[spotlight series. sean blocksidge]
[margaret river soundtrack. L$D]
Margaret River is the place you escape to when you want to surf by morning, luxuriate in rolling vineyards by day, and explore empty beaches and majestic tall-tree forests by afternoon. Top it all off with one of Western Australia’s outrageously magical sunsets and you’ll be in a serious state of bliss! An incredibly diverse region, Margaret River (only three hours south of Perth) offers the most impressive line-up of mind-blowing beaches and nature, coupled with endless wineries, breweries, local providores and producers. It’s very beautiful here.
Here are some of my favorite things found during my recent 5-day visit.
Sidekick: we vote this the best coffee in town, in a cute graffitied corner cafe on the main street.
White Elephant: we love this absolute beachfront spot early in the morning for great coffee and its (obviously) spectacular location (smackbang on Gnaraup Beach). Hard to beat.
Riversmith: the coffee is good, but its more about the setting here. A cute garage-turned-cafe/general store also on the main street in town.
As well as the cafes mentioned above, locals flock to Margs' Bakery for delicious baked goods and sandwiches. The local fellas call it the “babery” on account of the cute girls that work behind the counter!
Goanna Gallery Cafe: kind of in the middle of nowhere, but one that was recommended to me by Carlie (the super kind owner of Townhouse Margaret River). It’s a peaceful and friendly cafe in a bush setting. Come here for a more fancy cafe lunch.
Morries: at the top end of town, the locals go nuts for this place. Check it out for dinner and one of their famous cocktails.
Mikis: my favourite meal in Margaret River (after Vasse Felix), Miki’s is hidden away in an unassuming strip mall. It is high-end Japanese food with a difference (you wont find any sushi or sashimi on the menu). It’s a must (and you must book).
Vasse Felix: by far and away the most exquisite dining experience in all of Margaret River (I think, anyway!). Unbelievably exceptional service, and an amazing menu featuring seasonal and local produce and jaw-dropping wines. There’s a reason it is one of Australia’s top 100 restaurants. Don’t miss this one.
For bread (and for anyone who knows me, you know I go a little nuts for seriously good sourdough bread…), don’t miss the wood-fired bread from either the Margaret River Woodfired outpost, or the original one up in Yallingup. Incredible sourdough, and one of the most amazing fruit breads (thanks for the tip, tiffo!) I have ever experienced to date (up there with The Bread Social in Byron - that one still wins for me though). Get there at 4pm to buy the fruit bread when it is still hot out of the oven.
For wine: you are well and truly spoilt here. The Internationally-renowned Margaret River wine region produces more than 25 per cent of Australia’s premium wines. Spend some time bopping between the wineries around Cowaramup. There are so many to choose from - whether it be the standout big guys, or the smaller, more boutique operations - it is unlikely you will be disappointed. As Sean (our guide from Margaret River Discovery Co) told us, if you choose a bottle of Margaret River wine in a bottle shop - in the $20-$40 range, you will never go wrong.
Some of my favourites:
Vasse Felix: for the setting, their incredible wines, and the amazing restaurant (as mentioned above). Book a seat on the balcony upstairs and enjoy lunch while looking over the vines. We tried emu (!!) to start…and my gnocchi for main was unbelievable.
Fraser Gallop: we were taken here on our tour with Sean and were fortunate enough to spend time with their award-winning winemaker, Clive Otto. We were also treated to a private lunch in the vines. Its beautiful here. The chardonnay here was outstanding.
House of Cards: for a smaller, more boutique operation.
For beer: check out our favorite local brewery, Colonial. Their outdoor setting is beautiful and their drink selection is awesome. I personally love the Bertie cider (as much for its cute packaging as for its taste).
For beaches - there are honestly endless empty and beautiful beaches in this picture-perfect corner of Western Australia. You really can’t go wrong. Some of my favorites were:
Smiths - for a swim - ridiculously lovely
Injidup (and the Injidup Natural Spa - a little difficult to find, but so worth it)
Eagle Bay Beach
Kilcarnup (4wd only)
For sunset: do what the locals do and head to Surfers Point in Prevelly. Depending what the surf is doing, you might catch kite surfers, windsurfers or just seriously gun surfers out there on one of the most awesome breaks in the world. Take some beers and grab a bite from one of the food trucks parked in the carpark nearby (the Italian wood-fired pizza truck - Salento - was my favorite - pizza as it should be). If you happen to be further up north, catch the sunset from Sugarloaf Rock before heading to Dunsborough for dinner.
To do / Explore
If you are looking for adventure, bring your camping gear and walk (all or some of) the Cape to Cape Track - a 125km walking track along the coast and one of the most diverse scenic trails on Earth. You will be blown away by the beauty of this coastline. It is magic. We were lucky enough to experience a small slice of it thanks to our guide Sean from Margaret River Discovery Co (more below). If you are visiting between September and December, you might be lucky to catch the sight of migrating humpback whales.
A helicopter flight with Scenic Helicopters. If budget and time allow, a chopper flight over the coast with Jackson (legend) from Scenic Helicopters is another must. Jackson and his family (the McLeods) have lived in the region forever. jackson’s parents run the local bookstore in town; his cousin operates one of the most highly-regarded tour companies; and jackson himself operates the helicopter business. we were lucky enough to do a 30min flight over the coast. flying high above the beautiful manicured voyager estate, and other recognizable wineries, we arrived over the bright blue and turquoise waters off the leeuwin-naturaliste park. tracking south along the coast we could see surfers point in prevelley, gnarabup beach (where i had been swimming earlier that morning) and so much more. i chose to fly with the door off, which made it extra awesome for shooting photos and for some pretty outstanding views. jackson is a super-friendly, easy-going guy who knows the region exceptionally well and sure knows how to fly. highly recommend.
