PLACES TO GO
Fibreglass beach shacks stand beside multi-million dollar properties on Gracetown’s steep hillside, all enjoying breathtaking views over Cowaramup Bay. Those who need nothing more than beaches and quiet will feel at home; there’s a general store, a cafe and a petrol station, and that’s about it. And with hardly any mobile phone coverage, it’s the perfect ‘unplug and unwind’ holiday spot. The centre of Cowaramup Bay in Gracetown, about 150m from the general store, has protected, shallow water that’s ideal for children and families, and there are toilets at both ends of the beach. To the north and south of the point are a number of popular surf breaks, and the car park at Lefthanders offers one of the best views in the region to watch the action. Those with a boat can access the water from the protected boat ramp at Cowaramup Bay, which also has a small finger jetty.
Prevelly & Gnarabup
Prevelly, at the mouth of the Margaret River is an ideal spot for those wanting to be close to beaches but not too far from the main town, which is just a ten-minute drive away. The coastline north and south of Prevelly is known for its awesome surf breaks, and there are spanking new facilities such as barbecues, lawns and a boardwalk at the upgraded Surfers Point. Gnarabup is the most family-friendly beach in the area, with water that’s sheltered from big waves, and a pontoon that’s loads of fun to jump off in summer. At this prime spot you can walk your dog, launch your boat and hire a stand-up paddleboard (there are lessons available, too). If you’re keen to escape the crowds, especially in summer, head to what the locals call ‘the back of Gnarabup’. You’ll find it by parking in the smaller car park to the south of the main one (just follow the track on the left). Travellers should note that the beaches in these parts are best in the morning because the sea breeze comes from the southwest in the arvo.
Ellensbrook Homestead (photography Michel Lewi).
Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park
This massive national park stretches 120km from Bunker Bay in the north to Augusta in the south. The northern section between Yallingup and Gracetown encloses the mighty granite formations of Canal Rocks and Sugarloaf Rock, and the beaches of Yallingup, Injidup, and Smiths Beach (some of the whitest and most spectacular around). The Cape to Cape Track runs past all these highlights but the stretch from Prevelly to Gracetown meanders along the clifftop (rather than beside the beaches, as it does from Yallingup to Dunsborough). You’ll also spot crowds of surfers at the world-class breaks that are dotted along this stretch of the track. The historic Ellensbrook House is located within the national park near Gracetown, and has great picnic areas. If you’ve got a minute (or a few) make sure you find the caretaker, who is a compelling storyteller. And if you ask nicely you might be allowed to help yourself to produce from the wild fig and mulberry trees within the grounds.
Metricup & Wilyabrup
Time-poor food and wine aficionados should head to these two subregions, based around Metricup Road, because there are more wineries, providores and producers crammed in here than anywhere else in the area. Nosh and liquor aside, there are the Wilyabrup Seacliffs that are great for whale watching (September to December) and are also ideal for rock climbing.
Margaret River town
A quiet surfing enclave during the 1970s, Margaret River has transformed into an action-packed centre point for the region. Oriented around Bussell Highway, the main street has a healthy mix of places to eat, pubs and retailers including art galleries and surf shops. It’s also a nightlife hotspot thanks to its range of excellent restaurants (although most of the wineries in the region are only open for lunch). For live music and an excellent pub meal, head to Settlers Tavern (its wine list is also outstanding!) It helps to have a car if you’re planning on exploring the entire region, but it’s not a drama if you don’t have one. There’s a bike hire shop about a five-minute walk out of town, and plenty of wineries and restaurants are located within a 5km radius. TIP If you’re heading to Settlers, don’t forget your ID (even if you’re on the wrong side of thirty). The security staff are known to randomly check identification at the door on particularly busy weekends.
