From Margaret River to Denmark to Esperance: World-class wineries, white-sand beaches and tranquil wilderness; the edge of paradise along the south-west coast of Western Australia has it all, and more – one of Australia’s 16 Ultimate Escapes
Where else on Earth can you find perfect barrels of both water and wine, staggeringly beautiful beaches, soaring forests, friendly dolphins and whales, and brilliantly-coloured carpets of wildflowers? Do let us know if you happen to find it, but for now, we’ll stick with Western Australia’s Great South West Edge, perhaps our country’s prettiest corner.
Stretching more than 1000 kilometres, from Bunbury (around two hours’ drive south from Perth) past the idyllic gourmand’s heaven of Margaret River on the west coast, past the towering karri forests in the Walpole-Nornalup National Park and the stunning beaches of Denmark; all the way through Esperance and the divers’ paradise of the Recherche Archipelago, to the Cape Arid National Park, the region showcases an extraordinary range of landscapes.
For an exhilirating coastal adventure, walk the 135km Cape to Cape Track along the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. More coastal beauty can be found at Lucky Bay beach, near Esperance. With blindingly aquamarine waters, it is said to have the the country’s whitest sand – so dazzling even the kangaroos like to laze about, basking in the sun. Southern right and humpback whales are most prevalent here too, making it a whale-watchers’ dream.
While the region enjoys an idyllic, Mediterranean-style climate, it is unmistakably Australian – rich in Aboriginal cultural and historical significance, and overflowing with gourmet local and produce. Paradise, indeed.
Explore: coastal Indigenous culture
The sweeping beaches, ocean and granite cliffs of Esperance were the kitchen cupboard for the Noongar people, providing a bounty of fresh seafood and bush food. Learn their hunting and gathering techniques – and some time-honoured fishing techniques – along this spectacular coastal stretch. An eco-culture discovery tour with Kepa Kurl (the Aboriginal name for Esperance) involves 50 kilometres of beach driving and an exploration of the country’s most southern Aboriginal rock paintings. Along with a greater appreciation for the Noongar way of life, you will also learn a clever new trick: how to drink water from the sand. Phone: 08 9072 1688.
Adventure: the Southern Edge
Witness the might of Mother Nature on the wild and windswept coast of West Cape Howe. An off-road, eco-tour in a four-wheel drive will take you to otherwise inaccessible parts of the national park, which hugs the coastline along the southernmost edge of Western Australia. Accompanied by an expert guide, the journey covers contrasting terrain from hidden, sandy beaches to the granite and dolerite clifftops, where you can lie on your belly and peer over the edge, watching the Southern Ocean unleash its fury. See: Out of Sight Tours; 08 9848 2814.
Family: swim with dolphins
Who doesn’t love dolphins? The wild bottlenose beauties of Koombana Bay in Bunbury will delight kids and adults alike, and the fantastic Dolphin Discovery Centre offers a variety of ways to interact with the local stars. Wade into the shallow waters of the interaction zone where, if you’re lucky, the dolphins will swim right up to say hello; take an eco cruise to watch them at play; or jump in for a three-hour Swim on the Wild Side, guided by a marine biologist and trained volunteers as you join the dolphins in their natural habitat. Phone: 08 9791 3088.
Walk: trek the Cape to Cape
The world-famous Cape to Cape Track – tracing a 135-kilometre, jaw-dropping line of coast from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin in the south – boasts dramatic clifftops and stretches of deserted, pristine beach alternating with woodlands and wildflowers. There’s enough variation to lull you into the full, seven-day walk, or you can sample the beauty on a half- or full-day tour. Cape to Cape Explorer Tours offer both options with expert guides, well-equipped base camps (hello, hot showers!) or ensuite accommodation and delicious meals on the longer walks; and action-packed, shorter experiences for those with less time on their hands. Phone: 0459 452 038.
