Roaming Australia's Margaret River Region
Published: April 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
Here, nature runs wild and the wine flows freely
A teenage American backpacker for whom every penny counts nods respectfully to a middle-aged German with all the money in the world. Both men are crouching silently in Australia's botanically fuzzy and intriguing strip of border country where 20-story karri forest gives way to ground-hugging coastal heath.
After hours of patient waiting, the German finally spots the reason he has come all this way: a long-billed black cockatoo, whose showgirl fan of black and white tail feathers is straight out of the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady. The American, seeing nothing through his field glasses, consoles himself with the previous day's outing. A bush walk had revealed a catalogue of wildflowers whose perfectly descriptive common names were all he needed to identify them: warty hammer, flying duck, pink enamel.
Here in Margaret River, a region in the southwestern corner of Australia, nature is the great, humbling leveler. On this 71-mile-long block of land that pushes bravely into the Indian Ocean and is delineated by two capes, Naturaliste and Leeuwin, eco-tourism puts everyone who is environmentally curious on equal footing.
During a week in this blip on the Australian map, I too tasted the peculiar thrill of pinpointing flora and fauna. I stayed at guesthouses that felt authentically, exhilaratingly Australian. And I tasted wine. Dozens of vineyards lure drivers off Caves Road, the spine connecting the capes, bordered by tangled, infinitely layered bush, lush dairy pasture, and a honeycomb of ancient, visitable limestone caves, at least as terrifying as they are beautiful. The wineries' hope, of course, is that a few free sips will lead to a hefty purchase.
As my stay unfolded, and as I downshifted to Margaret River's languorous rhythm, simple and sophisticated pleasures traded off and piled up, a formula with just the right element of discovery. This is the only formula that has ever really interested me as a traveler. Provence down under?Tuscany in the bush?I could hardly believe my good fortune.
Faced with the overwhelming vastness of Australia, many choose Sydney or Melbourne for their maiden haul, recognizing the cities from datelines in news stories. But I had decided that for my first visit I didn't want a big-city experience. The only other thing I knew was that, to keep flying time down, I wanted to land in the Australian city nearest Paris, my departure point.
That meant Perth.
But Australia is a country that does not take geography lightly, something I learned when planning my trip. I casually suggested to a friend in Melbourne that she might hop over to Perth to see me. "Please, darling," she said witheringly. "It's practically easier for me to go to Fiji."
Still, I thought I was doing a good job of narrowing down the possibilities.
Alas, Perth is the capital of Western Australia, a state that covers roughly one-third of the continent, takes in the entire western coast, and is about the size of western Europe. The state's length north to south is roughly equal to the distance between Chicago and Phoenix.
Like I said, I was narrowing the possibilities.
Then I started to hear about Margaret River, which refers to the plain-Jane town 180 miles south of Perth, to the river, and, more loosely, to the entire wine-producing region surrounding it. (Most towns in the enclave are rather dull and charmless; these are not the Hamptons.) In the late eighties, Australian mappies, or middle-aged professionals, started to descend on the area, igniting a real-estate boom that is far from over. I was less enthusiastic about the older, scented-candle culture that I was told co-existed with the baby boomers. In the end it was Margaret River's natural assets that drew me in, that and the wines. I have no trouble identifying with the priorities of any place that holds an annual wine-and-food festival.
North of Adelaide in the Barossa Valley, Australia's richest and best-known viticultural region, wine has been made since the 1850's. The first commercial vineyards in and around Margaret River were planted in 1967—just yesterday, even in the relatively young world of Australian wine. Nevertheless, these are among the most exciting and promising vineyards not just in the country but in the world. Margaret River produces only 1 percent of all Australian wine but nearly 10 percent of its premium-quality wine.
A study has shown that the region's climate is much like that of France's Bordeaux: frost-free, with high rainfall in winter and warm, dry summers. Margaret River wines are frequently spoken of as fruit-driven, meaning that everything in the wine-making process is done in pursuit of intense, concentrated, fresh-fruit flavor. The Chardonnay made at Leeuwin Estate outstrips most of those made in California and may well be Australia's leading white. (Of Leeuwin it is said that no Australian winery was ever founded with higher ideals, or prices.) Cape Mentelle's is widely considered the country's top Zinfandel. And with its complex fabric of berry, tobacco, chocolate, and oak nuances, Cullen's Cabernet Sauvignon has become a global benchmark. One theory is that volatile-oil vapors emitted by eucalyptus trees in the surrounding bushland (the same vapors that can fuel bush fires) settle onto grape skins and contribute to the earthiness and the mulberry nose typical of Margaret River reds.
