World-class wines. Primo surfing. Hundreds of miles of glorious coastal hiking. Mysterious cave explorations.
These aren’t travel experiences I’d expect to have in the same trip, let alone in the same afternoon. But Western Australia—a destination most Americans don’t really give much thought to, because it’s smack dab on the other side of the world—turned out to offer all that, plus some of the friendliest, most laid-back people in the world. So it’s more than 36 hours of travel from New York to Perth and south to the Margaret River? No worries.
The jet lag goes away. And so it was that two days into a recent trip (hosted by Tourism Western Australia), I was more or less on local time and captivated by the idea of a place where everyone was living the dream. Superstar chef Tony Howell, who is finishing his tenure at the much-lauded Cape Lodge, told me he’d moved here to relax, surf in the morning and cook in the afternoon and evening. The brewmaster at Eagle Bay Brewing Co. said he’d repurposed the family farm as a beer-making operation so he’d have access to the waves. And second-generation winemaker Vanya Cullen—whose Cullen winery put the region on the map—made a point of mentioning that our gourmet tasting-room lunch was taking place just five kilometers from a soft white-sand beach.
True, there are sharks in these waters. And the surf breaks that the chefs are so psyched about aren’t exactly beginner friendly. But there are plenty of gentler coves for newbie surfers, and outfitters offering lessons—an ideal way to offset some of the indulgences of food and wine tourism. There’s also the 135-kilometer Cape to Cape Track, which is perfect for an hour-long postprandial stroll or a seven-day camping adventure (book with Cape to Cape Explorer Tours), and wild caves to investigate.
But while the region is popular with Perth residents (it’s about three hours away) and the wines, especially white Semillon Sauvignon Blancs and red Bordeaux blends, are popular across Australia, the place is trying to establish itself as a global culinary destination. The clearest example of that is the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, which held its second annual festival last month and drew more than 15,000 visitors. (Next year’s will be November 21–23.) The first time out, the headliners were Rene Redzepi, Alex Atala and David Chang—who interestingly were on the cover of Time international’s “Gods of Food” issue while this year’s festival was on. In 2013, the Brazilian rock star Atala was back, along with Heston Blumenthal (who, alas, only spoke) and local luminary Neil Perry (who sent his Rockpool staff to cook an epic rock and roll dinner, complete with live band, at the McHenry Hohnen winery, which everyone likened to an especially fun bush wedding).
And so there was a glam beach barbecue, collaboration dinners, panel discussions and a massive “gourmet village” at Leeuwin Estate, where chefs gave demos, area restaurants sold tastings and local purveyors purveyed everything from lime-infused olive oil to a triple creme cheese (aptly) called OMG to pickled walnuts (a base ingredient of A1 steak sauce). At a “foraged” lunch in a barn in the bush, British star forager (yes, this is a thing) Miles Irving raved about unique Western Australian flavors like nettles, samphire (a sea vegetable that local chefs forage on the beach when done with their morning surfing) and marron (a simply sublime crustacean).
And in the end, that made the one of the best cases for visiting the destination any time of year. The star chefs may fly back to Brazil and Bray, but the shellfish will still swim, the sea vegetables will still grow, the small-time local producers will still produce, the chefs will still cook, and the winemakers will still prune and press. The destination is still wild and pristine, with virtually no pollution and a terroir that’s remarkably similar to that of Bordeaux.
There are some 220 wineries and 100 cellar doors, running the gamut from the casual, alfresco Wills Domain, which recently brought in a hotshot young chef from Melbourne, to establishment Cullen, which still deserves its reputation for its stellar biodynamic wines, to the new Windows Estate, where the young owner does all the winemaking, from planting to bottling, himself (after surfing, of course—the place is named for a nearby surf break) and his wife stocks the boutique with gorgeously packaged gourmet foodstuffs and is about to launch a cheese making operation.
World-class as these wineries are, there’s none of the mass tourism found in other wine regions. The local joke is that WA stands for “wait awhile,” and everything seems to be an hour’s drive. But there’s beautiful coastline and forest between eating and drinking establishments, and some delightfully cheeky Aussie attitude. The barman at Lamont’s at Smiths Beach Resort—the region’s smartest place to stay, with huge bungalows overlooking the Indian Ocean—used the most colorful descriptions I’ve heard in a tasting room: The super-robust White Monster Chardonnay can’t be served too cold because it’s like going to bed with cold hands, and he has to turn away when he serves women the fortified Navara wine because it seems indecorous to witness that much pleasure. (Alas, the latter was out of stock.)
That’s ultimately what makes the Margaret River region so appealing: It produces seriously good food and wine, but doesn’t take itself too seriously.
By Ann Abel, 19 December 2013