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Roaming Australia's Margaret River Region

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.

5 MARGARET RIVER ADVENTURES

• 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.

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