“Look, it’s a shooting star!”
There are millions of small rocks colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere every night (and day), each resulting in bright flash of light across the sky, which is also referred to as the shooting star. Such sightings are fairly common on every cloudless night – if only one has the patience to watch out for them. Sadly, in all my life, I’d never spotted one myself, until I set foot in the South West of Western Australia, where Mother Nature showcases some of her finest works, and where I spotted my first ever lucky omen.
This disarmingly simple joy apparently happens all the time at this side of the world, especially in the countryside. But more interestingly, the sky is not the only one that lights up here. Perth – the capital of Western Australia – was also known as ‘the City of Lights’ when American astronaut John Glenn orbited the Earth in the Friendship 7 spacecraft and passed over Perth below him (the people of Perth left their lights on, and rushed outside to wave torches into the night sky to acknowledge his mission).
It is not too difficult to discover that Western Australia has that X factor; it has the ability to beguile, confound and delight travellers from all walks of life. You can spend the morning hitting up uber-hip eateries like at Moore & Moore Cafe, Freemantle (whose industrial space is cleverly decorated with vintage collectibles), then feed your artsy soul around Perth’s boundary-pushing creative scene; remember, this is the city that produced the icon Heath Ledger. Or, you can vineyard-hop through Western Australia’s beautiful wine region, famous for the production of world’s premium quality wines, then drive through Boranup Forest or play with dolphins under the clear blue sky at Bunburry.
Whatever your choice may be, this is what travel in Western Australia has become: diverse, food-obsessed, fun yet utterly romantic. Follow my discoveries below as I travelled to the South West part of the region beginning from Perth and learn why these top holiday spots could just be your next favourite getaway…
Two Feet & a Heartbeat Walking Tours, Perth
Of course, the beauty of travelling to a new place is in the unending revelations – the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ or anything in between – as we learn every nook and cranny of its existence and being. But while doing so on your own might give you the ultimate freedom, there’s no harm in joining a group guided tour that not only allows you to uncover some of the city’s hidden gems, but also create friendships among participants that last even after the tour ends. As such, I suggest joining the tours by the award-winning ‘Two Feet & a Heartbeat’ (www.twofeet.com.au) that hires locals to guide the insightful walks in a fun, relaxed manner. Rusty, my guide of that day, was an amazing storyteller – and thanks to him, I now earned a bragging right on locals’ secrets that I can show off to my friends in my next trip to the city.
Kings Park & Botanic Garden, Perth
Visited by over six million people each year and considered as one of the largest inner city parks in the world, the Kings Park is a definite favourite among Western Australians and visitors alike, especially those that just enjoy a little fresh air. It covers two-thirds of the Mount Eliza and consists of grassed parkland, a botanical garden with an impressive collection of 2000 species of Western Australian flora, and a natural bush land overlooking the Swan River and Darling Range, making it perfect for a romantic date or as a family day out.
On top of that, the area also holds a strong cultural significance as it used to be an important ceremonial and cultural place for the Whadjuk tribe of Noongar people (an aboriginal community inhabiting Western Australia). Today, visitors can learn more about the Noongar connections with Kings Park at the dedicated Aboriginal Art Gallery or via an Indigenous Heritage Tour happening only on weekdays. But if you are into festivals like me, be sure to mark your calendar for Kings Park Festival, which is an annual month-long celebration of show-stopping art installations, lovely floral displays, uplifting live music and family-friendly activities throughout September.
Sometimes you really want to get away from it all. And Rottnest Island (affectionately called “Rotto” by locals) could be the best place to do so. Located just 19 kilometres off-coast Fremantle, the island has been a traditional family holiday spot for years for Western Australians, providing the rare opportunity to truly switch off and spend some time reconnecting with loved ones face to face. It is an A-class reserve; hence, the only way to get around on this car-free island is by bike or the hop-on/hop-off bus service by Island Explorer Tours. With 63 beautiful beaches, 20 beautiful bays and many coral reefs and wrecks, the only thing harder than getting here is leaving. And oh while you’re here, don’t forget to take a selfie or two with the island’s super adorable inhabitants: the quokkas. However, never ever feed them!
