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Sep 14, 2016
Once a magnet for hippies and surfers, Western Australia’s Margaret River region has become one of the country’s food and wine meccas.
Postcard-perfect shorelines. White-sand beaches. Towering karri forests. As far as God-given beauty goes, Western Australia’s Margaret River region hits the jackpot. Those who live in Perth are just fortunate, as the Margaret River is just three hours south of the capital city by car. While many hit the road in search of peace and quiet, more and more travellers are making the journey to sample the region’s burgeoning food-and-drink scene. Initially, it was world-class wine that put Margaret River on the map: now the country’s South West has equally formidable restaurants to go with all that grape juice. Sweeten the spot with art galleries and luxury accommodation and you have the makings of a very fine weekend away.
Ease your way into your Margaret River getaway with breakfast in-house at Cape Lodge in Yallingup (see “Where to stay”). The morning walk from your front door to the elegant dining room provides opportunities galore to admire the estate’s picturesque grounds and old-world Cape Dutch architecture. Arrive for breakfast early or late to improve your chances of getting one of the tables nearest the window for peerless views of the man-made lake. Breakfast here is a meal told in two parts. Start your day with a continental spread that includes bread, baked pastries and cereal, before ordering from the cooked breakfast menu. Options range from classics such as French toast and house-smoked salmon with scrambled eggs to more adventurous offerings like black pudding with poached eggs and potato galette.
Start your exploration in the region’s southern half, which includes the township. Town is about a 30-minute drive from Cape Lodge and there’s plenty to see during the tree-lined drive along Caves and Wallcliffe roads. Held every Saturday morning at the Margaret River Education Campus, the Margaret River Farmers’ Market is as much about celebrating community as it is filling your shopping basket. Check out the locally grown produce and pick up some olive oil or nougat for gifts. The souvenirs at Jah Roc Galleries are a little harder to transport but include fine furniture and originals from famed artist David Bromley. Need a caffeine hit? Sidekick Cafe, opened by the owners of the charming Settlers Tavern, is your best choice for coffee in town.
In many ways, Leeuwin Estate feels like the definitive Australian winery: the giant karri trees that shadow guests as they enter the property; the kookaburra calls that punctuate the air; the stately, vine-wrapped verandah that overlooks the estate’s grounds and amphitheatre. The winery produces the revered Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay, which only adds to its credentials. Many regard Leeuwin as one of the names that put Margaret River on the world wine map and this spirit of endeavour continues to this day, both in the restaurant and winery. Asian elements feature prominently in the refined cooking of chef Dany Angove. Local abalone is served with Japanese kewpie mayonnaise lifted with yuzu citrus, while kaffir lime is used as an accent for raw kingfish. After your meal, visit the ground-floor gallery, where the original artworks for the Art Series wines are displayed.
Winemaking and viticulture manager Steve James and the Voyager Estate team produce some of the Margaret River’s best wines. The chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons are consistently rated among the region’s best and the tasting experience is similarly polished. Book early to secure a private tasting in Michael’s Room. Named after Voyager’s founder, Michael Wright, the room hosts sommelier-led tastings that feature museum and exclusive limited-release wines. When it’s over, make your way to Surfers Point in Prevelly (a 15-minute drive away) and admire the deep-blue might and majesty of the Indian Ocean.
Lunch is undoubtedly prime time in the Margaret River but a growing number of operators are now opening after sunset. The Studio Bistro, a fresh-faced dining room that serves dinner on Fridays and Saturdays, is one of them. As the name suggests, a visit to The Studio Bistro involves contemplating art as well as satisfying your appetite. Once you’ve finished wandering through the gallery filled with contemporary works, sit down to enjoy Malcolm Chow’s equally modern interpretation of French and Asian cuisine. The West is represented by chicken-liver parfait and steak tartare, while the chef references his own Eastern roots with the likes of Malaysian duck curry, spiced Xinjiang carrots and black sesame cake. Wines are served by the glass, carafe and bottle and feature contributions from local and international vignerons.
It’s time to turn your attention to Margaret River’s north. Named for the pretty bay it overlooks, Bunkers Beach House combines commanding views of the beach with a menu of reliable breakfast favourites. You’ve got an active morning and plenty of walking ahead of you so fill up with hearty chachouka (Middle Eastern-style baked eggs), smoked salmon with potato rösti and coconut chia pudding.
