Where the beer flows like wine: Margaret River

Take a big whiff. Stick your nose in the glass, hold it by your fingertips and inhale slowly. Using your wrist, twirl the glass around in circles. Take another whiff. Smell different?

Ah, the art of wine tasting. Yes, the likes of France, Italy, California, and Chile all have their appeal but to Australians why would they bother trying such foreign wines when some of the best of the best is in their very own backyard.

I’m lucky that in my short time here (a year and a half already, sheesh) I’ve sampled some fine Shiraz in the Barossa Valley, Semillon in the Hunter Valley, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in the Yarra Valley and finally, the Cabernet’s and Sauvignon Blanc’s of Margaret River – with a few others in between of course. It almost seems like no matter where you are in Australia, you’re bound to stumble upon some damn fine wine.

Lucky for me just 3.5 hours drive south of Perth, Western Australia resides the small wine region of Margaret River. A friend from Brisbane was also in Perth the same weekend so it was a no brainer to rent a car for a full fledge road trip to indulge in another yet to be undertaken wine region.

As with everything I’d experienced outside of the city of Perth in WA, the landscape traveling south was barren. Flat farmland stretched for miles with mom and pop service stations scant. Running out of petrol (aka gas) was not an option. Music pumped, windows down with the sun setting over striking vineyards we approached the endearing town of Margaret River.

Interestingly enough, Margaret River is the name of the region, river, and town. And a beautiful region that is, with hiking trails, beautiful beaches and world renowned surf breaks, endless vineyards and more or less one main drag in the center of it all, Bussell Highway. This small and quiet town is consistently invaded by pinky finger sipping tourists and grape picking backpackers. And at the heart of it after a full day of exploring is the main pub in town, Settlers Tavern, as they quote “the kind of pub every wine region should have”.

Lucky for us arriving at about 7:30 pm on a Saturday, coinciding with the AFL (Australia Football League) Grand Final with the Sydney Swans taking the reins, it was off to the Settlers Tavern for some good old fashion pub grub and a taste of some local beer, specifically the quite mild yet delicious Margaret River Pale Ale on tap. The townies were a bit too celebratory so it was back to the hostel where I befriended Hazel from Wales, the boys from northern England who coined me “Alabama” because they couldn’t remember where in America I was from (a first) and a few other locals before eventually making my way back to where all things end, the Settlers Tavern again just a few hours later to rock out to Zarm, a fantastic live Rastafarian band who were as good as Bob Marley himself.

After a very late night it was an early rise to meet Bushtucker Wine Tours to indulge in what we came here for, to taste the fabulous wines of Margaret River. A small group of about 15, it was nice to actually join a tour that was in the vicinity to where we were staying, as opposed to on my excursions having to travel outside of a city, into the country etc. Getting back without having to pee is always a struggle, but thank goodness for Margaret River’s locality, wooh.

Stop 1: Adifern Winery

We approached our first vineyard at about 11 am. I found the tasting very rushed and detached. Being that it was a holiday weekend (strangely it was the Queen’s birthday but not really they just moved it to this Monday randomly) it was quite busy in the area and I felt we were hurried in and out. With that, none of the wines particularly stood out for me, although others on the tour disagreed, so I had my samples and moved on. The property however was beautiful, with bright flowers, endless fields of vines and farm animals roaming.

Before traveling on our guide did something that made me very unhappy at the time. She asked everyone to get on the bus and to sit next to someone they don’t know, introduce yourself, and have a chat until we got to the next place. I was not interested in playing this game one bit, so I sat in the row with the single seat hoping it would save me while I heard my friend Louise chiming away a few rows behind me. In the end I spoke to my neighbor Caitlin, who coincidentally is also from Brisbane and was traveling by herself. Darnist thing, now she’s our friend and we’re organizing dinner parties and making introductions to our groups of friends back in town.

Stop 2: Brookwood Estate

We started the tasting with a sweet yet soft sip of the bubbles. Hmmm, yes I can dig this. Normally I don’t purchase the bubbles but with summer nearly here I envisioned myself sitting in the local park with a glass of these bubbles soaking up the rays with some friends and so I forked over the $30 for a bottle to live out my new fantasy. I was also a strong fan of the Shiraz Cabernet 2010 but at the time only wanted to commit to one, so the bubbles it was.