Dolphin Discovery Centre, Bunbury
Come and feed your curiosity about dolphins at Koombana Bay, near Bunbury, where hundreds of them call it their home. There are various incentives provided for visitors and locals alike to understand more about these mammals, especially at the non-profit Dolphin Discovery Centre (dolphinediscovery.com.au) that focusses equally on research, education, conservation and tourism. Here, visitors may choose to swim with the wild Bottlenose Dolphins in their own environment between October and April each year or join in the Dolphin Eco-Cruise (1.5 hours) to be as close as possible to the dolphins without getting their feet wet. But most importantly, the tours here are operated under strict conditions, therefore interactions are only limited to attracting dolphins towards visitors at their own accord. The centre also features a 360-degree digital dolphinarium to further visitors’ immersive experience.
Busselton Jetty & Underwater Observatory, Busselton
If you enjoy appreciating the beauty of underwater kingdom, then Busselton’s Underwater Observatory could be one of the best places to do so. For one, instead of keeping the aquatic animals in captivity, visitors get to observe the stunning corals and fascinating marine life through eleven viewing windows within an observation chamber that is 8 metres beneath the water surface. The authorities do not permit fish feeding to keep a more natural balance, hence you’ll find that the fishes here behave more naturally. There would be no guarantee what animal that you might spot here, but I got lucky when I noticed a wild cheeky sea lion decided to visit the observatory! To reach the observatory, visitors can either walk along the 1.7-kilometre jetty (www.busseltonjetty.com.au) or opt for approximately 10-minute ride on a red vintage train.
Olio Bello’s Lakeside Glamping, Margaret River
This is the place where I spotted the aforementioned shooting star. Located on Olio Bello’s 320-acre land filled with 8,000 olive trees and 14 unique olive groves with minimal light pollution, this glamping site certainly has that wilderness feel to it. In fact, it was at this very site that my friends and I spotted not one or two but more than ten wild kangaroos hopping down the rows of trees! And if guests listen carefully, there’s a relaxing sound of the waves crashing onto the nearby Gracetown shore blowing in the air.
Half a dozen luxury bungalows (eco-tents) are cleverly positioned around a lake to maximise privacy. Thoughtful touches like fresh cut olive branches within the bungalows provide a link to the surroundings. Each bungalow, designed by Eco Structures Australia, is a 6.3 metres squared of airy, rustic comfort and manages to fit in a private ensuite bathroom with fresh rainwater shower, living area with seating, built-in teak cabinetry, bespoke interiors and expansive sunset viewing deck. There is a ‘Behind-The-Scenes’ Harvest tour available and a great cafe offering true organic ‘farm-to-plate’ indulgences. Mobile coverage is available at the farm, but I don’t remember holding mine during most of my time there. It was completely a refreshing digital detox experience that I reckon everyone should try.
Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, Margaret River
Honestly, in what other way would be more romantic to witness God’s creation other than doing so by standing outside by the railing on the top storey of a lighthouse? At 39 metres tall, Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse is one of the tallest lighthouses on the mainland Australia. It is located at the most south-western point of continental Australia, where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, and affords some of the most glorious views of the oceans in the world – even National Geographic agrees to this. Come appreciate the eternal sight of the sea, or take in as much information about its history, the keepers and the tales it hold through its excellent audio guides, or book a fully guided tour for a more personal experience.
Bettenay’s Margaret River Nougat Company, Margaret River
The Bettenay family (www.bettenaysmargaretriver.com.au) is well-known for their premium wines since 1989, but in 2012, the family added nougat under their specialities. Today, they offer more than 27 flavours of handcrafted nougat bars including cranberry & pistachio to sea-salted caramel, that would make a delicious souvenir for your loved ones at home.
Voyager Estate, Margaret RiverVoyager Estate (www.voyagerestate.com.au) is a temple of fine culinary. Expect to be wooed by its heavenly signature courses and dazzling ambience that even the likes of Malaysian celebrity Chef Wan and the globally adored personality Nigella Lawson couldn’t resist. And being one of the very few original Margaret River wineries, this would also be the best place to enjoy their highly praised wines.
Koomal Dreaming Tours, Yallingup
A trip to Western Australia, honestly, wouldn’t be complete without an authentic Aboriginal cultural experience since the region is rich with Aboriginal history. One good tour operator that is committed in giving such educational experience is the award-winning Koomal Dreaming (www.koomaldreaming.com.au), delivered by Josh Whiteland, a Wadandi man passionate about sharing his knowledge of his culture and lore with visitors. There are plenty of tours available, but we opted for Twilight Didgeridoo Cave Tour that involves an insightful storytelling by Josh, discovering bush medicine, exploring an incredibly dramatic Ngilgi Cave and savouring the magical didgeridoo performance by Josh himself inside the chamber of the cave – believe me, it’s a rare treat.
