December 2009

It has always seemed to us that Australia is a long way from anywhere; even Singapore/Sydney is 8 plus hours.  But there is a more accessible spot our Oz friends have promoted and that is Perth, in Western Australia,  The geography works in our favor as it is a straight shot down from Singapore that takes just 4.5 hours.  And so, after Christmas in Singapore, we are up at the crack of dawn for the morning flight. Our destination is Dunsborough, a five hour drive from Perth and right on the edge of the Margaret River wine region.

 Bunkers Bay with Theo & Matt

Bunkers Bay with Theo & Matt

Our friend Matt Gebbie has arranged a rental house through his parents who have a summer home in Dunsborough.  At $100 AUS a day we don’t expect much, but we are delighted to find the ‘Tin Shed’, a pre-fab in the woods with all the amenities and a great deck off the open living/dining room.

The trip down was uneventful.  Not as stunningly pretty as our Christmas drive from Auckland to Hawkes Bay 2 years ago but, we can see beaches once we arrive and that is a welcome sight after a long, damp run-up to winter in China.  

I’m driving a Holden Commodore this trip, as all the sports cars were taken.  It proves to be a quick and comfortable cruiser much like a BMW.  Mindful not to drive too quickly as Matt reminded me the WA cops are as unforgiving as the NZ ones and that Kiwi cop meeting cost me $350 NZ dollars for speeding.

Tin Shed

Matt and the Gebbie family are waiting in their gorgeous, open concept summer home and we settle in with some local wine to plot our first few days.  Matt guides us the 10 minutes or so to our rental reminding us the roo’s come out at dusk.  We see none but, always leave the ‘Tin Shed’ outside lights on mindful of the wide variety of snakes and spiders that call WA home.  Of course, we never saw one snake and just one hairy spider the size of a desert plate that lived outside our front door for a couple of days.  I’m beginning to think that reading up on the flora and fauna of these places is only making me more paranoid.

The next morning we are all off to Bunker Bay beach.  A lovely spot with a cool (posh, modern, beautifully designed) coffee shop and ice blue waters.  And, I do mean ice.  The ocean is, in a word, refreshing this time of year.  The other surprise is the flies.  Beach flies that come out for about two to three weeks by the millions.  Non biters, they are much worse at the beach and only manageable when there is a stiff breeze.  We have arrived at their peak and between them and the frigid waters our beach visits become short photo ops.  Unless, of course, the wind blows and it does this time of the year.  Strong enough that it takes the flies and probably birds and small children for a wild ride.

That’s OK, we have 90 vineyards to choose from just half and hour drive south and Matt has picked out some of the best for tastings and long, leisurely lunches.

Margaret River is one of the largest and newest wine regions of Australia.  The first plantings were in 1967.  They have grown slowly and represent only 3% of the total Oz grapes grown but tellingly; they produce 20% of the countries premium wines.  Famous for chardonnay, shiraz and cab sauvignon, they also grow semillon, sauvignon blanc and even sangiovese these days.  There are stylish vineyards to visit with gorgeous gardens and restaurants (and free tastings, rare these days).  

We visit Amberley with their giant hydrangea garden outside the restaurant and eat kangaroo sausage with a stunning chardonnay.  The next day is Leeuwin where they have an outdoor amphitheatre just like Black Barn in New Zealand. Boz Scaggs and Michael Macdonald are playing on Valentines Day.  Tempting.

Margaret River 

Then there is Clairault, Cullen and Cape Mentelle.  At Clairault Matt and I bought a case of 2003 Shiraz for just under $10 a bottle.  Called ‘Cleanskins’, they have no label as they made more wine than expected and ran out of labels.  Such a great deal for a wonderful wine.  Finally, our last full day we lunch at Vasse Felix with friends of Matt and indulge in a 1998 Reserve Shiraz that is simply fabulous.  

‘Vasse Felix’ is named after a French seaman, Vasse, who went missing on a mapping expedition. Felix is the Latin word for ‘lucky’.  Not so much in this poor guys case, he was never found. The owner started the winery in 1967 and on its label it has a Peregrine Falcon.  It seems small birds were eating the sweetest grapes and he bought the falcon to drive them off.  After much expense and months of rigorous training he released the bird and never saw it again.