Unfortunately however I found the staff very rude. While trying to decide, Shiraz/Cab verses bubbles, shiraz/cab verses bubbles, shiraz/cab verses bubbles I was hoping to gain a bit more information about the wines, as I also was purchasing a SSB (Semillon Sauvignon Blanc) for the colleague who’s house I stayed at the week prior, and just found this one staff member’s demeanor downright snooty and unappreciative of my business. In the end I still bought the wines, because they were mighty tasty, however I strongly feel it can’t go unsaid.

But then it was lunch time, wahoo! Sitting out on the veranda looking out over the vineyard I sipped the purchased glass of the aforementioned Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 since it wasn’t coming home with me and indulged in delights such as smoked crocodile, fresh pumpkin bread, and locally crafted chutneys and spreads. It was a bit unique offering of cold tapas but in the end was very satisfying and a great intense mixture of flavors.

Then the fun really began. Our guide offered up the witchetty grub to the group. Say what? Yes, it’s a bug or technically moth larvae and is a traditional provision for Aboriginals. The first person who raised their hand got to choose the head or the tail since it was going to be consumed after being cut in half. Immediately Louise’s hand jumped up, and we looked around the table and realized she was the only one who volunteered to eat the thing. The seconds ticked by as I contemplated if I should take one for the team with my friend, but then just before I braved it another girl in the group jumped in and ate the bit with the head. When asked what it tasted like Louise told us “it’s crunchy but soft inside, tastes like a macadamia nut.” I guess I’ll never know.

Stop 3: Tassell Park

In terms of atmosphere and fun this winery took the cake. It might have been because we’ve already sampled two other wineries, had lunch and therefore I’ve shaken my hangover and sour mood but the overall reason was the hostess. She was fun, educational and gave everyone a laugh and a smile. We tried everything from the lower range all the way to the private bin labels. And although in the balmy weather we ended the tasting with a zesty sampling of mulled wine, I walked out of there with a packet so get ready for a Christmas special recipe!

Stop 4: Cowaramup Brewing Company

Yay, beer break. Cowaramup is another town just a few kilometers outside of Margaret River off of Bussell Highway. If you can’t remember the name, just call it cowabunga like I did. For $14.50 you can get a taster of all the beers on tap, which of course is what we did, and then enjoyed the sun in the green pasture out back where we chatted to some other people on the tour who live in a remote area of Western Australia up near Broome. Nowhere zone.  I could have sat there for hours, taking in the rays, sipping deliciousness from light to dark, enjoying life. But then we had to move on.

Stop 5: Margaret River Dairy Company

I LOVE cheese! Cheese, cheese, cheese. This cute little dairy complex had a just enough room to squeeze us in, sample a few, and my golly the feta and brie were fabulous, make a purchase and head out the door. While Louise scored us some deliciousness to divulge later, I wandered around the property snapping photos. It was a quick stop off, and then we were on our way.

Stop 6: Margaret River Chocolate Factory

Whew, this is a lot of stuff isn’t it? I wasn’t event tempted by the chocolate at this stage. Well, that’s not true, this was probably the busiest place we ventured to all day, as all tours stop here. The chocolate warehouse was huge and had chocolates in all shapes, sizes, flavors etc. There was popcorn and ice-cream and it was a bit like heaven I would imagine. I just found my way to the free samples, which is very generous because you can scoop out the serves yourself, and then was ready to move on to the final stop off.

Stop 7: Thompson Estate

The owner of this last winery, a cardiologist, spoke to us all about the family business. I sipped, and swirled and chatted away as I realized this was my last chance to make a purchase. Their wines consisted of the Thompson Estate Range and the Locum Range, which is the cheaper of two. Interestingly enough, at times I enjoyed the Locum Range better than the more expensive so I walked out of there with a crisp bottle of 2011 Chardonnay, a new variety favorite of mine, to compliment the cheeses we just purchased for an afternoon snack.

We returned to Margaret River Backpackers around 5 and as the weather was fantastic that day we found all of our new friends from the previous evening hanging out back on the porch. Louise and I glowing from our wine tasting saddled up to the table to savor the cheese and wine and tell stories from the day. We found our way back to Settler’s Tavern that evening for dinner and then mingled the night away.

