A beacon of the west
MARGARET River is helping to shrink the great divide between Australia's east and west coasts.
The region in Western Australia's south has become a household name all over the nation.
Although the many towns that make up the area combine for a population of less than 20,000, more than a million people visit annually.
Surfers of all ages spend countless hours watching the pros, former greats and stars-of-the-future on DVD, video and the Fuel TV channel riding waves in the endless summer of breaks in the Margaret River region.
Many a bottle of MR cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, semillon or sauvignon blanc has been consumed around barbecues or ordered with restaurant meals on the east coast in recent times.
And thousands of others sit glued to lifestyle and travel shows whenever they feature her intimate little B&Bs, vineyards and wineries, or the majestic blue waters of some deserted beach or rocky headland.
But my husband and I had never become intimately acquainted with "Margaret" until a recent extended long weekend as part of our first plane trip from east to west across our beloved country.
We had always promised ourselves we would "do WA" one day.
On a year-long trip around Australia, we worried that our then young family and Kombi towing a camper trailer wouldn't be up to travelling through the vast state so we ignored her completely and went straight down the middle instead.
Now we're kicking ourselves we didn't make time for that surfing trip with our teenagers or wineries crawl with friends earlier.
Then we would have discovered sooner rather than later that there's so much more to WA's south than simply surf and wine.
She has unimaginable beauty, unpretentious charms, a rich history, friendly nature and treasures above and below the surface.
For starters, the MR wine region is much bigger than we expected, covering 135km from north to south and 30km from east to west - probably just larger than the Sunshine Coast but with nowhere near the traffic.
The town of Margaret River is only a small central dot on a map, with surf breaks running up and down the coast such as Surfers Point, Prevelly, and Red Beach.
Some of the beaches are signposted, but others may only be stumbled upon - still very much a well-kept secret by the locals.
But half the fun is taking a punt down a gravel road and finding a glorious piece of sand with a nice little 1-1.5m wave and no one out there.
From a cave network in excess of 100 along the region's limestone ridge, to the historic Cape Leeuwin lighthouse warning ships of the treacherous south-west coastline, to the southern hemisphere's longest piled jetty at Busselton, the Margaret River region deserves more than a passing interest.
After spending three days and nights there, travelling hundreds of kilometres past vineyards, sheep farms and olive groves, we didn't even scratch the surface of her extensive attractions.
It may seem a long way to go, but once you're there, you'll discover Margaret River is not only "far out", but funky, too.
The writer was a guest of Augusta Margaret River Tourism.
GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT MARGARET RIVER:
The Augusta Margaret River Region is about 300km from Perth in Australia's south-west corner.
Margaret River and Augusta are its major towns, with popular surfings spots at Gracetown, Prevelly and Yallingup and inland towns of Cowaramup, Witchcliffe and Karridale.
Margaret River has more than 200 vineyards in the region and 90 wineries.
Although the first vines were planted in the area only 40 years ago, Margaret River wines account for 25% of Australia's premium wine sales.
Chardonnays, Semillons, sauvignon blancs, shirazs, cabernets and merlots are all created here among the quality labels, and free tastings are available at many establishments.
The Margaret River Visitor Centre is in the township on the corner of the Bussell Highway and Tunbridge Street.
Phone (08) 9780 5911 or visit http://www.margaretriver.com/.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hidden Valley Forest Retreat and Day Spa: In the heart of wine country in the northern section of the Margaret River region is the award-winning Hidden Valley Forest Retreat and Day Spa on Haag Road, Carbunup River.
The secluded 5ha property with a small export vineyard, dam with boardwalks and weddings platform, five-star accommodation in the form of eco lodges, a wilderness cabin and deepwater retreat is 15 minutes south of Busselton and a world away from the everyday.
Sit at your table for two on the timber deck of your well-appointed romantic hideaway in total privacy, and rediscover the sounds of silence.
Sip a MR Semillon Sauvignon Blanc in the quiet of the afternoon … and feel the stress layers peel away one by one.
Gaze out on to the natural bush through massive picture windows from your candlelit spa or the comfort of your king-size bed above the sunken lounge.
The creature comforts such as air-conditioning, TV and CD player, microwave, heater and fireplace, hotplates, small fridge, dishwasher and sink ensure this eco lodge is closer to the pages of Home Beautiful than any bush campground.
In-room massage therapy is available and a day spa is also on-site for any extra pampering you require.
And if that's not enough to ensure an indulgent holiday, Hidden Valley guests can order breakfast, tasting plates and a personal chef to cook you dinner in the comfort of your own loungeroom.
The northern end of the region has a lion's share of wineries, just a small jaunt away, down well-maintained gravel and bitumen roads.
Tariffs range from $200 to $460.
Phone Sally or Andrew on (08) 9755 1066 - http://www.yourhiddenvalley.com/.
WHERE TO EAT:
THE sign read: "A few kilometres and a million miles from Margaret River."
And once we climbed the concrete steps from the carpark to our seats at the table on the covered outdoor verandah, we knew what that meant.
Perched high atop Mitchell Drive, with a view of the world-renowned Prevelly surf break, the award-winning Sea Gardens Café Restaurant attracts an eclectic mix of diners - from loyal locals to household-name surfers and tourists in the know.
The terraced setting built around grand old trees, solid timber tables with bench seats and occasional chairs and wine-barrel "dry bars" help create a laid-back and welcoming atmosphere - one that you suspect gets quite busy and boisterous at times.
But this Sunday morning, diners were taking it really easy, taking in the perfect summer's day, the uninterrupted view and the cool music. The backpackers were only up to coffee as they stared out to sea, willing the waves to magically get bigger.
The old-boy cyclists were rewarding their exercise with a hearty meal before hitting the road again.
And a smattering of friends and couples who arrived were all greeted with a booming bonjour by the French maitre d', who was prone to random loud outbursts designed to make everyone smile or laugh.
Our menu choices of smoked salmon with basil and feta scrambled egg sandwich on sourdough bread ($18) and Zorro Eggs (homemade baked beans, chorizo and papkrika-poached free-range eggs with sourdough bread ($19.90), washed down with a juice ($4) and standard cappuccino with organic free-trade coffee was so filling, we needed no lunch.
The winery, lake, cellar door, cafe and restaurant is on the corner of Wildwood and Thornton Rds, Yallingup. Phone (08) 9750 1111. Visit http://www.aravinaestate.com/
The Margaret River Visitor Centre is in the Margaret River township on the corner of the Bussell Highway and Tunbridge Street.
Phone (08) 9780 5911.
WHAT ELSE TO DO:
Cape Mentelle Vineyards' Movies in the Vineyard: films screen nightly from late December throughout summer.
Cape Mentelle is on Wallcliffe Road, Margaret River. Phone (08) 9757 0812 or visit http://www.capementelle.com.au/
MAJOR SURFING BEACHES:
- Margaret River's Mainbreak, Surfers Point, Prevelly Park
- Rivermouth (prevelly Park)
- Cow Bombie
- North Point (Gracetown)
- South Point (Gracetown)
- Hussawuies (Gracetown)
- Lefthanders (Gracetown)
- Boat Ramp
- Jay's Beach (Augusta)
- Cowaramup Bay Main Beach
- Hamelin Bay
- Granny's Pool (Augusta)