Beach & Forest Eco Adventure Tour, Pemberton
My infatuation with Western Australia fully bloomed during the visit to the biologically diverse Southern Forests, a huge region boasting a collection of mighty forests of jarrah, marri and tingle commonly found in the vicinity of Manjimup, Northcliffe, Walpole and Pemberton towns. But just when I thought that it would be greeneries all the way, I was surprised to find an expanse of sand dunes (Yeagarup Dunes) on the move right at a tip of a forest when we joined an eco tour (www.pembertondiscoverytours.com.au) at Pemberton.
A remarkable discovery as it is, these dunes are the result of sand being blown inland, and began towering above the tree tops and then swallow the forest at a rate of approximately four metres each year. The best way to explore these wonders is by using a four-wheel drive (4WD), just like what we did with Graeme, who is an excellent, well-informed 4WD driver and fantastic photographer. We concluded our trip by watching the crashing waves of the Great Southern Ocean near the Yeagerup Dunes, before having lunch in a natural bush setting on the banks of Dead Man’s Lake. These eco tours are available all year round, but come in the months between September and November to watch spring wildflowers burst into life.
Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk, Walpole
Now everyone knows that regular forest bathing (“being in the presence of trees”) is good for the body, but unfortunately most of us are not fit as we’d like to be. Sure, I’d love to see beautiful sweeping sceneries, but if it requires dragging my jelly-legs uphill or downhill climbing an impossible mountain, then I’d say “Nahh, I’ll pass.” Fortunately, Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk is suitable for people like me. It features a relatively easy walk made up of lightweight bridge spans amid Western Australia’s world famous gigantic tingle forest, each reaching the maximum height of 40 metres above forest floor. These spans are designed to sway lightly as you walk in order to create the sensation of being in the canopy of the forest. And while you’re on the bridge, try to spot the many different birds and animals inhabiting the forest such as quokka and white-tailed black-cockatoo. The walk links Tree Top Walk to the Ancient Empire, where you’ll find the giant yellow and 400-year old red tingle trees found only in this area.
Farmers Market, Albany
A farmers market is like a treasure trove of local experiences and flavours, thus visiting one can be a great way to explore the wonderful diversity of each place. In Albany, its farmers market is held every Saturday and even recognised as the best of its kind in Australia by food and wine magazine Vogue Entertaining + Travel. My friends and I beelined for the Great Southern Honey from The Honey Shop, but there are also pastries, fresh seasonally available produce and seafood to cram into our bags. Come, sniff and taste for yourself!
The Gap & National Bridge, Albany
Among the trademark landscapes of Australia are its impossibly beautiful vertigo-inducing cliffs like those at The Gap and Natural Bridge in Torndirrup National Park, Albany, the ideal location to witness the power of Western Australia’s shorelines, the awe-inspiring views of the Southern Ocean and the coast from Bald Head to West Cape Howe. On top of that, be ready to spot whales playing in the bay during migrating season from June to October each year!
Oranje Tractor Wine, Marbelup
Oranje Tractor Wine
I must say, our brief farm experience picking fruits at the Oranje Tractor Wines (www.oranjetractor.com) was a refreshing break from the usual touristy stops. There is such a sense of community, warmth and friendliness about the place that I promised to return, this time for a longer visit. And oh all those fresh organic fruits that I was able to pick were some of the sweetest fruits I’ve ever tasted. Oranje Tractor is managed by a dynamic duo, Murray and Pamela, who periodically receive ‘travel-eaters’ from all parts of the world under the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) host scheme. They regularly conduct tours and talks, and the farm’s A-list guests include HRH Prince Charles and Camilla.
Truthfully, there are many more gems in South West Western Australia that are worth exploring than what we can fit in this page. Hence, do visit www.australiassouthwest.com for more inspirations. Also, do consider using the service by Perth Luxury Tours (www.perthluxurytours.com) for a smooth and fun experience while visiting this region – Gloria, our driver, is a darling! And of course, we thank Tourism Western Australia for this amazing opportunity and for making sure our trip a smooth sailing.