There are moments in travel that tease us. We’ve all had them: that second where you’re passing rapidly through a place and suddenly, you have an overwhelming desire to tear up your carefully planned schedule, leap from your transport and embrace whatever it is that has affected you so potently. But after weeks and months of planning, researching and forward booking – not to mention pre-paying – such spontaneity seems foolish and you remain seated. Still, you wonder what it would’ve been like if you’d given in to your flight of fancy, and dream of one day returning to sate the longing.
Western Australia, fondly known as ‘the Wild West’, seems to exude such intoxication. A massive expanse of land taking up nearly half of the continent, it morphs from quiet bays sprinkled with rounded rocks to plains patchworked with grapevines, forests of some of the tallest trees in the world, and hidden gorges harbouring jagged ochre formations. Nearly all the way along its coast, the marine-blessed state is fringed with travel-brochure-perfect beaches. It’s no wonder a quick look from the deck of a cruise ship seems hardly enough. So here’s a guide to what you can do in one, three or seven days in and around popular ports Fremantle, Geraldton and Albany.
1 day – in port
This bohemian port town, with its winding streets, heritage-listed buildings and shabby-chic locals, has an infectious vibe that visitors sense immediately. Get initiated along the cappuccino strip (aka South Terrace), busy all day serving the customers who dip in and out of its quirky boutiques between lattés. The strip is capped with bustling Fremantle Markets (first held in 1897), a hot spot for buskers, trinkets, food stalls and fresh produce.
Move along to a room with a view at Little Creatures, a working brewery overlooking the yacht-studded harbour. While funky young things sprawl on every surface in the main beer hall, those who want a more sublime experience minus the hubbub take the stairs to Creatures Loft, an armchair-laden den with the same beers but better views.
From there, a short walk along a dedicated path will take you past a statue of Fremantle’s favourite son, AC/DC’s Bon Scott; farther on, you’ll arrive at the souvenir-rich Western Australian Museum – Maritime on Victoria Quay. Inside, see the boat that so transformed Fremantle’s harbour – America’s Cup-winning yacht, Australia II – as well as rusted shipwreck relics, an Oberon-class submarine and Jon Sanders’ Parry Endeavour. At the museum’s entry, there’s also a contemporary art space that often holds impressive exhibitions.
Wind up the day munching on a baguette flown in from France at new hidey-hole, Whisper Wine Bar, a touch of Paris injected by French expats and well patronised by worldly locals.
3 days – Rottnest Island
There are many reasons why ‘Rotto’, as it’s called, is loved by generations of locals. Among its attractions are 63 sandy beaches, 20 sheltered bays and its car-free status. It is also handily close to Fremantle, from which regular ferries depart from North Freo (Rous Head) and Victoria Quay for the 25-minute trip to the island.
Primarily, it is a place where you can laze the days away, but you can also hire bikes and snorkelling gear, then pedal around the hilly island, stopping at numerous snorkelling spots on the A Class Reserve where furry, wallaby-like marsupials known as quokkas graze.
If you’re on foot, look for people wearing yellow T-shirts hanging about near the port; they offer free walking tours that take in the island’s historic sites. These include traces of a 19th-century Aboriginal jail, buildings constructed by prisoners, World War II relics, and the work stations of 1850s ship pilots, who used to guide vessels around Rottnest’s lethal reefs. The island also has a golf course, tennis courts, a couple of restaurants, a tea-room and a bustling bakery.
Book a few nights at one of the rustic self-contained heritage cottages facing the ocean, try an authentic 1920s bungalow, book a refurbished multi-bed unit or villa, or opt for a room at Hotel Rottnest, the island’s only pub. If you hope to secure lodgings during peak periods, you’ll need to enter the Rottnest Island Authority’s ballot system – they’re hotly contested (check out www.rottnestislandonline.com).
1 week – Margaret River
A weekend in Margaret River never seems long enough – so make it a week. Surrounded by tall trees and household-name wineries, and close enough to the ocean that you can almost feel salt in the air, the township is a three-and-a-half-hour drive south of Fremantle along the Bussell Highway.
Spend a couple of days ticking off local wineries – the likes of Cullen Wines, Leeuwin Estate, Moss Wood and Voyager Estate – and luxuriate over long lunches at culinary havens such as Vasse Felix, Clairault and Providore. Then mix it up by hooking into the latest trend: boutique breweries. Margaret River’s Eagle Bay Brewing Co, Colonial Brewery and the Bootleg Brewery Bar and Restaurant should all be on your itinerary.
Work off the indulgence at Yallingup or Dunsborough, at Margaret River’s northern tip, where you’ll find long, deserted beaches made for walking (though the gourmet fare continues, particularly at gallery-restaurant The Studio Bistro, and just about anywhere along Dunsborough’s main street).
Pull on hiking shoes and tackle a section of the Cape to Cape Track that meanders along a coastal ridge for 135 kilometres between the lighthouses of Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. A new option is a six-hour Cape to Cave Guided Nature Trail Walk from Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse to stalactite-lined Ngilgi (formerly Yallingup) Cave, the region’s oldest tourist attraction, open since 1900. On sunny days, you might glimpse a pod of dolphins surfing the giant waves that roll in from the Indian Ocean. From June to December, you’re all but guaranteed to see humpback whales, which pass by from June to November on their annual migration from Antarctica north to their breeding grounds off north-western WA.
1 day – in port
The ocean surrounding Geraldton harbours many secrets and sorrows. The town’s HMAS Sydney II memorial is dedicated to the 645 souls who lost their lives when the ship went down in battle in 1941 – Australia’s worst naval disaster. The wreck was only discovered in 2008; until then, the ship and everyone on it had been deemed lost without a trace. The Geraldton Volunteer Tour Guides Association offers free daily tours of the memorial, which sits high above the town.