American wine kingpin Robert Mondavi acted as midwife when Leeuwin, a former cattle farm, was being converted in the early 1970's. "Robert was fascinating to be around in the early days," remembers Leeuwin owner Trisha Horgan. "We were on a steep learning curve then."
If it's not a glass of wine that's being pressed into your hand in the region, it is bound to be something else that tastes good: the Margaret River Cheese Co.'s handmade Camembert- and Brie-style cheeses; the luscious seven-berry yogurt at Fonti's Dairy Factory; the lemon-cheesecake ice cream at Simmo's; Berry Farm's plum-and-port jam and pear-wine vinegar; the traditional English bitter at Bootleg Brewery, where all the beers are made with rainwater. And if you're still hungry, there's smoked kangaroo meat, wattle seeds, and bunya nuts. The best way to sample this traditional Aboriginal bush food is to take Helen O'Brien's excellent, un-gimmicky, four-hour bush-tucker tour (tucker is a parochial Australian word for food), which also includes canoeing on the Margaret River, cave exploration, and bush walking.
The bush is one of the things in Australia that no one tells you about. Before my trip, I thought that in order to see it I would have to climb into a jeep and venture hours into the interior. I didn't imagine that any place on the coast (90 percent of Australia's population lives within 100 miles of the ocean) would be wild enough to nurture bush. But between the capes, at least, bush is pretty much everything that is not a town, a farm, a vineyard, a beach, or a road.
If a mind-clearing bush walk is never far away, neither is a kangaroo, or two or three or seven. To anyone who's grown up in America, kangaroos inhabit coloring books, cartoons, and the zoo. In their native land I thought that one might be brought out, on a leash, perhaps, as a marsupial curiosity. But the shy roos (as you quickly start calling them here, trying to win points with the locals) are to this pocket of Australia what deer are, say, to Lenox, Massachusetts. Roo-crossing signs put drivers on guard, but to limit damage—and stop the 200-pound animals from crashing through the windshield—many cars are equipped with front-mounted "roo bars."
The advice about how to handle a confrontation is chilling: "Hit the roo. If you try to swerve it will probably jump into your path anyway, and you risk hitting a tree or an oncoming car. That's how people kill themselves." The only thing that made my pulse race faster than a prancing roo was a dead one on the side of the road, a common sight.
The third thing no one prepares you for is the similarities with England. Does everybody but me know that "God Save the Queen" is still played in Australia because Elizabeth II is still the country's nominal head of state?Did I really sleep through that much of high school?Then there are the cream teas, the electrical sockets that you have to bend down to switch on, the soggy and foul terry-cloth runners on pub bars, the blithe refusal to acknowledge any advances made in domestic heating after the construction of Windsor Castle ("A cardy will do tonight, luv, don't you think?" "No, I don't think"), and the guesthouses.
And I am sad to report that many of Margaret River's guesthouses brought back my worst memories of traveling in the English countryside—electric kettles in the guest rooms, depressing little tubs of long-life milk, yeast extract beside the make-it-yourself toaster on the breakfast buffet, and overbearing women who seem to specialize in running such establishments. On my third morning one of these enchanting ladies banged on my door at 8:15, literally commandeering me for breakfast.
Outraged, I was ready to take the next flight out until a local put her behavior into perspective. "Ten years ago, many of the people now in tourist-related businesses in Margaret River were farmers," he explained. "Don't take it personally: your landlady was drawing on the habit of waking up the farmhands to milk the cows."
Much is also forgiven because of the fourth thing Australia hides under a bushel: its people. Even my least-favorite landlady went into town just to buy me an extension cord so that I could use the reception-area phone in my room, in private. Indeed, during seven days of dealing with everyone from waiters to gas-station attendants to supermarket cashiers, I don't think I had a single unpleasant exchange. "No worries"—the standard response to anything asked—became the two loveliest words in the English language. Western Australians claim niceness and liberalism as regional traits. They are, they assured me, the nicest and least-conservative Australians in Australia.
Not all the guesthouses and cottages should be ruled out. Bridgefield, built in 1929, with handsome doors and wainscoting in jarrah, the native hardwood, is owned by Tom Higgins. His knowledge of local history is inestimable—his English ancestors were on the first ship to arrive in the area, in 1830, and he has the documents and photographs to back it up. Once he has your ear, though, it may be hard to get it back. And while the house is a bit close to town for some, Margaret River walking trails are only 100 yards from the front door.
