Margaret River may be world famous for its wines but it also has many other stunning attractions, Winsor Dobbin discovers.
Margaret River is not only one of Australia’s most spectacular gourmet regions, it is also one of the largest and most diverse. It would take a week or more just to scratch the surface of its charms.
A three-hour drive south of Perth, Margaret River is known for producing some of the best wine in Australia thanks to a climate similar to that of Bordeaux. The overall production may be small but Margaret River accounts for over 15 per cent of Australia’s premium wines. There are also many surf beaches and national parks in which to relax; a seriously laidback ambience and Augusta, to the south, where the Southern and Indian oceans meet, is renowned as one of the best places to see migrating whales in season.
It’s hard to think of many regions with so much to offer in such close proximity, although you need to allow plenty of time for travel as the vineyards extend 60 kilometres to the north of Margaret River township and 40 kilometres to the south. With big names including Voyager Estate, Leeuwin Estate, Vasse Felix, Cullen, Cape Mentelle, Howard Park, Devil’s Lair, Moss Wood, Pierro, Stella Bella, Brookland Valley and Xanadu and boutique operations like McHenry Hohnen, Edwards, Flametree, Mantra/Wine by Brad, Woodlands, Clairault-Streicker and Fraser Gallop Estate, there are certainly plenty of tastings to be enjoyed.
Back in the 1960s, this was a peaceful little coastal region popular largely with surfers and retirees. Then a handful of local farmers and Perth doctors decided to plant a few vines and take up winemaking as a hobby – and the region changed forever.
Not only are there well over 100 wineries to visit, many of them offering lunch or dinner, there are also dozens of great places to eat, a plethora of gourmet food retailers, dozens of small arts and crafts shops, galleries and pottery workshops. There are also several boutique breweries that are extremely popular, as well as The Grove, a distillery producing its own whiskies and other spirits.
What makes Margaret River so appealing is its diversity; from surfing to limestone caves, lighthouses, golf courses and character-filled villages. And it is visually stunning. But if its wine you’ve come for then there are several cellar doors that are de rigueur.
Vasse Felix was the first commercial vineyard and winery in the region and is owned and operated by the Holmes a Court family. The cellar door, restaurant and art gallery are in a lovely setting and winemaker Virginia Willcock has been making some stunning wines recently – her Heytesbury chardonnays are among the best in the country.
Voyager Estate is home to one of Australia’s most spectacular cellar door/restaurant complexes overlooking meticulously tended vines, rose gardens and sweeping lawns. The Cape Dutch-inspired complex has tastings of several wines that are featured at cellar door only and self-guided tours are available. Xanadu also has an excellent restaurant serving modern Australian dishes with an Asian twist.
Leeuwin Estate (pictured left) is the venue for regular concerts and has both a top-notch restaurant and art gallery, while Aravina Estate offers not only a restaurant and private tasting room but also a providore and a car museum, as well as a children’s playground. Howard Park, a chic, modern facility features tastings of wines under the Burch family’s many labels, including MadFish and Marchand and Burch.
And then there are the smaller, more personalised experiences like Cape Naturaliste Wines, Heydon Estate, Windows Estate and Arimia Estate, some of which are off the beaten track and probably best explored with the assistance of a tour company like award-winning Top Drop Tours, which creates bespoke itineraries depending on its guests interests and favourite wine styles.
Hamelin Bay at Karridale in the far south of the region has a cellar door with a kids’ play area to keep youngsters occupied while parents are busy tasting. Gourmet platters are the speciality here. Sit outside and take in sweeping views of the vineyards and dam. Cape Grace offers free winery tours, while Gralyn Estate is known for its port styles, and a delicious white chocolate fortified wine, and Churchview Estate highlights unusual varieties like marsanne and zinfandel.
