Coastal road trip in Western Australia is a long-held dream finally fully realized
Rainbow lorikeets and bright pink galah cockatoos flitted between eucalyptus trees and banksia blossoms that resembled giant yellow and orange candles.
We were in the middle of Perth, prowling Kings Park and Botanic Garden, one of the world’s largest city parks and a 1,003-acre urban oasis of wild creatures, wild landscapes and native wildflowers.
Western Australia, or WA, isn’t as well known as, say New South Wales, home to Sydney, or Victoria, where you’ll find Melbourne. WA is the country’s biggest state yet has only 10% of its population.
Perth, its capital with 1.7 million residents, is one of the most remote cities on Earth, closer to Jakarta, Indonesia, than to Sydney, Australia’s largest city a continent away.
Within Perth’s metro region are 19 white-sand Indian Ocean surfing beaches, vast green spaces, spotless urban trains, free downtown buses and more sunshine than any Australian capital city.
A massive riverfront renovation recently created open-air entertainment and leisure space, fantastic public art and architecture, bike paths, waterfront bars and restaurants.
Photographer Jim Hutchison and I had a long-term dream to take a road trip from Perth to the state’s South West, the only stretch of Australian coast we had never driven during 40 years of traveling and working Down Under.
The South West is remarkably diverse: It has more than 600 miles of coastline, six wine-growing regions, forests of towering indigenous trees, national parks, wildlife and wide-open spaces that explode with wildflowers in spring.
We left Perth in March, early autumn in Australia, on a three-hour drive on State Route 2 to the Margaret River. This farming, cheese-making, craft beer and wine region is known for its tender Arkady lamb and delicious local freshwater crayfish called marron.
The epicenter of all things edible and artisanal was the lively weekend Margaret River Farmers’ Market. We prowled the stalls for local produce, meats and artisanal goodies.
We settled into a Bramley Wood cottage on a farm three miles from the sea and sipped morning coffee as we watched kangaroos, peacocks and parrots graze alongside the neighbors’ sheep.
Then we winery hopped, starting at award-winning Vasse Felix for a tasting and lunch overlooking the vineyards and finishing on Cape Mentelle Vineyards’ sprawling lawn watching an outdoor evening movie while holding a glass of chilled Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc.
Throughout our week in the Margaret River, we walked and hiked sections of the 84-mile Cape to Cape Trail through coastal Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, along headlands and pristine beaches where we watched world-class surf breaking on the deserted sand.
We set off again, this time driving inland on State Route 102, stopping for a tea and warm homemade scone breakfast at Cambray Farmhouse, an award-winning maker of sheep cheeses, including luscious Camembert and chili Gouda.
Lunch was at the Truffle & Wine Co. in Manjimup where, in season June through August, you can head out with the estate’s dogs to find black truffles. We simply enjoyed them on a fresh pizza.
A downpour added a mysterious mist to the spectacular landscape of giant karri trees as we turned onto Highway 1 and into the Southern Forests, a collection of state forest reserves and national parks, spotting kangaroos and flocks of multicolored parrots.
There were many opportunities for forest walks and cycling, and it was even possible to climb some of the towering timbers originally used as fire lookouts in the 1940s. The biggest, known as the Gloucester Tree near Pemberton, is 200 feet tall.
Farther south, through dense forest and alongside the lovely waterways of Mount Frankland National Park, we reached the Walpole Wilderness Area, another patchwork of nature reserves and national parks where we strolled the Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk, a forest canopy120 feet above ground, for breathtaking views of 400-year-old Red Tingle eucalyptus giants.
After reaching the southern coast, still on Highway 1, we turned east and headed toward a charming candlelight wine tasting at Singlefile Wines near Denmark, slowing on the way for a gang of emus strutting across the road.
After a 230-mile drive, we settled into a classic Victorian settler’s cottage in Albany for the night. The historic town, a former whaling outpost, has convict jails, old taverns, galleries and a museum.