At the bottom of the ocean is the fishing port’s favourite food: the western rock lobster. Rolling the sweet meat around your mouth in one the town’s restaurants is highly recommended – as is the ‘live lobster’ tour showing how the crustaceans get from pot to plate at Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative.
3 days – Kalbarri
Surrounded by beautiful ochre gorges and fascinating rocky coves carved into beautiful patterns by the wild Indian Ocean, this popular holiday town is worth a northerly jaunt. Aside from lazing on the town’s beaches and watching hordes of pelicans swoop in for their daily feed, most visitors head out of town to Kalbarri National Park, where banded gorges have been cut into the landscape by the Murchison River over 400 million years. Those with stamina can take the eight-kilometre Loop Walk; others should head to Nature’s Window, an astounding rock formation 400-odd metres from the car park that frames extraordinary views of the sandstone environment. Less challenging are the signposted sea-cliff walks that surround the town, starting from the rounded Red Bluff, named by explorer Willem de Vlamingh in 1697.
To ensure a whale sighting, jump on board a whale-watching cruise or try your luck spotting them on a fishing charter, where you’re also likely to pull up huge red emperor, West Australian dhufish, coral trout and yellowfin tuna.
1 week – Houtman Abrolhos Islands
HMAS Sydney II isn’t the only ship to have met an unfortunate end in the region’s oceans. The Batavia, which was marooned on a rocky outcrop of flat islands way back in 1629, is another. This ship’s survivors reached land but a mutiny ensued, and most of them met grisly ends.
Cannons, anchors and other remnants form an underwater museum, but there are many more fascinating sights to be spotted beneath the surface. Multi-day boat cruises departing Geraldton explore some of the area’s 122 islands and their fish-filled coral gardens, with plenty of stops for snorkelling in the shallow, glass-like waters.
The Houtman Abrolhos Islands are home to the region’s rock-lobster fishermen for a few months a year; there are also colourful beach huts linked by white coral pathways to gaze at. And let’s not even get started on the birds. An aerial day trip is another eye-opening option.
1 day – in port
Wander past plump raspberries, plus-sized leek, writhing yabbies and snow-white goat’s curd at the highly regarded Albany Farmers Market, where the region’s prime produce is on show each Saturday morning. The inaugural winner of Vogue Entertaining+Travel’s ‘Outstanding Farmers Market’ in the 2008 Vogue Produce Awards, it is a microcosm of the laid-back region’s stunning land and ocean-drawn produce. You’ll also find the perfect fodder for a seaside picnic here.
Post pig-out, hit one of Albany’s many walking tracks and scope out the granite formations that line the bay. Don’t miss The Blowholes, The Gap and Natural Bridge, all in Torndirrup National Park, and the aptly named Dog Rock in the centre of town.
Finish up with an indulgent evening at the classy Louis XIV-style bar, Liberté, at the London in the Albany Gateway. Sample local oysters while sipping smooth cocktails in its grand salon, a venue loved by locals.
3 days – Albany and surrounds
Albany was the last piece of Australia many ANZACs saw as they sailed away to the bloody battlefields of Gallipoli. It’s also home to one of the state’s largest ANZAC Day dawn services, but visiting the Desert Mounted Corps Memorial atop Mt Clarence is a moving experience no matter when you’re there.
Go further back in history at Two Peoples Bay, a dazzling beach 40 minutes’ drive out of town. It was named after a sticky situation in 1803 when a French and American ship shared the bay at a time when their two countries were in conflict. Today it’s known for its scenery and surrounding nature reserve, where not one but two species thought to be extinct were rediscovered: Gilbert’s potoroo and the noisy scrub-bird.
The journey will take you past Oyster Bay, where – you guessed it – millions of molluscs lap up the pristine waters and grow into creamy mouthfuls of joy. Each Sunday morning at the Albany Boatshed Markets, dozens upon dozens are shucked ready for slurping.
Cleanse your palate with the nectar brewed at Western Australia’s only single-malt whisky distillery. The Great Southern Distilling Company’s popular Limeburners Whisky Liqueur uses honey sourced from local karri forests. The brand name Limeburners pays homage to Albany’s convict history, in which men used to put acid-rich lime into cement with their bare hands, just up the road in Limeburners Creek.
1 week – Albany, Denmark, Walpole
Strolling up to 40 metres above ground level feeling like your head’s in the clouds is a surreal experience – and one that visitors to the Valley of the Giants, near Nornalup, Walpole, rave about. About 110 kilometres west of Albany, a specially-designed 600-metre-long Tree Top Walk takes sightseers through a canopy of 400-year-old tingle trees that are some of the tallest in the world.
Closer to Albany is Denmark, a coastal village lined with native forests and loved for Greens Pool, an idyllic swimming spot with hippo-like rounded boulders poking through an emerald ocean. Bring your togs and be prepared to fall in love with the local tree-change community over a few days.
On your return to Albany, stop in at some of the region’s lauded wineries – Howard Park, West Cape Howe and Oranje Tractor, to name a few – and have them lead you to the Porongurup Range National Park. As well as harbouring 1,400-million-year-old granite ranges, the park is home to Maleeya’s Thai Café, a humble eatery that’s been included in Australian Gourmet Traveller’s restaurant guide six times running. That, and the authentic dishes spiked with herbs and chillies grown in Maleeya’s garden, provide more than enough reason to make this a must-see destination.