'Down South': a weekend in WA's South West

The road from Perth to the South West of WA is one I’ve been following since I was little. My grandparents used to have a holiday house in ‘woop woop’, which in those days was what we called Mandurah. Now, with the Forrest Highway, ‘Down South’ as West Australians like to call it, has never been more accessible. For those who aren’t from WA, ‘Down South’ generally refers to the towns south of Perth including (but not limited to) Busselton, Dunsborough, Margaret River and Augusta. The region is stunning; a place where the forest meets the sea, which is known for its excellent wines (and wineries), pristine beaches and limestone caves.

Here are some ideas if you’re planning to spend a weekend Down South.

Caves road

Caves road

WINERIES

Aravina Estate

Aravina took over the old Amberley Estate and transformed it into a stunning venue with high, whitewashed ceilings and a gorgeous decking overlooking the gardens and vineyards. The whole place has a light, airy, Hamptons kind of feel. Aravina has a central wine tasting bar, which, on the day we went, was staffed by one of the owners who was happy to tell us all about the wines, the winery, and the wedding that she and her husband had on the property. The nuptials featured in a magazine, the pages of which have been framed and put on the walls at Aravina, giving it a personal touch.

The restaurant is truly spectacular and we were lucky enough to get a table outside, overlooking the dam and plenty of greenery. The food was fresh and clean, not bogged down by heavy sauces or oil, but with plenty of flavour. The white wines were crisp and the perfect accompaniment to the food, while the desserts were an absolute triumph.

Aravina is also the kind of place you want to hang around after you’ve finished your meal. There’s plenty to keep pretty much anyone occupied, including a shop filled with all sorts of homewares that you might find in a house in the Hamptons. The shop leads into a huge showroom which features a mix of classic and vintage cars, including a couple of Ferraris and a vintage Aston Martin. And outside, there’s a selection of games, including croquet and totem tennis (we're still arguing over who won). The function centre is also open for people to look through, and features a lovely outdoor deck area that looks over the dam.

Champion totem tennis player

Champion totem tennis player

Cullens

Cullens started as a family winery 40 years ago and has won many awards for its wines since then. The winery is known for its biodynamic viticulture and environmental practices. They’ve also added the biodynamic spiral garden to the winery grounds, which is a self-guided tour of the gardens that explains the biodynamic operations.

Cullens is one of my favourite wineries down south, mostly because of its rustic charm and laid back feel. A lot of the food is grown on the property in the biodynamic vege gardens, and I reckon you can really taste that freshness in the food. You can choose to sit up on the verandah, or out on the grass at a wooden table with an umbrella, just metres from the vines. Sharing food is encouraged, and there are several platters to choose from. You can also kick things off with a wine tasting so that you know what you’re going to order to go with lunch.

As well as wine tasting and the restaurant, Cullens also has accommodation on site.

Arimia

Arimia is one of the newer wineries down south and is accessed by an unsealed, bumpy road. The restaurant is quite charming, with exposed beams, stone floors and a beautiful oak bar top, which is where the serious business of wine tasting takes place. The restaurant is laid back, and you can sit out on the verandah overlooking the bush.

The staff are really friendly and the food is well presented. On my last visit, the mushroom risotto I had was near perfection and just the right portion size. The only slight disappointment was the dessert menu, which was a bit underwhelming. Having said that, the lemon slice we chose was delicious!

THINGS TO DO

Lighthouses

Despite going down south dozens of times, I was pretty much unaware there even were lighthouses, let alone that you could go and look inside them. But on a recent trip, we decided to do a tour. The Cape Naturaliste lighthouse is about 15 minutes out of Dunsborough and is definitely worth the short drive.

The lighthouse was constructed in 1903 and was built from limestone found in the local area. The specialised lead crystal lense was shipped over from the UK and these days is insured for $8-$10 million dollars. The lighthouse was staffed by three lighthouse keepers in the early days who had to constantly run up and down the stairs to keep the fire burning and the lense turning. In 1996, the Cape Naturaliste lighthouse became the last lighthouse on mainland Australia to be automated.

On the day we visited, it was really windy, but the views from the lighthouse across the Cape were stunning. We even managed to see a couple of whales breaching offshore. The tour was only half an hour, but it was really informative and was a great insight into part of WA’s history.

You can also do a tour of the lighthouse at Cape Leeuwin near Augusta, which is the most southern point of WA where the Indian and Southern oceans meet.

