Dec 21, 2016
Tales of shipwreck and murder may draw you in to Geraldton but there’s much to hang around for, from cray feasts and surf school to snorkelling with clownfish, writes Trevor Paddenburg.
Geraldton is one of Western Australia’s major industrial ports for iron ore export but don’t let that put you off staying a few extra days. Its location right on the glittering Indian Ocean, 420 kilometres north of Perth, makes it a drawcard for all things in, on, above and below the sea – think kitesurfing, crayfish, coral reefs and shipwrecks. When you’ve dried off, there are funky cafés and a revamped foreshore to explore, with historic homesteads and ethereal fields of wildflowers a short drive away.
Day 1 AM
There’s no need to leave the airport, because your first must-do is a scenic flight with Geraldton Air Charter over the Houtman Abrolhos, an intricate web of 122 islands and teeming coral reefs 60 kilometres from the mainland.
Migrating humpback whales breach and tail-slap the glassy azure water during the 15-minute flight to the islands, which are uninhabited except for the odd brightly painted fisherman’s shack.
There’s a reason why Abrolhos translates as “open your eyes” in Portuguese – these low-lying islands have claimed many a ship, including Dutch trader Batavia in 1629, in what became Australia’s most infamous tale of mutiny and murder.
Over the headset, charter pilot Josh Perkins points out the reef where the ship ran aground, as well as nearby Beacon Island, a desolate chunk of limestone where bodies were found (more on that later).
All this history and humpback-spotting is hungry work – luckily, it’s time for lunch. Perkins deftly lands the single-prop plane on East Wallabi Island, where rolls, cold meat and salad are served in a hut on the sand.
Before the return flight, there’s time for a snorkel on a fringing reef just 20 metres from shore. Among the vivid blue and purple plate and brain corals below the surface are crayfish, blue-spotted parrotfish and a school of clownfish straight out of Finding Nemo.
Day 1 PM
Back on the mainland, take a 30-minute drive on the North West Coastal Highway through fields of wildflowers, if it’s spring, to Oakabella Homestead, said to be haunted by the ghost of George Jackson. The 71-year-old occupant shot himself while cleaning his gun in a bedroom.
“You can still see the bloodstains here on the floor,” points out caretaker Loretta Wright, who conducts ghost tours delivered in dramatic tones. “His ghost has never left. Sometimes there’s a smell in here, like ashes. Do you smell it?”
Poltergeist aside, Wright’s fresh-baked scones (the secret ingredient? Ground wattleseed) are worth the trip alone.
Cruising back towards town, stop at the leafy Chapman River Regional Park, part of the Yamaji Drive Trail that links 14 sites of Indigenous significance, including Bootenal Spring and middens at nearby Bluff Point. The Yamaji Art centre in town showcases the distinctive local dot paintings.
Afterwards, catch the sunset while strolling along Geraldton’s revamped foreshore, which now boasts street art and playground equipment for families. Don’t miss the quirky Rubik’s Cube-styled amenities blocks right on the sand.
Continue the by-the-sea theme with a stay at the Broadwater Mariner Resort. Modern, comfortable studio rooms and apartments have sweeping views of Champion Bay and the port.
After checking in, duck next door to gastropub The Broady (08 9965 3776). Fresh, fat, tender strips of salt-and-Sichuan-pepper calamari are hard to beat for a starter and it’s obvious the grilled snapper hasn’t long been out of the Indian Ocean.
Another top dining option is nearby Skeetas, overlooking boats moored in the marina. The restaurant orders live crayfish daily and supervisor Mehdi Mechiche says there’s no need to “muck around” with complicated recipes when it’s this fresh. The baked cray with lemon butter and salad is sweet, succulent and simply divine, especially when paired with a La Maschera pinot grigio after an entrée of Coffin Bay oysters.
Day 2 AM
Set the alarm because Keith Roffman from Midwest Surf School likes an early start. The long-time instructor runs surf and stand-up paddleboarding classes and reckons a 6.30am session is the best bet to beat the wind.
St Georges Beach offers a sheltered lagoon, where you can get your balance, and small peeling waves on a reef further out for those seeking thrills.
Warm up with a coffee and breakfast at Salt Dish (08 9964 6030) – you can’t miss the bright-red door, stained glass windows and tomato bushes growing in footpath planters. Sit out back amid the pomegranate trees or take a seat in the bustling café to see the staff at work in the open-air kitchen.
The soft-poached eggs and crispy bacon on housemade zucchini bread is a winner, served up by Hungarian-born chef and co-owner Csaba Sellei and his wife, Tash, who runs front of house.
Work off brekkie with a walk along Marine Terrace, through the heart of Geraldton, taking in the street sculptures and Italian architecture of Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral.
Often overlooked in favour of Margaret River to the south and Ningaloo Reef or the Kimberley to the north, visitors are discovering what locals have always known: Geraldton has plenty to offer. A 60-minute flight north of Perth, its economic backbone is exports of iron ore, mineral sands, metal concentrates, livestock from its port and live crayfish from its offshore reefs. The ocean is Gero’s playground as well as its livelihood, with boating, fishing, surfing and diving staple activities. The ever-present wind means it’s also world-famous for yachting and kitesurfing so pack a windproof jacket.
SEE ALSO: One Perfect Weekend in Margaret River