In November I visited Perth, capital of Western Australia, to attend a food blogging conference, ‘Eat. Drink. Blog.’ After the conference, we toured for a week, visiting some of south-west of WA. As part of the #tiffingoeswest extravaganza, we spent a couple of days in the Margaret River, famous for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnays.
Regular readers will know that I’m quite fond of wine. Every two years a large group of us head to the Barossa Valley to enjoy the Vintage Festival. I also try to squeeze in visits to other Australian wine regions when time permits. The first surprising thing I learned about Margaret River is that it’s actually a town as well as a region. It forms part of a greater area of WA known as the South West. It was our base for a few days and allowed easy access to surrounding area of forest, coast and wineries. Whilst of course we visited the region to enjoy the wines, there were some other must sees.
This is a wild and woolly place. The winds buffet the landscape and there is little protection on this part of the coastline for the tiny settlements and small farms that cluster along the highway in this remote corner of Australia. This where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. Well not such much meet as thrash violently together in a roiling sea of waves and spray. Ships and lives have been lost on this treacherous piece of coastline and standing sentinel over it all is the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse. The lighthouse was opened in 1895 and still has the original lenses, reminding me of the giant eye of the Martian fighting machines from War of The Worlds as it revolved endlessly, searching and scanning the horizon.
It was a beautiful sunny day when we visited but living up to its reputation. The winds in this most south-westerly point of Australia were wicked! The lighthouse forms part of a precinct that include former lighthouse keeper’s accommodation, maintenance and communication huts. As we listened to the self guided audio tour, we needed to shelter behind cabins and huddle together to form a wind break so we could hear the commentary. The last lighthouse keeper only left the in the 1990s so there are plenty of tall tales and great views to be had as well as a very long climb with 186 steps to the top.When we arrived at the lighthouse for the tour, the guide told us that they suspended tours when the winds got to 70km an hour but it was OK because they were only 65km as we climbed….
I’ve lived in Australia all of my life and had never heard of Karri trees. How is this possible? On your way between the two capes you’ll pass through a massive stand of these trees. Pull off to the side and listen as the wind rustles through and these enormous trees sway and creak gently in the breeze. There were many other people on the edge of the forest on the day we visited yet no one spoke. We all enjoyed the view in eerie silence.
At the northern end of the region is Geographe Bay. Not quite as windswept as its counterpart, it has numerous protected bays with azure waters to swim in. There are small hamlets made up of a few houses, some caravan parks and boat sheds, dotted along the coastline. Facilities are minimal and the population is sparse. The township of Dunsborough acts as the centre for the region so you can get your fill of espresso, paddle pops and petrol before heading back to your beach shack. Geographe Bay also has a lighthouse. The antithesis of Cape Leeuwin, the 1903 Cape Naturaliste lighthouse it is stout and squat as it looks out over the 30 000 whales that migrate past the Cape each year.
No self respecting food fan can visit Westralia without sampling the local cuisine and produce. There’s plenty of money in this region and it reflected in the abundance of delis, cafes and restaurants. A very small selection of places visited over two days included:
- Morries Anytime – as the name would imply is open all day and well into the evening. The joint was jumping on the Tuesday night we visited but after a short wait, they were able to squeeze us in. Consistently rated in the top 5 on Trip Advisor, it’s not hard to see why with a fantastic contemporary menu featuring WA produce. The crisp fried whitebait from the specials for a shared entrée was just as it should be. Hot, crisp and salty, these little darlings disappeared in no time. As you’d imagine, they have a great cellar list, plenty of wines by the glass and some bin ends that they also do by the glass. Recent winners in the AHA Awards for Hospitality Excellence, make sure you can as you may not be as lucky as us. Popular for breakfast too (though we didn’t go).
- Arc of Iris – strange name, quirky place, fabulous hospitality. The restaurant has a kind of private supper club feel to it as you move back the velvet curtain at the door way. Run by a husband (chef) and wife (front of house) team and on the night we visited, a very efficient but extremely busy waitress. A little hippy, a little homespun, the menu is strong on local ingredients and simple cooking techniques. Trust me when I say that you are best to share an entrée and that entrée should be the Duck Liver Parfait w cornichons, crostini and chutney. A visiting the local venison farm, it was only right that we should order it, on this occasion with a Shiraz jus. A big bonus is the fact that it’s BYO so you bring along anything from this great wine region that takes your fancy. Also rated highly on Trip Advisor so make sure you book.
- Voyager Estate – we visited Voyager Estate as part of a wine tour. With sweeping grounds and a Cape Dutch Style cellar door, we were told that this building was an exact copy of a winery in South Africa where the owner had once worked. He fell in love with it and painstaking recreated the building in WA. Lunch was in a very flash dining room and I can honestly say that it was the best gnocchi I have ever had. Cooked to perfection, caramelised in the pan, served with a wonderful selection of mushrooms and plenty of Parmesan, I know it will be a dish I’ll remember for a long time. The wine’s not bad either!
- Margaret River Dairy Co – a modest selection of cheeses to taste. Marinated Feta was the best. They boast the best milkshakes in Margaret River but we didn’t partake as too much wine had already been imbibed.
- Margaret River Nougat Company – not satisfied to be vitners, Bettenay’s has branched out into nougat. At the cellar door there is also an enormous selection of nougats, with some on taste. If you time it right, you can watch the nougat being mixed and rolled through the glass viewing windows.
- Olio Bello – featuring over two dozen oils on taste, from flavoured to extra virgin, all the oils are certified organic. There’s also a speciality ‘estate grown’ range. If you’re keen on dukkha, chutneys, olives and vinegars, you’ll find them here as well.
- Squid Lips – we swung past Squid Lips on the main drag in Margaret River but waiting times were long so we opted for another dinner. A trip to Cape Geographe meant we were in Dunsborough at lunch time when we discovered another Squid Lips. This is the store that rated in the Top 5 Fish & Chips in WA. Sure there’s fancy salt and pepper squid, Thai fishcakes and a range of grilled fish but we went for the good old fashioned fish’n’chips. One serve between two was more than enough and a bargain meal at $10. Worth seeking out.
In some respects, Margaret River reminds me of the Barossa Valley in that there is a large concentration of vineyards and cellars doors over a relatively small parcel of land. Around every corner is another impressive cellar door or another must try local speciality, making it a wonderful destination for bon vivants.