Deciding where to eat in Margaret River is a real poser given the number of top-notch cellar door eateries, and the variety of restaurants in bustling Margaret River township, where the lively Settlers Tavern pub is a constant hive of activity. Muster, formerly known as Must, is an offshoot of a long-time Perth wine bar known for its local pork provided by farmer/vigneron David McHohnen and its selection of dry-aged steaks – the perfect match for one of the local cabernets.
Recent newcomer Swings Taphouse and Kitchen (pictured right) serves wines on tap as well as finely crafted dishes from a kitchen that has already gained national attention. The “drink now” style wines, are available by the glass, half carafe or carafe in a modern space that was previously known as Vino’s and the menu features quality pizzas and share plates along with dishes like wood-fired half chicken with salsa verde and steamed mussels with garlic, parsley and lemon.
The popular Morries Anytime is a local hangout that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week and is known for its cocktails while Gnarabar at Prevelly Beach is another favourite with residents and there are several ethnic eateries and cafes, as well as long-time favourite the Arc of Iris. A much-vaunted newcomer is Mikis Open Kitchen, a tiny Japanese restaurant.
The many winery lunching options include the excellent Aravina Estate, where former Cape Lodge chef Tony Howell is creating some superbly innovative dishes with an Asian twist; Vasse Felix, which has long been regarded among the finest in the region, and Cullen Wines, where a lovely dining room looks out over the vines and the dishes are all either organic or biodynamic.
Voyager Estate winery restaurant serves serious food in a lovely setting, including fabulous six-course degustations with matching wines known as the Discovery Menu, and is acknowledged as one of the top vineyard restaurants in the country, while Knee Deep’s restaurant is a relative newcomer that has attracted a lot of attention.
Leeuwin Estate gives visitors the opportunity to taste flights of wines matched with canapes, or full al a carte dining in a stylish setting while Flutes restaurant at Brookland Valley is another delightfully relaxed eatery overlooking a dam with French and Asian-influenced dishes. Also try Hay Shed Hill for delicious food in a relaxed ambience, Xanadu for seriously long lunches and Flametree for quick and delicious platters.
Other good stopoffs include Eagle Bay Brewing (a family operation with a range of beers and some excellent food options), The Farmhouse Margaret River (for delicious meats and smallgoods). Also try to check out the locally produced Bahen & Co craft chocolates. Cheeky Monkey Brewery and Cidery, and adjacent Killerby Wines, share a children’s playground that will keep little ones busy while adults taste.
There are plenty of great places to stay, ranging from ocean front resorts to vineyard cottages.
Cape Lodge (pictured left), a classic boutique luxury lodge, sits on its own vineyard within 20 hectares of manicured grounds. Choose from suites, a two-bedroom self-contained cottage and a private residence. The on-site restaurant boasts a 14,000-bottle wine cellar and the lodge hosts regular cooking classes and culinary weekends.
If you prefer to be in town then the Deco and Marine penthouses at The Traill (in the heart of town) should fit the bill. Housed in a French provincial-style building to reflect the South West’s connection with the French explorers, the two upmarket penthouses each have two bedrooms and plenty of room in which to relax and entertain. Both are designed for adults only and beautifully equipped, as well as being just a short stroll to award-winning restaurants, cafes, shops and galleries.
For a quintessential Margaret River experience, seek out The White Elephant Beach Cafe at Gnarabup Beach. Here surfers, young families and dog lovers congregate overlooking the beach to enjoy casual cafe style food and great coffees.
And should all the eating and drinking become too much there are the many caves (Lake and Mammoth are among the most visited), gloriously deserted beaches, the Cape Leeuwin and Cape Naturaliste lighthouses and resort golf courses. Then there is busy Busselton with the longest jetty in the southern hemisphere, and the dramatic Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk at nearby Walpole.
So many options, so little time.
For details of all regional activities contact the Augusta Margaret River Tourism Association. The Margaret River Visitor Centre is at 100 Bussell Highway, Margaret River. Phone (08) 9780 591.