Cowaramup (photography Insight Photography)
Cowtown, as it’s known, is great for families and has plenty of kid-friendly drawcards. The more obvious attractions include the 42 life-sized fibreglass Friesians that call this stretch of Bussell Highway home, and the iconic ‘roast on a post’ (inspired by the infamous ‘chick on a stick’ at the entrance to Laurence Winery). There’s awesome ice-cream at the ice-creamery (there are 16 flavours on display at any one time) and the grounds are ideal for a picnic. There’s a huge grassed area, adventure playground, and a 235m bushwalk. There are also baby-changing facilities, toilets, and a ramp into the store for disabled visitors (accessible parking is also available). If it’s beer you’re after rather than ice-cream, the local brewery has a playground as well.
Originally a group settlement, tiny Rosa Brook is a ‘blink and you’ll miss it town’ southeast of Margaret River, but has a few worthwhile places to visit. Taste the range of olive oils at 34 Degrees South (although it does take a little while to get used to sipping oil out of a cup), and don’t forget an empty wine bottle – once you’ve found your favourite oil, you can fill up from the vat. Canebrake and Chapman pools are both pretty picnicking, canoeing and swimming spots (you can also camp), while 10 Mile Brook Dam has a wheelchair-accessible picnic area with a barbecue and tables.
Cowaramup (photography Insight Photography)
Witchy, as the locals know it, is a tiny smattering of timber buildings along Bussell Highway. There’s a petrol station, a couple of shops, a cafe, an excellent antiques store and a homemade-cookie shop. The bottlo (also on the main strip) is conveniently stocked with the region’s wines. The Margaret River Polocrosse that’s played at the Witchcliffe Polocrosse Grounds is entertaining for both sports fans and families. The field is 500m north of the shops on Bussell Highway. There are regular (free) carnivals, just check the sign next to the field for upcoming events as you pass through.
Surfers Point is a world-class surf break (for experienced surfers only) and has panoramic views of the waves and surrounding coast from the car park (perfect for photo ops). The local shire has spent some serious dough on upgrades to the point; there are free barbecues, new shelters, a grassed entertainment area and free parking, plus it’s only a short stroll down the refurbished steps to the reef that you paddle out from. If you’re new to the water, make your way around the corner to one of the few learner beach breaks at the River Mouth. South of Prevelly, Boodjidup offers a regular beach break suitable for all surfers, but it’s only accessible by foot from Grunters. Both the South and North Points of Cowaramup Bay are superb surf spots for the experienced, and the smaller reef break within the bay at Huzzawouies is a great spot for less proficient surfers. Equipment hire and surf lessons are available from Margaret River Surf School and Josh Palmateer’s Surf Academy.
Tom Innes surfing at North Point, Gracetown (photography www.pacephotos.com.au).
While the markets are now situated on Walcliffe Road, they’re as excellent as ever. Every Saturday from 8am to noon you’ll find a massive assortment of produce, including garlic from farmer Rob Tompson, award-winning Cambray Sheep Cheese, free-range eggs, Bahen & Co chocolate, seafood, organic meats, and fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s a good idea to follow the market’s Facebook page; aside from ensuring you experience some serious hunger pangs, it’ll keep you bang up-to-date on all the comings and goings of producers, plus market specials (fancy live marron or hand-made pasta?). Local favourites: the sea-salt almonds from Bahen & Co, and the pastrami and lamb ham from The Farm House.
Visit the cliffs
Wilyabrup Cliffs is considered one of the best rock-climbing locations in Australia, and the ocean views mean that it’s certainly one of the most scenic. There are companies that offer rock climbing and abseiling programs, but for those with a bit of experience there are numerous bolted routes and free-climb sections as well; cliff heights range from 10-40m. Finding the approach trail to the climbs is pretty simple – if you wander to the south there’s a series of zigzagging rocky steps, which you can follow to the base of the cliff. If you aren’t climbing with a company, hit the cliffs in late afternoon once the tour groups have left. The cliffs are a great place to spot whales in season, or just chill and watch the sunset; they’re about a kilometre from the car park so you’ll need a moderate level of fitness.