From Albany, we drove through Australia’s Southern Wheat Belt, a farming region where wildflowers thrive along the roadside.
We stopped repeatedly to see the countless strange and fantastical blossoms. Western Australia has the world’s largest collection of wildflowers, more than 12,000 species with over 60% found nowhere else.
Visitors flock to WA for the wildflowers, which peak in October and November, their spring. We even spotted banksias on a mural painted on a series of grain silos in Ravensthorpe.
’Roos on the beach
After a 300-mile-drive day on Highway 1 we reached Esperance, a seaside town of 10,000 that is a jumping-off point for islands and vast expanses of white-sand beaches along a string of coastal national parks.
Before dinner we drove 25 miles along Twilight Beach Road, watching the pounding surf of the Southern Ocean turn red in the sunset.
Then we headed for the Loose Goose restaurant in Esperance for local scallops, oysters and my favorite: “Yummy Gummy,” the delicious, flaky meat of the common Australian gummy shark.
Early the next morning we took off on a flight-seeing tour of bubble-gum pink Lake Hillier on Middle Island. Scientists speculate that bacteria in the lake’s salt crust create the astonishing color.
Middle is the largest of the islands of the Recherche Archipelago, which a former whaler-turned-pirate named Black Jack Anderson frequented in the 1830s before being killed by his crew.
By afternoon, after a short ferry ride, we were on Woody Island, sitting on a rock in the sunshine sipping tea with views across the turquoise sea after snorkeling and bush walking in search of little penguins (the smallest of the species at about 13 inches tall) that nest on the island.
The next afternoon, as we rode in a four-wheel-drive through low brush to endless sand dunes, our local guide Mark Anderson said, “Fingers crossed the ’roos are on the beach.”
We were driving 15 miles of wide, deserted beach east of Esperance, accompanied by herons and oystercatchers.
Finally we reached Cape Le Grand National Park and its most famous feature, blindingly white Lucky Bay — locals claim it’s Australia’s whitest beach — where kangaroos bounce along the sand and lounge by the surf, something they’re not usually inclined to do.
Sure enough the ’roos were there, curious and hopping about. It was a magical setting, and we made a mental note of the local park campsite with sea views, hot and cold running water and barbecue pits with free gas. Our next visit, perhaps.
Before leaving Esperance we dropped in at the local municipal museum to see the remains of the NASA Skylab after it slammed to Earth outside town in July 1979.
In true Aussie style, locals took a lighthearted dig at NASA for scattering space junk over Esperance, sending them a $400 fine for littering.
It was never paid.
A piece of the rock
Esperance is the gateway to a long, lonely drive east over the arid Nullarbor Plain to South Australia, but we backtracked to Ravensthorpe and turned northward on State Route 40 toward Perth.
By early afternoon we arrived at our last essential pit stop in the tiny outpost of Hyden (population 520) and checked into the Wave Rock Motel, a sprawling, family-friendly accommodation built and owned by local farmers.
I particularly loved the first line of the hotel’s history on its web page: “The Hyden Hotel was built in 1964 after farmers in the area decided that they would like a hotel in preference to drinking in the streets, as Hyden was known as the town with streets paved with bottle tops.”
We dropped our luggage and headed three miles out of town to glimpse the phenomenon of Wave Rock. It seemed fitting that our last stop on a 1,150-mile mostly coastal road trip should end with what looked like a 49-foot-tall ocean wave.
But in this case it was frozen in time, formed 2.63 billion years ago.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO PERTH, AUSTRALIA
From LAX, Qantas, Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia, Etihad, Cathay Pacific and Singapore offer connecting service (change of planes) to Perth. Restricted round-trip airfares from $1,427, including taxes and fees.
To call the numbers below from the U.S. dial 011 (the international dialing code), 61 (the country code for Australia), 8 (the area code) and the local number.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Peppers Kings Square Hotel, 621 Wellington St., Perth; www.peppers.com.au/kings-square. Convenient and chic downtown boutique hotel. Doubles from $110.
