indigenous cultural knowledge to visitors through cave and bush walks, stories, and native food and fishing experiences. I’ve signed up for the Ngilgi Cave Cultural Tour to hear Josh play the didgeridoo deep inside a cave, acknowledging the spirits that dwell here.
It’s late afternoon, and the day’s uncharacteristic heat subsides as we descend into the limestone and granite cavern that’s typical along this coast. With our small group now alone in the underground chamber, Josh starts playing his didgeridoo and the vibrating sound reverberates around the natural amphitheatre, meeting the silence rather than interrupting it. I experience the onset of the lasting feeling of peace one can find in Margaret River – steeped in this rich Wadandi history and incredible natural environment.
Stretching from Busselton in the north to Augusta in the south, the Margaret River region encompasses some 75 miles of pristine coastline. Part of Western Australia’s South West, it’s recognized as one of only 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world, and one of just two in Australia, thanks to the abundant flora and fauna that inhabit its mosaic of sandy beaches, forests, caves and rivers. Between the area’s First Nations heritage and its astounding ecological value, the people living and working here have much to embrace, and much to care for.
Earlier that morning, I met with Vanya Cullen, who celebrated 30 years as Chief Winemaker at Cullen Wines in 2019. One of the region’s founding estates, Cullen Wines is an example of benchmark Margaret River cabernet and chardonnay, but also an example of what can be achieved through biodynamic farming. Having championed the practice since the early 2000s, Vanya says her commitment to sustainability is owed in part to her connection to the land (she grew up on the property long before the first wines were planted in 1971) and to the legacy left by her wine-legend parents; one that goes well beyond their namesake wines.
“Mum and Dad left this legacy to care about the earth,” Vanya explains. “That’s on top of the energetic history of the Wadandi people, who lived by those principles for tens of thousands of years. To that end, Cullen is now certified biodynamic and carbon negative, so we have the whole business giving more back to the earth than we’re taking. To see that all come together in my lifetime is amazing.”
The results of Vanya’s efforts to craft quality wines using sustainable practices speak for themselves; the country’s leading wine critic James Halliday awarded her 2020 Winemaker of the Year. But she says the real winner is actually the land and, with many other flagship wineries in the region now in organic conversion, her conviction is starting to spread.
“The dream is to see the whole of Margaret River foregoing synthetic chemicals,” Vanya says. “So, it’s really exciting to see so many big wineries in transition.”
From Cullen Wines, I head next door to Vasse Felix for lunch. This is where Margaret River wine started, when Dr Tom Cullity first planted row upon row of cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, malbec and riesling to establish the Vasse Felix vineyard – Margaret River’s pioneering estate – in 1967. Estate sommelier Evan Gill takes me through a tasting of their core wine family: three chardonnays, three cabernets, a shiraz and a sauvignon blanc semillon.
“The heart of Vasse Felix is in our cabernet sauvignon,” he says. We’re seated in the estate’s wine lounge, which overlooks the original vineyard. Gesturing toward the block of ‘cab sauv’, he tells me: “It was sited well.” Cullity based his original plantings on a much lauded report by Dr John Gladstone, who identified the Margaret River cape as ideal for grape growing. “This is where Gladstone said we should plant,” says Evan. “Our wines are a homage to that research.”
Today, the estate hosts a restaurant, lounge and cellar door, a wine museum (housed in an original vault) showcasing extensive back vintage wines, and an art gallery – not to mention four vineyards throughout the region that are all NASAA Certified Organic. The wine and food produced at Vasse Felix, by chief winemaker Virginia Willcock and head chef Brendan Pratt, is tasty evidence of the same underlying philosophy.
Both visits are a display of the passion that drives those who call Margaret River home. Over the course of my three-day visit, it proves to be a common theme. I see it on a leisurely sail near Meelup in Sailing Charters WA’s skipper Luke Johnston, who grew up sailing this aquamarine coast with his grandfather and father; and riding fat bikes through the Boranup Karri Forest with Cam O’Beirne of Margaret River Adventure Company.
Cam details the region’s historical timber trade like a memoir, and describes the forest as a medium for connection. I see it again walking the epic Cape to Cape Track with Local Walk into Luxury guide Anne Guthrie, who tells stories about exploring the cape’s rocky bays and bushlands as a child growing up here in the 1970s. I see it exploring the flavors of main-strip Margaret River with ex-journalist Kellie Tannock of Walk Talk Taste, who seems to overflow with anecdotes about the town’s historical and present-day. From winemaker to walking food tour guide, everyone I meet has a reverence for the region’s history and natural landscape that informs their daily life and work, and a genuine love for sharing it.
This means good things for the region’s future. At Arimia, the farm-totable restaurant in Wilyabrup where I have lunch one day, this bright future is now. I dine with owner and farmer Ann Spencer, who looks after 138 acres of almost entirely self-sufficient vineyard and working farm, as well as the offgrid restaurant headed up by chef and business partner Evan Hayter.
Just as the likes of Cullen and Vasse Felix represent the origins of Margaret River wine, Arimia represents the future of its gastronomy. It’s another one of the region’s wineries undergoing biodynamic certification, already operating with a no-waste principle and farming regeneratively to establish living soils.
They produce their own olive oil and honey, raise their own pigs, farm their own trout and tend a one-acre vegetable garden, with a goal to eventually serve only what’s grown on the property. “It’s a full circle thing,” Ann explains. “We are producing our own food, in a manner that respects the land we are using, the resulting dish and the diner. I want people to really get the difference between eating good food and eating here where not only is the food good, but you also know where it comes from.”
Between dishes like cured trout with miso and ginger, char-grilled beets with avocado gel, Davidson plum sherbet and fried warrigal, Ann and I talk about Margaret River’s natural abundance, and how eating here tells a story. Story is an important part of life in the region. Aside from those born and bred in Margaret River, everyone I meet has a story of how they came to be here; of what life they left behind, deciding there must be more and finding it among the karri and the marri trees, between these three coastlines, among the vines or on a surging wave. If you visit, you might find that you go home dreaming of one day telling a Margaret River story of your own.
The Margaret River region is a scenic three-hour drive from Perth’s international airport, or you can fly direct from Melbourne (Tullamarine) to Busselton Margaret River with Jetstar. Arrange Perth airport or in-region luxury transfers with Cape Chauffeurs, whose friendly team transport guests around the region in a distinctive fleet of Chryslers.
Situated in the heart of Wilyabrup wine country in the center of the Margaret River region, boutique retreat Cape Lodge has the look and feel of a private country estate with the amenities of a world-class boutique hotel. It’s home to an award-winning restaurant, too, that serves French-inspired cuisine and some of the region’s best.
Koomal Dreaming offers daily cultural tours throughout Wadandi and Bibbulman country in the Margaret River region. Choose from a range of sailing trips in the turquoise waters of Meelup Regional Park with Sailing Charters WA.
Margaret River Adventure Company host guided bike tours in the Boranup Karri Forest, with ‘micro adventures’ and full-day tours designed to reconnect you with nature.
Kellie Tannock’s Walk Talk Taste is the only walking food tour in Margaret River township, taking you behind the scenes and into the stories of some of the town’s iconic cafes, restaurants and bars.
Get out on the Cape to Cape Track with Walk Into Luxury, who conduct locally guided, all-inclusive Margaret River walks and culinary experiences you won’t soon forget.