On the drive back to Perth the next morning we took our time on Bussell Highway, having breakfast in “cowabunga” where cow statues line the road before stopping off in Busselton to walk the longest jetty in the southern hemisphere. Families were fishing off the jetty enjoying the Monday holiday in the sun. As we casually made our way closer to the city we realized we made the unforgiving mistake when the gas light ticked on and we needed to find a servo (gas station) fast. Luckily we did, but the stress got tenser as the clocked ticked on, the traffic backed up, and my flight back to Brisbane inched closer and closer. Luckily for me, Louise’s skilled driving dropped me at the Perth Airport a mere 10 minutes before the flight departed, some charming skills convinced the ticket agents to print a boarding pass even though the flight was closed and I rushed through the gates after getting picked on for the bomb swat test, every time! And only to find the flight delayed an hour. Whew. I swear though, walking the longest jetty in the southern hemisphere, 1.8 kilometers across Geographe Bay, sure was worth it.

Dubbya Eyh

These two eyes have expanded. They’re growing wider and wiser. They’ve stretched themselves up and down the east coast, along the southern states and finally made it out west. Hello Western Australia, commonly referred to as WA or more accurately pronounced ‘dubbya eyh’. For some reason though I had ignored all of my own first-rate advice. In fact, it didn’t even register for me until after I boarded the plane that I was embarking on a 5 hour flight and spending 10 days across the country. Slipper socks – fail. Inflatable neck pillow – fail. Camera charger – fail.

On my way to the Perth City YHA hostel my taxi driver chatted to me about Perth. “You’ll talk to everyone around here. Actually, everyone will want to talk to you whether you want to talk or not.” That’s the perception about out west. The population is scarce, and backwards, and slow, and friendly. But that’s about it. Or so they say.

I joined Pinnacles Tours for a full day adventure outside of the city of Perth, heading north into the vast emptiness. This is what I had pictured rural Australia to look like. Driving through the bush, our bus rumbling over flat orange-colored dusted roads, miles of nothingness, no cars in sight, no street lights or intersections, just random clusters of yellow flowers hugging the way.

Joey in the pouch

Our first stop was to Caversham Wildlife Park. As with most tours, no itinerary would be complete without feeding a kangaroo and giving a koala a light pat. So as you do, I did. But this time around I experienced two firsts. I actually saw a little Joey inside a mama kangaroo’s pouch. And although that sounds all cute and cuddly and picturesque, it really was quite awkward. Poor little guy just had one leg sticking out and was sort of in there upside down. To each their own I guess. The other first was that I pet a southern hairy nose wombat. But then, that’s when my camera died.

Koalas are not bears.

My wombat friend

On our way to Nambung National Park and Cervantes, we passed wind farms that sustain the local area’s electricity. For a moment in time I could have been in the Netherlands. 50 windmills source 55,000 homes. Pretty impressive.

Ze Lobster Factory

The quant fishing village of Cervantes is home to the Indian Ocean Rock Lobster Factory. Technically, these lobsters are crayfish, but called lobsters because that’s what they’re more commonly known and appeal to the desirable export locations. Cray cray. At first I thought the notion of going on a tour of the facility was quite silly, who cares, but I walked out of there completely fascinated (and hungry!). It was interesting to see how the lobsters are chosen, sized and then packed live for shipping. Over an audio tour I learned how first they sort them in long containers based on size, as orders come in requesting certain specifications. They starve them so they remove all of the poo, as they can survive for 30 hours without eating, then whisk them off to be packed after checking to make sure all their legs are still intact. A quick dip in freezing cold water stuns them long enough to be packed in a crate with wood chips and shipped overseas. Visitors can then dine at The Lobster Shack or nibble off the tours supplied lunch that was very unimpressive and underwhelming. I should have paid the extra $30 for the lobster.

Big guy, all legs intact

About 250 kilometers northeast of Perth lay Nambung National Park, and the Pinnacles Desert. This is what I’ve been waiting for! Sand dunes more or less comprising of calcified plants and trees that formed crazy looking limestone formations sticking out of the earth, a zillion times over. Breathtaking is an understatement, mesmerizing is more like it.

One with the desert

To me, this represented the true desert in my mind. Rock structures of all shapes and sizes extending for miles. The cold wind blowing against my ear, the fine grains of sand into my eyes and the fresh air abundant. There were tourists, but not a ridiculous amount. You could easily walk a few feet in one direction and have nothingness stretched out in front of you. The Indian Ocean resting on one side, and endless counts of mounds in every other direction with green shrubbery scattered in between. I wanted to just take a seat to take it all in. I felt like I had been let in on some secret, like I wasn’t supposed to be there. If it wasn’t for the tourists, the only sound was the rush of wind.