Day after day, beach after beach, winery after winery. We went to a German bakery down a lane where they sell bread on the honor system.  They bake it, put it outside on the terrace and you come and pick it up twice a day paying what is suggested into a jar.  

Coming home one night late we decided on burgers from ‘Dunsborough Takeaway’ and wound up with the best burger and fries any of us had ever had.  One evening we fished for dinner at the beach with Nic and Andrew catching all kinds of fish, all about an inch long.  Happily there were backup sausages from Farmer Jacks.  

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By then we had found the ‘ roos’, or they found us.  Every night approaching dusk it was a bit of a race toward home as they come out then by the hundreds and leap across the road in front of you from out of the bush.  These are truly heart in the mouth moments and, in the mornings, we saw the evidence of roo/car meetings in the ditches & on the roadside.  Hitting a 150 pound ‘roo’ at highway speeds is as hard on the car and occupants as it is on the animal.  We saw some very sexy cars with giant ‘roo’ bars welded on the front because, if you live here, you put your auto vanity in park when the sun goes down.

8 Nicholson, Subiaco 

Our week went too quickly and we saddled up to head back to Perth.  The hospitality of Kay and Sid  was more than equal to that of Ant and Wyn in New Zealand two years ago.  No wonder, the families are related.  Matt, Theo, Nic and Andrew were the perfect ‘Perthies’ to show us around.

We took a more scenic, less hurried route to Perth (meaning we missed the highway turnoff) and pulled into our bed and breakfast in the early evening.  A very pleasant surprise.  I had scoured the internet for boutique hotels in Perth and found nothing.  Then, by accident I found ‘8 Nicholson’ on TripAdvisor. As nice as any 5 star hotel with lovely rooms and gardens it is right in the Subiaco neighborhood; THE cool old part of town.  A little art deco Yorkville.

 8 Nicholson

8 Nicholson

The owner has traveled throughout Asia and brought back lovely antiques. She also has a vineyard in Margaret River and sells her grapes v/s bottling them. It seems that is a trend as even other, more established vineyards like Amberley no longer bottle their own wine.  There is too much capacity in Margaret River and, like everyplace else, they are looking to cut costs.

18 km’s south from Perth proper is Freemantle.  The main port for Western Australia and big navy base. During World War 2, as many as 200 submarines used this as their Pacific home port.  Built in the early to mid 1800’s, partly by convict labor, Freemantle has stunning Victorian architecture, including two of the original prisons, and has been totally gentrified from its wild convict and navy days.  Full of shops, art galleries, pub and restaurants; along with many terraced bars on the harbor, it is a great place to hang out for the afternoon, evening, night etc.  

We rang in the New Year with Matt and Theo at another of Sid and Kay's beautiful homes near Cottesloe beach where Heath Ledger's family held his wake.  On New Year’s Day we found another long stretch of beautiful blue water with soft white sand and sat drinking cold white wine on a wine bar terrace overlooking it all.  Our last morning we took Matt’s advice and headed for Farmer Jack’s where they have giant bins of cryo packed beef tenderloins.  The smallest is about 6 pounds and they are all about $30 AUS each.  Not sure about the rules for smuggling meat through Singapore and on to China, but in the end; we got three of them through customs for BBQ’s in Shanghai.

Beach, food, wine and sun 

In the end, Perth and Margaret River are a little off the global travelers beaten path. Sydney, Melbourne et al are great destinations but this lovely and remote outpost in Western Australia is a perfect getaway for food, wine and sun.

Update 2013: We were booked to go back this Christmas and I found a stunning resort hotel called 'Windmills Break' just outside Dunsborough. But, our friends from Quebec have booked a big tour of Rajasthan and we cancelled to do that instead. Perth doesn't change much but there a couple of 5 star hotels now. Bunker Bay had a Great White Shark attack this year and, in total, there have been at least 5 Great White deaths up and down the coast. Best to stay dry. Lovely part of the world, well worth a visit.