Discovery tour with sean of margaret river discovery co: discovery tours
Sean, who has lived in the region for over 13 years is one of those guys you are happy to be stuck in a vehicle with for over 6 hours! Fun, funny, and full of facts about the region, Sean’s “tour for people who don’t do tours”) was incredible. With a tiny group (there was just 6 of us), we bundled into Sean’s luxury 4wd and began a day of discovery. A volunteer firefighter, Sean perviously worked in the wine industry and knows the local community and region like the back of his hand. He is a super-experienced adventurer and loves connecting visitors with nature. He was a big surfer until only recently (when 3 of his good mates were taken by sharks). He is full of solid advice (like the wine tip above, and his other advice to “never be a winemaker!” He told us it is too much of an investment - of time, of hard work, of money for not enough reward!). Our morning started with a peaceful canoeing session, in a very wide and cool canadian canoe, down the Margaret River itself. It was beautiful. We then went on to Gnaraup Beach for a coffee to-go from White Elephant and then on to a scared aboriginal spot where we sat quietly and watched a bunch of marron in the water beneath us. We tasted three different local honeys from the surrounding trees, while reflecting on the Aboriginal history of the area that dates back more than 30,000 years. Lunch was hosted by the kind people at Fraser Gallop Estate - a tiny boutique winery that is proving to be the one of the region’s most celebrated emerging superstars. We had exclusive access to the working winery - spending time with award-winning winemaker Clive Otto (ex-Vasse Felix), and went on to enjoy a private lunch in the vines.
Their chardonnay was the highlight for me. But my favorite part of the day was when we hit up Sean’s secret spot along the Cape to Cape Track. Going seriously off-road (Sean has special government approval to use a 4WD track), we battled dust-driven and sandy roads, dodging snakes and kangaroos, before popping out on top of the Wilyabrup Cliffs. High above the Indian Ocean the epic scenery, fresh sea breezes and surrounding ancient soils provided a deeper understanding of the unique terroir of the Margaret River region. Dolphins, sharks, whales, kangaroos, eagles and wildflowers are seasonal, but all possible from this vantage point. This point is also home to one of the biggest waves - flat on the day we visited - but getting up to 20ft on a good day. We sat and listened while Sean told us numerous stories about the area, including the time he and a mate were flying a chopper along that particular part of the coast and saw a whale from the air giving birth to its cub. They then spotted a great white heading towards the whale and its new baby, prompting Sean’s mate the pilot to get down really low in the chopper - just 2m from the water to try and scare the shark away. As they were working out if they should land on the beach or if it was right to intervene with nature, a pod of 12+ dolphins headed towards the whale. Sean managed to shoot a number of images that somehow made the international news, and in turn they found themselves the target of countless tv interviews from around the world about the story. This day with Sean was the absolute highlight of my trip.
Surf: an obvious one, but you are not only spoilt for choice here with the wines, but also the waves as well. When in Margaret River you are only a short drive from over 40 surf breaks and more than a hundred wineries. Best time for surf: September to April (to coincide with spring swells, summer beach weather and the Margaret River Pro).
Mountain biking: rent a bike from Hairy Marron on Bussell Highway, just outside Margaret River town, and go for a ride through the beautiful natural forest nearby – there are countless tracks you can choose from. It’s an easy way to sneak in some exercise between all the amazing eating and drinking you’ll be doing.
Visit the Boranup Forest and caves. Drive down Caves Road through the breathtaking Boranup Forest for a cave tour of Ngilgi Cave, Lake Cave, Jewel Cave and Mammoth Cave - all incredibly beautiful and ancient natural wonders - and all worth exploring.
Visit the local farmers markets. Held all over the region, check the market calendar to find out which market is on while you are visiting and stock up on local wines and produce - cheese, olives, artisan breads, smoked meats, seasonal fruit and veg, free-range eggs, flowers and so on.
Look no further than Empire Spa Retreat. The setting alone is worth traveling for. Tucked away in a beautiful bush setting, the rooms here are beautiful, and the spa treatments are heavenly. I was lucky enough to experience a Pure Radiance facial using 100% chemical free and Australian-made Sodashi products, and it was amazing. Book early to make sure you dont miss out.
There are a few fabulous sleeping options scattered throughout the region, but my suggestion would be to stay in the centre of Margaret River town itself. The great thing about being in town is that you are halfway from the top and bottom of the Margaret River Cape (Cape Naturaliste at the top near Dunsborough, or Cape Leeuwin in the south), making it the perfect launching pad for all your exploring.
In town, the pick of the bunch is without doubt the brand new Townhouse Margaret River (which opened in October 2016). A beautifully appointed and central townhouse, Carlie (the super-friendly local owner) has thoughtfully designed her home to include everything you could possibly need for your visit to the region. Located centrally behind the main street, it takes less than 2min to walk into the centre of town, making you close to all the good coffee spots, supermarkets and best of all, the best Japanese restaurant in town - Mikis. The house can easily accommodate up to six people, and would be absolutely perfect for a family holiday, or just a few couples as well. With lots of natural light, an outdoor shower, beautiful furnishings, and a sunny little garden, this is a really lovely place to stay. Carlie is only a phone-call away if you have any questions or need any help, and is brilliant at recommending all the best things to do in the area. It really is beautiful here.