For vernacular style, no accommodations match WillowWood's immaculately rehabilitated 1920's "group settlers cottages," on the lip of a sheep farm. WillowWood's proprietor, Jill Hinde, explained that after World War I an agreement between Western Australia and Britain offered English soldiers, many without any agricultural experience, the chance to become dairy farmers here in what were called group settlements. "What they didn't say was that each man had to clear ten acres of hardwood forest with a crosscut saw," she said. "The soldiers were terribly misled, and the farms were never viable." Mrs. Hinde is a scholar of settler architecture the way some are scholars of Palladian villas.
Nothing takes precedence over historical correctness in her cottages. The 80-year-old weatherboards facing one were salvaged from the assembly hall of a neighboring high school, agonizingly transported by car trailer, and reversed so that the painted sides face in. Demolition yards supplied the vintage windows. When she ran out of period scotia she had it copied. Settler-cottage ceilings were originally of lath and plaster, with battens to mask the joints. WillowWood's ceilings have no joints, but Hinde insisted on battens nevertheless. Everything is as it would have been for the immigrant in the 1920's—the corrugated-metal roofs, the tongue-and-groove floorboards, the bronze window stays with faint copper highlights ("Brass would have been wrong"), even the Bakelite sockets and wall switches mounted on beveled jarrah blocks. The upright oak settee covered in brocade gives you a backache just looking at it.
As you might imagine, there is nothing Mrs. Hinde will not do for her guests. "In the morning I run over from the main house with breakfast on a mahogany tray—grilled sausages stuffed with prunes and wrapped in bacon, ham and cheddar and parsley mousse. Dinner always includes decanted port, chocolate truffles, plunger coffee, nibblies—oh, I guess I should call them hors d'oeuvres."She forgot to mention that the entire meal is served on her own exquisite Victorian silver.
Mrs. Hinde sent me to see two friends who also offer lodgings, and I knew that because she had recommended them I wouldn't be disappointed. Wildbrook is an adorable former shearer's cottage on a sheep and horse farm that dates from the turn of the century. "When doing up the cottage we tried to keep everything old-y," says owner Colleen Wild. "Our idea was to make people feel like part of the farm and family without intruding on their privacy."
In their modern, shipshape way, Waterfall Cottages are just as attractive. Huge expanses of glass bring the outside in. All the cottages have a light, airy feel, but number eight has a view of a part of the Margaret River that tumbles into a waterfall.
Steven Reagan's simple rooms at Newtown House, a typically low-slung 1851 homestead, are also pleasant. Rounding the veranda on the way to bed after dinner is as delicious an experience as tasting Reagan's brine-soaked hot-smoked lamb loin, served with citrus salad and spiced tomato marmalade. He is one of the leading regional chefs.
But no matter how good the food gets in Margaret River, you can rely on its following trends (Asian, Mediterranean) rather than setting them. It's the first-rate local ingredients that distinguish the cuisine: trout, rock lobster, green-lipped abalone, marron and yabby (crayfish), sardines, King George whiting, blue swimmer crabs, cod, venison, lamb. The one dish that turns up repeatedly on menus is marini ere-style mussels spiked with chilies.
John Sills—lured away in August 1996 from the Rockpool in Sydney, one of the best restaurants in Australia, to head the kitchen at Gunyulgup Restaurant—has put every chef in the the area on his toes. On the other hand, entrenched locals in the habit of calling ahead to their favorite places with instructions such as "Put my steak on now; I'll be there soon" are having a tough time unraveling his chicken and prosciutto tortellini showered with rosemary oil and roast-chicken broth. Two other spots at which you are assured of eating well and interestingly are Leeuwin Estate and Flutes Cafe, at Brookland Valley vineyard.
Except for the chili mussels, perhaps, Margaret River is not an experience that can be replayed. Where else do New Holland honey eaters—a rare breed of bird—swoop into restaurants and help themselves to sugar from a bowl?Where else does beach-fringing scrub resemble a rippling, wiry mass of sexy cushion shapes fashioned by an upholsterer?Where else does the soap plant flourish, offering its broad hairy leaves for washing hands?
Everything I loved most about Margaret River belongs to another world.