Como the Treasury, 1 Cathedral Ave., Perth; 6168-7888, www.comohotels.com/thetreasury. Contemporary luxury hotel in Perth’s newly renovated historic Treasury Building. Doubles from $460.
Pullman Bunker Bay Resort & Spa, Bunker Bay Road, Bunker Bay; 9756-9100, www.pullmanbunkerbayresort.com.au. Set on secluded Bunker Bay Beach in the Margaret River wine region with a spa and award-winning Other Side of the Moon restaurant. All rooms with kitchenettes. Doubles from $276.
Esperance Island View Apartments, 14-15 the Esplanade, Esperance; www.esperanceapartments.com.au. Chic apartments with fully equipped kitchens and laundry across the street from the beach, near the jetty and town. Doubles from $175.
Wave Rock Motel, 2 Lynch St., Hyden; 9880-5052, lat.ms/waverockmotel. Casual motel three miles from Wave Rock. Double rooms from $120. Its Bush Bistro is a lively old-style Aussie pub-like eatery where you grill your own steaks. Dinner for two from $50.
WHERE TO EAT
Hummus Club, 258 William St., Perth; 9227-8215, thehummusclub.com. Trendy and popular Middle Eastern restaurant in up-and-coming Northbridge neighborhood. Dinner for two from $50.
Wildflower Perth, 1 Cathedral Ave., Perth; 6168-7780, www.wildflowerperth.com.au. Elegant rooftop fine-dining restaurant in the downtown Treasury building. Voted one of Australia’s best restaurants; local and forager-driven menus. Dinner for two from $150.
The Goose, Geographe Bay Road, Busselton; 9754-7700, www.thegoose.com.au. Casual, bright and chic beachfront alfresco eatery focused on regional cuisine and wines. Lunch for two from $50.
Voyager Estate Winery, Stevens Road, Margaret River; 9757-6354, www.voyagerestate.com.au. Luxurious restaurant at the Voyager Winery offers decadent teas ($40 per person) as well as four and seven-course tastings menus including a winery estate tour. From $75 per person. Reservations required.
The Loose Goose, 9A Andrews St., Esperance; 9071-2320, www.loosegooseesperance.com.au. Popular restaurant featuring fresh local seafood and meats. Dinner for two from $50.
Ocean Blues Cafe, 19 the Esplanade, Esperance; 9071-7107, lat.ms/oceanblues. Casual all-day waterfront eatery with local seafood a specialty. Bring your own wine. Lunch for two from $40.
WHAT TO DO
Two Feet & a Heartbeat Walking Tours, P.O. Box 1234, Scarborough; 7007-0492, www.twofeet.com.au. Informative and fun two- to three-hour walking tours in Perth and the historic neighboring port of Freemantle. From $30 per person.
Goldfields Air Services, Esperance Airport, Coolgardie-Esperance Highway, Gibson; 800-359-427, lat.ms/goldfields. One-hour-and-40-minute scenic flight over pink Lake Hillier on Middle Island. $265 per person.
Woody Island Eco Tours, Taylor Street, Esperance; 0484 327-580, www.woodyisland.com.au. Half-day wildlife tours to this wilderness island 20 minutes by ferry from Esperance. $65 per adult. Walking/hiking, snorkeling and fishing offered. Also has overnight safari tent and two- and four-person tent camping experiences.
Esperance Eco Discovery Tours, 71 the Esplanade, Esperance; www.esperancetours.com. Small-group, half-day four-wheel-drive tours along the spectacular coast of Cape Le Grand National Park. $90 per person.
TO LEARN MORE
Tourism Australia, www.australia.com
Tourism Western Australia, www.westernaustralia.com
Australia’s South West, www.australiassouthwest.com
Australia’s Golden Outback, www.australiasgoldenoutback.com
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