Photo: Margaret River Tourism Association

Photo: Margaret River Tourism Association

Caves

There are several caves to go exploring in, including Lake, Jewel and Mammoth caves. But on our last trip, we visited Ngilgi (pron NIL-gee), which is about a 10 minute drive from Dunsborough. At the start of the tour, the guide told us the Aboriginal dreaming story about the good spirit Ngilgi, who chased the bad spirit, Wolgine, out of the cave, but had to stay behind to make sure that it never returned. Because the good spirit still lives in the cave, Aboriginal people believe it’s a place of safety.

The cave was opened to tourists in the early 1900s, and there’s some cool old photos of people standing outside the caves, dressed in their full olden-day regalia. Making it through the twists, turns and small gaps in the caves is hard enough, but somehow the women of the 1900s managed it in a corset, full skirt and heels. The tour guide also told us that Dame Nellie Melba did a concert in the biggest part of the cave, the auditorium, and insisted that her grand piano be carted down there!

Wooden boardwalks have been constructed throughout the caves, but there are some tricky spots where you have to climb between crevasses. The cave is lit with different coloured lights, giving it a magical quality, which is further enhanced by the ‘fairy garden’ with cool little mushroom-shaped formations (note: not the scientific name). For something different, there are also adventure tours you can do with a guide, where you get to explore beyond the boardwalks.

Photo: Margaret River Tourism Association. Lake cave.

Photo: Margaret River Tourism Association. Lake cave.

Beaches

You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to beaches in the southwest. For a nice swim, I love Bunker Bay, which is quite protected and doesn’t generally get too rough.

For snorkeling, the Canal Rocks south channel is a fairyland, but only on a perfect day. For surfing, there’s the main break at Margaret River and Cowaramup Bay. For exploring rock pools, Redgate beach is heaps of fun. At sunset, I don’t think you can go past Hamelin Bay, which is on the way to Augusta and has its own resident friendly manta rays.

PLACES TO STAY

Marybrook

If you’re looking for a home away from home, then Marybrook is a fantastic choice. The two story house is halfway between Dunsborough and Busselton, and is about a 3 hour drive from Perth. The house is surrounded by trees, which means that when you’re on the second level, you feel like you’re in an enormous, luxurious tree house. The exposed beams, polished wooden floors and stone fire place all give Marybrook a rustic but homely feel.

Sitting out on the balcony with a cup of coffee in the mornings looking out at Geographe Bay is the perfect way to start a day in the South West.

The house has 4 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms and could easily accommodate 7 people, so it’s definitely a great option if you’re bringing the family with you. Oh, and the open fireplace is the perfect place to sit down with one (or two) of these:

Pullman Bunker Bay Resort

Pullman Bunker Bay is a five star resort, located on the stretch of coastline of the same name. It’s surrounded by forest and has lovely views across the tree tops to the ocean. The self contained villas are gorgeous, with high ceilings, limestone walls and luxurious bathrooms. They also have full kitchens, so you can cook for yourself if you feel like it. The main restaurant has stunning views and the breakfast buffet is really good, including sparkling wine if you want to have a bubbly start to the day (the best way to start any day!)

The villas are just a short walk to the beach, and the resort has its own private boardwalk down to Bunker Bay:

If it's too windy for the beach, you've got the choice of going to the pool instead. The pool area is quite small but picturesque; the sparkling water looks like it’s pouring into the tree tops. There’s a row of sunlounges for guests, although it can get pretty crowded at peak times.

Clearly not peak time

Clearly not peak time

The day spa is lovely, but unfortunately on the day I went, something had died in the roof which all the vanilla candles in the world couldn’t cover up!

Windmills Break

Coincidentally, when we went to Windmills Break, something had died in the roof there too. Luckily the staff were able to promptly move us to another room which didn't smell! 

On the whole, we enjoyed our stay at Windmills Break, which is on Caves road about 20 minutes out of Dunsborough. The rooms are really nice and have a private garden looking out over the bush. The room we stayed in also had an enormous spa bath. The pool area is pretty and is surrounded by bush and gardens, which makes it feel like a secluded bush hideaway.

The result of my pedicure

The result of my pedicure

The highlight of our stay was the massage and beauty treatment. The little treatment hut was very cosy and smelt delicious (no dead animals here!) The therapists were brilliant and the massage was one of the most relaxing I've had. One thing to be aware of if you stay at Windmills Break is that the restaurant closes at 5 or 6pm (depending on the season). This means that you have to either eat before then or go out somewhere else for dinner.

Notes: 

For more info, see: www.margaretriver.com