Celebrated British wine doyenne and writer Jancis Robinson has declared Western Australia’s Margaret River wine region is as close to paradise as you can get.
A bit too gushy, perhaps? Maybe not, especially if you enjoy drinking some of the world’s best wines and like the finer things in life. Any surfer worth his salt-encrusted hide would probably use a similar analogy. The curious fusion of wine-making and waves in a majestic environment – a kind of a vocation meets vacation scenario – has put this far-flung cape well and truly on the international map.
Add to the mix peace and quiet, fine cuisine, elegant accommodation, clean air and ocean, great beaches, a pristine national park and a slow and easy lifestyle, and you have the makings of Margaret River magic.
But you don’t need to be on surf safari to fall under the spell. There’s a plethora of other natural and man-made enticements on offer to lure the adventurous traveller. Simply splice a week out of your frantic life, stuff the piles of bills in the draw and splurge – go ahead, do it in style!
Drive the length of marvellous Caves Road, the golden thread that links all the best of the wine region, and you won’t be disappointed.
From the tranquil waters of Geographe Bay in the north, down the ancient cave carved Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge, through the picturesque vineyards and karri forests of the heartland, to the desolate beauty of Cape Leeuwin in the south, this route opens up a world of splendid natural contrasts and sites.
Start at Cape Naturaliste, named after one of the Napoleonic French scientific vessels that came to explore and chart the promising region in 1801. One side of the cape is the wild Indian Ocean with its great breakers streaming spindrift mains as they crash ashore; on the protected eastern side are the calm, turquoise waters of Geographe Bay, named after the other French vessel. No better spot for a bracing swim in the warmer months.
Jump onto Caves Road for the trip south. Ah, beautiful Caves Road, the essence of the cape – over 130kms of fabulous weaving and undulating driving pleasure. In Yallingup art lovers should drop in to the Gunyulgup, Yallingup and Purist galleries, and stop off to meet Renaissance man John Miller at his celebrated jewellery design studio. These are numerous studios and showrooms in the region displaying fine local and Australian works.
While sojourning at the north end of the cape, be sure to enjoy a long lunch at the new Lamonts at Smith Beach Resort, or one of the many world-class winery restaurants found in the area. If you want to see a bit more of the north end of the cape, there’s some notable top echelon accommodation. Among the smartest are Cape Lodge, Windmills Break, Bunker Bay Resort, Empire Retreat, Injidup Spa Resort, Smith Beach Resort and the Asian-inspired Yallingup Luxury Retreat. These, among others, offer the height of luxury and world-class service and style. It’s worth lingering up around “Yalls” a few nights and absorbing the ample local charm.
The drive not only reveals a charming patchwork vista of farms and wineries, but also a pristine natural landscape. Most of the land to the west of this wonderful, lazy ribbon of a road is given over to the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, known for its rare flora and fauna, towering forests, magnificent caves and rugged coastline. There has even been some talk in recent years of submitting this glorious coastal reserve for a World Heritage Site listing – that’s how impressive it is!
Travellers will find the little side roads and tracks irresistible. It’s particularly worth detouring on the ones heading out west to the coast (which is always within three to five kilometres from Caves Road). Here can be found some of Australia’s best beaches and picturesque bays, washed by arguably the cleanest ocean on earth. Many locations you’ll have completely to yourself for a picnic, a plunge or a laze in the sun.
About 15kms south of Yallingup the traveller will enter the Willyabrup Valley, the celebrated birthplace of modern Margaret River wine. If any product has single-handedly put the region on the international map it would have to be the wines. Here you will find the elite pioneering names in fabulous local wine – Cullen, Pierro, Vasse Felix, Moss Wood, Gralyn, Brookland Vallley, Moss Brothers, Lenton Brae…and the list of acclaimed labels goes on and on.
There’s also some outstanding newer award-winning wineries keeping up the local tradition for absolute excellence. These include Edwards, Thompson Estate, Fraser Gallop Estate, Howard Park, Flametree, Cape Grace, Juniper, Fire Gully and Peacetree. Today the names of the Margaret River houses of wine grace the tables of the world with refinement and style.
Though a relative newcomer on the wine scene – 45 years to be exact – few locations are so perfectly suited to producing distinctive, premium styles. Be they intense, nuanced Chardonnays, rich Semillons, elegant fruit-driven Cabernet Merlots or delicate Shiraz, the wines have a reputation for distinguished character and have brought home numerous Australian and international awards during their relatively short history.
Blessed with a pristine grape-growing environment, Margaret River already supplies over 27 percent of Australia’s top-end wines. This is extraordinary considering the area provides less than three percent of Australia’s total wine production. Though the majority of wineries are located in the Willyabrup Valley and central cape, vineyards continue to spring up throughout the area.
Today over 100 vineyards and wineries have been established. Each has a unique ambience and charisma, some of the winemakers and owners having as much unique character as their celebrated produce. Along with surfing, wine has been the region’s most influential ambassador. Pour a glass: the proof is right before you!
If it’s a surf you crave before a glass of brilliant Sauvignon Blanc at lunch then take a pit stop a bit further down Caves Road at the wave riding mecca of Surfer’s Point at Prevelly Park. Surfers first started coming here in the late 1950s when there was nothing but dirt tracks through the bush leading down to the coast. They were intrepid wave hunters lugging vast wooden boards not much shorter than the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk. They mostly came on surf safari from Perth in old bombs like their grandma’s “borrowed” Humber or uncle Jack’s ’48 Ford.
What they found was some of the planet’s biggest and most consistent rideable waves. They would beat down the impossible bush tracks to discover new breaks, sleep under coruscating stars, drive the farmers to distraction and amuse themselves by throwing unopened baked bean tins in camp fires, which would invariably explode to great collective delight. The wine industry at the time was yet to be born, the region was very poor and surf was king. Just like the young surfers of today, nothing could quell the pioneers’ innocent love of the pristine Indian Ocean and her glorious inky blue swells.
Next week we continue our ramble down Caves Road from Margaret River’s vibrant township to the desolate beauty of Cape Leeuwin and Augusta in the south, encountering more wonders along the way. For more information about a getaway in Australia’s most beautiful wine region visit www.margaretriver.com or www.geographebay.com.