Margaret River is home to exceptional mountain-biking routes and a very close-knit Offroad Cycling Association. You can check its Facebook page for trail conditions and for advice. The place to take your bike is The Pines, located just to the north of Carters Road. If you’re driving south, you’ll find it on the right-hand side (west) of Bussell Highway about 3km north from the town centre. There are tracks suitable for kids (the locals take their youngsters here), but for more experienced riders there are fast-flowing options, tabletop jumps and berms. The trails are best in winter when they are firmer and faster. If you’re wanting to get the lay of the land from an expert, talk to Rob at Dirty Detours, who runs mountain-biking tours and also ‘cycle and sip’ tours that are a more leisurely option. For a particularly laid-back and flat ride, there’s the Rail Trail that begins at Cowaramup and passes through natural bush, farmland and vineyards to Margaret River town.
Giants Cave, Lake Cave and Mammoth Cave are visitor-friendly, and even if you’re a local you can’t help but be wowed every time you set foot in them. Giants Cave is a self-guided option, a 600m obstacle course that weaves through granite and limestone corridors to the cavernous, 70m Ballroom. It’s a good choice for fitness freaks, with its steep vertical ladders, crawls under overhanging rocks and makeshift granite slides. However, it’s not so ideal for kids under six or claustrophobics. Mammoth Cave is a serious knockout due to its size, and the cave also has few stairs, making it friendlier for the kids and the elderly. The most stairs are at the exit, so you might find it easier going back through the cave to get to the car park. Lake Cave is the most popular of the trio, and is the only cave with a permanent lake. Hundreds of steps take you underground but even if you’re with a tour, you’ll still be able to take your time (the guides are pretty patient!). If all the caving has built up an appetite, there are great tearooms next door (the scones are the best), and there’s even a recently opened events deck that’s licensed to hold 150 people. To suss out guided tours of the caves, and to check tour times, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (08) 9757 7411.
THINGS TO DO WITH THE KIDS
Try out the mountain-bike trails at The Pines
Count how many steps there are in Lake Cave
Jump off the pontoon at Gnarabup Beach
See who’ll brave the chilly water first at Chapman Pool
See how to make honeycomb at the Candy Cow in Cowaramup
Learn to surf at Redgate Beach
Have a picnic at 10 Mile Brook Dam
Visit the beach at night and spot the Milky Way and Southern Cross
Bottlefeed the baby animals at The Wonky Windmill
Watch a movie at the Cultural Centre (Wednesday’s are discount day!)
Sample treats from the local chocolate makers
Lake Cave (photography margaretriver.com).
PLACES TO CAMP
This pretty campground, 25km north-east of Margaret River, runs beside the river, making it great for canoeing and swimming... if you’re happy to brave the chilly water, that is! Each site has a picnic table and fire pit with a barbecue plate; marshmallow toasting here is a must-do. If you’ve got a camper with a solar panel, or a caravan, it’s best to snag sites one or two. Dogs are allowed but must be on a lead. There’s no mobile reception, and facilities include drop toilets (BYO water and food).
The access road here is narrow, meaning this spot on the river is more suited to those with tents; all areas have shade and are reasonably flat. The barbecue pavilion in the group camping area is a big plus (great when you’re pitching up with a few families) – there are two gas barbecues and 10 picnic tables under the shelter, and the individual sites also have fire rings. Like Canebrake Pool, the water is freezing, but launching a canoe from the picnic area is easy. Dogs must be on a lead, and there are toilets but no drinking water.
The wineries, caves and providores are all within easy reach from Contos campground; a major advantage when you’re sussing out where to pitch your tent. The site is within the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park so there’s a great range of wildlife to spot, including kangaroos, emus, chuditchs and, of course, possums... but these curious animals can create havoc at night (keep your food somewhere out of reach). Facilities include fire rings, picnic tables, toilets and wheelchair access, but you’ll have to leave pets at home. If you’re an early riser, be sure to head down the beach to check out the locals riding the huge breaks.
Contos Beach as seen from the Cape to Cape Track (photography www.margaretriver.com).
If you’re a culture vulture, ask at the visitor centre or cultural centre if the Negus Family have anything planned. Every so often they organise a performance from a person (or group) with incredible musical talent.
If the pubs on the main drag are pumping, head to Knights Inn instead, which is hardly ever as packed. The old-school English haunt is 500m from Bussell Highway and it’s the only place to watch the rugby (there are two massive sports screens).