• Conquer your fear of falcons by letting one perch on your arm at Eagles Heritage Raptor Wildlife Centre. A breeding facility for Australian birds of prey, it's open to the public daily for educational tours.
• Explore a cave and learn Aboriginal survival techniques from Helen O'Brien on Bushtucker Tour's four-hour, something-for-everyone foray into the bush and beyond.
• Saddle up and head off on an overnight camping trip, a sunset gallop, a vineyard tasting tour, or a plant and wildlife excursion with Rosa Brook Horseback Tours.
• Take a walk from Cape Naturaliste to Wyadup on Conservation and Land Management's 11-mile coastal track. From June through December you might spot whales swimming close to shore.
• Trek through wetlands, banksia woodlands, and forests of karri, jarrah, and marri trees on a three-hour hike offered by Boranup Eco Walks. There is no better introduction to the Margaret River landscape.
Australia is about as far from the United States as you can get, whichever direction you travel. The usual route is across the Pacific, which means flying out of Los Angeles or San Francisco. From both cities, there are direct flights to Melbourne and Sydney—but not to Perth, your touchdown city when you're visiting Margaret River. Since the train from Sydney takes 65 hours, you'll want to book an internal flight on a domestic carrier (Qantas, Ansett). Australian seasons are the opposite of ours: the first day of summer falls in late December, and winter is at its chilliest in July and August.
Bridgefield Guest House
BEST VALUE 73 Bussell Hwy., Margaret River; 61-97/573-007; doubles (with shared bath only) $55, including breakfast.
Bussell Hwy., Vasse; 61-97/554-485; doubles $110, including breakfast; dinner for two $70.
Lot 1, Kevill Rd. East, Margaret River; 61-97/573-228, fax 61-97/572-658; cottages for two $120.
Caves Rd., Margaret River; 61-97/573-664; cottage for two $130, including breakfast.
Rosa Brook Rd., Margaret River; 61-97/575-080, fax 61-97/575-083; cottages for two $130, including breakfast.
Restaurants & Wineries
Bessell Rd., Margaret River; 61-97/575-054; lunch for two $35. The best place for afternoon cream tea. To buy: superb fruit wine.
Wallcliffe Rd., Margaret River; 61-97/ 573-266. One of the top wineries, with daily tours.
Caves Rd., Willyabrup; 61-97/555-277. Another winery that offers tours.
Brookland Valley Vineyard, Caves Rd., Willyabrup; 61-97/556-250; lunch for two $45.
Gunyulgup Valley Dr., Yallingup; 61-97/552-434; dinner for two $75.
Stevens Rd., Margaret River; 61-97/576-253; lunch for two $55. You can also tour Leeuwin's winery, home of Australia's leading white.
Boranup Eco Walks
Forest Grove, Margaret River; phone and fax 61-97/ 577-576; walks from $10.50 a person.
61-97/579-084, fax 61-97/573-889; four-hour tours $18 a person. Reservations for this and other tours can also be made through the Augusta-Margaret River Tourism Association (61-97/572-911, fax 61-97/573-287).
Conservation and Land Management
14 Queen St., Busselton; 61-97/ 521-677. Call for trail maps.
Eagles Heritage Raptor Wildlife Centre
Boodjidup Rd., Margaret River; 61-97/572-960; admission $5 a person. Flight demonstrations daily.
Rosa Brook Horseback Tours
Rosa Brook Rd., Margaret River; 61-97/573-339; two-hour bush-trail rides $26 a person.
Swain Australia Tours
800/227-9246 or 610/896-9595. Australia's largest custom-tour operator, Swain can design Margaret River itineraries.
The Margaret River Wine and Food Festival, which brings together some 35 vineyards, is slated for the last week in November in 1997.
James Halliday's Pocket Companion to Australian and New Zealand Wines (Angus & Robertson)—With this guide you can tour the vineyards and sample their finest vintages.
Lonely Planet Guide: Western Australia by Jeff Williams (Lonely Planet)—In-depth, down-to-earth information for travelers on any budget.
Outdoor Traveler's Guide to Australia by Gerry Ellis and Sharon Cohen (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)—Explore natural areas, with maps, color photos, and descriptions of flora and fauna.
On The Web
Cruising the Cape (http://www.margaret-river.com.au/cape/index.html)—Articles and listings point you to the best caves, wineries, galleries, and spots for surfing and whale-watching.
The gallery at Margaret River's Melting Pot Glass Studio, whose works reflect Middle Eastern and Venetian designs.