Luxury: idyllic Vineyard Lodge
Nestled amongst stunning forest, lake and parkland scenery, yet within (wine) spitting distance of the world-renowned Margaret River surf, elegant Cape Lodge in Yallingup dials up the luxury factor in a beautifully understated way. Venture out on a tour of the surrounding vineyards or stay put, hit the spa and order a seasonal harvest produce platter to your suite. Cap off the day at the lauded lakeside restaurant, secure in the knowledge that your dinner was swimming, roaming or growing nearby not long before making its way to your plate, with items like Pemberton marron, Albany oysters and Margaret River wagyu beef on offer. Phone: 08 9755 6311.
Food: deluxe wine odyssey
So you don’t “do” tours, but still want to see the best of the Margaret River in one day? The Margaret River Discovery Co. Best of the Best river wine tour skips the mediocre tastings, dull commentary and crowded minivans. Instead, you’ll embark on a luxury 4WD experience that will take you from small boutique vineyards to some of the most renowned in the region – all rated five-star by James Halliday, of course. Add a behind-the-scenes vineyard experience and wine and food-matching degustation lunch at Cape Mentelle, followed by a stroll along the Cape to Cape Track, and your perfect day is sorted. Phone: 0439 910 064.
Adventure: paddle to your lunch
The triple-hitter Cave, Canoe & Bushtucker Tour takes you and your tastebuds on an adventure, with canoeing, caves and an exotic bush tucker lunch packed into one fun-filled day. Setting off from the mouth of the Margaret River, you’ll canoe through the calm waters of the river valley, working up an appetite before tucking into a hearty lunch with treats like emu, crocodile, and witchety grubs (all optional!) and loads of local pestos, chutneys and breads. You’ll also explore sites rarely seen by other visitors, such as the cave that became home to survivors of an 1872 shipwreck. Phone: 08 9757 9084.
Wildlife: cruise through wilderness
Explore remote and hard-to-access parts of the Walpole -Nornalup National Park on this two-and-a-half hour eco cruise, which guides and glides you through the marine park and WA’s first designated wilderness zone, the Nuyts Wilderness Peninsula. Led by passionate storyteller Gary Muir, you’ll be entertained and enthralled by his knowledge of the environment and wildlife, as you keep an eye out for local characters like Fudge the grey ‘roo, and Savage and Shadow (two pied oystercatcher birds who’ve been an item for 19 years!). The tour includes morning tea overlooking beautiful Bellanger beach. See Wow Wilderness; 08 9840 1111.
Indigenous: taste real bush food
Wardandi man Josh Whiteland – his traditional name is Koomal – is a passionate advocate for his culture and land, sharing his connection to country with Australian and international visitors (top Danish chef Rene Redzepi was so impressed after visiting, he invited Josh to speak at a food event in Copenhagen). On his Aboriginal Food, Culture, Cave & Didge Tour at Yallingup, you’ll enjoy a bushwalk as Josh shares his insights into traditional plants and bush foods like emu plum and salt bush, before tasting them for yourself. You’ll then journey into the Ngilgi Cave to hear Dreamtime legends and a didgeridoo performance, before testing your skills at firemaking. See: Koomal Dreaming; 0413 843 426.
Getting there: Regional flights run from Perth to Busselton, Albany, Ravensthorpe or Esperance; or fly into Perth and pick up a hire car. TransWA and South West Coach Lines buses also connect Perth and major towns in the region, and there’s a train service between Perth and Bunbury.
Eating there: Margaret River produce + hundreds of kilometres of coastline = foodie heaven. Whether picnicking on local cheeses, cured meats and fruity preserves; wining and dining on regional delicacies like freshly caught marron or hooking your own dinner off a wild stretch of beach, it’s guaranteed to be fresh, local and delicious.
Staying there: Think small and bespoke, rather than big hotel chains – camping at some of Australia’s most beautiful beaches; cloud-soft beds in a luxury Margaret River vineyard estate or spa resort, or the freedom of renting a family beach house along your favourite stretch of coast.