Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Australia's West Coast: our trip to Perth and the Margaret River

Before I give my verdict on Western Australia, this continent's vast golden state, I'll provide a bit of background to put it in perspective.
  • Perth, WA's capital, is considered the world's most isolated city. Perth is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney (4.5 hours by plane)!
  • Western Australia comprises one third the Australian continent, but only 10% of its population, a mere 2.2 million people.
  • 36% of Western Australia is covered by sheep stations. I didn't do the research, but surely some of these are bigger than small European countries.
You get the idea; WA is remote. And though Perth didn't knock our socks off, the Margaret River area with its rolling acres of vineyards and gorgeous beaches, really did. We loved it and I know you would, too. As long as you love wineries. Or beaches. If you don't like either of those, you're really missing out! Seriously, I felt I could have enjoyed a whole week or two in the region, and without recapping the whole trip, here's why.

The Foodie/Yuppie Scene

For some crazy reason I thought that once we got out of glamorous Sydney, prices for food and accommodations would go down. Silly me. That isn't the case at all, but I think I can sort of understand why. I've just been harping on about how remote it is; well, distance is one factor that can increase food prices. More importantly, though, WA is home to some really classy dining establishments: restaurants run by thoughtful chefs who care about serving fresh, local ingredients.

Mickey and I spent our first evening in Margaret River dining at Wino's, a restaurant and bar with an award-winning wine list and a tapas-style menu. The herby hand-cut chips were a treat, but we had to pass on the peach creme brulee... next time. We also enjoyed lunch at Wise, the only one of the region's wineries with an ocean view, and dinner at Must, arguably Margaret River's best restaurant. Our hosts at Llewellin's Guest House, Jo and James, hooked us up with free pate because they know the owners of the restaurant.

Speaking of which, Llewellin's deserves a lot of the credit for us falling in love with Margaret River. Jo and James have decorated the rooms beautifully, made excellent recommendations and took extraordinarily good care of us. James even made gluten free chocolate and pistachio scones for me on our last day!

Lighthouse Tour 2010

Mickey and I never used to give a lot of thought to lighthouses, but on this trip we found ourselves visiting two: one at Cape Naturaliste and another at Cape Leeuwin, the point at which the Southern and Indian Oceans meet. Both offered wildly expensive tours ($15, dude, it's picturesque, but it's a lighthouse), but we did pay a smaller fee to walk around the lighthouses and poke around their tiny museums. I was fascinated by the lives of the lighthouse workers in the days before lighthouse maintenance was automated. They had to tend to the thing every hour, worked in shifts and almost never took a holiday.

Mickey and I try to pick up a Christmas ornament from every destination we visit. The natural choice would have been a tasteful little lighthouse, and we found dozens of lighthouse magnets, key chains, pencils, etc. but alas, no ornaments. We instead took home a cow figurine decorated in a mardis gras style. The international traveling cow parade, featuring life-sized cows decorated by local artists, had reached Margaret River so we took pictures with cows in front of almost every winery.

The Wildlife

Cape Naturaliste is even more worth a visit in the months of June - November, aka whale season. This is the time of year when pods of humpback, right and even blue whales migrate north to calve in warmer waters. And apparently you can see them right from the coast! Though I kept my eyes peeled when Mickey and I stood at Whale Point, we didn't spot any of plumes of water and air bursting from blowholes, only miles of white caps on the glimmering sea. Likewise, we struck out when we visited Penguin Island off Rockingham (only saw penguins in the sanctuary) and failed to see any dolphins in Bunbury.

Still, you can supposedly see all these animals in the wilds of WA! After reading a particularly interesting wine label when back in Sydney, we learned that we also missed the blue-ringed octopus, a little creature possessing enough sting to kill two soccer teams we learned. Ignorance was indeed bliss, because if we had known about it, we might never have dipped our toes in the Indian Ocean.

Though we struck out with whales, dolphins and penguins, we were lucky enough to see an enormous sting ray at the gorgeous Hamlin Bay. Fishermen use fish heads to lure these massive creatures (1 meter across!) close to shore not to catch, but to amuse kids and tourists like us. We were also delighted by our unexpected lorikeet spotting outside Perth. Lorikeets usually congregate in groups of two to three, but when the sun set over Cottesloe Beach, thousands flew from north, south and east to descend on a row of trees lining the shore. The noise was deafening.

The Caves

Most of the wineries in the Margaret River region are located just off Caves Road, so named because the region has over one hundred limestone caves! Only a dozen or so are open to the public and the guidebook advised us to visit Jewel Cave if we were to tour only one. We followed that sage advice and were thoroughly impressed with Jewel Cave.

I especially loved the unapologetically unscientific manner in which the mysteries of the cave were explained by our tour guide. After introducing himself, the guide said something like, "well, this cave is pretty damn good." Right, this guy was speaking my language! In the early part of the twentieth century, an adventurous gentleman discovered the cave when he noticed gusts of air coming up from the ground. He bravely explored it in the days before proper belaying and safety equipment: using ropes and candles. Interestingly enough, knowledge of the cave's location died with this man and it wasn't rediscovered until decades later. In the late 1960s, they added platforms and staircases and opened Jewel Cave to the public.

You could then navigate the cave via a raft because a couple meters of water pooled at the bottom. Then, in the 1970s, the water started to disappear by a couple inches each year our guide explained. He went on to say that caves go through wet and dry cycles (in fact, the cave up the road was in a wet cycle at the moment), but that no one really knows why the water disappeared. What?! Really? I honestly believe that the managers of Jewel Cave could invite a cave scientist to study the cave and get some real answers, but they just can't be bothered. 'Eh, we like our own stories,' I imagine them saying.

Instead of naming the Jewel Cave's five platforms after the different geological eras during which they were formed or employing another scientific method, they clearly subscribe to the 'nothing fancy' school of nomenclature. "You see that feature over there that resembles a pipe organ? That's why we call this the organ platform. You see how that kind of looks like broccoli and cauliflower? Well, we call this the vegetable platform." Surely, you can guess why it's called Jewel Cave? That's right, there's a feature that reminded someone of a jewel case. Who thought I'd learn so much about the Western Australian mentality by visiting a cave?

The Sunsets

I don't consider myself sunset deprived; I'm from the LA area where air pollution creates some of the most vivid sunsets you'll ever see. Still, it was a treat to watch the sunset over the ocean, a phenomenon that Sydney just can't experience.  Mickey played around with the settings on his camera to capture the beauty. Can you see why we didn't want to leave?

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