Activated in 1904, Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse holds an important place in the region’s maritime history. Climb the staircase to the lighthouse’s top balcony and be rewarded with views of the Indian Ocean and surrounding Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. A cottage sells souvenirs, drinks and snacks – ideal for those planning on tackling the walking trails that connect the lighthouse with Bunker Bay, where you just had breakfast. Although the walks are easy, a guided tour with an operator such as Nature’s Cape Tours is an excellent way to learn about local wildlife and fauna (you may see kangaroos and quendas, a type of bandicoot). From June to December you can observe the annual whale migration from platforms along the walk. Ngilgi Cave, one of the region’s show caves, is in Yallingup and makes a great 15-minute detour on the way to lunch. The cave’s name is rooted in Aboriginal history and the story of a battle fought by a good spirit (Ngilgi) and an evil spirit (Wolgine).
Cured emu in a soup of macadamia “milk” and parsnip; marron, WA’s native freshwater crayfish; kangaroo with kohlrabi, cabbage and coffee crumb – Vasse Felix may be a pioneering winery but the food of long-serving chef Aaron Carr is very much about the now. After wandering the ground-floor art gallery and enjoying a tasting at the modern, gleaming cellar door, head upstairs to the dining room, where smart service and vistas of some of the region’s oldest vines await. Carr’s painterly plates match the beautiful view and artworks and combine West Australian ingredients with modern techniques. This is an unmissable part of the itinerary, even if just to taste and enjoy Vasse Felix’s revered Heytesbury wines in the place they were made.
Margaret River has made its name on wine but it’s fast gaining a reputation for the quality of its beer offerings, too. While a number of craft breweries are spread throughout the region, Eagle Bay Brewing Company gets our vote for its cosy hillside home and widescreen outlook across the land. (Fun fact: John d’Espeissis, father of the brewery’s owners, owns the neighbouring sheep and cattle farm.) While beer fans flock to the brewery to sample limited-edition and seasonal brews, it’s also the perfect place to get introduced to signatures such as the bright, refreshing kolsch and the malty Extra Special Bitter.
For your final meal in the Margaret River, finish where you began – in Cape Lodge’s chic dining room. Though lodge guests have a variety of options when dining in-house, the best way to experience the breadth of chef Michael Elfwing’s talent is the six-course tasting menu. Elfwing draws inspiration from Asia and local produce to create winning dishes such as Esperance green-lip abalone in a deep duck broth and Broome bug tails steamed with ginger and lemon verbena. He can play it straight, too, as demonstrated by his perfect and juicy roast duck. The cellar, meanwhile, has been filled with local benchmarks (Cullen, Moss Wood) as well as cleverly chosen imports from around the world, making it possible to eat local but drink global.
Where to stay
The tennis court and well-tended vines that greet guests on the drive in set the tone for Cape Lodge’s elegant brand of country luxury. Surrounded by native bushland, the estate’s meticulously manicured grounds are perfect for escaping city life, not least because mobile-phone reception is limited in the area (wi-fi, however, is available). The rooms are just as conducive to rest and relaxation: choose from 22 suites with garden or lake views, or the handsome vineyard Residence – a standalone house with space for eight people, plus its own putting green. Communal areas such as the lakeside restaurant and drawing room allow guests to meet and mingle. As well as producing its own wine, Cape Lodge boasts a thriving kitchen garden. Book now
Getting to and around the Margaret River
Though many people head to the Margaret River in search of peace and quiet, the size and isolation of the region can make getting around challenging. Arriving by helicopter (rotorvation.com.au) or private plane (skippers.com.au) is a stylish and scenic way to travel. High-end accommodation options – including Cape Lodge – can arrange transfers and ground transport for the duration of your stay. Some tour operators also offer pick-up, while companies such as Experiencesmith specialise in arranging all-inclusive luxury chauffeur services complete with mod cons like in-car phone chargers. For those who enjoy travelling independently, picking up a hire car at Perth Airport and driving the three hours south is the most practical option, not least because it means you’ll have your own transport.
SEE ALSO: A Margaret River Food Trail