At the very end of 2015, I found myself aboard a Bombardier Q400 descending into RAAF Learmonth, the local air base that does double duty as the civilian airport in Exmouth, on Western Australia’s central coast. As the plane banked, I caught sight of the Indian Ocean spreading out to the horizon from Ningaloo Reef. Sand, spun by currents, whorled in patterns of milky opacity in its depths, looking like chalcedony set in clear sapphire. Shades of palest green segued into numinous opalescence amid the reef’s shallows. It was an unforgettable sight: a vast aqueous abstraction, unnervingly beautiful next to the livid orange earth of the bush, as if Venus had collided with Mars.
Western Australia, the country’s largest state, has over 20,000km of coastline, stretching from the warm Timor Sea in the north all the way to the frigid Great Australian Bight in the south, much of it fronting the Indian Ocean (hence those brazen equatorial shades imprinted on my memory). It’s known to the rest of the world mostly for the extractable commodities – iron ore, aluminium, diamonds, copper and others – mined deep in its interior, but in the collective local identity, it is the coast that seems to play the more prevalent role. “I am at the beach looking west with the continent behind me as the sun tracks down to the sea,” writes WA native Tim Winton, one of Australia’s most lauded novelists, in Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir. “I have my bearings.”
Yet very few non-Australians have theirs here. With the exception of some intrepid surfers, divers and adventurers – among them the late Alistair McAlpine, whose passion for, and sizeable business interests in, Western Australia saw him live on and off for a decade in the northern pearling town of Broome – the received tourism narrative seems to be: save Western Australia for your second (or third, or fourth) trip. Sydney and Melbourne have the monopoly on relaxed urbanity, culture and world-beating restaurants. Boho-gypset types favour the bucolic hinterlands of Byron Bay in New South Wales, and sybarites make for the balmy private-island resorts – Lizard, Bedarra, Hayman – up around the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland. And of course, for the ultimate bush experience there is Uluru, the nation’s older-than-time navel, in the Northern Territory. For better or worse, for many travellers, Western Australia is still flyover country.
An industry gamble may soon change that. Next month Qantas launches a nonstop service between Heathrow and Perth on its swanky new fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners – some 17 airborne hours, all told, but nonstop nonetheless. State and regional tourism entities are marshalling resources to support the foray, trumpeting WA’s diversity of attractions. There is the laidback appeal of Perth, with its lush parks, outstanding beaches and what is still Australia’s best city hotel, the beautiful and impeccably run Como The Treasury. There are Ningaloo’s captivating land- and seascape contrasts, not to mention its annual whale-shark migration, which is bucket-list material for wildlife enthusiasts. And in the far north there is the Kimberley, with its strange and spectacular Bungle Bungle mountain range – a place, as my colleague James Henderson once noted for How to Spend It, that even Aussies consider a final frontier.
And then there is Margaret River, in another direction entirely, both geographically and figuratively. It sits on its own remote peninsula at the most southwesterly point of the state, about three hours’ drive from Perth (though, with the Heathrow arrivals imminent, various luxury seaplane and helicopter transfers from the capital’s airport are becoming easier to book). Its 100km-plus of coastline encircle quintessential rural Australian landscapes – ethereal forests of ruler-straight karri trees, like something out of Middle-earth; grasslands crisscrossed by eucalyptus, across which both cattle and huge red kangaroos roam; Federation homesteads and sun-faded settler’s shacks, many of them surrounded by neat parcels of vineyards.
Those vineyards are what Margaret River is best known for, inside and outside Australia. The region contributes less than five per cent to the country’s total volume of wine, but accounts for 20 per cent of its premium output, with award-winning Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays its stars. (Cape Mentelle, one of the oldest wineries here, was picked up by LVMH in 2003.)
Food too is fast becoming a Margaret River hallmark: Gourmet Escape, an annual four-day festival of parties, talks, tastings and sit-down dinners inaugurated in 2012, has helped fix the region in the minds of gastronomes. Rick Stein, Heston Blumenthal, David Thompson and the FT’s own Jancis Robinson have all participated and been very vocally enraptured (in the case of Robinson, who described Margaret River some years ago as “the closest thing to paradise of any wine region I have visited”, the love is very much reciprocated). Gorgeous farmer’s markets abound, with biodynamically grown fruits and vegetables, single-origin coffees, chutneys produced by Lyon-trained chefs and artisanal sheep’s cheeses made by expat Swiss – unexpectedly refined fare in what is plainly the deep bush.
But that is the sweet spot Margaret River sits in: one where a surprisingly sophisticated lifestyle and staggering natural beauty exist in a way that, if not untouched by tourism, is not remotely undone by it. This is in great part because outside the summer months, it – like much of the rest of Western Australia that’s not Perth – is dazzlingly empty. On the entire peninsula, from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin in the far south, there’s a fixed population of around 50,000. The primary towns along Caves Road, the two‑lane artery that traverses its length, collectively demonstrate a marked and marvellous absence of twee.
Margaret River may feel gloriously next-to-deserted much of the year, but you can somehow get sublime sushi, exemplary ceviche and farm-to-table Continental fare made marvellously original with indigenous herbs or produce. The best coffee I’ve ever had in Australia (which is really saying something) was in July – the middle of winter – out the back of an old VW Kombi I came across parked at Prevelly Beach, just below Margaret River town, served by a dreadlocked twentysomething in a wetsuit whose eyes never left the surf the whole time he deftly ground, pressed and poured.