The Pinnacles

Traveling on to Lancelin making our way back down south, I saw heaps of animals in the wild. There were kangaroos, cows, horses, sheep but another first, an emu – the largest bird native to Australia.

Lancelin is another small fishing village but also a place to explore the massive dunes on four-wheel drive or better yet, taking up the sport of sand boarding. Now, I’ve heard of this being done in the far North of New Zealand which I missed out on, and in Peru, but here was an opportunity right here in Australia. Let’s face it, I was nervous and scared. The dunes were mammoth but all the locals didn’t mind as they casually and expertly glided down. The sand boards provided were the sitting down kind, not the standing up (thank goodness), and so I forced myself to give it a go. Actually, it was quite exhilarating and I attempted one or two more shoddy slides down the substantial hill before taking a spectators seat and offering my board to another.  A few hours drive back to Perth and my tour was over. Whew, what a long day.

Hiking up to board down

Now, back at the YHA it was about 8 pm and I needed to make a decision – what to do tomorrow? Clearly the only way to decide whether to adventure to Rottnest Island or take a leisure day in Fremantle was to think it over a few pints. Down at Packaz Backpacker Bar within the hostel I made friends with Irish lads Mark and Darren who were over here earning some fine Australian dollars to send back to their families in Ireland. According to them, the YHA was like a hotel. Hmmm. I must have missed something here. The damn Irish, they’re everywhere here in Australia. But at about 1 am it was decided, both! I booked myself on the 8:30 am ferry to Rottnest that cost $92 roundtrip with a return at 2:30 pm dropping me in Fremantle. Done deal.

The Rottnest Express was quite an ordeal. The early ferry was crawling with tourists, screaming kids and crying babies and was fully packed. It took about an hour to get to Fremantle to board more passengers, then another 25 minutes to the Island. It was an hour late and I was feeling a bit seedy on the open sea but at least the commentary on board was informative. The ultimate Rottnest experience is to rent a bike and peddle to the little alcoves all over the island to take in some of Australia’s best beaches. Unfortunately for me, the bike line was way too long and I was running short on time so had to travel on foot, which means I didn’t get very far.

As soon as I hit land, escaped the tourists and walked along the beach alone, with the sun beaming on my face, my hangover was instantly cleared and a smile was slapped across it. I realized that the silly move of booking the ferry at 1 am wasn’t so silly after all and well worth it. I made it to Thompson Bay and had the whole beach to myself. Then I went for a wander amongst some of the hiking trails, that is until I heard little critters in the bush and started to get freaked out. I came face to face with a furry quokka – a marsupial known to roam the island, and although harmless, told the little bugger to piss right off. When I came across the sign that read “beware of venomous snakes”, I knew it was time for me to go! In the end, I wish I had more time, and look forward to going back to explore the other beaches, snorkel areas, and hiking trails around the island.


Next stop Fremantle or Freo as it’s commonly known as. This is supposed to be the cool place. Everyone in Perth knows Freo is where it’s at. It’s on the water, has great restaurants, history, boutiques and is a university town. I stopped off at E Shed markets, which reminded me a bit of Seattle, although I didn’t purchase anything from the stalls. Home of Little Creatures Brewery, I detoured for a pint of their Pip Squeak Cider for a break in the sun and people watching. They offer free tours at 1, 2 and 3 pm daily but I just missed it. Next I was off to Cicerellos known as WA’s first fish and chip shop. Served in paper and doused in vinegar it brought back nostalgia of my first true fish and chips in the Cotswold’s, England in 1996. This was a good day, and I’m happy!

Freo just gave off good vibes. In the green patch of the Esplanade children played cricket, families had picnics, and all the locals were enjoying the outdoors. I stumbled upon some other  markets, some more Irish accents, and then hopped the train back to Perth to meet a colleague.

3 nights I stayed with my welcoming colleague who made her home mine. Home cooked meals, washing done, we visited a few local universities and toured some other sites like Kings Park ,which is bigger than Central Park, and sits above the beautiful Perth skyline lit up at night. I then moved on to Kings Perth Hotel in the center of the city, do not stay here it’s disgusting, yet was the only hotel in town that didn’t cost $400 a night, while attending a conference for the next few days.

Look out from Kings Park

Saturday I was off to another fine wine region, Margaret River. Stay tuned…