One of the best places for a sundowner is near the Rivermouth. Park in the smaller car park on the east side (just before the main carpark), grab your wine and cheese and follow the dirt track up the hill. There’s an old water tank that’s been lovingly decked and restored, and you’ll get 360-degree views over the coast and river.
Margaret River vineyards (photography Laurance Wines).
It’s not all surfing and wine in Margaret River – there is also some great fishing
to be had…
The protected reef at Cowaramup Bay is a popular family fishing spot. You can cast off from the beach or the rocks (there are plenty of herring around). For the more experienced angler, a little bit of rock scrambling on the points will give access to spots that deliver great results (they can be a little hairy, however, so keep an eye out for rogue waves). Spearfishing is also allowed. Gnarabup boat ramp has a small jetty and it’s only a short distance to cast for squid and cuttlefish. There are also other small jetty-dwellers that are great for youngsters to try and snag with a handline. The mouth of Margaret River is known to attract tailor, mulloway, herring and black bream. Head a bit further south to Redgate, Bob’s Hollow and Contos Springs for herring, tailor and skippy. If it’s crayfish you’re after, you’ll find them under the reef ledges in the bays at Gnarabup and Kilcarnup.
There are some huge fish to be caught offshore in Margs, but you’ll need to keep your wits about you because there’s reef scattered throughout the area that’s not always easy to spot (a chart plotter comes in handy to avoid a costly mistake). The deep channels and pinnacles off Cowaramup Bay are popular for dhufish, snapper and groper, but be careful if there’s swell because as soon as the sea breeze comes in you’ll be in for a rough ride. Offshore from Kicarnup Bay is also a fishing good spot, and there are plenty of crayfish near the reef. To launch, head to the ramp at Cowaramup, but be mindful of the rocks. Gracetown general store is the place to grab your bait; it opens at 7.30am. There’s also a good boat ramp with small jetty at the sheltered Gnarabup beach, but remember to watch out for the reef.
Cowaramup Hall Market
Grab a coffee, browse the art and crafts, and enjoy the freshly baked bread and organic food from 8am to noon. Proceeds from these markets go towards helping
local community groups. You’ll feel like a Cowtown local in no time! First Saturday of every month.
The Gracetown Grommets is a popular and historical junior surfing event held in an idyllic location. It is held in memory of the nine lives lost in the 1996 Gracetown Tragedy. Cowaramup Bay, Oct.
Tour De Gracetown
This group-ride cycling event is held bi-annually, and is the southwest’s premier cycling event for charity. The 110km course incorporates plenty of hills to challenge even the most experienced of cyclists, who thankfully enjoy plenty of laughs along the way. Oct.
Margaret River Fun Run
This 10km run or 4km walk takes participants from the main town through the vineyards to the Margaret River mouth where the river meets the sea. Money is raised for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Oct.
Margaret River & Districts Annual Agriculture Show
An enjoyable day for everybody, this event is a great chance to check out an assortment of shows, ranging from farming displays to arts and crafts exhibitions. Get amongst the sounds, sights and scents of rural heritage, try out the local produce and be entertained by live performances and the fireworks each night. Oct.
Margaret River Gourmet Escape
More than 25 international and local food and wine celebrities will visit the region
to showcase their talent. Guests include Heston Blumenthal, Rick Stein, Tetsuya Wakuda and many more. Tickets are available for a feast of food and wine events, ranging from long lunches and dinner degustations to a pop-up beach barbecue. Tickets sell out fast for this annual star-studded foodie event, so be quick. Nov.
Margaret River is as famed for its gourmet offerings as its wines (photography Freedom Garvey).
Cape Mentelle Outdoor Cinema
Sit among the vineyards at Margaret River’s only outdoor cinema. Grab a wine, some food from Kate Lamont’s menu, and a bean bed, and enjoy the blockbusters under the stars. Dec-Mar.
Drug Aware Margaret River Pro
With a long surfing history and world-class waves, the Margaret River region lights up with this event that draws the top-ranked male and female surfers to take on the famous Margaret River Mainbreak. Apr.