What’s perhaps less known abroad about Margaret River – but not for long, I suspect – is that it is one of the country’s most richly endowed outdoor playgrounds (to Australians, for whom beach-going and bushwalking exist somewhere between national pastime and God-given right, the region already has considerable cachet). Walking trails abound, as do uniquely beautiful encounters between land and sea. The coast itself is traced its entire length by the Cape to Cape – one of a handful of paths recognised countrywide for offering outstanding natural beauty.
I spent a breezy bluebird morning last November exploring one of its northern sections with Janita Cottman, a Yallingup local and guide with a local outfit called Walk into Luxury. It arranges such expert accompaniment for hours, or days, at a time, as well as gourmet picnic hampers or winery lunches (at my request we opted for rucksacks stuffed with treats – salads, charcuterie – and locally made sparkling cider). For several hours, we scaled low dunes and ducked between outcroppings of 600-million-year-old metamorphic rocks, clutches of red coral vine clinging tenaciously to their sides. Thick stands of tea tree brushed our legs, the scent, along with native rosemary and peppermint – more pungent and elemental than their European counterparts – stirring as we passed. Nowhere was there so much as a rooftop visible. Below us, the turquoise-teal Indian Ocean put on a high-drama show, breaking onto granite headlands in great spumes of spray or susurrating into and out of natural rock pools. Every kilometre or so, a narrow parenthesis of deserted white beach would appear. One of these bore a pristine set of footprints, the dawn imprimatur of some aspiring castaway. Save for a spry elderly couple we’d passed hours earlier, they were the only sign of human life I saw all morning.
From mid-December to late February, however, Margaret River’s population can easily triple (obscurity, here as elsewhere, being relative; wealthy Perthites – and thanks to the mining industry, some are very wealthy indeed – maintain summer estates in the area, with the finest overlooking the river). Surprisingly, though, there’s a dearth of sophisticated, characterful accommodation – curious in a place where sophistication and creativity otherwise flourish. (It’s one of the reasons clued-in visitors often rent the aforementioned private houses from one of a small stable of good local agencies, such as Private Properties and Exclusive Escapes.) Cape Lodge, the luxury stalwart here and still the region’s only official five-star boutique hotel, sits in lovely grounds on Caves Road, its Cape Dutch-style buildings prettily lush with wisteria, bougainvillea and climbing roses, if not exactly reflective of their Australian coordinates. Some rooms have recently been renovated, with indulgent white-marble baths and terraces overlooking a small pond; other spaces – the tea lounge, the restaurant – are frankly in need of some inspired attention, though the restaurant’s food, consisting of loosened-up, locally accented permutations of fine French cooking, is excellent.
Up the road is the breezy, Ibiza- and Bali-inspired Empire Retreat, a spa and luxe B&B whose handful of suites and one-bedroom villas are kitted out in ikat and suzani, sea grass and sisal and pastel tones. And down on the cliff at Injidup, just above the Cape to Cape walk, is Injidup Spa Retreat: 10 slick, super-private one- and two-bedroom villas facing the water, all glass and polished concrete. There’s no restaurant, no room service (though they supply a breakfast hamper and bottle of wine on arrival) – Injidup caters to those for whom an empty ocean vista constitutes the finest luxury there is.
But most of the time people are out and about anyway. Local events, at which visitors are welcome, fill the summer calendar here: pop-up restaurants, tastings, talks, exhibitions. At Leeuwin Estate, one of Margaret River’s oldest wineries, James Taylor, Sting, Roxy Music and their ilk play twilight sets to picnickers on the enormous lawn during the annual summer concert. (Less publicised is Leeuwin’s art gallery, housed in a former cellar, holding more than 150 works that constitute a who’s who of 20th- and 21st-century Australian art.) At Cape Mentelle, there’s a nightly outdoor cinema series, with blankets and bean chairs, gourmet food and various house pours.
On a hot summer afternoon, one of the best places to rock up and while away an hour or two is Vasse Felix. It’s owned and run by Paul Holmes à Court, whose late father Robert – the South African-born corporate tycoon who was Australia’s first billionaire – was an early believer in the promise of the region’s terroir, and bought the winery Vasse Felix in 1987. The excellence of its output has propelled it into Western Australian stardom (Wine Enthusiast named it its 2017 New World Winery of the Year). But it was also one of the first wineries here to offer hospitality, and its restaurant and indoor-outdoor café-lounge are still some of the best eating in the area, in some of its best-looking surrounds. Robert’s wife Janet has amassed a – arguably, the – world-class collection of Australian art, and in particular indigenous art, comprising more than 4,000 works. For years, what wasn’t on loan to various museums was displayed in the Holmes à Court Gallery in Perth, but not long ago that gallery moved down here, into the original winery building; themed exhibitions now rotate in and out every couple of months.
If there’s a single place that manifests what Margaret River stands for today, Vasse Felix is it: an architectural style that celebrates heritage; genuine hospitality that surprises, and delights, with its exceptional quality; culture that reflects the place it’s in; a setting in staggeringly beautiful nature. Over a glass in the light-saturated tasting room, with its views of vines and gum trees bowing and swooping in the breeze, Paul and I discussed Margaret River’s evolution, from maverick outpost in the 1970s to the more monied and exclusive lifestyle hub it seems to be evolving into – and what he thinks the expected arrival of a new European contingent of visitors augurs for its fortunes. He intimates with a gleam in his eye that he’s toying with the idea of making a world-class contribution to the hospitality scene here in Margaret River, on a site very close by, in the near future. It’s a space worth watching; Holmes à Court’s track record is sound, and his timing couldn’t be better.